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.
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.
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.
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.