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The curious tale of The Ghost that Never Was, and why you should always go back for ice cream...

Nestled on a bend of the River Great Ouse, sits a whitewashed inn with blackened timbers and a thatched roof. When we visit early one cool autumn morning before the sun has emerged from behind the shadowy treeline, mist rises eerily off the river, lending a white shroud to the gnarled willows that bow their heads at the water’s edge.

Our early start has paid off, and the place is deserted at this hour. The riverbank in front of the inn is empty of cars and we find ourselves almost whispering as we pull up – unwilling to break the silence of the morning. Somewhat unsettlingly, a single dishevelled wooden chair sits in the middle of the otherwise immaculate and empty riverbank, looking out across the water as though placed there for the repose of an unseen watchman. It makes us feel rather like we are intruding on someone’s lonely, silent vigil.

At this hour, with the inn still sleeping, the Holywell riverfront is timeless. The road is sparsely dotted with chocolate-box thatched cottages as it peels away from the line of the river to curve up towards the site of the 13th Century Church. In fact, the road circles all the way around and back on itself, creating a closed loop that still echos the original plan of the Anglo-Saxon Ring Village that once stood on this land.

We sit on the riverbank clutching flasks in chilly hands and watch the sun rise through wisps of steam from our coffee. The river is still and glassy, the only sound that of unseen birds, heralding the morning from the safety of the bushes. Holywell was once part of Fenland – that most mysterious landscape which many once feared due to its wildness and supposedly untameable inhabitants. In that moment, I could still feel an edge of wildness and mystery to this place, and could easily imagine the stands of swaying reeds that would have once filled this marshy landscape, and the legends of willo-the-wisps and lantern men that were whispered of here.

There has been occupation on this site for a very long time, certainly Roman artefacts have been found here, and even some flint tools. From the 1086 Domesday book record we can see that it’s not only the road layout that remains largely unchanged, but also the name of the village. It is recorded in that Latin tome as the village of Halliwelle, and was a fairly substantial place for the time, with 26 households, 6 smallholders and 1 priest.

The name Holywell comes, not from a well as you might expect, but from a natural spring, the water from which was thought to have magical healing properties and is understood to have been revered long before Christianity came to these Isles; but when come it did, a church was built next to the sacred spring.

Historians tell us this first church was already well established by the year 969, and would have been constructed of wood, wattle and daub. The location of the spring was very fortuitous for the church builders, as the land next to it afforded them a high vantage point with views right across the fens. A prime location also taken advantage of by the Romans who had come before; as there is evidence to suggest they had built a lighthouse where the church now stands – which might seem odd given that Holywell is at least 50 miles from the coast, but the neat fields and meadows that stretch out before us now, would once have been wild, watery marshes, thick with tangling rushes and sedge, and well known for being treacherous to navigate. Nothing is left of the lighthouse or the Saxon building now, but a medieval stone church takes its place, and the Holy Well remains on the site to this day.

St John the Baptist Church, Holywell-cum-Needingworth

From our position, directly in front of the Ferryboat Inn, we look out over the river at a crossing place that was used for centuries, and gave the Inn its name. Right up until the 1930’s a Ferry took people and goods across the Great Ouse from Holywell to the village of Fen Drayton on the other side of the river. It’s thought that this crossing point could have been in place as far back as Roman times, a tradition seemingly supported when archaeologists unearthed the remains of a Roman villa in Fen Drayton in recent years.

This humble Fenland river crossing was first made famous by Charles Kingsley’s 1866 novel Hereward the Wake, in which he wrote of the English folk-hero escaping the pursuit of the William the Conqueror’s men by dashing through the fens, across the Great Ouse by the Holywell ferry, and into the safety of the vast woodland beyond, before finally making it back to his base on the sacred Isle of Ely. The mention of the crossing is brief, but even amidst this chapter of high adventure as the hero flees for freedom, the otherworldly quality of the mysterious fenland manages to wend its way into the prose …

“He looked down over Swaffham, Quy, and Waterbeach, and the rest of the tree-embowered hamlets which fringed the fen, green knolls on the shore of a boundless sea of pale-blue mist; and above that sea, to the far north, a line of darker blue, which was the sacred isle. As the sun sank lower, higher rose the mist; and the isle grew more and more faint, vaporous, dreamy, as fen-distances are wont to be. Was it not about to fade away in reality; to become a vapour, and a dream, and leave him alone, and free?”

HEREWARD THE WAKE: LAST OF THE ENGLISH – CHARLES KINGSLEY

Truly it seems this landscape can pluck at something deep within all of us, something that recognises it as a strange, and maybe even liminal space.

But the story that the Inn became famous for in later years, concerns the ghost of a girl who predates even Hereward, and his exploits rebelling against the Norman Occupiers. A ghost who told paranormal investigators that she perished at Holywell in the year 1050. I found a retelling of the whole story in a newspaper from 1955 – a February edition of the Peterborough Citizen Advertiser. In it they relate the tragic tale of Juliet Tewsley, a lovesick girl who lived in Holywell over 900 years ago.

Apparently, the fair young maiden fell in love with a dashing, broad shouldered, curly haired wood cutter named Thomas Zhoul, and spent her mornings just hoping to catch a glimpse of him as he passed by on his way to work. One day, her passionate feelings for the man grew so strong that she couldn’t bear watching him from the shadows any longer, and had to make her feelings known. She professed her love to him, presenting the woodcutter with a bouquet of flowers alongside her dreams of their happy union. But it seems that Thomas was not interested in courtship at all, and Juliet’s hopes were dashed when he roughly brushed her aside and told her to go home to her mother. Her heart broken and her pride in tatters, the stricken girl saw no further future for herself and, taking a rope to one of the willow trees on the riverbank, she took her own life, on the 17th March, in the year of 1050.

The villagers mourned, but the nature of her passing meant she was forbidden from being buried on hallowed ground, so she was interred at the crossroads near the Inn, with just a simple, heavy stone slab marking her resting place. Perhaps it was her heartbreak that wouldn’t allow her to rest easily in her simple grave, or perhaps it was the fact that, in following years, the Ferryboat’s trade increased, and so a new wing was built, which extended right over the spot where Juliet was buried. Whether in respect for her resting place, or a more pragmatic approach of not wanting to waste perfectly good stone, the Inn’s owner simply incorporated the grave marker into the floor of the extended inn. But maybe they hadn’t bargained for the spectral visitor this would earn them, because local legend says that every year, on the 17th of March, a ghostly white lady will appear, pointing at the flagstone in the floor of the bar.

Like most such tales, accounts vary slightly, some have her appear directly in the bar near the stone, others have her travel along the riverside towards the pub before reaching the destination of her gravesite. In still others Thomas actually murdered her, and her unquiet spirit rises from the river at midnight on the anniversary of her death. But whichever version is being told, all accounts seem certain of one thing; that the apparition is that of the lovelorn Juliet.

Juliet’s tale is well documented; it has been immortalised amongst the pages of countless ghost guides and anthologies, including my childhood hero and king of the British ghost guide Peter Underwood himself, who told her story in his 1971 Gazetteer of British Ghosts. Landlords, managers and bar staff have all gone on record in newspapers and even on TV recounting the strange goings-on, and how they attribute them all to the ghost of Juliet. As recently as 2019 a former duty manager of the Ferryboat – speaking of his experiences in the pub – told the press that “the lights just won’t go out unless you say “goodnight Juliet”. He declared that he wasn’t too spooked by the odd occurrences, but simply tried to remain respectful, and remember that it was her building.

Within the Inn itself her story is emblazoned across the walls; a restaurant chalk board tells of the ghost of the Ferryboat, framed newspaper clippings about the haunting hang on the walls, and on the oak beam above her gravestone near the bar, the words “In memory of Juliet Tewsley who died 17th March 1050 AD” is painted in tall gold lettering. Her story has become so entrenched in local tradition that it appears on an information board outside on the riverbank, alongside facts about the village name, local wildlife and the route of the nearby long-distance footpath. It appears in local history articles – I even found it included in a conservation statement produced by the Huntingdonshire planning department. In the eyes of the local, as well as the paranormal, community – it seems the legend is as good as fact.

The only problem … is that there never was a Saxon girl named Juliet Tewslie in Holywell, or a Thomas Zhoul for that matter, and for all its pervasiveness throughout the years, the origin story of this famous ghost was accidentally fabricated by a group of enthusiastic and well-intentioned paranormal investigators, and the series of events that followed their investigation in 1953.

That now famous investigation was led by respected parapsychologist Tony Cornell – member of the Society for Psychical Research and the Ghost Club. He was known for being level headed and down to earth, and for taking care to search for logical explanations before jumping to paranormal conclusions. Which makes it an even stranger twist of fate then, that during his career he unwittingly became responsible for at least two accidental hauntings. One occurred during an appearance on Anglian TV, when he was asked to assess a supposedly haunted property for signs of paranormal happenings. He explained on camera that he had found none, but when the program was broadcast, the TV station was flooded with phone calls from viewers reporting that, even as Cornell was presenting his findings, and declaring that he had found no evidence of paranormal activity, they had seen a dark and unexplained apparition appear on screen.

The other, was the ghost of the Ferryboat Inn. In all fairness, Cornell and his companions were following a real lead. Cornell was a Cambridgeshire local himself, and had caught wind of a story in Holywell that a white lady apparition would appear in the pub every year on the 17th of March to point at a flagstone in the floor, which would then become loose in its foundation and could be rocked, even though it was usually quite stable and motionless.

Come the night of the 17th March 1953, Cornell, his girlfriend at the time, and 3 other companions took the opportunity to test the claim – although from what Tony related in later years  – despite being curiously hopeful, they were realistic enough to not be expecting to actually see the apparition that night. And they were correct, no white lady appeared for them, although they did find that the big flagstone could indeed be rocked, just as the story said, and they took turns rocking it and inviting the white lady to make her presence known.

But as nothing much else was happening, they decided to try and communicate with the ghost through a Ouija board. For lack of a proper board, they made do with a borrowed a tin tray from the bar, writing letters around the edge and using an upturned wine glass as a planchette. But it just goes to show that you don’t need a fancy board to get results, as the ghost seemed to be in a chatty mood, and answers started coming through thick and fast.

The stone slab said to mark Juliet’s grave

Who are you?

I am Juliet

Where did you die?

Here

How did you die?

Hanged

Why were you hanged?

Because I loved Thomas

When did you die?

Ten Fifty

Is your grave in this room?

Yes.

The group continued their questions until closing time, but they weren’t ready to give up their Ouija board session when they were getting such interesting results, so they moved onto other hostelries with later opening hours, and continued their investigation. Over the course of the evening, they gathered the following information from the Ouija board; that the spirit they were speaking to was Juliet Tewsley, that she had been hanged for loving a woodcutter named Thomas Zhoul in the year 1050, and that her grave was under the flagstone in the bar of the Ferryboat Inn.

It was all fascinating of course, but Cornell was a Cambridge educated man; he was fully aware of the ideomotor movement, and he knew that prior knowledge of the legend, combined with their eagerness and the group’s well-practiced use of Ouija boards in the past, all could have contributed to them finding a story where there was none. But, he did his due diligence and looked for records of any family names in the area matching that of Tewsley or Zhoul through history; he found none, and he also found that neither the name Juliet or Thomas were in use during the 11th century. He probably also wondered – as many others did later – how it could be that the ghost of a Saxon girl whose native tongue would have likely been Old English, could have been conversing with them so fluently using modern English scribbled on a bar tray.

In short, Cornell didn’t put too much stock in their findings, and didn’t pretend otherwise.

And that might have been an end to it, The Ferryboat would have retained its nameless white lady ghost, whose annual appearance pointing at the bar’s flagstone could have – as author Joan Foreman posits in Ghosts of East Anglia – just as easily been meant to indicate treasure buried under the great slab, as the ghost’s own grave. But the landlord of the Ferryboat at the time, obviously saw an opportunity to increase business. By this time, the famous ferry that had given the Inn its name was long gone, and in such a tiny village it’s likely that trade wasn’t exactly thriving, so you can hardly blame him for being shrewd, he just might have taken it a little too far.

He invited the investigators back for a repeat performance on the next year’s anniversary, apparently throwing the offer of a free meal into the mix. Who knows whether the investigators suspected the publican to be using them to draw trade – maybe they had already decided to go back anyway and thought they may as well get a free dinner out of it. But I imagine they may not have realised quite how much trade it would draw.

The forthcoming event was leaked to the newspapers, along with the information that had come through the Ouija board at the first investigation, about Juliet and her tragic demise. The press quickly latched onto the story, and news that the Cambridgeshire investigators planned to return to the Inn for a repeat performance – supposedly bringing all kinds of whizzy instruments along with them to help them make contact with the resident ghost – spread like wildfire around the area.

Of course, the press weren’t interested in Cornell’s findings that there was no such girl – Juliet was the tragic heroine in a story of heartbreak and sentience beyond death – that alone was too delicious for the papers to pass up, and the fact that it provided a neatly tied up backstory to the odd flagstone in the pub, and its tradition of a female apparition, was just the icing on the cake. The pub landlord went before the local magistrates to apply for the inn to be granted a special late opening licence, so they could hold their vigil to wait the ghost’s appearance, and – astonishingly – the magistrates granted it.

On the night itself, the Ferryboat Inn was heaving, fit to burst, every room at the inn was booked up, people were peering in at the windows and police were turning cars away from the village a mile off, but for all the excitement and expectation – just as last time, Juliet did not appear.

So, the investigators brought out their not-so-secret secret weapon – a Ouija board – and not a tin tray this time, but a purpose made wooden affair. Apparently the planchette flew around the board, but Juliet was not as forthcoming as before. They had a couple of messages that raised everyone’s hopes, the first; I am Juliet, and the second; I am trying to materialise.

Materialise she did not, but then I can’t say I blame her; I think that clamouring audience would have been enough to give any spirit stage fright.

One of the older parts of the Inn, the flagstone is a little further over to the left of this shot.

Of course, the papers were just as vocal about the ghost’s non-appearance as they were previously eager in predicting her materialisation; although by their tone they had apparently all become much greater sceptics overnight. Headlines appeared such as “Ferry Boat Inn’s ghost Vanishes” and “The Ghost That Never Was”, alongside quotes from the local Reverend stating that the whole story was ‘Bunkum’.

On paper, you’d think that between the ghost’s non-appearance, the local vicar’s claim of the legend being nonsense and the suddenly sceptical tone adopted by the newspapers, as well as Cornell’s findings that there was indeed no Juliet Tewsley in the historical record, the flash-in-the-pan story would have been relegated to the local paper archives, and quickly forgotten. But as we can see, that’s not what happened at all. Why did this accidental ghost story not only survive, but flourish, making its way into countless paranormal guides from that day to the present? Well, it was partly down to that very same Reverend who was so keen to call it all ‘Bunkum’.

Reverend Alexander George McLennan Pearce Higgins was quite vocal in telling the newspapers that there never was a girl named Juliet Tewsley in Holywell – and he was right of course – only then, he did a very peculiar thing indeed. According to an article by Robert Halliday in the July 2016 issue of Fortean Times, Reverend Higgins wrote a short story using the details from Cornell’s Ouija board session, but adding in all sorts of details that fleshed it out into a fully-fledged local legend. His story was printed a couple of times; in the first publication, the Reverend revealed at the end that it was all made up, but in the second, he omitted that rather crucial part.

What his reasoning for writing this short story was, we can only imagine, especially bearing in mind how he was otherwise so forthright in trying to disprove the legend. Maybe he meant it as a joke, but if so, I think it’s safe to say that the joke was on him, because the existence of the legend in the form of a short story only added more fuel to the fire. The press lapped it up, and Juliet’s story started being picked up and retold all across the country, with seemingly more and more details added every time.

Suddenly Juliet wasn’t just a name coming through on a makeshift Ouija board, but a happy, fair girl; who had a favourite pink dress, was much beloved by village folk, and was always crowned May Queen. Thomas became a broad-shouldered lad with dark curly hair, and more of an appetite for a game of nine-pins than courting women. Juliet went from ‘being hanged for loving Thomas’, to taking her own life, and consequently being buried at a crossroads, rather than in a graveyard – a particularly odd detail, and something which I would have thought would set alarm bells ringing for any locals, as I certainly can’t find any evidence the Inn was ever near a crossroads. The village is famous for retaining its circular Saxon design, so surely it couldn’t have been near a crossroads in 1050 either.

It seems that everyone who retold the story took their own liberties with it, which resulted in some very confusing details, such as Juliet being Norman, and Thomas being William the Conqueror’s head Woodcutter – both of which would have been quite some feat bearing in mind the Normans didn’t invade until 16 years after Juliet’s supposed demise.

In 2003 Tony Cornell took part in a 50th anniversary commemoration of that first investigation at the Ferryboat, which was organised by the ghost club. In Cornell’s obituary in the summer 2010 Ghost Club Journal, his friend and colleague Alan Murdie writes about how, at the event, Cornell explained the whole mishap to a packed bar made up of ghost club members as well as locals. Cornell also wrote about the incident in his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal, and yet despite all this, Juliet’s story is still printed in compendiums and gazetteers even to this day. I think my biggest surprise though, and possibly the reason that so many authors have confidently used the story in their own books, is that Peter Underwood – the Godfather of the British ghost gazetteer – published it himself, which is very odd, bearing in mind that he and Cornell were contemporaries; they were both members of the Society of Psychical Research and of the Ghost Club. Underwood has often been called the Sherlock Holmes of the paranormal, and many researchers take his work almost as gospel, so this in itself may have contributed to how the story proliferated so readily over the years.

But of course, none of this means that the Ferryboat Inn isn’t haunted. After all, Cornell and friends only went there in the first place chasing a local tradition of a white lady ghost, and many witnesses over the years have related strange happenings in the pub that they can’t quite explain.

Common reports include doors opening and closing by themselves, disembodied footsteps and banging sounds, items go missing then are found in places they shouldn’t be, and menus mysteriously appear in the middle of the floor. Two different inn managers have remarked that dogs dislike the flagstone in the bar; that they will growl at it – hackles raised – before backing away from the area.

For her 1974 book Ghosts of East Anglia, Joan Forman interviewed a life-long resident of Holywell named Tom Arnold, who related that he had heard the story of the female apparition from his grandparents, and that it was an old legend even in their day. He also had his own strange experience at the Inn, although he definitely couldn’t blame it on Juliet.

One night at the Inn, whilst playing cards with the landlord, Tom noticed a door suddenly open behind him and clearly heard a man’s cough for attention. He thought it must be the village policeman, who often called in at this hour but, upon looking in the direction of the cough and open door, was surprised to see that there was nobody there at all. He wasn’t alone in his experience, as the landlord had also heard the man’s cough, but neither of them ever found any explanation for the odd event.

There definitely seemed to be paranormal activity of some kind at the Ferryboat, but it troubled us that we couldn’t find any record of a single witness having actually seen the female apparition that the inn is so famous for, and it added to our wonder at why Juliet’s tale had cast such a strange hold over Holywell. That is, until we visited ourselves.

From this view you can see where an older part of the Inn meets a newer extension

We first started visiting Holywell a couple of years ago, but of course during that time, the world has been a rather changed place; we’ve been in and out of lockdowns, and gone are those halcyon days of just nipping, carefree, to the pub for a drink without a second thought, so we didn’t actually go in the Old Ferryboat itself for a long time.

I didn’t need to go inside the building though, to get the sense that there was something different about the Inn – or maybe about the river that ran alongside it, or even Holywell itself. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but, even though I knew that there was no Juliet, I was convinced there was … something, something we were missing. Something that Cornell’s accidental ghost story didn’t explain. Even now I can’t tell you why, it was just a deep feeling that there was more to this story, and I just knew that there had to be somebody who had seen the female apparition.

But after hours of trawling through decades worth of increasingly convoluted stories about Juliet, I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to the real ghost of the Ferryboat Inn, and despite all the work and research I had put into this story, I had all but decided to not tell it after all.

And then, we decided to visit one last time.

The road leading to the Inn, with picturesque, thatched cottages

With the blazing hot summer we were having, and no chance of rain on the horizon for days, if not weeks, we realised we could visit the Inn for that very British of summer-time activities – a pub lunch – and eat outside in the spacious pub garden, under the pleasant shade of trees looking out across the River Ouse. The good weather would give us the opportunity to don masks and briefly pop into the Inn to order, get a peek at the legendary flagstone and beat a hasty retreat to the refuge of the garden.

It felt odd, actually entering the Inn after all this time, but it didn’t disappoint. The building that stands today is of 17th century construction around what’s likely an older core. There are many claims that the Inn was mentioned in the 1080 Domesday book, and even that there are records showing alcohol was being served on these premises as far back as 560 AD, although unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this. There’s no mention of any inn in the great Domesday record of Halliewell according to Opendomesday.org, and although I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was an alehouse on or near the site in the 6th century, it would be quite unusual for there to be a surviving written record of such a thing that was penned during that time. The nearest I could find was a hint that an Inn was recorded here in the early 12th century, which still means the Inn has an incredibly long history!

The Ferryboat is everything you could hope a 17th century Inn would be. From the pub garden side, the wing of the Inn you enter is all whitewashed thatched cottage; low windows nearly at ground level peek from behind leafy bushes, ivy creeps up the walls, snaking fingers into the thatch, and hanging baskets under the eaves spill over prettily with brightly coloured fushias and begonias jostling in the breeze amongst ghost-pale white petunias.

The door is narrow and low, and even I – with my not especially great height – had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the low oak lintel, and then again under more low, rough-hewn beams. It’s obviously not an uncommon occurrence for people to fail to negotiate these interesting hazards successfully; as one beam is wrapped in a red velvet-covered cushion, and another is adorned with the sage advice – DUCK!!!

Once inside, it’s clear how much the building has changed over the years; once upon a time the Inn was 2 separate buildings – an Inn called The Boat, and a cottage that ran the Ferry – and at some point they were joined together to create the Ferryboat. This, and the further expansions and changes across the years, are very evident from the interior. The place is a bit of a warren, the floor levels rise and drop, with the area nearest the door dipping below ground level. There are huge inglenook fireplaces scattered about, one so big you could fit a table and chairs in it. The building seems to wander off in all directions, with odd little screened-off half rooms being created by rows of timber uprights that must have originally been part of an outside wall, before one landlord or another decided to tack on an extra wing here and there.

And Juliet’s story was indeed blazed everywhere – there it was on the chalkboard, and on the oak beam, and there, of course, was the famous flagstone. And I have to admit, it does look odd; just one lone, darkly weathered, and obviously very old, massive flagstone, surrounded by plain wooden floorboards.

Of course, I stepped on it – I had to! I didn’t feel anything particularly mystical when I did so, but I recalled the detail about how the stone is said to rock on the 17th of March. I remembered that Cornell and friends were said to have taken turns rocking it, and that the landlady at the time commented that she had only ever known it be immobile. Standing on it myself, I couldn’t see how anyone could have possibly rocked it, for it felt absolutely solid and unmoveable, and it looked very, very heavy.

And then, from my vantage point on top of the flagstone, I peered into a little nook and noticed a yellowed newspaper clipping, standing in a frame on a ledge next to one of the fireplaces. I took several hasty pictures of it before losing my nerve at being indoors in a public place, on top of the funny looks I was getting from spending the last five minutes staring at a stone on the floor, and retreated to the shade of the trees at the back of the pub garden.

It was worth the funny looks though, because scanning through my photos of the article revealed the thing I had been searching for; a witness – an actual eye-witness – to the female ghost of the Ferryboat Inn! I was ecstatic!, at least, to begin with.

The framed article is propped next to the fireplace

The 1981 article quoted barman Ian Hogan, who related his strange experience at the Inn one morning.

“It was about 8 oclock in the morning” said Ian,” and every where was very quiet. I had just finished some cleaning and opened a door…

But – disaster! The article had obviously gone over two pages of the original publication, or there had been something cut out of the middle – and the next line was missing! We pored over it, we tried to track down the original paper – but the clipping simply hadn’t been preserved with researchers 40 years into the future in mind (how rude!), because we didn’t even have the name of the paper to go on. Just the date, February 1981. So we can never be sure exactly what Ian Hogan saw that morning, but whatever it was, he was certainly sure that it was the ghost.

The remaining print continued….

(I held?) the door open to let her through, and when I turned round again she was gone. I don’t know who else it could have been if it wasn’t the ghost.”

It was so frustrating to have come this close and be missing that vital line – but I did, finally, feel like we had found a missing piece of the puzzle – somebody had in fact seen the female apparition of the Ferryboat, and not someone lost to the mists of time either – someone within our generation.

Was this what I had been searching for, what I had subconsciously been holding out for? Well, I didn’t know it then, but there was more to come.

Our food arrived and I did my little dance of swapping out the cutlery, coffee mug and straws for my own travel set that I had brought with me – it’s quite a ride to have OCD these days, I can tell you – but the food was good, it was an extremely rare treat for us to eat out and to have a random day off with no particular schedule, and I was excited to have finally seen all the things in the Inn I had read about for so long, and to have found that article. The sun was scorching, but it was cooler under the shade of the trees than it had been for days in our house. So we relaxed and watched the boats moored on the river, and admired the quaint, higgledy-piggledy Inn – looking every bit something out of a classic ghost story, despite the bright summer’s day.

In fact, I was so relaxed, I started thinking about desert, and hummed and hawed over ice cream before finally deciding that the day merited a treat. Of course, it didn’t exactly dissuade me that it would mean another quick trip to the bar, and another chance to take pictures. Back on went the mask, duck under the doorway, under the funny cushioned beam – my eyes swirling colours as they tried to adjust from the blazing sunshine to the soft lighting of the low-ceilinged interior.

And as I approached the bar from one direction, an older gentleman approached from the other. Leaning in, he asked the bar staff – “Where’s the article about the ghost lady?”

I moved to helpfully point the gentleman to the article I had found near the fireplace just off to my right, but he hadn’t quite finished …

“Because” – he continued – “I’ve seen her”

At which point I ceased to have any compunction at all about inserting myself, unbidden, into a conversation with a complete stranger and all but leapt in front of the poor man exclaiming – “Have you?!!!”

Thankfully, he didn’t seem at all phased by my sudden appearance, and with the bar staff decidedly unmoved by his revelation, he happily related his encounter to me instead. In fact, it didn’t take place inside the Inn, but out on the river front, but it adds a whole new dimension to the mystery of the place.

It was a good 50 years ago now, he tells me, on a day not too dissimilar to this one, when he and a friend were doing what all youths want to do on a hot summer day like this, and messing about on the river. In their case they had managed to cobble together some sort of rickety homemade dinghy and had set off on their grand voyage of the Great Ouse. A little further upstream from the Ferryboat, he saw something that looked very out of place on this bright, summery day. From his vantage point on the water, he saw a figure on the bank, standing in a sort of arched gateway, a bit like a church lych-gate. It was a woman, dressed in a long, Victorian dress, floor length and dark in colour. On her head she was wearing a little bonnet. He was in no doubt that what he had seen was not just a regular person, and that he had, in fact, seen an apparition that day. He recalled how clear the memory still was to him, the colour and cut of her clothes, how out of place she was on the riverbank in her long dress and bonnet; a figure out of time under the unforgiving noon-day sun.

I quizzed him as much as I felt I could without it turning into the Spanish inquisition, and to be fair he was very gracious as I gawped and exclaimed, all whilst he tried to collect his order and ferry a tray of drinks back to his waiting family. He gave me a good idea where he had seen the apparition, so as soon as we had finished eating and packed up, I set about looking for the gate.

To be honest though, it wasn’t the day for it. Whilst it was very pleasant in the cool shade of the tree-lined garden, by the time we were leaving it was the hottest part of the day, and anything in direct sunlight was basically an inferno. There was no shade to be had on the footpaths by the riverbank, so I scouted up and down as quickly as I could, but it didn’t take long for the footpath to move away from the river, meaning I couldn’t explore the area he would have seen by boat. We had no choice but to head for home and batten down the hatches against the coming heatwave.

Later, we consulted my beloved maps, along with a bit of Google earth and photos we had taken on our earlier visits, to help us in our quest to find the mysterious arched gateway. Our witness was sure he had seen the apparition just upriver of the Inn, towards the church. On the map, this doesn’t look likely, as almost immediately past the Inn on the upstream side, the river starts swinging away from the village, leaving a wide stretch of fields between the Ouse and anywhere likely to have a gateway such as the one he described. Having paddled in that direction myself on a previous exploration by kayak, I couldn’t remember seeing anything on that side of the bank at all, edged as it was by thick swathes of tall rushes and overhanging willows, and I was certain I’d made it beyond the point he described.

Exploration of the Great Ouse by kayak

But then I remembered, that when I had first put the kayak in at the slipway opposite the inn’s garden, I had tried to paddle up a narrower river channel, rather than immediately head downstream and straight out into the main, wide channel where I would have to negotiate mooring motorboats. It was a good plan, but I didn’t get very far. The channel was extremely overgrown and obviously wasn’t kept clear. With the incredibly dry season we had been having, the water levels were low, and the foliage had become rampant. Trees on either side of the bank had grown so far over the water that they almost met in the middle. I soon got into a traffic jam standoff with a family of ducks, and had to use my spare, short paddle to punt myself out backwards.

But looking at the map later, we could see that this small backwater channel didn’t follow the main river, and instead, hugged close to the edge of the village, running right by the church. What’s more, employing the powers of Google street view showed us that, just as the road curves up past the church, a gate in a short stretch of fenced off grass opens onto a footpath leading directly to a footbridge over this river channel. It’s not an arched gateway these days, but half a century ago, it could well have been, and location-wise, it fit; even from the Google earth picture, we could see that there was a clear view to this gate from the water. Of course, 50 years ago the conditions could have been very different, and in more typical British weather that channel would likely have been less overgrown and with deeper water – more than likely enough to make it navigable for two young lads in a home-made dinghy.

With these revelations, I finally felt like the spell of the Ferryboat Inn was loosening its grip on me; for the last two years it had held me in a fervour of believing – for no real reason that I could fathom – that there had to be more to the stories than a Ouija board experiment colliding with a conflicted Reverend. And it turned out that there was – but who was the ghost then? Was the Victorian lady on the riverbank the same apparition that Ian Hogan had encountered in 1981? Were either of these women related to the white lady ghost stories of old? Did Cornell and gang communicate with a restless spirit of the Ferryboat through their makeshift Ouija board after all? Who is causing the continuing unexplained events at the Inn up to this very day, and why do the lights only turn off after staff say “Goodnight Juliet”, when there is no Juliet – or is it possible that after decades of so many people believing fervently in Juliet’s story, their collective thoughts have actually manifested her ghost at the Inn?

Sadly, to these questions, we may never find answers, and I will have to be satisfied with the fact that, after all of the doubt cast on the haunting of Holywell by the confusing tale of Juliet, it turns out there was some substance to the ghost stories after all – just not quite in the way we might have expected.

Still poring over my maps, as I am often wont to do, I felt an almost satisfying little jolt to realise one last thing about the location we had narrowed down for our witness’s riverside sighting – It turns out to be practically opposite the ancient Holy Well from whence the village got its name.

These days it certainly looks more like a well than a spring, with a neat little stone archway over it, and an iron gate across the front. It looks a bit utilitarian, in a Victorian sort of way, but it hasn’t been forgotten by the locals. The very first time we ever visited Holywell, we unwittingly managed to time it to coincide with the village Well Dressing festival, during which, the spring, Church and grounds are decorated with flowers in celebration. We would have had no idea this took place every year, had we not accidentally stumbled into it, but I felt privileged to have done so, and to have been – even unintentionally – a part of an age-old celebration.

If historians are correct, and this spring has been held sacred since before Roman times, who knew how many countless centuries something similar to the well dressing celebration had been taking place – and seeing it appear now, at end of this long and winding 2 year journey, at the place where we believe our witness had his encounter – I felt like I’d come full circle.

The sacred spring that gave the village of Holywell its name.

Did this one common thread, stretching back through time and binding together people spanning different eons and very different faiths, bring the past just a little bit closer to the surface at this place? Between this, and the quite individual propensity of the Fenland landscape for myths, legends and – apparently ghosts – to take root here and hold fast, unmoved by the shifting sands of time, it doesn’t feel so strange any more that Juliet’s story lives on against all odds. But if you ever do have a chance to visit Holywell – once you’ve had your fill of the quaint thatched Inn, with its crooked beams, whitewashed chimney pots and stories of a love-lorn AngloSaxon girl, make sure to take a quiet wander along the river; visit the ancient spring knelt at by generation upon generation of souls past, and as you look out across the river and the fields beyond, imagine the wild marshy fenland that Hereward would have known here, and wonder at what other secrets, ghosts and legends this landscape still hold for us to find.

The Ferryboat Inn:

 

History of the old Ferryboat, Holywell and surrounding area:

Historic England – Building listing – Old Ferryboat Inn

British History Online – Holywell with Needingworth

Historic UK – 12 Oldest Inns in England

Open Domesday – Holywell

Cambridgeshire Walks – Holywell

Archaeology News Network – Roman Villa unearthed in Cambridgeshire

Huntingdonshire.gov – Holywell Conservation Area

 

Tony Cornell:

Psi Encyclopedia – Tony Cornell

The Ghost Club Journal – Summer 2010

Fortean Times July 2016 – The Spectre of the Ferry Boat Inn

A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting: How to Investigate Paranormal Activity from from Spirits and Hauntings to Poltergeists (Brief Histories) by Leo Ruickbie – 2013 – 978-1-78033-8227-9 – Perseus Books

 

Ghost Stories of the Old Ferryboat:

Waymarking – The ghost of Juliet Tewsley

Cambridgeshire Live – The Old Ferryboat Inn

Peter Underwood A Gazetteer of British ghosts pub. 1971

Peterborough Citizen and Advertiser, Feb 1st 1955

The People, Sunday 6th November 1955

Haunted East Anglia – Joan Foreman – Jarrold Publishing 1990 ISBN 0-7117-0178-4

 

Hereward the Wake:

Hereward the Wake: Last of the English – Charles Kingsley – 1866

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