31 Oct 2013
Ghost stories: Sleeping in England's most haunted bedroom
As All Hallows approaches, Roger Clarke relays his night of terror in England's most haunted bedroom
I have in front of me a disintegrating book inscribed by my late father on 22nd April 1974. It would have been Easter and I would have been ten years old, home briefly from a barely heated prep school in Sussex.
For about two years this book fed my imagination with its wealth of esoteric images, etchings made as if by soot from a witches chimney, gouged modern woodcuts and nimble folkloric stories. It was called Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. It had seen it advertised and had begged my father to buy it for me, and I can still remember the morning when it arrived at the thatched rectory where we lived. The advertisement for it had included a colour photograph of what was promised to be the most haunted bedroom in England, with a four poster bed lit starkly from the right side, inky shadows moving acutely across the fabric of the religious tapestries that covered the entire wall behind the bed. I immediately turned to page 104 where the picture was printed, alongside a glum picture of Queen Mary Tudor, and was thrilled to discover that it was ‘impossible to sleep in Mary’s Room without being disturbed by phantoms’.
Without being disturbed by phantoms. I had it seems an already well-established fascination for the subject of ghosts, and I have recently been informed by a schoolmate of that period, now head of Islamic Art at Sotheby’s, that I used to terrify the other boys in the dormitory by telling ghost stories. At the age of seven or eight, coming home from our rural village school through the churchyard of St Peter’s, Shorwell, Isle of Wight, its huddled yew trees shadowing an ancient pagan site, I would hesitate to go upstairs and change. Being alone in the house, I would sometimes coax a spaniel upstairs with the promise of a biscuit, as company and protection.
At the top of the stairs, you see, there was a long old corridor turning down to the left, and in the shadows, for it was never out of shadow even on the sunniest of days, there was an old cabinet and a bird picture in a vaguely Flemish style. Dust hung in the air. Flies buzzed. Could I see her? There was supposed to be the ghost of woman there – my mother had seen her soon after they first moved into the house in the 1950’s. She moved like a smudge on the air in a replication of vanished domestic chores, carrying blankets to the spare room, perhaps knowing that she was dead, perhaps not. A friend who came to stay saw her too, a face in the darkness, turned to forgotten purpose.
As a teenager we moved to a large old manor house beside a spring, and a very ancient place of habitation. In 1957 a Flying Boat named City of Sidney took off from Southampton Water on 15th November and shortly afterwards crashed into the hillside by the house, killing 45 people, at the time the second worst air accident the country had known. The crash happened at 11pm at night, and it was said that an outbuilding of our home at Shalcombe served as a temporary morgue before the accident and emergency services – then very rudimentary on the Isle of Wight – could deal with it the next day. That outbuilding later became integrated into the house as a bathroom.
Anyhow the house was haunted, and so was the area near the crash-site two hundred yards away. My father’s horse would always shy at the gate of it, and I’ve heard that horses still do, paddling the ground in fear, since a public bridleway goes straight past it, as if it could smell blood. My sister was terrified by bumps on the windows one night when she was alone, and the dogs would always growl, hackles raised, teeth bared, at a certain spot in the kitchen where the old larder was, at certain times of the day. Once, in an episode I didn’t mention in my book, I heard a man and a woman talking for about fifteen minutes – there was no one in the house and it was broad daylight – the sound was muffled yet somehow strong, and there was that feeling, sometimes mentioned, of a ‘slight quiver of adjustment’ in everyday reality.
READ: The Conjuring, and other supposedly true ghost stories
I joined the Society for Psychical Research, an intellectual club formed by society grandees and scientists in 1882, when I was only fourteen. I had still never forgotten my odd boyhood dream to sleep in that haunted bedroom. Before I went down to Oxford somehow I discovered that it had recently been sold by the Huddlestone family and was in the process of being turned into a language school, a window of opportunity if ever there was one. I wrote to the Turkish owner and somehow secured permission to spend a night there, with a team and equipment provided by the SPR.
It was a cold damp evening when I arrived, the damp rising off the fens in Cambridgeshire, and the house was desolate and recently abandoned by the family who had built it. One of our number was a highly-respected parapsychologist named Tony Cornell, a cautious sceptic who ran the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research. As I mentioned in my book, there was an air of calm contemplation quite absent from the hysteria of modern ghost hunts; the house had a long past of Catholic ownership when for many centuries to admit to believing in ghosts was to identify yourself as a Catholic in an England where Catholicism could land you in jail. There were priest holes, the sense of whispered masses, in the long dark Tudor corridors a sense of the purgatorial dead crying out for their sins.
For a while I did my own thing. Boards creaked, and there were noises everywhere, pattering through the dark as my breath curled in the frost of the abandoned rooms. I was for a while alone in The Long Gallery and then, alone in the haunted chamber. I rested on top of the bed’s counterpane, looking at the door, which was supposed to open without human hand, finally in the place I dreamed of when ten years old and keen to test myself against whatever fear could throw at me.
Some members of the team entered the room finally and the reverie was broken, and since I had reported vague activity, we all decided to stay there. I was roused at about 3:30 but what I thought were knocking sounds, as if from bony fingers, in clusters of four. It was difficult to say where they were coming from. I turned on the cassette player and then drifted off to sleep, only to be woken up again by these sallies, which started softly and then rose into a crescendo – bang, bang, bang, BANG!
When the tape was later analysed by Tony Cornell, there was also recorded on to it, unheard by any of us, three distinct and piercing notes of a woodwind instrument. Who knows what spirit played it, what nimble fingered ghoul had put their blue corpse lips to the reed, swaying as they played a splinter of a fugue.
Perhaps it was simply a radio pickup. But it didn’t matter. I have achieved a childhood dream by sleeping in England’s most haunted bedroom, and had, I supposed, been haunted.