Haunted by our imagination

THE new Sky drama series The Enfield Haunting, starring the always compelling and believable Timothy Spall, is another outing for our boundless fascination with our darkest fears. Is there something out there? Do the ghosts of past residents hang around our homes? Do restless spirits haunt the corridors, lurk in the attic, demand to be released from their ancient torments? Is there something nasty in the woodshed?

Years ago we had a Victorian house on a common near the New Forest. Part of the house had been the laundry for the area, and although our old settlement of thatched cottages and Victorian homes had long since been subsumed into the greater bungalow and holiday business sprawl of a little coastal resort, there was still a rural atmosphere.

Soon after we moved in, a neighbour (one of those down-to-earth practical people who are so good to know when you move to a new place) popped round to ask if the children would like to come and meet her family’s rabbits and cats. Then she asked if we had a baby in the house. We didn’t. We all assumed it was some animal or bird noise from the common. But on other visits she heard the baby crying in the dining room and so did other visitors. We did too sometimes. A bit of research with the local history group discovered a sad but not uncommon story of a baby dying in the house and the mystery was solved. From time to time, we all heard the baby.

My partner grew up in one of the oldest houses in Christchurch, long associated with the smuggling that was prevalent in the harbour. The house was full of strange sounds (not just squeaky floorboards) and one evening a strange mist, like a northern sea fret, filled the corridor from the kitchen to the dining room. It was cold and damp and three of us saw and felt it.

Bristol Old Vic, the country’s oldest theatre in continual use, has a resident ghost – and you couldn’t imagine a more satisfyingly scary or more atmospheric place to see The Woman In Black!

We have recently been in Scotland, staying in Dumfries and Galloway and in Caithness – both areas that have seen centuries of battles and religious turmoil, suffering, starvation and the far from benign rule of absentee landlords, which culminated in the notorious Highland Clearances. There are so many folk memories of these hard times that you can almost hear the wailing voices in the winds that blow down from the glens to the rocky coasts.

Dumfries and Galloway saw more than its fair share of the brutal impact of the endless wars with England, and the attempts to enforce one variety of Christianity over another. In the little town of Wigtown – now best known as Scotland’s book town and home to Scotland’s version of the Hay Festival – there is a memorial to the Wigtown Martyrs, an old woman and a teenage girl who were drowned in the Solway Firth because they would not renounce their adherence to the Calvinist doctrine that was proscribed during the Restoration. It is easy to imagine you hear the despairing cries of their families as these martyrs – victims as much of a fanatical religion as a cruel law – disappeared beneath the incoming tide.

A little further north, on the Luce Bay coast near Stranraer is the Castle of Park, a late medieval tower house which is now owned by the Landmark Trust. We went to see if it might be somewhere we could take my daughter and her family on their next trip from California. The housekeepers were there, preparing the property for the next holiday tenants, and they gave us a guided tour. It is a fascinating building, with many  ancient features – from the vast ingle fireplace in the kitchen to the wooden “privy” in one of the closets. When the Hay family, who built it in the 16th century, finally sold the Park estate in the 1870s, the castle was left empty for years.

The history is patchy and inconsistent – different versions recount restorations at different periods by different official bodies. What is certain is that the Landmark Trust acquired it in the 1980s and restored it to provide a historic holiday home for seven people. At one stage it was an “asylum” (mental hospital) – it is hard to imagine a more unsuitable building for that purpose, even in less enlightened times. Bleak, cold and forbidding in the way of fortified tower houses, with the wind whistling through the ill-fitting windows and creaking doors, it was not a place guaranteed to restore fevered minds to calm.

My partner immediately sensed an atmosphere of “deep, chilling discomfort.” Looking it up later, we found it has a reputation as one of Scotland’s most haunted castles. People who have stayed there report distant cries, screams, moans and other disturbing noises, objects moving from room to room and a general sense of someone or something up to no good. There are two ghosts – a “Green lady” (according to the legend, a servant who was fired because she was pregnant, subsequently killed herself and now wanders the ancient rooms), and a monk who was murdered by being walled up in the castle.

The wind plays tricks with our ears in these centuries-old buildings, and our imaginations run riot given a smidgeon of bloodthirsty legend to work on. At the Castle of Park, it is also easy to imagine the moans of people who were locked away from the world, whether they were mentally ill or were put there because it suited somebody to have them out of the way.

It is popular with holidaymakers, for many of whom the idea of a resident ghost is a real attraction. We seem to have an almost limitless appetite for scaring ourselves. You could speculate that this is a hallmark of a society that has so few genuine hardships that we walk happily into danger to give ourselves a thrill. It must explain the appeal of bungee jumping over 1,000 foot gorges – who cares if you dislocate your hips or knees for a future of arthritis and pain if you can show you are brave enough to take the jump? Presumably there is a similarly visceral, albeit psychological, thrill in braving the ghoulies and ghosties, the Grey or Green ladies who walk the lonely battlements, the tortured souls who moan from within the ancient stone walls, the headless horsemen who rampage through the dark forests?

Of course, not all spirits are hostile – our crying baby was sad not bad and it touched the hearts of all who heard it. We won’t be booking for the haunted castle, but the grey lady will beckon us back to Bristol Old Vic and the siren call of the winds from the glens and the mewing of the ospreys will take us back to Scotland.

Fanny Charles