In the spirit of Halloween

In a Halloween themed post for the SPAB, Lynne Pardoe, writer and SPAB Regional Group organiser, shares a tale of the intangible in an old building in east Devon.

People have many different reasons for loving ancient buildings, for some it’s the magnificent craftsmanship and construction skills – so often using skills that are now increasingly difficult to find. For others it’s the integrity of the components. Many buildings have stood for centuries and are constructed from nothing more than materials found locally.

Yet for others the reasons are less tangible. With interest in history as strong now as it’s ever been people love knowing more about the building’s occupants. Their day-to-day lives can be just as enthralling as the architecture. For some buildings, such as palaces and stately homes, the research will be easy with details of occupants, at least those above stairs, easy to find. Although with many smaller, lesser houses hard facts are less easy to discover.

The availability of resources online has done much to enable the curious homeowner to discover the past. There is one source of information, albeit unconventional, that if available promises to put flesh on the bones of what can be a very bare story. I am referring to the long-standing history of ghosts associated with ancient houses, especially those that may have been the scene of a bloody or traumatic event.

Margells1_Landmark Trust

It was through my mother that I had any indirect experience with spectres. My mother Margaret and her sister Betty were visiting friends in Branscombe, East Devon, around the time of the Second World War. Their stay was to be quite a lengthy one and they quickly made friends with some local people.

My aunt was especially friendly with a chap called Terence who lived in a cottage west of the main village. His home, known as Margells, was thought to be the oldest house in the area. It was reputed to have belonged to a local abbey, prior to the Reformation, and to have been used as a retreat house for the monks.

This story is validated by a magnificent medieval wall painting still in evidence on a bedroom wall. Terence was a serious, hard-working young man not inclined to tell fanciful tales yet he would often tell the story of Margells because it had moved him so much.

Margells4_Landmark Trust

As a young man his grandmother had come to live with them for her final years and slept in a bedroom next to Terence’s. For as long as he could remember he had heard just before going to sleep muttering and murmuring that he attributed to his grandmother. Eventually his grandmother died but the sound continued, every night he would hear the same noises. He told his father, since he was puzzled about the cause. His father told him the sound was always thought to be the chanting of a monk. He said that someone had once witnessed a monk coming down the stairs with a bloodied bandage wrapped around his head.

Fast forward a few years and Terence took over running Potbury’s the local auction room and Margells was sold to the Landmark Trust. When planning a holiday together the sisters came across this information and booked it for a short stay. They were both aware of these stories, but being strong-minded brave women they dismissed these as rumours, relishing the chance to stay in such a beautiful building. But they hadn’t been there long until unusual events had them puzzled. At first they heard footsteps going up and down the stairs, and pacing in empty rooms. The women put these unusual sounds down to the house’s atmosphere. When the heavy cast-iron door knocker knocked of it’s own accord they shrugged their shoulders and ignored it.

Not long afterwards they were surprised to hear a party going on in the house. They could hear laughter, chatter and the clink of glasses as if in celebration. The antics continued, with something that sounded like the lash of the whip striking between them. This time the couple couldn’t ignore it, but all they could do was puzzle about the origins of the sounds and leave it at that. But they very strongly felt that if there was spirit in the cottage it wasn’t malignant, it simply wanted to be left alone.

Margells3_Landmark Trust

It was their last night in the building that convinced the couple that they were hearing the sounds from a different era. By this time both women were wary of possible spiritual occupants and agreed to sleep in the two single beds in the same bedroom. They put the light off and lay down ready for sleep, but something kept them awake. After a while my aunt spoke, “I wish you’d stop that snoring Margaret so I can get some sleep!”

My mother replied: “I’ve been lying awake listening to that!”

The women froze as they realised there was no other explanation for the sound than a spiritual one. “Leave us alone and will never come back here again,” called my aunt.

At that point all noises stopped and the house was quiet for the rest of the night. The following morning the women left the cottage as agreed, totally convinced they had heard the spectre of a long-dead monk. Knowing my mother and aunt as down-to-earth women these events convinced me that there just might be something otherworldly about some places.

If you’d like to share your own haunting experiences in old buildings leave a comment below. Margells is owned by the Landmark Trust.

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National Treasures: The South Gate, King’s Lynn, Norfolk

Ken Hill, a retired journalist and King’s Lynn resident since 1975 writes about a ‘Lynn’ landmark.  He was a South Gate volunteer for a many years. 

The South Gate at Bishop’s Lynn, Norfolk, had been welcoming travellers into the town for many years before the Mayor and Burgesses decided it needing repairing yet again in 1437. In that year, the town was prosperous from its sea-borne trade around England and with Europe – particularly through the Hanseatic League.  So the Mayor had a mind to impress visitors arriving by road with a grand entrance gate.

National Treasure_South Gate_new road

Well-known builders were invited to come up with ideas.  Robert Hertanger of London got the job.  His design used bricks (200,000 of them) and stones rather than wood.  He suggested a 20ft high arch with a fan vaulted ceiling, plus a grand room above where the Mayor could welcome important guests.  He also suggested extra chambers for staff and even an inside toilet with a chute into a convenient rivulet.  He pocketed a good advance and set to.

But as well as his reputation for buildings, Lynn soon realised their new contractor was very fond of alehouses.  The allocated money eventually ran out before the building was completed.  Robert Hertanger’s contract was ended “by reason of his poverty”.  The South Gate was topped off with a temporary roof.  The Mayor and Burgesses licked their wounds, and their successors decided to live with the unfinished job.  At least the gates worked, keeping out the sick, the robbers and the beggars. These were medieval times.  Plagues were still about.

National Treasure_South Gate_south west view

Margery Kempe, the Lynn mystic, might have seen the re-building started.  But Christopher Columbus, Henry VIII, William Shakespeare and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t even born. It took a visit by Cardinal Wolsey in August 1520 to get the building finished.  He called in at Bishop’s Lynn that year, no doubt accompanied by the Bishop of Norwich, Richard Nykke.  Lynn was on his patch. The Cardinal had just leased Hampton Court Palace in Surrey, and was starting a lavish five-year improvement programme there.  He would have been impressed by Lynn’s two huge catholic churches, the five monasteries, the Mayor’s Town Hall plus civic buildings, and the merchants’ houses and guildhalls. But what would he have thought of the half-finished South Gate?  And how would the Bishop of Norwich have answered the Cardinal’s inevitable question: “What’s happening here then?”  We don’t know. But we do know that Mayor Thomas Myller commissioned two local builders on 5 October 1520 “to make up the South Gates as good and cheap as they can get them…. so that the same be finished about the XXIst September next following.”  Perhaps the Cardinal had said he’d be back in October next year? The new builders abandoned the fan vaulting in favour of cheaper barrel vaulting.  Look carefully and you can still see the beginnings of the fan vaulting under the arch.  Plus grotesques keeping an eye on the traffic.

National Treasure_South Gate_Fan vaulting starter bottom left

Seven years later, Bishop’s Lynn was re-named King’s Lynn as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The South Gate did good service to the town – though it couldn’t keep out the Parliamentarians in 1643 during the Civil War. Nowadays, more than 1,200 vehicles a day (Norfolk County Council survey 2007) come into King’s Lynn through this 580-year-old gate: double-decker buses, HGVs, cars, even a few brave cyclists.  Volunteers open it up twice a week during the summer. But it deserves better.  The volunteers and many others are promoting a scheme to divert traffic through a small adjacent park, and make a new park round the South Gate.  It would improve traffic flow.  This is a landmark building, Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.  It deserves to play a major role in a town that is proud of its architectural heritage. And looks after most of it fairly well.