Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.
Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.
Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.
There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’. Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.
There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.
The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton
Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.
The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.
Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,
“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.
As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn. Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
The first modern ghost story?
Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.
Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.
Haunted places or people?
The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’
Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.
Highly recommended bedtime reading.