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Feather's Miscellany: Ghosts

...The night was so bad, I was glad to get back from Haworth where I’d been attending a meeting, and before I turned in I had a nip of whisky to warm myself up in front of a roaring log fire in the great open fireplace in the dining room downstairs. It was a bitter night and I wore my jumper in bed; wearing that and warmed by the whisky I was soon asleep despite the racket outside. The next thing I knew was being shaken by the shoulder and a girl’s voice sobbing: “Don’t let them get me! Don’t let them get me!”...

John Waddington-Feather tells of his encounter with a ghost.

Men and women have always been fascinated by the supernatural. From earliest times, people have wondered what’s beyond this life, for oblivion is hard to grasp. Ghosts and an after-life offer some hope. So does religion.

Good Christians – and not so good ones like myself – base their faith on the supernatural: the rising of Jesus Christ from the dead. And in the bible there several instances of people coming back from the dead. King Saul’s calling up the ghost of the prophet Samuel, via the Witch of Endor, had disastrous effects for him. On the other hand, Christ’s rising from the dead produced quite the opposite effect. It gave hope for all mankind and it underlined his teaching and life for future generations. The one was dabbling in the occult; the other was reassurance of new life for all people…but back to ghosts.

From an early age I’ve been attracted to ghosts. What lad hasn’t? As a boy I wrote ghost stories for the school magazine, and I remember penning one in the attic of our small terrace house in the bleak Pennines, where I grew up. The attic was my bedroom and study; the only place where I could be quiet and write; but as I wrote that night, as the story took shape it became so real I frightened myself to death and had to flee downstairs to join the rest of the family.

There were ghostly stories by the score in the area where I grew up: ghost hounds called geytrash that roamed the moors and woods; spirits that cluttered every graveyard; a drunkard who’d fallen in the river; murdered wives and whores – the lot. The moors were lifting with ghosts, too, usually seen round the mysterious stone circles and near rocks with arcane symbols carved on them by Stone Age shamans millennia before.

For me, the most ghostly place of all was Keighley’s museum. In a great hall, the stuffed heads of wild animals from around the world lined its walls: elephants, moth-eaten lions and tigers, bison, wolves – you name it, they were there; all trophies from global big-game hunting by rich mill-owners in the nineteenth century, the Golden Age of Keighley and West Yorkshire.

The museum had been the great Mansion House of an early mill magnate, who’d built it at the turn of the century. He’d played the country gentlemen and his Mansion House was surrounded by an estate and parkland. By the time I was born, the town council had bought the mansion and turned it into a museum. The surrounding Victoria Park was carved from the old parkland, and the rest of the estate was built over with terrace houses like ours and mills and factories. The old meadows became the home of Keighley Rugby League Club and Keighley Cricket Club. Beyond them across the river, the land rolled up to the moors looming over the town…but back to ghosts.

In the museum were several macabre exhibits which had our noses glued to their cases: shrunken heads from Borneo, poisoned arrows and blowpipes, early dentistry gadgets which made your teeth ache just looking at them – especially a corkscrew tooth extractor. But most macabre of all was an Egyptian mummy, purloined from some pyramid by a wealthy globe-trotting Keighley manufacturer. An examination of it by a university forensic department more recently proved it to be the mummy of a half-sister of the Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted Moses. (That Pharaoh had about 80 daughters to goodness knows how many wives. A fact lost on us as boys but making a big impression when we grew older.) Whether she ever haunted the museum I never knew, because as soon as the light began to fade in winter and the museum darkened, I didn’t linger long. Those animal heads with their glazed eyes took on new life and began to stare back; so did the shrunken heads and the mummy.

Yes, I was very much aware of ghosts as I grew up. I couldn’t get away from them even in the choir at church, when the Holy Ghost was referred to and sung of at the end of every psalm; but He was a Comforter, not a frightener. Then we were primed with ghosts at the cinema each Saturday night. Count Dracula haunted every alleyway down Lawkhome Lane on the way home from the ‘flicks’. Frankenstein’s monster and werewolves were round every corner at full moon, and waiting for us when we had to go to the loo at the bottom of the back yard…but back to real ghosts.

I encountered a ghost many years later when I stayed overnight at a guest- house, Ponden Hall, near Haworth. The centuries old hall was the setting for Thrushcross Grange in Emily Bront?’s “Wuthering Heights” and lies about a couple of miles from Haworth, the Bront?s’ home. That night the weather was foul. A gale blew straight from the moors bringing with it showers of sleet. The ancient rowan tree in the garden just outside my bedroom scraped and scratched at the mullion windows all night.

I was the only guest that night, and my bedroom had once been the library when the house was owned by Squire Heaton. In the time of the Bront?s it had housed a fine collection of books. Emily Bront? used to walk over the moors from the Parsonage to read there, and it may have been an experience similar to mine which prompted the nightmare of Lockwood in “Wuthering Heights”, in which a ghost-child’s hand is thrust through a pane of glass in his bedroom window as he sleeps at Thrushcross Grange.

When I slept in the old library, the book cabinets had been converted into wardrobes, yet the room still had a certain atmosphere. You felt it the moment you walked in.

The night was so bad, I was glad to get back from Haworth where I’d been attending a meeting, and before I turned in I had a nip of whisky to warm myself up in front of a roaring log fire in the great open fireplace in the dining room downstairs. It was a bitter night and I wore my jumper in bed; wearing that and warmed by the whisky I was soon asleep despite the racket outside. The next thing I knew was being shaken by the shoulder and a girl’s voice sobbing: “Don’t let them get me! Don’t let them get me!”

I sat bolt upright and switched on the light. There was no one there; only the driving wind and sleet beating against the mullion windows. I was in a cold sweat and the air was cold, too. “What a nightmare!” I thought, and was about to switch off the light and go back to sleep when I realised I could still feel the girl’s tight grip on my shoulder. I jerked back my jumper. There was a red weal where a small hand had gripped me tightly!

Later, I read the history of Ponden Hall in which was the story of a young girl living there, who mysteriously disappeared early in the nineteenth century. She was the daughter of a drunkard who’d had a shotgun marriage to one of Squire Heaton’s daughters. He didn’t stay at the Hall long for after abusing both wife and child the fellow abandoned them. Shortly after his wife died and the girl was left alone. When the drunkard returned, the girl disappeared and was never heard of again. No mention is made of her in any parish records and rumour had it her father had murdered her and hidden the body. Was it the terrified ghost-child who’d shaken me that wild February night? Did Emily Bront? in that same room have a similar experience which inspired the dream sequence in her novel? I leave it with you, reader.

That’s the nearest encounter I’ve had with a ghost, but I once met an angel…yet that’s another story.

John Waddington-Feather ©

(Ponden Hall has now returned to private ownership, but its former owner, Brenda Taylor, has restored Ponden House next to the Hall, which she runs as a guest house. It has the same atmosphere - and good hosting - as the Hall. Contact Brenda at Ponden House, Stanbury, Keighley, W. Yorkshire BD22 0HR. Tele: 01535 644154.)




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