Between the ages of eight and twelve I had the misfortune to be a pupil at a school called Caldicott in Burnham Beeches. If you google it you’ll find that it was the setting for some nasty goings on of a very different kind from those I’m about to share with you. I even wrote and recorded a song on the subject which you can, should you wish, listen to here. But hey, let’s lighten the mood and talk instead about something less serious, such as ghosts.
My attention was caught today by a story on the BBC website about Birkwood Castle in South Lanarkshire, described as ‘one of the most haunted places in the UK,’ which has been put up for sale after the company which was seeking to redevelop it went into administration.
My first thought was that I didn’t think that the BBC had an estate-agency arm, nor that it accepted advertising. I’m sure no money changed hands in this case but the brief article contained all the basic details a prospective buyer should need including the name of the administrators. I think they’ve had enough publicity so I’m not going to give you the link.
This was almost immediately followed by my second thought, which was by what method are such haunting indexes compiled? A quick search on the web produced about 20 such lists, most with the properties given a number which presumably indicated the level of occult activity. There was virtually no overlap between the properties featured. Of course there wasn’t: I don’t know why it surprised me. Some journalist or intern had been asked to add something to the ‘top 10’ section of the company’s website: they had done a few online searches, copied and pasted a bit of text (being sure to include the hotel owned by the MD’s brother, which was the the main object of the exercise) and had the whole thing done by lunchtime. None the less, the sheer number of the lists suggests that our fascination with manifestations from beyond the grave is little less powerful now than it was five hundred years ago. Like with UFOs, there are great odds to be had – only one of all the millions reported has to be right in order to validate the whole premise. In the case of ghosts, this would amount to an empirical proof of the afterlife and so of religion, surely the holy grail of theologians since the year dot. You want another song? OK, I’ve written one about that as well.
What, I can hear you asking, has all this got to do with Caldicott? Throw another log on the fire, turn down the lights, leave only a couple of guttering candles to shed their pale glow around the room and I’ll tell you.
When I was about eleven, I and a couple of friends discovered that once in the attics we could, via a small skylight, get out onto the roof. The building was not as vast as the skyline of Ghormenghast that Steerpike explored but seemed so to us (the comparison didn’t occur to me as I hadn’t then read Titus Groan). The overwhelming sensation, which I can recall to this day, was one of exhilarating freedom and release, the feeling mountaineers or ocean-going yacht skippers doubtless experience when surrounded by nothing more than the bright horizon. Many others had doubtless done this rooftop expedition before and many would doubtless do afterwards but to us this was a virgin landscape. Stout Cortez, eagle-eyed upon a peak in Darien, could not have been more entranced.
There were parapets and balustrades; there were ivy-clad walls and bolted doors; there were half-staircases running pointlessly up to tiny platforms; there were narrow lead-covered paths threading between sharply rising slate roofs. All unexpectedly led to other strange delights such as balconies or gaps in the masonry through which one could see breathtaking and unfamiliar views of Burnham Beeches, the sports fields or, in the shimmering distance, the more imposing crenelations of Windsor Castle. At one point we turned a corner and were confronted by what seemed to be a small field of flagstones. Gingerly we crossed it, aware of a strange light permeating from beneath our feet and of a slightly hollow ring to our steps. It was only later we realised we’d been walking on the the skylight panels over the main hall fifty feet below, the slender panes of glass tarnished, but fortunately also strengthened, by years of moss, sunlight and fallen leaves.
At the centre of this roofscape was a tower, a storey or so taller than the disorder of bricks and tiles that surrounded it. It was towards this that our steps were inevitably drawn. At the foot was a door which we expected to be locked. It wasn’t. It opened easily to reveal a narrow spiral staircase which, after a slightly uneasy discussion, we climbed. At the top was another door, also unlocked. We pushed it open.
I want to say two things at this stage. First, I must apologise for the slightly purpley prose in the recent paragraphs. As with all such stories, they tend to access the most emotional parts of our memories which in turn unleashes adjectives and phrases not normally used. The second is, don’t expect a pay-off. There’s no certainty here, no clear denouement, no private but certain proof of the existence of god.
We were expecting a dark, musty and cobweb-draped attic chamber. Instead we stepped into a clean and surprisingly large octagonal room that was bathed in lambent sunlight.
There were windows on several sides but I only noticed one, which was open. By the window was a table. On the table was a plate and, on the plate, was half an apple, cut neatly with a knife. I knew that apples started to brown within minutes when cut and it was impossible that anyone had left this room less than fifteen minutes before. The apple’s flesh was fresh and lemon yellow, as if I had that moment sliced it myself. Even more surprisingly, next to the window was a longbow and three arrows. All the ingredients of a great still-life painting were in place: we awaited only the arrival of Vermeer or Franz Hals with brushes and a freshly stretched canvas.
The mood had to break. Without in any way stopping to think what I was doing I picked up an arrow, fitted it to the bow, drew back my arm and fired it as far as I could out of the window and into the dazzling blue sky of that typically perfect childhood afternoon, to fall I knew not and know not where.
I remember nothing at all about what happened afterwards and none of us ever spoke of it again. For all I knew, the other two could have had similar but different experiences in their own corners of this strange and highly-charged turret.
Looking back on the incident and telling the story, as I have several times (all four of my sons have at one time or another been fascinated by it and would beg for it to be re-told) I wonder now how much has been added by my own desire to improve any tale. None the less, I sometimes feel that, for those few moments, I was in the grip of something that, if not other-worldly or supernatural, was at least slightly outside the normal order of things. Maybe I imagined it all. Perhaps, as in most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about my own experience of ghosts, if indeed a ghost was involved at all. It could have been the Latin master, pursuing god-knows-what dark pleasures in that strange tower before being startled by our arrival and suspending himself from the window ledge by his fingers until we’d gone. At Caldicott, anything was possible.
We have a reputedly very haunted house in our neck of the woods, Littlecote. This is now a hotel and visitors seem to come and go without any widely-reported confirmations of the several ghosts that are reputed to inhabit it. To read more about the tales, click here. To their great credit, the management does not rely on such stories to attract either customers or staff so I’m mentioning all this in a purely unofficial capacity. It is a stunningly beautiful building, with a Roman mosaic in the grounds, and can be visited by non-residents. The vision of the house as I turned the last corner of the drive on a dank autumnal evening a few months ago, the mist from the river rising up to the first-floor windows, made me catch my breath and reflect that in such a setting any spooky tale could find a home.
There was no octagonal tower I could see at Littlecote, however, and so no bow and arrow or half-eaten apple waiting for the uninvited guest at the top of a mysterious winding staircase. I’ve just looked at pictures of Caldicott online and must admit that the building is far smaller than I recall (aren’t schools always?). Nor can I can see any tower rising above the grey slate roofs. This perhaps makes the story I’ve just told totally unbelievable – or does it?