Top Ten Tuesday is was created by The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. We’re celebrating all things spooky for Hallowe’en, so I’m diverting from books to consider the stories that haunt us outside their pages.
A couple of years ago, I shared terrifying tales of the unexplained – it’s taken a year longer than promised, but I’m back to talk about ghosts. I love a good (fictional) ghost story, although I’m generally of a rational, scientific, logical persuasion. Still, my vivid imagination will happily run wild with just a smidge of encouragement – which may explain my own brushes with the weird and creepy… Those experiences mean I’m firmly on the fence when it comes to things actually going bump in the night. It’s probably the pipes. But it might be time to go sit on the step and have a chat with Mildred.
Let’s start with the distinctly personal. We bought and renovated a ground floor flat, exposing wood floors, removing geological layers of varnished wallpaper, upgrading electrics, moving kitchen and bathroom. The result was lovely… except that the floor-level lights we put in to illuminate a single step down halfway down the crooked hall kept blowing. We replaced the lights. We got the wiring checked. We were assured there was nothing wrong. Pop. Pop, pop, pop. We got used to it.
That was the darkest spot in the flat, of course: no natural light, tucked under the stairs to the top floor flat. Consequently, it sometimes felt a bit cold; it was tempting to speed up as you walked past (the under stairs cupboard was a glory hole for storage, but you never lingered). Around the corner was the spare bedroom, an airy room with good light. Unprompted, guests asked me – very, very cautiously, not wanting to unnerve me – whether we believed in ghosts. When pushed, they said they felt watched.
So did I. The study door was the other side of the corner, at the bottom of the hall step; sat at the desk, it sometimes felt like someone was behind you (we rearranged the room so that we sat side-on to the door). Occasionally, this stretched to the living room. Once, memorably, it was right behind me as I changed our bed (I lost my temper and yelled at the air, feeling stupid). It was almost always the doorways, as if something roamed up and down the hall, peering in.
We decided to embrace it; we would occasionally sit on the hall step and talk to the air, or say hello in passing. We called her Mildred. We switched the night lights to minimal wattage so you didn’t fall down the step on the way to the loo. They never lasted as long as they should, but they went months rather than days or weeks.
We eventually sold up and moved on, feeling slightly guilty. We occasionally wonder whether Mildred took to the new owner. We are often thankful that our new home is incredibly calm (the only ghost was the shadow of clothes on a bedroom door from years of a bathrobe hung on a peg).
Imagination? Well, it wasn’t plumbing.
We had no reason to expect anything odd from our new home; there’s far more substance to get the old imagination going with most ghost stories. Battlefields, prisons, hospitals and former asylums are all likely candidates (although there’s an intriguing number of very modern tower blocks with spooky reputations in South-East Asia) – not to mention the American staple of building on top of burial grounds – but any older house is fair game. I’m going to stay close to home today, with a selection of British haunts.
Mary King Close
Once a narrow, bustling Edinburgh street leading down to a noxious loch, Mary King Close has a gruesome reputation for having been gated off during a plague outbreak, its inhabitants left to die. This isn’t quite true – the healthy were evacuated, the sick were brought food and water (and medieval medical care). Still, the disease took its toll, and the Close was abandoned. Ghost stories have been common ever since it was reoccupied 40 years later. It was sealed, built over and forgotten about in 1902.
The street – largely intact in spite of being under modern buildings – is now entirely underground, with more than enough atmosphere to get you jumping at every shadow. Its most famous ghost is the amiable spirit of a young girl called Annie, but there are plenty of stories from visitors and tour guides about unnerving experiences in the dark. I couldn’t resist dragging some overseas visitors down Mary King Close on a trip to Edinburgh. It definitely ticks all the boxes for a creepy day out, thanks to that terrible history and poor lighting – but we had no ghostly encounters.
Keeping it first-hand: a last-minute birthday trip to Scotland resulted in us staying at Tulloch Castle, near Dingwall. I found an irresistible last-minute rate; I joked that it must be haunted as it was so cheap. Imagine my surprise (and mild horror, not going to lie – I thought we’d left the ghost at home) to find I was right.
And Tulloch Castle leans in hard: you can book a ghost tour and the guest brochure details the weird stories. A Green Lady walks the halls; guests in Room 8 sometimes feel something sit on their chest in the night; and there are an array of reports of noises, lights and moving furniture. By the time you turn out the lights, you’re well-primed. I lay awake for a while listening to radiators rattle and thump, only to be woken at 3am by the phone. Heart pounding, I answered it – and there was nobody there. We made a joke of it at check-out, asking if a wake-up call had been programmed by accident, which the staff denied. But you would, wouldn’t you?
The A38 to Taunton
When I was a kid, we lived in Somerset (in an ancient cottage that I assured myself had no ghosts. My bedroom was just super creepy). It’s a county full of ghost stories, but the one that captured my imagination was the local tale of a hitchhiker haunting the Taunton stretch of the A38. I was glued to the car windscreen every time we drove it in case I caught a glimpse (never realising this one is only ever seen late at night).
In retrospect, I’m glad we never encountered him: this one is a bedraggled man in a raincoat, who causes accidents by stepping into the road waving a torch. Most drivers swerve or brake, convinced they’ve hit him, but one lorry driver claims he unsuspectingly gave the man a lift from the Blackbird Inn on three occasions in foul weather. On the final trip, the hitchhiker asked him to wait while the man fetched some cases. 20 minutes later, the man hadn’t returned and the lorry driver left without him – only to ‘hit’ him when the furious hitchhiker appeared directly in the lorry’s path 3 miles further up the road. Honestly, who picks up a hitchhiker at 3am? Sheesh.
This one’s close to my current home, and I’ve been meaning to visit for years. The ground floor apartments of the Duchess of Lauderdale have quite the reputation – as did the lady herself. She would sue her family if they crossed her. Against the odds, she was friends with both Charles II and Cromwell. Her husband – and her second husband’s first wife – both died unexpectedly and rather close together.
Whether she was a ruthless social climber and a murderess or just a strong woman disliked by her peers, this formidable woman eventually ran out of money and good health, and ended up living in a single apartment at Ham House. It’s said to have a hell of an atmosphere. Animals don’t like to go in; staff (wisely) sometimes pay their verbal respects to her ladyship as they enter rather than cross Lady Elizabeth. She’s never been seen there, though – the only sightings attributed to her (a woman in black) have been on the stairs nearby.
I’ll close with a few haunts that lie further from home, but whose stories tickle my fancy. Sadly, the swearing woman of Dead Woman’s Ditch seems to be a complete fabrication by some amateur ghosthunters, which is a shame. I was deeply amused by the idea of a snarky ghost telling passersby to fuck off. However, the next three are better attested.
An awful lot of British haunts seem to be mournful women (often in white, sometimes in darker colours; can’t say I’ve ever heard of a Red or Yellow Lady) or just make terrifying noises off. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fond of the late Roman soldiers of Treasury House in York, who march through the cellars to the sound of a trumpet. Curiously, their legs can’t be seen below the knee – which makes perfect sense, as the Roman road they’re travelling is over a foot below the cellar floor.
Less well known is Airth Castle, which I’ve chosen because one of its spirits is too good to resist. This castle hosts a nanny and the two children her care, who all died in a fire – sometimes seen, sometimes heard; the screams of a maid reputedly murdered by her master; inexplicable footstep; and a diligent groundskeeper. But my favourite? The ghostly dog who still bites ankles. Airth Castle is now a hotel and spa, and is pet-friendly (who can check out any time they like, but…)
I’ll finish with the best sort of ghost: a bookish one. William Windham was an inveterate bookworm, with a magnificent library at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk. Like any devotee, his love was of all books, not just his own, leading him to risk his life trying to save a friend’s library that caught fire whilst he was staying. Badly injured, he died soon after, leaving his own collection unfinished. He can sometimes be glimpsed in his library, catching up on the books he hasn’t read yet. Goals, eh?
Do you have any favourite tales or personal experiences of ghosts?