It’s not often I’m lost for words but trying to describe the feeling I had when sitting in the pitch dark on the first floor of Margam Castle this evening is one of those times.

We went on a ghost night last night. Traditional Welsh Cawl (a rich lamb stew) at the haunted Prince of Wales pub in Kenfig, followed by a tour of Margam Castle. We’ve been on several ghost tours and walks and they’ve each been great in their own way. Bath was atmospheric, York was well delivered and Dunster was an all round good night.

But last night was different again. It felt more personal when we were in the pub, where the landlord told us about the things that had happened to him during his 9 years running the pub. They were stories of mischief and general good humour. The spirits in the Prince of Wales were friendly and generally non-threatening.

We moved on to Margam Castle. We’ve been there many times during the day but immediately we got out of the car, the place had a completely different feel. It wasn’t completely dark and there the house stood out against the cloudless sky. The stars were clear and bright and we couldn’t have asked for better conditions.

After some history of the house and the family that lived there, we proceeded inside. With all the lights out, the atmosphere was eerie and every sound was magnified with the echo. Our host told stories about the malevolent spirits that occasionally showed themselves and we watched and waited, unsure of what we were going to see (or not see). Despite the lack of sights or sounds, the place was full of atmosphere and I would not have been surprised to either see or hear something myself, or find one of the other people claiming to have seen or heard something. But the spirits were shy tonight.

We went upstairs and sat in the pitch black silence. Now, as the guide spoke, I could make out a faint murmur beneath his voice. But as I realised it was the echo coming back, he mentioned this as a characteristic of the house and it’s central staircase. He told us about the times he’s been setting up and has felt something, and one of his theories is that the presence upstairs is an elemental spirits, that is, more ancient than human beings.

We heard nothing upstairs either, but as the night was drawing to an end, I became aware of a feeling inside me that I cannot describe. If you have ever walked in on the aftermath of an argument, when everyone is quiet and there is a feeling of awkwardness, you can only describe accurately that feeling to people who have experienced it themselves. How do you describe it to someone who has never felt it? That’s why I find it hard to describe how I felt on the upper landing of Margam Castle. I can only say that I was uncomfortable, uneasy and didn’t want to stay there. But I can’t say why.

It was a tremendous evening. We’ve been to Margam many times and it’s always a rewarding visit. But the ghost tour was by far the best visit I’ve had.


The Rainbow Holiday

I know, it’s a twee title, but if I’d called it ‘The Haunted Holiday’ or ‘The night of a thousand coughs’ it wouldn’t really sum it up.

We headed off to Dunster on the North Somerset coast for three nights of Halloween flavoured fun. We had booked tickets for the Dunster Castle ‘Ghost Walk’ after seeing it advertised when we were visiting in September. We stayed in a beautiful old house on a hill not far from St Georges church and we made sure we walked through the graveyard every evening to set the atmosphere up for our stay.

Talking to the landlord, it turned out that he had owned Flora’s Barn, one of our favourite holiday cottages, for 25 years and Flora, the horse that originally lived in the barn (before it was converted) was owned by his daughter. Such a coincidence! On out first night we ate in the Luttrell Arms, named after the family who owned Dunster Castle. It’s an old pub with plenty of character. There are several rooms, and we chose one heated by a huge Inglenook and open fire. The food took a while to come and I enjoyed a pint of local cider, Thatchers, which was to be a recurring theme for me. The manager for the night apologised for the delay in bringing us our food and offered us a free round. When it finally came, the meals were gorgeous.

Delicious cooked breakfasts started our mornings off nicely. The weather wasn’t the best and we saw the first of many rainbows from the window of our room. On the 31st and with no real plan in mind, we headed off east to have a look at Crowcombe church. The village is small and typically English and the church nestles beneath the Quantocks, Graham, our landlord, and his wife had explained that it lay at the end of the only road ro cross the Quantocks and had grown up around the potential trade that would generate. But it remained a poor village dominated by the local landowning family until quite recently. They would move tenants around within the village so they didn’t feel as if they owned the homes they rented. Some of the family also insisted on influencing how the villagers voted. It was almost as if we were hearing stories from some period drama.

We drove up onto the Quantocks before heading down to Nether Stowey to visit Coleridge’s cottage. Like every other time we’d been there, it was closed. But there was hope; it would be open later in the week. From there we headed back to Williton and, although neither of us wish to talk about it much, we visited the Bakelite museum there. It’s been a bit of a standing joke with us everytime we’ve stayed in the area. Down a narrow farm track, in a farmhouse outbuilding, there was an amazing collection of old domestic items from the last 100 years or so. Many of them were, indeed, made from Bakelite – the first plastic. But there were other things there and the one that stood out for me was an old dentist’s appliance – a metal stand with several arms coming out of it, each with a mechanically operated tool on the end. It was bizarre and clever and sinister, all at the same time. It reminded me of the torture ‘droid from the original Star Wars film.

Cleeve Abbey, out next stop, was a rather clinical building that would have benefited from some thought to dressing the rooms with period exhibits. Most of the rooms were empty and although they were labelled, it was hard to imagine how, for example, the Abbott’s bedchamber would really have looked. Even an artist’s impression on the wall would have helped. We wandered around the grounds, including the original refectory floor tiles under a giant marquee, before making our way to the nearby pub for a snackette (with chips, of course).

Our final destination of the day was Minehead and by now the weather was closing in. Some abortive attempts to fly a kite on the beach only succeeded in getting us wet. So we retreated to the B&B for a rest and to plan the evening. Neither of us were hungry so we headed off to a pub at the end of the village for a pint and some games of pool. I came second in two games but won the third. Watching over our every shot was Nelson, a large grey parrot who insisted on whistling a lot and occasionally shouting the world ‘w@nkers’ at random. During our last game the pool room had been invaded by a gaggle of local women who seemed to be keen to get us to move on. They were crowding the room and seemed very reluctant to get out of the way if we were playing a shot.

We made our way to Dunster Castle by 9pm and joined the others waiting for the ghost walk. Soon we were off and heading through the medieval gatehouse to the servants hall, where we went through an underground passage (originally for servants to move about without being seen) and had the first of a series of encounters with characters, noises, slamming doors and other eerie sounds and sights. The nightwatchman told us about footsteps with no one around to make them. A cavalier officer explained how he had died in the room we were in. We saw a maid looking for the lady of the house, a child being taken away to be punished and a couple of ghostly figures lit only by candles. Eventually, we survived and made our way past the dungeons, from which unearthly sounds could be heard, and into the stables. It was only then that we found out our guide was, in fact, a ghost herself!

On Thursday, we went west to Lynmouth and the cliff railway. The rivers were in full race and although the sun was shining, it was cold. We made our way slowly back along the coast, stopping in Porlock to have a look around the little church there. We parked up at the B&B and went for a look around Dunster. While Em went shopping, I walked down to Dunster beach to see what there was to see. All the way down the muddy lane, I was following a huge rainbow from a storm shower that was passing to the west. The sky was black, making the colours stand out even more.

Dunster beach was a key risk area for invasion during World War 2 and at one time there were a dozen or so pillboxes and other defensive structures built to command the long beach. Most have gone but in the car park was a pill box still wearing its camouflage of pebbles from the beach. It was originally disguised as a large pile of rocks and pebbles. Further inland were two more pillboxes, one in the middle of a field, the other, one of many along the stretch of the West Somerset Railway.

I headed back to rendezvous with Em and after watching a cheesy horror movie (well, it was a Halloween holiday) we headed out for food and a swift half. We ate at Cobblestones, a lovely restaurant on the main street of Dunster. The food was wonderful and the service excellent.

After breakfast and the inevitable rainbow, which seemed to act a s a backdrop to a large crow sitting on the neighbour’s fence, we climbed up to Conygar Tower, a folly built to overlook Dunster from the west by one of the Luttrells. We walked through the woods, risking life and limb as conkers dropped all around with loud thunks. We drove off towards Nether Stowey, driving along the coast and keeping Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands in sight in the Bristol Channel. Again, rainbows kept us company as we headed for Coleridge’s cottage, which was open. It was very atmospheric, having been set out as it would have been when he arrived in 1797. In contrast to Cleeve Abbey, the rooms had character and while many of the items on display hadn’t belonged to Coleridge, they were genuinely contemporary and helped to set the scene.

Then it was time to find the motorway to take us back to the 21st Century and home.

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Ghosts in the mist

Early start for Rufus and me today as we headed off to Cefn Bryn before dawn. I was inspired by Kate’s photos of Broadpool and decided to try and get some misty photos for myself. It also meant Rufus would get a decent walk in one of his favourite spots. With only a cup of coffee to wake me up, we were off. The moon and Venus were up in the eastern sky but there was no sign of the sun as we made our way towards Gower.

I was momentarily disheartened as we passed through a heavy shower, but it cleared up by the time I parked the car on Cefn Bryn. In the dark, we headed out towards Arthur’s Stone. I could hear Rufus splashing through puddles and mud ahead but could barely see despite my head torch. Some slopping and slipping was inevitable, but we were soon through the band of marsh and back on firm ground again.

By the time we got to the Stone, a faint dawn light was making the going easier, but there was no mist. I set the camera on the tripod with the timer and set about taking some pictures. I experimented with painting the stone with the light from the head torch, but by now there was a strong pre-dawn light. But I did find that a ghostly version of me was appearing in some of the shots. So I deliberately set out to get a ghost image of Rufus and me.

From there, we headed down towards Fairwood Common, another regular destination. The mist was thick around here and the sun was coming up. But I’d had my opportunity to take photos and now it was Rufus’ turn to get the attention. I managed a few snapshots, and Rufus managed to explore most of the ground north of the road.

Finally, we got back home and had a slap up cooked breakfast.

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I trawled the dark streets, looking for my fix. I was getting desperate. How would I get through tomorrow if I didn’t get it today?

Diesel, of course. I spent an hour on Wednesday trying to find a garage without a huge queue  and then panic bought a tank full of diesel. But since we were travelling up to York the following morning, I think I was justified.

We were fortunate that the traffic was very light on the motorways. The only slight delay was due to a wide load on the M5. We managed to reach the hotel, just north of York, despite my wrong turns, in a little under 6 hours.

After a quick freshen up, we headed in to York and the Minster. Its the 2nd largest gothic minster in Europe and in the afternoon sun the yellow stone almost glowed. We decided to climb to the top of the Central Tower despite the warnings of the 275 steep and narrow steps. It was hard going but the view at the top was worth it. It reminded me a bit of the view from the Hallgrimkirkja in Iceland, but York was much more compact, with the buildings of the old town crammed within the city walls. Only when you looked beyond the walls did you see buildingd with more space, larger gardens and wider streets.

The minster itself was huge and impressive but it seemed to have less character that Bath and Wells, probably because there were no old memorials or inscribed flagstones. The stained glass windows were more intricate and impressive, though.

We went in search of The Shambles, a street almost as old as York itself. It was once a street of butchers and slaughter houses and the shambles was the waste product of this business, which used to run down the lane. Today, the buildings are old and have suffered through time. Wooden frames sag, foundations sink and straight lines are non existant. The shops there today were modern, but their ceilings were low and each of the three storeys leaned in and overhung the lane, giving it a claustrophobic feel.

From the Shambles, we went in search of food and decided to eat at the Guy Fawkes pub. The claim was that Guy himself was born here. The place was very atmospheric and had bucket loads of character. The restaurant had dark wood panelling and candles on every table. The food was absolutely delicious and we both ate too much as a result.

Then it was time to find the ghost walk. We had seen several on our walk through the streets but the one that caught our attention was The Ghost Hunt of York, starting at the bottom of The Shambles.

From the moment our host, Mr Richard Rigor Mortis, appeared we knew it wa going to be good. He was dressed like a Victorian gentleman in top hat, bow tie and long coat. He gathered us all together with had gestures and then led us back up The Shambles at a slow, deliberate pace, all the time ringing a solemn bell. We met a second group at the tope of the lane and then we were off.

For the next hour or so we were enteretained, teased and scared by our host as we went from haunting to haunting. We learnt of the little girl who fell down the stairwell at her house, the child plague victime who waslocked in her bedroom and abandoned by her parents, the headmaster who murdered all his pupils and the ghost Roman legion. At one point, in front of an Italian restaurant, we pretended to be listening to a story until the diners were watching, at which point we stared at them, waved and approached the window before making faces at them. It was hilarious.

By the end of the hunt, we were both geting tired and so it was a short wak back to the car and a short drive back to the hotel, and bed.

The next blog is about Friday in Whitby.

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I’ve just got back from a short break in Bath. I love Bath as it’s so visibly historic. Almost every building you look at has a story. We stayed in a terraced house just north of the centre of the city and the landlady explained that it was built in 1776, the year of American independence. I could picture the men working on the terrace not knowing much about America and certainly not knowing about their independence, as the news would have taken some time to get back via sailing ships.

We had our evening meal in Sally Lunn’s house. It’s meant to be the oldest house in Bath and in the cellar are the layers of Bath over it’s history. You can see the remains of a Roman kitchen, probably serving the nearby Baths, on top of which is the refectory from the Benedictine monastery built there in the 12th Century. Further changes over the next 500 years saw the street level raised (making the ground floor into a new cellar) but the house remains essentially as it was in the 15th century. The food was delicious.

After that, we went on a ghost walk through the dark streets. It was gloriously eerie and we heard tales of grey ladies, elegantly dressed citizens haunting the pubs and the ‘Man in the Black Hat’ a retired Admiral who chose not to dress in the normal finery expected of gentlemen, preferring instead the attire of an off duty navel officer. As the upper classes looked down upon his choice to clothing, he stared back at them. Now he stares back as passers by in the darker alley ways.

The most atmospheric place for me was ‘The Dell – in the 18th century outside the city – where duels were fought. There was a particular dip in the ground which was reputed to be the place where most of the fighting took place and which certainly felt a little colder to me as we walked through in the misty darkness. The ghost associated with this area was a young gentleman who is often seen walking from the back of the houses towards the Dell, carrying his sword. He must have lost as he has never been seen walking away from the Dell. (In the photo on the right, are there faint lights in the lower left part of the picture?)

We went back to the B&B looking for ghosts and maybe the strange noises of doors closing in the middle of the night or the unexplained voices after everyone was asleep were just coincidence?

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