Fri, 30 Oct 2020
Are ghosts really all around us, as some would attest, writes Caroline Franklin?
Does 16th-century baby murderer ‘Wild’ Will Darrell still haunt the eponymous stile near Great Shefford, where he was thrown from his horse and broke his neck? Is the Grey Lady still lurking in Shaw House in Newbury?
With Hallowe’en fast approaching, Caroline Franklin goes ghost-hunting and finds that this area has more than its fair share of strange and spine-tingling goings-on
Have you ever seen one? Quite possibly, though you may not have realised what you were seeing at the time.
For ghosts, according to those who believe in them, are all around us, taking an interest in our everyday world.
Nor is there any reason to think that the only folk who have chosen to come back and have a look at how things are going are those from long ago. It was pointed out to me that a ghost could be the girl in the short skirt standing on the corner, or the man running past you in trainers.
Or they may not exist at all.
But if they do... then Newbury and the surrounding area has more than its fair share of alleged sightings, some of them not perhaps what you would expect.
A phantom pig was believed to haunt Hoe Benham in the 19th century, while on the A4, west of Hungerford, a phantom car is said to cross the road and vanish.
Happily, whenever I have gone that way the car has stayed in its ghostly garage.
There are also legends of riches waiting to be found – a golden coffin, golden calf, even a whole golden carriage, finding any of which would make for a very happy metal detectorist.
The phantoms of Littlecote House hotel, near Chilton Foliat, are well-known – the mansion, whose origins reach back to the 13th century is thought to be one of the most haunted houses in the country, although I was told that when Warner Holidays took over the hotel, the ghosts packed up and left, which conjures up a wonderful picture of them standing in a wispy line waiting for the next Hungerford bus.
‘Wild’ Will Darrell, the evil one-time occupant who, so the story goes, threw a baby on to the fire, is said to be seen wandering at Darrell’s stile near Great Shefford, where a vision of the baby in flames appeared and caused him to fall from his horse while out hunting and break his neck.
Another reputedly haunted house is Newbury’s historic and delightful Shaw House.
When I visited there, a member of staff was adamant that neither she nor her colleagues had seen hide nor hair of a spectre, yet the house has recently had to cut down the number of paranormal investigations to four a year, such is the demand for places, and there have been reports of mysterious lights in the upper rooms, sounds of battle and a ‘Grey Lady’.
Nearby Donnington Castle has had several sightings, including a soldier who guards the gatehouse but then vanishes, a ‘Green Lady’ who asks visitors why the gates are closed, and a white dog that disappears before reaching the tree line and was seen as recently as 1990.
Newbury itself is full of ghostly stories.
The Market Place, where Thomas Barrie had his ears chopped off in 1538 at the pillory is now the place where he wanders moaning – and really who can blame him?
The unfortunate Barrie had been an almoner who was found guilty of spreading rumours about the death of Henry VIII, which was considered treasonable, and he was pilloried in the market place before his ears were chopped off.
It was reported that he died from shock as a result of his punishment.
In nearby Cheap Street, the shade of a Quaker lady is said to appear, perhaps connected with the Quaker burial ground that was on the former site of the bus station.
Not far away and in this century, a mischievous poltergeist seems to have been at work in a Grade II-listed building and former coaching inn, the Jack O’Newbury public house (now known as The Catherine Wheel).
This ghostly rascal has been known to pull people’s hair and enjoy hurling glasses.
A film taken by CCTV camera at the time seemed to prove some form of spectral activity was abroad, with staff insisting that the building was haunted.
Certainly some buildings have an eerie, chilly feel, which has nothing to do with the temperature.
I know of a pretty chocolate box cottage in which workmen were terrified to work, although nothing was ever seen.
Nearby was the home of an old woman who told me that, although she had never seen ghosts in her house, she often heard the sounds of heavy chains being dragged along the road outside in the middle of the night. When she looked, there was nothing there, although the sound persisted.
Other phantoms said to choose Newbury for a visit include the neat figure of one Dr Watson who is occasionally seen carrying his black bag near the Oxfam shop in Northbrook Street, where he lived at No 73. A non-existent piano is also sometimes heard from an upstairs room in the building.
Then there’s the shivers-down-the-spine tale of the actor who stabbed his leading lady to death in the old theatre in Pelican Lane.
When the theatre was turned into a private house, it still retained memories of the tragedy, with candles suddenly being extinguished on the stairs and a blood stain appearing and disappearing in the room below where the actress was murdered.
Thankfully, the house is no more.
Contractors working on the Newbury by-pass might not be thought of as likely lads to see ghosts yet, as the work progressed, they claim to have seen phantoms of Roundhead and Cavalier troops who disappeared when shouted at.
Indeed, the reports were taken so seriously that a chaplain spoke of exorcism being necessary, so scared were the men who had seen the ghosts.
Were the shades disturbed because the by-pass was being built over the mass grave of those who died in the 1644 Battle of Newbury?
Then there is the sound of singing from nuns who long ago lived at Combe Manor and the little girl said to haunt Bagnor’s Watermill theatre.
Appearing in one of the upstairs rooms from time to time, it is thought that she may have been employed at the old fulling mill and have been killed when she got caught in the machinery.
More recent ghosts are said to be those of the the crew of a Lancaster bomber, killed when they crashed after take-off, who have been seen crossing an old runway at RAF Welford, while the Glenn Miller hanger there is one of the last places the big band member played before being killed; one account says the place is eerily quiet, with local wildlife shunning the area, while another says band music has been heard coming from the hanger.
There are many more. It seems that Newbury and the surrounding area is packed with phantoms, shades and poltergeists of all types and across many eras.
So, do I believe in ghosts?
One day I was in my sitting room in Hungerford when a woman passed by the windows, a hand’s-breadth away.
Annoyed, for I was busy, it took just a second for me to reach the door and open it. There was no one there – and absolutely nowhere she could have gone.
And yes, she was dressed in a poke bonnet and old-fashioned cape. Was she old Mrs Smith who was said to catch sparrows and used to live in that cottage where I lived at the time?
I believe she was.