ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 33, April 1998


And spirits remain in ancient places

John Charlton recounts three uncanny experiences from a lifetime spent among ancient monuments

People sometimes ask me whether during a lifetime spent among ancient monuments and historic buildings I have ever had any uncanny experiences. My answer is that they were very few and never when you'd expect them. Here, however, are three - two in Westmorland in 1935 when I was on the staff of the English Commission and the third in the Welsh Marches with the Ministry of Works.

The first was one afternoon when I was helping the Commission's surveyor to measure up the remains of three hut villages near Crosby Ravensworth and we were trying to finish the last one, Cow Green, before the light faded. It was on open moorland, empty apart from a scattering of stunted trees, the home of red squirrels. Suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling that I was being watched - and by hostile eyes. I looked hastily round but could see no-one.

I didn't like to say anything to my colleague, a particularly matter-of-fact man with an MC from the Great War. Then a moment later he exclaimed: `I can't stand this place. There seem to be crowds of people about but I can't see anyone.' I told him how I felt and we decamped, finishing our survey the following morning.

The next was when I went alone to Lowther parish church to check the funeral monuments. The building is basically medieval, but late in the 17th century the outer walls were rebuilt with large windows filled with clear glass, making it the best-lit church in the county. It was a bright and sunny day. I went in by the chancel doorway, to which I had the key, and not having seen the church before had a good look round before starting on the first monument. As I went on to the next I heard distinct footsteps following me - not, I assure you, an echo of my own - and turned sharply round. But there was no-one there. The bright sun streamed through the windows and all was still. When I went on, the footsteps started again and with them a sense of menace I cannot describe. I checked the other monuments with the same ghostly follower and returned to the chancel where to my relief they stopped.

Though alarmed, I was also indignant at this apparent attempt to drive me out of the church, and I stood for a good minute under the chancel arch glaring defiantly round the nave before marching out and slamming the door behind me. I then remembered with dismay that I had left my camera in a pew at the west end of the nave. With great reluctance I went back into the church and as I trod steadily down the nave, I muttered the traditional incantation against evil spirits: omnis spiritus laudet Dominum (`let every spirit praise the Lord'), the last words of the Psalms in the Vulgate. This time mine were the only footsteps. As I stood by the chancel doorway about to leave, I took one last look at the silent sunlit church. This time I didn't slam the door.

Shortly after the War, having just inspected a couple of prehistoric hillforts on the Welsh border, I had a different encounter on my way back to the hotel at Knighton where I was staying. I had gone out by a delightful single-line railway which in those days wandered through the Welsh hills, but missed the train back. Still, I had only five miles to walk in a pleasant early evening.

Then I ran into trouble. What I took to be the Knighton road suddenly forked and the signpost, removed during the War, had not been replaced. Both roads looked of equal importance and the only map I had was just of the hillforts. However, it was no good hanging about - there were no houses to be seen and it was getting dark - so I took what I hoped was the right road and tramped on in the gloom.

Suddenly the road dipped as if to a stream and on the opposite slope I saw a man rushing down it as if his life depended on it. I called to him: `Is this the road to Knighton? ' He made no answer but plunged through the hedge at the foot of the slope. A poacher, I thought, and he thinks I'm a gamekeeper. When I passed the gap in the hedge through which he had plunged I was surprised to see a large pond, its calm surface reflecting the rising moon. Then I went up the slope to be greeted by the lights of Knighton.

Later, in the hotel bar, I complained of the lack of signposts to a sympathetic audience. But when I spoke of the man I had taken for a poacher there was a deathlike silence. After what seemed a long minute it was broken by what I took to be the Oldest Inhabitant. He told me that before the War there had lived in a cottage near the top of the slope a man who one night murdered his wife and children and then drowned himself in the pond. He added that I was not the first to see his phantom rushing headlong to his death.

John Charlton is a former Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings with the forerunners of English Heritage

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