Paranormal Postcards – Blakeney

Although I love our hometown, we do happen to live in the most landlocked county in England, so visiting the coast for the day requires embarking on what we call ‘a bit of a trek’ – at least by the standards of our small island.
The good thing about the drive to our nearest coastline of Norfolk however, is that the route is almost exclusively country roads with none of the grey, anonymous motorway travel. You experience, by necessity, the changing British landscape as you journey out of central England and towards the East Coast. The gently undulating farmland flattens into the wide vistas of the Fens, the constant roadside companion of the River Nene is overtaken by the Great Ouse as they both race towards the Wash, and as you get closer to the coast you start to see gorse in the hedgerows and stands of majestic Scots Pine in reddish, sandy soil; the changing landscape itself becoming part of the adventure, with its own stories to tell.

The flat expanses of the fens

The road gets lonelier, with settlements less driven through and more glimpsed in the distance; small, isolated hamlets nestled amidst the vast, open landscape of the fens. This is the ancient landscape of the Britons, and steeped in legend. As early as Saxon times it was thought to be a wild, untamed place – a place of ghosts, strange creatures and Will-o’-the-wisps – and it still retains a mysterious, ethereal quality. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture an eerie mist rising from the once-damp marshland, shrouding wraith-like figures and curious beasts. One such beast told to haunt the Fens is the Black Shuck, the apparition of a huge, shaggy black dog with blazing red eyes who prowls the darkness, making no sound except for its blood-chilling howls.

Reconstructed roundhouse at Flag Fen: The fens were once home to the ancient Britons, and the land is steeped in mystery and legend

The name ‘Shuck’ is thought to have derived from the old English scucca or sceocca, meaning evil spirit or demon, and sightings have persisted for hundreds of years in varying detail. Sometimes the beast is reported to be headless, sometimes floating on a swirling mist. There are even reports of the creature being more benevolent, a protective presence with large green eyes instead of devilish red ones, but there remains a lasting myth that sighting it foretells the witness’s imminent death.
The Norfolk coast is another favourite haunt of the mysterious creature, and it is thought that the Black Shuck may have been the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle heard the legend whilst holidaying in Norfolk in 1901, although if true, it’s not known why he changed the setting of the tale to the landscape of Dartmoor.
The small, historic coastal village of Blakeney, Norfolk was our destination for the day, and it has its own fair share of Black Shuck sightings; one witness reported being followed by a huge, silent black dog as she pedalled furiously away from it on her bicycle, only for it to suddenly vanish, another saw it floating above ground level on an old road that may have once been an iron-age track. One woman was followed on her walk home by the sound of dragging chains for which there appeared to be no cause. The sound seemed to pass down ‘Back Lane’ which is a known haunt of the beast and, realising she might be in the presence of the Black Shuck, she wisely fled.
Blakeney however, is home to more tales than that of this ancient cryptid; local folklore also tells of the elusive ‘Hytersprites’ – long-legged, spider-like creatures that kidnap naughty children who stray on to the saltmarshes, although one has to wonder how much of this legend is merely a cautionary tale. Blakeney is a beautiful place, the view from the quay when we arrive is one of desolate beauty – saltmarshes stretching for miles with a low, brooding sky overhead, framed with the masts of sailing boats – but you can imagine how deadly it could be to anyone wandering off without keeping an eye on the tides. When we arrived we made use of the main car park on the quay, but even this is tidal, and you must plan the length of your stay in accordance with the local tide chart, lest you lose your vehicle to the sea.

View of the quay from the top of ‘Mariners Hill’

During the medieval period Blakeney was a prosperous commercial sea port and was home to the trade of salt fish, spices, oriental cloth and, of course, smuggling! From as early as the 1300’s and well into the 19th Century Blakeney was reputedly a hotbed of smugglers and nefarious activity, with nearby Cley harbour supposedly being run by organised gangs of pirates. To this day, legend tells of a network of tunnels running below Blakeney, and not only are they the haunt of smugglers, but also a ghostly fiddler and his dog.

Blakeney Harbour

The story goes that it was widely believed the network of smugglers tunnels had many secret entrances and exits, one of which was reportedly located in Blakeney Guildhall and one in Binham Priory, which has a long history of being haunted by a ghostly monk. In more recent years one woman told the local vicar how she had seen the Benedictine monk appear wearing a black cowl. She watched the apparition form, then proceed to walk slowly along a ledge the length of the church (that used to make up part of the former priory) before disappearing.
It seems the sightings of this monk have been around for a long time, as one version of the ghostly fiddler tale begins with a man volunteering to explore the tunnels below Binham Priory, to investigate the ghostly monk that appeared there. He played his fiddle so the onlookers could track his progress as he travelled through the tunnels with his faithful dog by his side, but suddenly the sound died. It seems the dog escaped, emerging terrified and shaking, but the fiddler himself was never seen again, and was presumed to have been taken by the phantom of the black monk.
Another version of the tale has the fiddler begin in Blakeney Guildhall, where he volunteered to explore a passageway suspected to be the famous smuggler’s tunnels that had been unearthed, but the story ends in the same way. Whether Binham or Blakeney was the original location of the tale is lost to history, but they both seemed to have staked a claim; Binham naming ‘Fiddler’s Hill’ after the legend, whereas Blakeney boasts the fiddler and his dog on the village sign. In 1933 workman digging in the area between Blakeney and Binham unearthed the skeletons of two men and one dog, so perhaps these were two separate incidents after all, and only one dog survived. It is said that the eerie strains of the fiddler’s music can sometimes still be heard at night.

The village sign showing the fiddler and his dog.

Blakeney Guildhall is a bit of a mystery in itself and despite the traditionally-used title of Guildhall nothing much is known about its early history. It is thought to have been built by a wealthy medieval fish-merchant and was once a two story building. On a map of 1682 it is shown with a castellated upper storey, but all that remains of it today is the 14th Century brick-vaulted undercroft, which is now in the care of English Heritage and open to the public.
The Guildhall is tucked almost into the side of ‘Mariner’s Hill’, a prominent man-made earthen mound thought to have been constructed in medieval times to be used as a harbour lookout point, that is easy to spot from the quay.
The building itself is grey and stern-looking from the outside, built from local flint and stone, with the remains of the upper storeys jaggedly protruding from what is now the roof.

The side of the Guildhall next to the mound of Mariner’s Hill.

Stepping inside it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the gloom, as the only light filters in from three small windows, high up on the left side of the building in the shadow of Mariner’s Hill. When you get your first glimpse of the cathedral-like vaulted ceiling however, it’s difficult to remember that this was originally built for storage. In our present age of architectural utility, the design seems too grand for a space intended to store fish. The room is divided into two aisles by octagonal stone pillars, and on both sides there are deep niches cut into the walls, which are window-shaped but serve no purpose as windows. It is reported that traces of wall paintings could once be seen – although none survive today – all adding to the enigma of the structure. It is believed that the Guildhall may have once been owned by the Carmelite Friary that stood nearby, and that this Friary was actually were the mysterious tunnels ran to. The room certainly has an almost ecclesiastical feel to it and, standing in the dark, echoing vault, it’s tempting to wonder about its true origins. The eerie feeling of the place is not helped by knowing that during World War One it was used as a mortuary chapel for the bodies of drowned sailors.

The cathedral-like interior of the Guildhall.

Emerging once more into the sunlight, we had another reason to be visiting Blakeney today, and that was to meet up with family to celebrate my Mum’s birthday. Having met up for lunch we went on a hunt for eateries to sample the local wares and, passing by just such a contender, we discovered that my brother had experienced a paranormal encounter of his own.
The day before, he had decided to take an evening stroll to explore a little as it was their first night there. He had walked past the large, brightly lit windows of the restaurant and paused to do a double take. In the restaurant, seated at a table eating a meal he saw – quite clearly – himself.

The evening stroll that turned into an inexplicable encounter

This is not the first doppleganger witness I’ve spoken to, and I recognised the look of confusion and disbelief. Relating his story the day after the event, he was obviously shaken, and somewhat stuck for how to describe it, let alone explain it. My previous doppleganger witness was similarly unnerved and perplexed, although that encounter was not of the witness’s own image. To be faced with your own apparition, rather takes it to the next level. There are hundreds of reports of doppelgänger encounters spanning many years, but none that I could find in Blakeney. Who knows, maybe we stumbled across a new legend!

Sunset over the harbour

Resources:
Have You Heard About Blakeney – Peter Brooks – Poppyland Publishing 2001
The World’s Most Mysterious Castles Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe Dundurn, 16 Oct 2005
http://www.blakeneycottagecompany.co.uk/happy-halloween-holidays-ghost-stories-north-norfolk/
http://www.bahs.uk/GH-Files/GH1-5/GH%202.5.pdf
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-17079072
http://www.binhampriory.org/documents/Ghost.html
http://www.edp24.co.uk/norfolk-life-2-1786/norfolk-history/14-binham-priory-1-214372
https://www.hiddenea.com/shuckland/introduction.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Shuck
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blakeney_Guildhall
https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/hell-hounds-hyter-sprites-and-god-fearing-mermaids/
http://www.ournorfolk.org.uk/the-arts/haunted-norfolk-black-shuck/

Paranormal Postcards Blog – Bedfordshire

On a beautiful spring day – the first really warm one of the year – we, like everybody else in the country it seemed, felt the itch to rush outside after such a long, damp winter and feel the sunshine on our faces. We decided to go for a picnic but, being us, we chose somewhere with a good bit of history and a liberal sprinkling of spooky stories. So we grabbed the picnic basket and our cameras, jumped in the car and headed off to our neighbouring county of Bedfordshire and the historic Ampthill Park.

The area was originally part of the manor of Ampthill held by the d’Albini family in 1086, and a castle was built there in the 15th century, although it was actually more of a palace or fine manor house than a true castle. The castle was home to Henry VIII’s wife Katherine of Aragon for a time, who stayed here whilst her marriage to Henry was being annulled. When Henry returned he decided to build a new lodge, and left the castle to fall into ruins.

There’s nothing left of the castle now, but as you walk into the park and look up to the rise of the Greensand ridge you can see two stone crosses. The first is the Duke of Bedford memorial cross, erected in memory of soldiers who lost their lives in World War I, and the second is Katherine’s cross–so-named after Katherine of Aragon–and is all that remains of the castle to mark its place in the landscape.

It was only a short – albeit rather uphill – walk from the entrance of the park to the site of the castle, and once at the top you are rewarded with not only a bench to rest on, but also the most spectacular views. When you hear the tagline ‘offers commanding views’ this is what they’re talking about. The landscape seemed to stretch on forever and the view suddenly lent me a sense of the castle which had once stood here.

This brought us to our first ghost story of the day, as it is from this cross that a phantom knight on horseback is said to appear, only to gallop off towards the stream and vanish into thin air. The sightings seem to vary in detail, from merely a shadowy figure on horseback to a knight in shining armour complete with a lance and streaming pennant, but—shining armour or no—there seem to have been multiple sightings of the ghostly rider, including several in the 1900’s by soldiers stationed nearby.

I dug into this a little bit and discovered that Ampthill Great Park was, indeed, used as training ground for soldiers in WWI by the Bedfordshire Training Depot, including trenches dug to replicate life on the front. That first memorial cross was actually erected on the site of the Training Depot, so anyone stationed there would have been in close proximity to the haunt of the park’s resident ghost! I also discovered that you can still see evidence today of the WWII prisoner of war camp that once stood in the park, whilst Park house was occupied by the army. Ampthill was turning out to be one of those places that look innocently pretty on the surface, but throw layer after layer of history at you at every turn. I do love those sorts of places!

 

A couple of miles from the park are the crumbling ruins of a once grand 17th-century mansion that was reputedly the inspiration for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It has a rather curious history, in that the ruins of the house were deliberately kept to serve purely as a garden feature for the ground of Ampthill Park! It also has its fair share of ghosts, so of course we had to check it out.

We hopped back in the car and doubled back on ourselves a little way until we reached a rather sudden exit onto a dirt track which ran a few hundred metres before stopping at a small car park. Our destination was Houghton House, and the rest of the way was strictly on foot.

It was an easy walk however, and a very lovely one with the derelict grandeur of Houghton house glimpsed in the distance and the landscape of rolling fields and parkland unfurling below as we ascended the hill. The approach to the house itself dips again down a tree-lined avenue and, emerging once more into the glorious sunshine, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the well-maintained grounds and the decaying ruin of the house. English Heritage are doing a fine job of preserving the site and building, despite its dereliction. My first impression was that of a lawn well-kept, weeds at bay and the avenue approach manicured, which made the grandeur of the derelict Jacobean mansion more haunting somehow. The site was clean and litter free and the only graffiti was that of the historical variety – carved into the stone pillars and dating from the 1800’s which was fascinating in itself.

 

It was originally built as hunting lodge in the early 17th century before being re-purposed as a grand country home for the Bruce family, who were granted the estate by James I. Subsequently bought by the 4th Duke of Bedford who died in a hunting accident in 1767 and then rented, the ill-fated house seems to have been unceremoniously passed from one owner to the next until finally it was deliberately dismantled in the late 18th century. The insides were gutted and the grand staircase torn out and re-installed in the Swan hotel in Bedford, where it remains to this day.

Perhaps the unsettled history of the building has contributed in some part to the hauntings that occur there. There are tales of a phantom coach and horses, with witnesses reporting the thunderous sound of horse’s hooves and a jangling of harnesses as the ghostly vehicle races towards Houghton House. One unfortunate woman was so convinced that she was about to be trampled that she threw herself into a nearby ditch to escape the oncoming carriage. She heard the carriage pass by her but looked up to discover that there was no sign of the deadly vehicle.

The apparition of a child waving from a doorway has also been seen, but more recent reports have thrown up several accounts of darting shadow figures – something that we were about to experience for ourselves.

As fascinating as our trip had been so far, nothing had yet set our spidey-senses tingling. That is until we walked into the ruins of Houghton House. Immediately upon entering the main part of the building the atmosphere changed. It was thick and charged, I could feel that slight electricity in the air that I often describe as cold, wet static – for want of a better description. We both experienced it slightly differently; Fitz with a high-pitched ringing in his ears and the feeling of an electrically charged atmosphere, myself with a feeling of immense pressure around my head, thick, woolly ears and a slight feeling of nausea. Despite the differing physical effects, on comparing notes we discovered we were being affected in the same areas of the house. The central parts were the worst, and in the north and west faces of the house the feeling lifted entirely. We looked around for overhead cables, electrics or anything of that nature but couldn’t find anything obvious.

I headed down some steps to the lower level and to my right was what I think would have once been a service staircase. Walking towards it I felt an inexplicable sense of dread, as though I was expecting to encounter something upon peering around the open doorway. This was sudden, unexpected and I felt pretty silly getting all jumpy in the broad daylight of a beautiful spring day. So standing in the doorway I took a moment to pull myself together and try to figure out if anything in the environment would be making me feel this way. Cast upon the brickwork in front of me was a square of sunlight being projected through an empty gap in a window-frame. It suddenly went dark, as though something had moved behind me to block the window and thus the light. I froze while my brain processed this information, listening for Fitz or any other visitors I had missed arriving – and the shadow disappeared. I went off to scout around for the cause but the place was just as deserted as before, with Fitz in a far corner of the field on the other side of the building, and having been there the whole time. When I explained to him what I had seen, he told me he had been experiencing a similar thing, and had seen a shadow peeking in and out of a doorway he had been watching, in a room that I had been nowhere near and in fact, hadn’t even realised was there. During all of this, we were the only people on site.

Resident spirits aside, Houghton House is a beautiful place to visit, and one I would highly recommend, although if you do decide to visit, please do so with respect ,and support the great work English Heritage are doing to preserve this wonderful piece of history. It seems the shadow figures are perfectly happy to put in daytime appearances anyway!

 

 

Links, citations and further reading:

Bedfordshire Ghosts  Bedfordshire Libraries Researched by Daniel Stannard, 2006

http://ghosthunteratlarge.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/the-ghost-of-ampthill-castle.html?m=1

http://www.ampthilltowncouncil.org.uk/

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/houghton-house/

http://www.hauntedrooms.co.uk/product/houghton-house-ampthill-park

http://www.greensandtrust.org/pdfs/AmpthillGP.pdf

http://www.woburnabbey.co.uk/abbey/abbey-today/blog/the-ampthill-memorial/

https://tommysfootprints.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/wwi-the-bedfordshire-training-depot-in-ampthill-park-the-trenching-ground/

Do you believe in ghosts?

Umm, maybe.

Possibly not the answer you would expect someone hosting a paranormal podcast to have, but hopefully with some explanation one you might find yourself agreeing with. Perhaps the easiest way to explain my position is to jump paranormal topics for a second to the world of UFO’s. If asked ‘do you believe in UFO’s?’ I can safely say yes. This is not because I believe that aliens are abducting people from remote locations and taking them on a spaceship to stick things up their bottoms. It is because the term itself ‘UFO’ does not make a claim about what it is that was seen. Unidentified Flying Object. It may have been a plane or a balloon or a bird or maybe, just maybe an alien spaceship. But if I claim to have seen a UFO, and I have, all I am really saying is that I have seen something that was flying and that I do not know what it was. Continue reading