This year I’ve had some nice conjunctivitis; that’s put me behind a bit, what with flinching away from the brightness of the pc screen as from an instrument of torture, but I’ll do a quick one now, as it has occurred to me; I can recount an entirely appropriate story just by drawing on my family of origin’s experiences in one of the isolated great old houses my parents used to renovate, back in the days before it became fashionable.
The most Gothic of the lot had to be the now demolished Plas Isaf near Llangynhafal in the Clwyd Valley, North Wales (demolished not because of the ghosts, but because a philistine builder wished to put some new build homes on the site; these have yet to be built, as he ran into difficulties with planning permission). All that remains is a empty site with an oddly cold draught coming out of it, even in the heat of a summer’s day.
The pretentious part of the house was not that old; the grand part was Victorian Gothic. This had been added to the remains of an eighteenth century foursquare type of structure. I personally found the grandiose aspirations of the architecture of the one clashed with the solid functional appearance of the other. However, I can only suppose the original architects thought otherwise.
This house was nothing like as isolated as the previous one we had lived at, seven miles from Barnstaple in the then entirely cut off North Devon. But that was a beautiful Regency Rectory complete with long windows that would have baffled any ghost.
Plas Isaf, my comparison, was gloomy inside despite the size of the windows. The most piled up fires blazing in the fireplaces never seemed to make any impression on the chill of the rooms. As twilight fell, and the song of the birds silenced, and the owls began to cry and the tickings and stirrings and the sounds of the night took over, it always began to seem most isolated indeed.
It had a suitably melodramatic history, certainly. An older ‘substantial’ house had been built on the site, and subsequently largely burnt down, with only a part of it used in the creation of the modern building. The family of Leicester, who commissioned the building, had subsequently gone bankrupt, and the property had been betted away, reputedly at a railway station.
A son of the family had died of ‘consumption’ in a sort of Victorian one storey villa with a steep red tiled roof next door. It was connected to the main house by an ornamental conservatory (one of the finest features of the house). My parents let that out as one of the holiday cottages.
For some reason, the people who came to stay in that particular one, at first full of enthusiasm for its striking architecture, generally had to cut their holiday short, with tales of births and sickly grandmothers.
I can’t say I liked the atmosphere of that place myself. There were a lot of carved woodwork screens, and I always had the impression that someone was observing me from behind them…
When we first moved there, often, when my father and sister were out of the house, I would leave my mother in the kitchens and run down to the other end of the house to get something. As I stopped to collect whatever it was, I was puzzled to hear the sound of the footsteps of a woman in heels walking briskly upstairs. For a long time, I was foolishly puzzled as to how my mother, who struck me as slow moving in the manner of all adults, had reached that part of the house only a few moments after me.
It took me some time to work out that those footsteps were, quite simply, not my mother…
My parents were committed atheists; they were quite religious about not attending church. They didn’t believe in ghosts as a matter of principle, but my mother was forced to admit that some strange things happened. For instance, there was the tendency of the upstairs front bedroom to light up in the middle of the night.
She ascribed the cries of ‘fire!’ she occasionally heard to jackdaws, and the semi transparent form of woman she saw near the old kitchen quarters as a trick of the light. She said that the disembodied footsteps we all regularly heard were echoes caused by something or other (I forget what).
The same with the disembodied voices.
My father laughed aloud at the horror that my sister and I had over strange, dragging, whirring noises that regularly sounded in the middle of the night along the main corridor in the older part of the house.
At first, I put it down to my clock. Then I realised that it was coming from outside the room. Not only that, but it seemed to have come to a stop outside my door. It took some time for me to work up the courage to look out; however, being more scared of being a coward than of ghosts (which I was sternly told did not exist), I finally forced myself to get up, switch on the light and go to open the door.
Of course, there was nothing to be seen; the noises stopped as by magic. All was still. I went back to bed, and the noises began again at once, seemingly moving to pause by the door of my sister’s bedroom, and move on again.
If possible, we liked to avoid having a bath in the bathroom under the tower. There, you would be lying still, and the water would start, unaccountably, to move, to slosh up and down with increasing violence, until you were sitting in a bath with the effects of a wave machine.
‘Vibrations,’ said my parents….
The haunted lavatory next door to that bathroom really was taking it too far. You always felt eyes on you in there, which seemed to indicate a sordid type of spectre.
Those were a few of my impressions of the ghost life at Plas Isaf
I have to say that the combination of reading ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Gaskell while sitting up late by the dying fire in the old library so unnerved me that I ran through the house at top speed to bed.
So, this Halloween, I am quite grateful to be living in a prosaic house.