Castle ghosts; Country house ghosts; townhouse ghosts at Grandma’s and at my parents’

The wind’s howling. It’s hammering with rain. Late morning but it’s like twilight in the street, I ask Zak to repeat something he just whispered, and he says he hasn’t spoken. Halloween is a time for ghosts.

Adam Busiakiewicz has just discovered an account of a seance conducted by Anne Greville Countess of Warwick at Warwick Castle in the late Nineteenth Century. It’s fascinating reading. The Castle was being troubled by ghosts. Lady Warwick conducted a seance and in a trance wrote down the ghost’s words, a process known as ‘automatic writing.’ As a researcher Adam felt as though this passage was directed at him.

Leave all to the future research. The Power at work is not that of the mortals in the Castle of here. The Spirit of me called Edward Jameson is one of these who now haunt the place…

In a later seance, Edward Jameson makes an exciting confession, worthy as Adam says of MR James:

He stole their goods & wishes to show where its hidden … not plate or money or deeds. .

The rest of the seance is a question and answer, where the Lady Warwick, her son Lord Brooke and her friend Lady Ashburton try to get the answer to where it’s hidden through yes and no. But Jameson postpones his secret til the next seance, stipulating venue, and attendees. He isn’t keen on Colonel Drayton. I like would they be quiet now…? the purpose of the whole exercise.

Must it be at Warwick Castle – Yes

Could Col [Colonel Drayton] help – No.

Is Lady Ashburton c… ? yes-

Wld they be quiet now after if E.J had told his secret. S.. they to sit together just as we are doing, in her room? Not where she is now? In the little sitting room now used by her? No.

On s[ame] floor in which Ly [Lady’s] room is.
Is it in the little room in which she is now ? no
In large room where the black & ivory bed is – at end of passage – yes…

No further seance is recorded, but the family searched the Castle on the ghost’s instructions, and the documents include a sketch map showing the rooms he indicated. Whether they found anything is a mystery. The transcripts had been bundled up and put away with some old receipts. Perhaps the ghosts quietened down.

The Brown Lady at Raynham Hall in Norfolk is one of the most famous in England. She’s had her picture in Country Life. published a photo of her in 1936.

(c) Country Life

The photo is a legend in ghost photography. Captain Hubert Provand and his assistant Indre Shira were at Raynham to take architectural photos of the house for a Country Life article in 1936. Provand was under the cloth setting up a photo of the staircase when Shira saw the ghost materialising. He yelled for Provand to take the cap off the lens and the result is this picture. Sceptics note a possible double exposure, and the fact that the figure looks a lot like a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The Brown Lady has quite a backstory. Dorothy Walpole Viscountess Townshend, so the story goes, had an affair with the immoral, irresistible (and forty years older than her) Thomas Lord Wharton. When her husband found out, he had her imprisoned in the house, told everyone she had died of smallpox, and buried a coffin full of earth at her funeral. Dorothy lived on in secret misery for years, so her ghost revenges itself by haunting her descendants.

The Complete Peerage says she died of smallpox in 1726. Her husband Charles Townshend was ‘Turnip Townshend’ who revolutionised farming. I don’t think he was a monster. Dorothy was the sister of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Her husband had been Walpole’s right-hand man. Dorothy’s death coincides with Walpole eclipsing Townshend. And from a practical point of view, the interior of Raynham was being remodelled this whole time. The house would’ve been a building site and full of people. A strange story though for the family to believe only a century later. Somebody must have seen something at Raynham, I have no doubt. Lady Townshend and her son saw something in the 1920s. . I’ve only been to Raynham once. It was winter. The house was empty and blank-eyed with all the shutters closed. I could imagine the dark inside belonged to the Brown Lady.

Famously the Brown Lady was seen in 1836 by Captain Frederick Marryat when he was staying there. Marryat the naval hero, inventor, Fellow of the Royal Society and writer. He wrote the Children of the New Forest. A truthful witness then, but I wonder if he was pranked. Marryat was given the haunted bedroom and sat up for the ghost with a loaded gun. He repeated this for three nights. Late on the last night, two of the Bright Young People in the houseparty knocked on his door and invited him to their room for a quick drink. On the way in the corridor they met the Brown Lady carrying a lamp. She had a glowing face, eyeless sockets and an awful grin. This sounds a bit stagey, note the lamp for dramatic lighting, a very Gothick idea of a ghost. So far so harmless. But Marryat fired his pistol at her from point blank range. The bullet passed straight through the ghost and hit the bedroom door behind. The ghost terrified people back then. Today it’s the idea of pranking a man with a loaded gun.

Charles Jervas, Portrait of Dorothy Walpole Viscountess Townshend c.1717, (c) National Portrait Gallery

I doubt ghosts can be photographed, but I do believe in them. My mother and I saw one together, in the mid-80s at Charlecote Park. We were going into the laundry from the courtyard, right behind a woman in a white dress. When we went through the door she wasn’t there. Mum said, ‘Where is she?’ I hadn’t spoken. We both saw or felt the same thing. That a woman in a white dress was walking right in front of us. Dad was with us too but he saw no one. If you’re meeting ghosts it’s best to have company. Zak and I were stoking the fire in the hall of an old Cumbrian house, all alone, when we heard hard footsteps walk the floorboards above. We were very brave.

There was a ghost at Dad’s parents’ house in Stratford. I’d misremembered the story – I pictured the ghost walking through the walls and down the stairs at Christmas like an old Victorian print – so I asked Dad about it last night. His parents’ house used to belong to to his grandmother, Grandma’s mother. It was an 1820s townhouse divided in two, numbers 5 and 6. Grandma lived at number 6 and her mother lived at number 5. Back then they were joined by a doorway on the landing, bricked up in my time, so ideal for a ghost to walk through had it wanted to.

Grandma’s sister ran a hotel, and when it was full guests would stay at number 5. One morning a man who’d stayed the night before asked if the house was anything to do with the Catholic Church.

Yes, said my great-grandmother, it used to be a religious house called Soli. Why?

The man said he’d woken up in the night and seen a nun standing by his bed.

It was always a very happy house, said Dad. It was never frightening. It had a lovely atmosphere. Absolutely, I agreed. It always did. Except for the top floor. A strange space which seemed to hold its breath, eerily cut off from the outside world, as if the glass in the windows was that much thicker.

Yes, he said. When I was a boy I had a dream I was standing in the garden at night looking up at the top floor and being drawn towards it.

I remembered the story of something turning the bedroom doorknob when Dad was a boy. He said he had only seen something once, though, when he was running up the stairs of his grandmother’s house and in a flash he made way for a woman in a wide skirt coming down towards him, only to realise there was no one there. I know this feeling. I was hurrying down the stairs in the old flat on my way to work, early morning dim light, and as I went down to the landing there was a man coming up the next flight towards me. We would meet on the landing, so I headed to the outside to make way for him but there was no one there.

Mum hadn’t seen the ghost at Grandma’s. But she reminded me what strange things used to happen at home at home. I remember her talking about how the Christmas cards hanging on streamers down the wall suddenly floated up horizontal to it. And I saw it once with her. We were watching telly when the cards floated up to the horizontal and then back down again. From the living room you would sometimes see a swirl like the skirt of someone turning the corner of the hall and going up the stairs. Mum said she and Dad had an impression of a figure crossing the living room to the hall, and the cat used to watch something. We tried photographing where she looked but nothing came out.

It was never frightening except once on New Year’s Eve after midnight. I was reading on my bed when I heard a slow shuffling on the landing outside my open doorway. I screamed. Mum just shouted upstairs, ‘Where was it?’

My brother and I used to hear something we called ‘the golf ball.’ Late at night exactly the sound of a golf ball being dropped from about a foot onto the wooden stairledge on the landing. Exactly that sound. And when Dally, Mum’s mother, used to babysit us she’d sometimes hear the sound of someone coming down the stairs. She’d whip into the hall expecting to catch me out of bed and there’d be no one there. Everything quietened down when Mum and Dad had building done this last ten years. Strange to have a ghost at all, because the house was built in the ’60s and we were the first to live there. A mild and well-mannered poltergeist.

Only once did it really kick off and then we never heard it. One morning my parents got a letter from the next door neighbours. It was typed. This is so long ago that it feels like the first time I’d seen a typed letter. The letter was a furious complaint about noise through our wall. The last straw was being kept woken in the small hours that morning by the French windows repeatedly opening and slamming and the sound of people – in their words – playing rugby in the living room. We slept through it all. They were a strange couple. Obviously the ghost didn’t like them.

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