Haunting moments

It is some time since I visited the great old house which was my workplace for about four years.

The house has quite a history.

Some time in the early 17th century, some bloke put up a fence round some land in Windsor Forest.

It was illegally done, but we all know the whole rights-of-way law is a tricky minefield, and that finders often, at least in British law, turn out to be keepers more often than you might think.

This finder -whose name has been lost in the mists of time – got to keep the land. A jolly nice house went up on it: there’s a lease dated 1683 according the tenancy to a William Samrooth. And a procession of notables followed each other residing there.

But one cannot help but note that tragedy dogged many of those associated with the place.

It housed the British prime minister who holds the record for the shortest period in office. Poor George Canning: appointed by George IV in preference to both the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, he got short shrift from both and forming a working government was a thorny business. His health deteriorated and he died 119 days into his term.

And then there was the poor liberal politician and barrister who took the house after Canning. Sir William Hayter took over in 1858: it was at Christmas twenty years later that he was found after a bout of depression, drowned in the mansion’s grand lake.

His son took over as the state of mansions the country over began to decline, in that no-man’s-land between the inherited wealth of the aristocracy and the advent of heritage tourism. His widow lived on there until 1929 when her nephew, a military man, took over.

Eleven years later, the Major shot himself in the gun cupboard on the first floor.

A military hospital decamped there in the second world war; it enjoyed a brief post-war life in the smart set as converted flats; and then the local Bohemians set their hearts on it as a centre for those who loved to practice the arts.

My mother and father, folk singers, were among the first to witness its transformation in the seventies. They went with the first director to the attic rooms where he camped as it took shape.

And it was this place: this dark fated place filled with chandeliers and shadows – whose director offered me a job running the complex three nights a week.

I remember the night before I started, lying awake. I had never wanted to work anywhere as much as I did at this strange stagey place, which now boasted two theatres, cinemas, conference facilities and workshops, a grand open air theatre, acres of land and lakes.

But I couldn’t quite imagine locking it up, at midnight, when all the punters had gone home.

There were so many stories.

The reality was as spooky as the supposition had been. I collected a huge bunch of keys ancient and modern when I arrived on shift at four, and we’d have a short handover. I always carried a torch for those moments when lights were not an option.

And I would start locking up the far ends of the mansion as groups finished; yoga, stained glass, salsa or printmaking, they all had their finish times. I’d lock from the outer limits towards the core of the building, where the catering manager was my comrade in arms. Together, in the shadows, we’d take our leave of the mansion and step with a palpable exhalation of breath out, into the car park, and off home to unwind.

Today, Maddie and I pottered round the familiar galleries. They were flooded with sunlight and innocence. But Maddie led me to the room which fascinates her, though she doesn’t know the full story behind it.

It is a studio theatre, painted black, shuttered against the light, a small English heart of darkness.

The story goes that once it was the scene of a great fire – some time in the mid 19th century – and that, alas, it was the nursery. Young lives were lost and regrets prompted further tragic consequences.

We pushed the door to see if it would give. Usually it is locked fast: but today it opened.

And standing there, the wraith-like stories drifted out to meet me. I remembered vividly all the experiences I have lived through within those walls; explicable and inexplicable; and all the tales my friends experienced. Tragedy is no stranger, even now, to the place.

After about a half a minute of the strangest reverie, it was as if someone walked over my grave. I shuddered involuntarily and ushered my first-born out of that place.

And away to the dazzling light of an English Springtime .


45 thoughts on “Haunting moments

    1. That gingerbread cottage: a rum one, that. Atmospheres are funny things. I have been to great houses with the most wonderful atmospheres: happy places full of light; and others whose sad history seemed to have painted the walls.

      I notice the 18th century prison in Oxford is now a luxury hotel, however, and read recently of a notorious mental hospital, Colney Hatch Asylum, which has made a very satisfactory transformation into luxury apartments.My friend Martin wrote about it here: http://2e0mca.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/a-z-archive-i-challenge/ So maybe it’s all in my head 🙂

  1. What a strange and scary history this house has! I’ve been in houses that suddenly feel warm and loving and there has been a few where I just had to get out right away. Maybe the house takes on a bit of a person’s aura…but luck? scary! Lovely posting Kate!

  2. So well set out!
    Houses, and even certain rooms, do seem to have an atmosphere about them, even before one knows their history. Often that history validates the feeling. I remember a particular room in an old house we lived in for two years – afterwards finding that a man had been burnt to death in his bed there. Was it wishful thinking, though, that the whole feeling seemed to change for the better the longer we occupied it as our main bedroom?

  3. To the perceptive, some places project an aura; not all of them welcoming.

    If I were aware of a sad or frightening history associated with a place, I’m not at all certain I could comfortably live (or work) there; i.e., upscale luxury or not, I’d probably not choose to make my home in a former mental institution. Apartments or condos carved from a former elementary schoolhouse might hold appeal, however; faint echos of childish laughter and squeals of discovery a more peaceful accompaniment to life.

  4. Oh, shivers. Houses have a kind of soul, I think, and they aren’t always victims of circumstances. I firmly feel that people don’t always correctly intuit when they’re not meant to inhabit certain spaces. Clearly, that bit of forest wasn’t interested in being colonized and that house? It took the position of bouncer.

    1. Cameron, you said it. The house came, and it just had those bad eyes…but unravelling these decisions, unmaking what has been begun – history doesn’t travel backwards easily…

  5. It looks all innocence in the photo, but your stories make me wonder if there isn’t something staring out at me from those windows… You are brave, adventurous – I don’t think they could pay me enough to make me work in a place with that kind of history, not at night anyway. {shivers}

    1. That little window at the end of the post: that room was the scene of one of the most dramatic unexplained incidents of all, Ruth. That said, I have stood in it, keys in hand, watching the beams of sunlight edge past the blinds. It is the Director’s office. A piano sits in one corner, and a computer, and a desk. In fact, it is the room in which I was interviewed for the post. Rooms wear different feelings at different times, I think.

  6. Aah . . . a spooky and eerie start to your spring holidays, Kate.

    What if everything we claim to “possess” retains a claim to possess a part of us? We leave and linger behind . . . all at the same time. 😯

    1. 😀 Love that little icon. It made me laugh out loud. I think I see what you mean…something slong the lines of “you can take the girl out of the haunted mansion, but you can’t take the haunted mansion out of the girl….”

    2. I love that little guy . . . : shock : (with no spaces).

      Yes. If we claim to possess something (my house, my car, my workplace) . . . we invest energy into “owning IT” and caring for IT. We infuse part of ourselves with each person, place, or thing we possess.

      As a result, the person, place, or thing comes to possess a bit of us. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” We give, IT takes.

      When we leave IT behind . . . some of our energy lingers. Perhaps.

  7. I love a good, spooky tale of ghosts, history and mystery, Kate! Fascinating post. I could picture the charred nursery in my mind’s eye very clearly once you said the door opened easily.

  8. “There are stranger things on Heaven and Earth” – most excellent piece and what a place to work, very inspiring 😉 puts my 4 walls to shame!

  9. I was once asked to house-sit for a couple…a dour, but quiet pair who had to leave the island to tend to family. I walked into the house and felt swamped, as though I had to breathe a thick cloud of steam. I told the people I was not the right person to take care of their home.

    It was so strange and for a while I felt guilty that I couldn’t help them. Days later, I told my English friend who said, “Bloody hell. I’ve been in that house and left even faster than you. There’s something ugly in that place!”

    Music to my ears. Thank goodness for my English friends who, I’ve always believed, are more in tune with these types of sensations.

    I don’t blame you for doing an about face!

  10. Places like this intrigue me to no end. I do believe that places contain energy, which makes me wonder if that is the backstory to hauntings. No matter, I thought of your ghost story as I was reading. I wonder if you imagined this place while you were writing that piece? Happy Haunting ~

  11. Amazing how places and spaces take on a life and personality of their own, Kate — I like your ward-off-the-terror logistics planning 🙂 Smart thinking!

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