Ghosts and legends of England and Wales

June 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm (To Britain and back 2011)

  In the introduction to The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd states that “England is a haunted country.” He elaborates:

Several explanations for the ubiquity of the ghost in this land, can be offered. Alone among the countries of Europe, England is bordered by the original British (or Celtic ) nations. The popularity of the English ghost tradition–the English see more ghosts than anyone else–is deeply rooted in its peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions. The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

While passing through the countryside of Herefordshire, we heard the story of a young woman who, believing her lover to be unfaithful, did murder him. Later she found that her suspicions had been unfounded. Upon learning the truth, she killed herself (pined away?). It is said that her ghost now haunts a well – I couldn’t make out for certain exactly where.

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As we passed Goodrich Castle, our Blue Badge Guide Pam recounted the legend of Alice Birch. It seems that she and her lover Charles Clifford found themselves on opposite sides during England’s ferociously contested Civil War. They had both sought refuge in the castle, from whence they were at length forced to flee. Seizing Clifford’s steed, they made for  the River Wye in a desperate attempt at escape. But  the river was in full flood, their horse lost its footing, and they were drowned. They are said to haunt both the river and the castle. Learn more on “the eternal lovers and their watery fate” at Richard Jones’s site Haunted Britain and Ireland.

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Weobley (pronounced “Webbley”) is one of the destinations on the picturesque black and white villages trail. In Weobley, we visited the Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.  

The church offers a small guidebook for visitors. Here’s how it opens:

Christians have worshipped here for nearly 1,000 years. Wibba, son of Creoda, King of Mercia, founded “Wibba’s Ley” as a defensive outpost against the Welsh in the 6th century. The first mention of a resident priest at “Wibbelai” comes in the Domesday Book of 1086.

(Pam informed us that the suffix  “-ley” indicates a clearing in a forest.)

A strange and sinister legend has attached itself to a large stone cross that stands in the yard of this church: If you walk around it backward, all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, you will summon the Devil. Read more about “The legend of Old Nick” at the Haunted Hereford site.

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Located in the village of Kington just outside Hereford, Hergest (pronounced “Hargest”) Court exudes an air of melancholy. The original manor house dates from the thirteenth century. Toward the end of the 1400’s, Thomas Vaughan, also known as “Black Vaughan,” resided at Hergest Court. It is his ghost that is said to haunt the premises in the form of a large black dog. Alan Rickman, among others, believes that this is the dog that gave rise to the legend used so compellingly by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Alan Lloyd, our guide at Hergest and a friend of Alan Rickman’s, shares this conviction. (Read more about about “The demon death dog” on the Haunted Hereford site.)

In this video clip, our tour manager Nicky introduces Alan Lloyd. He in turn begins recounting to us the history and legend of Hergest Court and the surrounding area:

If you perform a search for “Hergest Court,” your results will include a number of ghost hunting sites (like this one). It’s prime ghost spotting territory. When we were there, it was cold and windy, with periodic lashings of rain -weather seemingly ordered up by central casting for  this particular encounter.

Here’s an eloquent appraisal by Richard Jones:

Hergest Court is now a shadow of its former glory. It is a sad looking house of white walls and dark timbers that exudes a weary air of detached indifference.

And yet, somewhat to my amazement, a family with young children were preparing to move in.

Though the house seemed bleak, the surrounding countryside was very beautiful:

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Mention should  be made here of the Red Book of Hergest. This ancient volume dates from the fourteenth century and was owned for a time by the Vaughan family. Ultimately it was given to Jesus College Oxford, where it now resides. The contents of the Red Book – so called because of its red leather binding – provided some of the source material for the Mabinogion, a collection of tales both historical and mythological set primarily in Wales. A landmark translation of the Mabinogion from Welsh into English was done by Lady Charlotte Guest in the nineteenth century.

A page of the Red Book of Hergest

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As we were getting ready to depart, Alan Lloyd hopped onto our bus. He wanted a final chance to persuade us that the ghost of Black Vaughan, in the form of a dog, was the original inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles:

He struck us as a man on a mission, with an almost inexhaustible supply of rhetoric. As you can see (and hear), he possesses a wonderfully declamatory style, which, we were assured, is characteristically Welsh.

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