The Haunted Blog

  • Tamworth Castle and the Black Lady!

    Britain is full of castles; many of them are remarkably well preserved considering their great ages and violent histories. All of them have ghostly tales to tell.

    We have some pretty fine examples here in the Midlands and I recently paid a fascinating visit to one of the best - Tamworth Castle.

    Tamworth has a history stretching right back to Saxon times, when it was the capital of Mercia. Its strategic location meant that it has been fought over many times.

    Ethelfleda, the Lady of the Mercians (and a daughter of Alfred the Great), built a wooden fort here as a defence against the Vikings. A couple of centuries later the Normans arrived and built a castle on the site of Ethelfleda's fort.

    The first owners of the castle were the Marmion family who had helped William I invade England. One of them, Robert Marmion, seems to have had one of the earliest (and most painful) ghostly encounters

    on record.

    For reasons best known to himself he decided, in 1139, to expel an order of nuns from their convent in Polesworth. The nuns were forced to join another convent in Oldbury. They were not at all happy and before they left they angrily prayed for help from their founder, St Edith, who had died two centuries before.

    That night, the ghost of St Edith appeared to Robert Marmion in his bedchamber (now known as the Lady's Chamber). She told Marmion that unless he restored the nuns to their rightful home he would suffer an untimely death. Before she vanished, this scary nun struck the Baron with her crozier (a heavy wooden staff). Marmion cried out in pain and immediately promised that the nuns could return to Polesworth.

    Whatever you make of this story it does seem that something made Baron Marmion jump on his horse and ride to Oldbury to personally inform the nuns that they could return to their convent.

    The ghost of St Edith is known as the Black Lady and her spirit is said to have carried on haunting the castle long after the Marmion family had vacated the premises.

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  • What the devil is Halloween?

    Yes, it's that scary time of year again.

    The shops are full of pumpkins and pointy hats. Little devils roam from door to door demanding money and sweets. If you don't pay up, you may well find your front door decorated with eggs and flour (the little monsters).

    There is, of course, a lot more to Halloween than this recent import of American trick or treatery.

    Most cultures, the world over, seem to have developed a "Festival of the Dead" which is basically what Halloween is all about.

    The barrier between the physical world and the spiritual world is weakened and the dead are free to walk amongst the living.

    On October 31st, if you see somebody dressed as a ghoul or a vampire, they probably don't realise it but they're acting out an ancient tradition.

    They are mimicking the dead in order to protect themselves from the visiting spirits.

    Halloween, in Britain and north America, has its origins in Gaelic culture. Indeed, the reason why it is so popular in the US is because of the mass Irish immigration of the 19th century.

    There was an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain which marked the end of summer and the beginning of the long dark winter. This was a critical time of change and they believed that normal time was briefly suspended.

    This meant that the spirits of the "Otherworld" - some good, some evil - were free to invade.

    A "Feast of the Dead" would be held to honour and placate these spirits (and to hope they would return to their world without causing too much trouble).

    This pagan festival, like so many others, was eventually Christianised and November 1st became All Hallows Day. October 31st naturally became All Hallows Eve which we now call Halloween.

    The church meant for this festival to be a commemoration of the blessed dead, the "hallowed".

    Over the centuries, All Hallows Eve became a raucous night of bonfires and bad behaviour. People could play tricks on each other and blame the evil spirits. (In some of our towns, Halloween is referred to as "Mischief Night".) This is obviously how trick or treating developed.

    Many traditions and superstitions became associated with Halloween.

    Familiar games such as apple-bobbing were once taken seriously by young men and women. If you managed to grab an apple with your teeth, you were supposed to then peel it in one unbroken strip. You would toss the apple peel over your shoulder. The shape of the peel when it landed was supposed to be the first letter of the person you would marry.

    Young women also believed that if they sat in a darkened room, on Halloween night, and stared into a mirror, the face of their future husband would appear.

    There was a downside to this particular form of divination. If a skull appeared in the mirror the unfortunate girl was not long for this world.

    Another form of Halloween fortune telling began in Ireland. Various little objects were baked into a fruit bread (a barmbrack). When the bread was sliced, the object you received would determine your future.

    If you received a pea then you were destined not to marry. If you received a ring you would marry within the year. A matchstick would mean an unhappy marriage; a coin would bring good fortune.

    The tradition of the American pumpkin also originated in Ireland. Instead of a pumpkin they used a hollowed out turnip and called it a "Jack O' Lantern".

    Legend has it that Jack was a drunken farmer who tricked the devil into climbing a large tree. Jack then trapped the devil by carving a cross into the tree trunk.

    In revenge the devil placed a curse on Jack. He was condemned to forever wander the dark roads and country lanes. His only light, a solitary candle in a hollow turnip.

    Our modern take on Halloween bears little resemblance to the festival observed by our ancestors. They literally believed they were about to be visited by all manner of devils and demons from the underworld.

    Hopefully that won't happen to us this Halloween.

    But you never know!

    Have fun.

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  • Haunted Hotels

    If you fancy doing a bit of ghost hunting, but don't fancy spending the night in a dark cellar with a bunch of nutters like me, then there are lots of hotels around that have some rather ghostly guests.

    Birmingham Ghosts and Hauntings have conducted several investigations at the Station Hotel in Dudley. The building dates from 1936, but there was a hotel here for many years before that.

    A particularly strong presence in the hotel is that of a spirit called George who seems happy to respond to "yes or no" questions by occasionally tapping on the walls and ceilings. He is most active in room 214. Be warned though, George is not a friendly chap and has been known to slap and push people, especially women.

    It is thought that George is the ghost of a former manager of the hotel. He was having an affair with a maid called Elizabeth. When she threatened to tell his wife he flew into a rage and murdered her. It could be that George's guilt and anger has kept his spirit imprisoned at the Station Hotel where he takes great pleasure in giving the guests a good fright.

    If you decide to visit the Station Hotel remember to pay a visit to Dudley Castle just over the road - you never know who or what you might encounter!

    In Coventry you could spend a sleepless night at Coombe Abbey which has quite a few spectres in residence, including the inevitable ghostly monk.

    The monk is thought to be the ghost of Abbott Geoffrey who was murdered in 1345. There are many accounts, stretching back through the centuries, of people being scared witless by a cowled figure that seems to float around the grounds. Poltergeist activity is associated with this ghostly monk. Objects are often flung around the rooms when his apparition is witnessed. It could be that the spirit of Abbott Geoffrey is venting his anger at being murdered.

    Back in the 19th Century, the abbey was owned by the wealthy Craven family. A young Romany girl called Matilda was ill treated by one of the men of the house. She died in childbirth after putting a curse on the family. This curse may have worked. The Craven family were to suffer bad luck over the years and many of them were to die young.

    A young girl, dressed in rags, has often been seen near the stables. It is thought that this is the ghost of the unfortunate and vengeful gypsy girl Matilda.

    There are other ghosts at Coombe Abbey. A mysterious horseman has been seen to gallop through the grounds and a Victorian lady has often been witnessed on the road outside the abbey.

    Many people have reported a strange, eerie feeling in some of the rooms as if they are being watched. Doors slam themselves shut and shadows have been seen in the corridors. Some people have been so frightened they have run out of their rooms.

    Scary monks and scared guests are also a regular feature of Madeley Court Hotel in Telford. This place was built in 1553 during the reign of "Bloody Mary", a particularly gruesome time in British History. Like Coombe Abbey, a hooded monk is sometimes seen to float (rather than walk) around the grounds.

    There is even a scarier monkly presence in the great hall. Several of these hooded figures have been witnessed sitting in a row on the wooden roof beams and staring at the guests and staff. Even an experienced ghost hunter like me would find that terrifying.

    These monks seem to be aware of their surroundings, which suggests that they possess some kind of intelligence and have a desire to be among the living.

    There is another type of haunting which can be witnessed at Madeley Court. This is where the ghost or ghosts do not realise the situation they are in and simply carry on as if they are still living in their own time. Victorian maids have been seen carrying out their duties in the rooms and corridors. These apparitions are said to be so real that they are mistaken for hotel employees in fancy dress.

    This sort of ghost may be some sort of "recording" from the past that can manifest in the right conditions. Another example is a row of cottages in the grounds of Madeley Court. These were demolished complete with a smiling old lady in front of them.

    These are just three local examples of Britain's many haunted hotels and this is a subject I'll return to in the future. (Hopefully I'll get to visit a few more of these places.)

    What better way to experience a haunting than from the comfort of a king sized bed with a handy mini-bar within easy reach?

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  • Prison Ghosts

    From medieval dungeons to modern American penitentiaries, prisons are truly frightening places - and they remain frightening long after the last inmate has finished his porridge.

    One former prison that sees a lot of paranormal activity is Derby Gaol, owned by ghost expert and historian Richard Felix.

    Derby Gaol was built in the 1750's on a traditional, and very busy, execution site. Death and suffering were associated with the building right from the start.

    England at this time was experiencing a massive crimewave caused by terrible poverty and cheap gin which large numbers of the population were addicted to.

    The gap between rich and poor was immense and the ruling classes were not about to let the peasants get their grubby hands on the family silver. If you were poor and committed a crime you could definitely expect brutal punishment.

    Over 260 crimes carried the death penalty. A twelve year old who stole a handkerchief was just as likely to hang as a highwayman who committed murder.

    Therefore, the vast majority of the poor souls who entered Derby Gaol had a rather unpleasant appointment with the hangman. Even those inmates not sentenced to death were probably going to die from the filthy conditions and the violence of the gaolers and fellow convicts.

    As if the prospect of the gallows was not terrible enough, condemned inmates had an additional fear which caused them great anguish. Their bodies were often handed to the surgeons to be dissected and examined (and then put on public display as a warning to others). In these more religious times it was firmly believed that your soul could not enter heaven if your body had been dismembered. This belief could be a contributing factor as to why some spirits stay on the earthly plane and refuse to "cross over".

    Derby Gaol is regularly visited by paranormal investigators and interested members of the public. Many people have witnessed unusual and sometimes quite scary activity within the building.

    Even an experienced investigator like Richard Felix has been frightened by close encounters of the paranormal kind. He was once confronted by a grey haze in the shape of a man. This strange grey mist glided straight past him before disappearing at the end of the corridor.

    A builder was once working in one of the cells when the heavy cell door slowly closed by itself, locking him in. This happened twice and no rational explanation could be found. These doors are very heavy and another person closing them would have been heard or seen. This builder also experienced feelings of nausea - a common experience in haunted locations. Many people visiting Derby Gaol begin to feel sick and have to leave. Some people seem to feel that they are being suffocated or strangled.

    A very disturbing scene has been witnessed in one of the cells. People claim to have seen two young men hanging from a beam, their bodies slowly rotating. A similar vision has been seen in the Day Room where a visitor noticed a man hanging from a doorway. He thought that this was a very convincing stunt by an actor but was shocked to discover that nobody else had seen the hanging man. Could these frightening visions be somehow conjured up by the buildings long association with death by hanging?

    One particular scary figure has been encountered lurking in a doorway of Derby Gaol. He has been described as an evil looking bald man wearing a kind of leather garment or apron. I remember reading that when prisoners were flogged, the jailer would wear a leather apron because it was easier to wipe off blood and bits of flesh. This leather clad bald man has also been seen to walk through a wall.

    Another strangely dressed figure, a woman in a large fancy hat, was seen to walk down a corridor and through a door to the outside. The witnesses followed her outside to be confronted by freshly fallen snow - and no footprints!

    Derby Gaol seems to be full of strange ghostly people. A man in a long scarlet coat is sometimes seen acting as if he is looking for someone or something. A "terrified looking" blonde woman was witnessed lying on a bed, a dark, shadowy figure seemed to be menacing her. People have commented on black shapes congregating around the fireplace in the Day Room.

    Many people have commented on a strong tobacco smell. This is something that I and other investigators have increasingly begun to notice in haunted locations. The smell of strong tobacco smoke (mainly pipes and cigars) has become very noticeable since the smoking ban was introduced.

    Derby Gaol also has more than its fair share of poltergeist activity. Cups, glasses and various ornaments have all moved by themselves - sometimes flying past the heads of shocked visitors and staff. A pair of antique spectacles seem to be able to move themselves around the building whenever they feel like it.

    Other prisons, some still in use, also appear to be haunted.

    For over a hundred years Wandsworth Prison in London has been the home of a well known ghost called 'Wandsworth Annie'. Many prisoners and staff have described her as middle aged and wearing a long grey woollen dress and black boots. She appears for a few seconds at various points in the prison and as soon as she is noticed she quickly vanishes. 'Wandsworth Annie' is thought to be a woman who worked at the prison, probably as a cook, in the mid nineteenth century.

    Dartmoor prison also has a ghost with a name and, back in the 1930's, was even recognised as a former inmate called David Davies. He spent most of his life, over fifty years, incarcerated at Dartmoor Prison. For much of that time he looked after the prison sheep and was so devoted to them he gave them names and was able to tell them apart. He died in 1929 but a year later the prison governor was shocked to see him walking among his beloved sheep. Some prisoners also saw this figure and recognised him as their old mate David Davies.

    A much more disturbing experience has been had by inmates at Durham Prison. In 1947 a brutal murder took place in one of the cells. One prisoner killed another with a knife stolen from the Dining Hall. The killer was eventually hanged but his malevolent presence lingered in the cell of his horrific crime. One prisoner who was locked up in this cell emerged screaming one morning. He claimed to have seen the murder re-enacted before his very eyes. Other convicts refused to enter this cell and begged to be put into solitary confinement instead.

    The ghost of the infamous Dr Hawley Crippen has been seen at Pentonville Prison where he was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife. His bespectacled, sorrowful figure has apparently been witnessed standing over his unmarked grave, complete with a bent, crooked neck.

    Many of our old Victorian prisons must still have their execution chambers and condemned cells and I would love to hear of any strange experience in these places.

    Hauntings often occur in locations that have seen great trauma and suffering. Negative emotions - anger, hate, violence, fear, despair - have always been prevalent in prisons throughout history. These emotions tend to linger in the atmosphere, providing energy for spirits to manifest.

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  • Ghosts of Warstone Lane in Birmingham

    In Birmingham's famed Jewellery Quarter we have the neighbouring cemeteries of Key Hill and Warstone Lane. You can't get buried here any longer, but you can have a fascinating stroll amongst the gravestones.

    Some distinguished Brummies were laid to rest at Key Hill including the Chamberlains and Alfred Bird (the wonderful chap who gave the world custard).

    Key Hill was opened for business in 1836. Anglicans had to wait until 1848 to get their very own cemetery at Warstone Lane. The area seems to have been associated with death long before the cemeteries were built. The junction where Warstone Lane meets Icknield Street (the site of the Birmingham Mint) was once known as "Dead Man's Lane".

    Murderers were often executed and buried at a crossroads, as were suicides. People used to regard a crossroads as a kind of unholy no-man's land, a place between the physical and the spiritual. To be buried at a crossroads meant that your soul could never rest. It was intended that murderers and suicides should continue to suffer after death.

    Key Hill and Warstone Lane were kept pretty busy in Victorian times. Life in an industrial city was harsh and unhealthy. A typical factory worker was lucky to reach his fortieth birthday and child mortality was incredibly high. Many professional undertakers firms were founded during this period. A Victorian funeral procession was an elaborate sight. Black coaches were pulled by black horses covered in black ostrich feathers.

    Family, friends and even professional mourners would form a long procession on the way to the grave. The use of flowers, to overcome the stench of the corpse, began at this time. In fact, in the days before modern embalming fluids, a cemetery was a very smelly place. Gravediggers would have to fortify themselves with rum to carry out their unpleasant trade.

    It would have been very unwise to light your pipe in the vicinity of the catacombs as gases from decomposing bodies could have caused an explosion! A law had to be passed that stated that only lead lined coffins could be placed in the catacombs.

    Over the years, Warstone Lane and Key Hill have unsurprisingly, become associated with ghostly happenings.

    The grey image of a young woman, dressed in 1930's clothes, has been seen on many occasions. Two men were astonished to see this strange figure walk straight through a wall. Another person was equally shocked to see her walk, or float, through a parked car. She even forced one driver to make an emergency stop, before smiling at him and promptly disappearing. An interesting aspect to these sightings is that people have reported a "pear drop smell" lingering in the air. This is what arsenic smells like and this substance was used extensively in the Jewellery Quarter. Could this be the ghost of a women killed by arsenic poisoning?

    Back in the days when the Birmingham Mint was busy bashing out coins of the realm, it was decided that an extension should be built at the back of the building, on cemetery land. This meant moving a few graves and, as we all know, the dead do not like to be disturbed.

    One of the builders was terrified to see what he could only describe as a "spectre". He and his colleagues refused to return to the site.

    Another man was once bending over a machine, trying to repair it. He asked his mate to hand him a spanner and put out his hand behind him. The tool was put in his hand, but when he turned around his workmate was nowhere to be seen.

    The ghost of a young man in a long army style trench coat was once seen at the catacombs. This encounter is particularly interesting because it seems that this ghost actually spoke to someone. The witness was walking through the cemetery during a downpour. He decided to seek shelter in the catacombs where he encountered the strange young man. They had a brief conversation in which the witness was surprised to hear the young man refer to Dudley Road Hospital as "the infirmary", an old fashioned name not used since 1948.

    When the man walked away from the catacombs he turned around but could see no sign of the odd young man he had spoken to only seconds before.

    If you like walking around old cemeteries and gazing at the tombstones of the dear departed, Key Hill and Warstone Lane are excellent places to spend a weekend afternoon.

    Unfortunately these grade II listed cemeteries have been neglected for many years. However, plans are in motion, by groups such as Friends of Key Hill, to restore these valuable sites.

    A word of warning: Do not visit Key Hill or Warstone Lane after dark. Sadly, in modern day Birmingham, there are real life monsters lurking amongst the gravestones.

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