You might expect Shaftesbury, one of England’s oldest and most historic towns, to be overrun with ghosts – or at least stories about apparitions. But as Keri Jones discovered, very little regular paranormal activity has been reported. It’s just the occasional phantom sighting.ThisIsAlfred toured some of our town’s haunting hotspots.
I stood at top of the Gold Hill waiting for the ghost to appear. It was 8pm on a crisp October evening. The skies were pitch black, but it wasn’t dark. Far from it. The brilliant white light that shines down the cobbles and illuminates the high retaining wall meant that the conditions didn’t seem right for an apparition to make an appearance. It just wasn’t eerie enough.
A number of books suggest Edward the Martyr haunts this hill, although I have been unable to find anyone who has witnessed the 10th century royal roaming the cobbles. If you believe in ghosts, the backstory makes sense. The young king was murdered at Corfe Castle and so his body will have been transported up Gold Hill for his Abbey burial in 980.
Ray Simpson, a historian who volunteers at the Gold Hill Museum, prefers to deal with hard facts. He’s not convinced about hauntings and he says that he has never experienced odd activity while working in the museum’s library. Ray does recall comments made by a museum visitor though.
Mrs Cicela lived in the building when it was The Sun and Moon lodgings, between 1910 and 1935. She said that she once saw the image of a girl’s hands appear on a board in what is now the museum’s Byzant Room. She remembered that the door at the top of the cottage’s stairs was always locked. Children could hear monks singing and chains rattling from behind it, she said.
Ray also uncovered an article from London’s Morning Post. On 30th December 1826, the newspaper reported that a Shaftesbury sack carrier had rented a property in Bell Street. On the first night in his new home, his family awoke to ‘an unaccountable noise’ and were ‘most terribly alarmed by an apparition of an old woman who paced the room and occasionally took snuff’. The paper speculated that the ghost was voicing its disapproval that the accommodation, once reserved for church maintenance workers, was now being commercially rented. A spectre with a social conscience!
Most of Shaftesbury’s ghost stories centre on The Grosvenor Arms, considered to be the fifth most haunted hotel in the UK. A recent ThisIsAlfred podcast featured manager Kirsty Schmidt explaining how she had witnessed a cellar wall stone move.
Kirsty’s colleague, Charlotte Moody, has experienced a great deal more. Charlotte first worked at The Grosvenor 24 years ago. We headed to an upstairs guestroom that was once her staff accommodation. Recently, Charlotte and her colleague were making up this room when there was a knock at the door. They answered. There was nobody outside. The corridor was empty. We headed to the room and Charlotte knocked first, an act of politeness in case any living guests were inside. There was no one booked in so we entered the room and Charlotte shared her first eerie encounter.
“My husband was standing by the door, over there. I was here,” Charlotte explained, indicating the distance of ten feet that would have been between the pair. “There was a chest of drawers where that table is now. Neither of us was moving. I had a trinket box at the back of the drawers and it suddenly flew onto the bed.”
Charlotte gesticulated a movement of around six feet. “He didn’t move. I didn’t move. I said to him ‘did you do that?’ As you do. I knew it was a ghost because I knew what was here. There are many things, many apparitions and lots of ghostly activity, particularly during the nights.”
But despite so many experiences, Charlotte continues to work at the Grosvenor. “It doesn’t bother me,” said Charlotte, adding that she doesn’t believe there’s anything that can harm her in the hotel. “Some staff have seen apparitions at the bar. I was working there a couple of months ago. I had my head down and saw this black mist coming out of the wall for three seconds and then it just evaporated.”
When Charlotte first worked at the Grosvenor it was a Trusthouse Forte property with 32 rooms. Now the hotel has 16 bedrooms and many of the rooms where activity had been reported are no longer offered as guest accommodation.
Some residents have said that a grey lady walks around the upper floors of the hotel. “I do know there is a lady that roams around the corridors here. There is a monk down in the cellar that you see through the corner of your eye. Then you turn the corner and there is nothing there,” said Charlotte.
I had heard tales about a monk previously and these stories are often linked with Shaftesbury’s subterranean tunnels. “They are catacombs. I could take you down there if you like,” Charlotte offered. “They are blocked off now but they used to run all under Shaftesbury.” Charlotte explained that some of the staff won’t go down into the cellar, ‘especially at night’.
I plucked up courage – it was dark outside – and took up Charlotte’s kind offer. We walked through the hotel’s lively, noisy kitchen and down the stone cellar steps where it was, unsurprisingly, quiet apart from bursts of noise from air con units and heating boilers. “These are basically the catacombs,” said Charlotte. There was a stark contrast between the plush public areas of the hotel upstairs and the ancient blocks of green sandstone that formed the cellar walls. It resembled the sides of a castle. “Or an Abbey?” suggested Charlotte.
As we continued walking further away from the stairs, the cellar ceiling height became restricted by overhead heating ducts and pipes. We had to duck down and continued around a bend in the underground corridors until we reached the end of the line. The passageway was blocked off with stone and brick. This job had clearly been undertaken many, many years ago.
I had expected the cellar to be cold. It wasn’t. The heating system made it incredibly warm. But I could understand why people don’t want to come down here at night. Although the cellar is incredibly well lit, you do feel cut off from the rest of the property above. “It’s fine now. But then you’ve got to come down and all of the staff have gone and it’s just you,” said Charlotte. I’m not sure I would have been so keen to visit alone and I was pleased to return to the bustle of the restaurant above.
I thanked Charlotte for her insight and walked along the High Street, alongside the Bell Street car park wall. A phantom said to resemble an undertaker has been reported at the top of Bleke Street, by the Kings Arms. Not tonight though.
I then crossed the road to another pub. The Ship Inn is an historic property and, as is often the case with old pubs, there are plenty of stories of hauntings. Landlady Bex Moody has learned a lot about the Ship Inn’s past. “A friend of mine traced the pub back to the16th century. It was a pub then, called the Black Dog.” Remember that name. “It was also called the Half Moon, then became a doctor’s surgery,” Bex continued.
The room in which we were sitting, the ‘snug’, used to be the operating theatre and some of Bex’s regulars know people who went under the knife where today we drink pints of Otter beer and eat bags of Monster Munch. “At one point there were 52 pubs in Shaftesbury,” said Bex. “Most of them were literally sitting rooms. People didn’t trust the water. Rather than drink it, they used to brew beer.”
So the Ship Inn used to be called the Black Dog – and strangely, Bex has experienced an animal apparition of just that type. For a split second, she confused this ghost with her own pet, Daisy, a black Labrador. “I literally bent down to say ‘hello’, thinking it was the pub dog. I went upstairs and our dog was fast asleep on the sofa. I said to my partner, ‘has Daisy been downstairs?’ Daisy had not moved. Bex couldn’t believe that she had seen a ghost dog, because it had appeared so real. “And then the dog just disappeared.”
Human forms appear in the pub, too. There’s an elderly woman that walks from the bar into the lounge area and then just disappears through the wall. Bex believes this apparition is from another era. “18thcentury I suppose. She has a cape on and looks like a little old lady.” Have you given her a name, I asked? “Just little old lady,” Bex laughed, before she added detail of additional ghosts.
“There’s a young girl who walks down through the bar area and disappears into the kitchen. You catch a glimpse of her, but not fully,” explained Bex. “You turn your head to have a look and then she is gone. At night you can be in here and it’s nice and warm and then all of a sudden the temperature will just drop for no reason. It brings out your goose pimples. It’s one of the things you either believe or don’t believe.”
Bex, who lives above the public bar area, says she has never been scared at The Ship Inn. “They don’t do you any harm, do they?” And for that reason Becks won’t allow paranormal investigators to set up inside her pub. “We have had the professional ghost hunters come around to ask if they can stay and do a ghost hunt. I have said no. At the moment the ghosts are friendly. If you start disturbing them we might end up with a poltergeist or something. I’ll wake up in the morning with my head spinning around or something like that! Leave them alone. They are quite happy,” she said.
I made a final ghost-hunting visit to Shaftesbury Abbey. Some people suggest that the Grosvenor Arms’ grey lady is a nun from the Abbey. Claire Ryley has volunteered at the Abbey for 12 years and she was apologetic at first, because she’d had no strange experiences to offer. “The main feeling here is of peace and calm so I’m delighted to say I haven’t had things jumping out in the middle of the night.” Claire said that none of her colleagues have reported anything out of the ordinary, either.
“There are a couple of stories about the Abbey, although we cannot substantiate them,” Claire offered, with a cautionary note. “First of all, there’s a story that the when the Abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII, a priest was told by the Abbess to go and hide the treasure. He went down one of those tunnels that we hear about so much, but about which we know so little. When he came back to say where the valuables had been hidden he had a heart attack and died. Where the Abbey treasure is has remained a mystery. We have no idea whether it is true or not but it is a good story. He could well be a ghost, although we have not seen any sightings of him. But this was a place for nuns and not for the monks,” said Claire, “So I would be more impressed if it had been a nun that had hidden the treasure rather than a monk.”
So what about the tale of a monk wandering around Park Walk? “The Abbey was owned by Wilson Claridge in the 1930s. He told a story of three respectable ladies seeing a monk walking along Park Walk. The monk suddenly disappeared. There were a couple of other sightings – one by a man returning late at night, so you wonder what influence he might have been under. Something persuaded him that he had seen this monk. Again, I’d prefer it to be a nun rather than a monk,” said Claire, adding, “Claridge liked to perpetuate this story to give some life to the Abbey.”
I had assumed that Claire would dismiss ghost stories as nonsense but she said that she would welcome spooky tales connected to the historic Abbey site. “At the moment, it is a beautiful place but it is a lot of stones and nobody lives here. Having stories that people enjoyed, which have caused them to become excited or fearful, will all create interest in the Abbey.”
Standing on Park Walk in the winter half-light, when mists fill the valley below and the fog swirls like the crests of ocean waves, your mind can play tricks. When you see such spectacular sights, you can understand how the scenery and setting fuel a furtive imagination. But I have also met sensible and grounded Shaftesbury residents who have no doubt about what they have seen and heard. And their matter-of-fact and unsensational story telling convinced me that their experiences are real.
Perhaps those of us who have not come into contact with Shaftesbury’s ghosts need to have our own encounters. After all, seeing is believing, isn’t it?