I think I have confessed before to being a temporal snob.
“How did you like Polesden Lacey?” asked a work colleague, and I replied, oh, it’s really lovely, but it’s only really as old as this place.
“This Place’ is a 19th century Victorian mansion, impressively furnished in powerful blokish style with dark wood, Egyptian accents and a staircase to reckon with. It has a stained glass window intoning the ancestry of the house’s creator way, way back into the past; and plush red carpet.
But when it was built in 1839, the moated hunting lodge where Catherine of Aragon met Henry VIII was demolished. The mansion which now stands is a spring chicken of just 174 years or so.
Here, where many places boast several centuries to their CV, the replacement is just a young pretender.
However, ghosts and ghost stories do not seem to need long to get their feet under the table, so to speak.
The stories began almost as soon as I arrived. I thought the place had its own ghostly governess, but the truth is a little more grisly, I fear.
I could not help but notice that Christie’s, our esteemed auctioneers, were recently selling off a rather splendid collection of Victorian state-of-the-art metal riveted washing vats. They were the very thing in all the most fashionable houses in the second half of the 19th century. Much more modern than those wooden tubs which had dogged launderers back to mediaeval times and before.
The biggest one I could find here was 22.5 inches across – about 1.8 feet. But they made them bigger, if the story I have heard tell is anywhere near the truth.
The great house had very big laundry vats indeed. So big, indeed, that one day a maid was helping with the washing in the great kitchen, and in some dire conjunction of the fates, fell in.
She was mortally scalded, and dismayingly she did not die immediately. Instead she was taken into a neighbouring room on a makeshift stretcher and laid out on the bed in agony. And a short time later, she died there.
I do not know what has happened in the ensuing century or so. The building has been many things, I believe: a teacher training college, a nuclear bunker, a comprehensive school. But ghosts have their trails, do they not? They just do their thing, no matter what is going on around them.
I take up her trail when my colleague saw her, briefly, with a rustle of Victorian skirts and a cold, clammy drop in temperature. My friend told me she would not care to repeat the experience.
It seems the place has a haunted room. Just one room which is – shall we say – troublesome. One guest left in the early hours of the morning because, despite her cast iron attempts to close and lock all the windows, she would wake to find them all open once more. Again and again.
And upon enquiry, staff will tell you that this is the room where the laundry maid was laid out after her accident.
I have heard and collected the stories of much older wraiths than she. I can yarn of ghosts from before Christ.
But I’ll wager these more modern ones are by far the most unsettling.