Ghostly goings-on at hall

Sophie Bignall investigates unexplained sightings at a stately home...

Ghostly goings-on at hall

Sophie Bignall investigates unexplained sightings at a stately home...

It's not every day that you get the chance to explore one of the region's most sumptuous stately homes by candlelight . . . so who could resist a spooky night-time tour at Halloween?

For most people, Berrington Hall near Ludlow conjures up images of a beautiful neo-Classical building in acres of beautiful gardens and parkland, full of fine furnishings and brimming with history and style. But when the National Trust announced that the hall would be open for the evening on Saturday, I was keen to look at the hall by candlelight, and see it as only the staff and the people who lived there usually do.

There is certainly a special beauty about it at night, especially the domed interior. And there was a spookiness about the illuminated pumpkin heads in the courtyard, and the lights among the trees.

The evening began with a hearty bowl of pumpkin soup before we set off on a tour of the hall led by interpretation assistant Sarah Boughton.

She told us how, in days gone by, ladies would go to a churchyard and pick a piece of yew and place it under their pillows to dream of their future husbands.

Foretelling death was also a regular pastime in the 19th century. If you dreamed of a wedding, it meant you would die within the next year. If a clock stopped or creases in the table linen resembled a coffin, it could also indicate your impending demise.

Sarah also revealed people would open all the windows in the house when someone died, to let the soul escape.

"They used to have people called sin-eaters. If a family member died, they would call in a sin-eater. A family member would stand on one side of the coffin and the sin-eater would stand on the other.

"A piece of bread, some money and a mazard bowl would be passed over the coffin to the sin-eater, who would eat the bread, drink from the bowl and take the money."

The idea, she said, was to pass on the dead person's sins to the sin-eater so that the deceased could go to heaven.

Servants were forbidden to use the main staircase, except when they were cleaning it. Even after death, they would be taken down a less glamorous set of stairs at the back of the house, which had been designed with a space in the middle just large enough to lower a coffin on ropes.

Dead servants would be taken down with their feet pointing towards the door "so their souls couldn't return."

We were allowed to wander round the bedrooms on our own, and found there was one more surprise in store. In one of the most beautiful boudoirs which contained a four-poster bed, a figure wearing a nightgown and cap suddenly rose from the bedclothes calling for her husband George.

When my husband addressed the ghostly apparition, and said: "Good evening, Lady Cawley" she presumed he was the butler and demanded that he should empty her chamber pot!

Although on this tour we did not see any other ghostly figures, there are a few well-known tales connected with the house, which sits on the south Shropshire border.

In "Ghosts: Mysterious tales from the National Trust" by Sian Evans, there are interviews with several staff members. One extract reads: "There have been a number of reliable reports of mysterious sightings in the grounds and outbuildings within the last decade, especially around the area which houses the stable block."

A gardener relates how, on one occasion in the late 1970s, in full daylight, he was working in the grounds when he saw someone unlocking the door to the stables.

He realised that was strange because the key had been missing for years. Puzzled, because he didn't recognise the man and it was on a day when Berrington wasn't open to visitors, he went to investigate, only to find the stables locked and deserted.

He checked with other staff members, none of whom had been near the stables. The key is still missing and the door has remained unopened for many years.

In 1995, two cleaners asked the property manager if they could go and take a look at the two horses in the stable block they had seen on their way in.

They were assured that there were no horses on the premises and hadn't been for a number of years. The cleaners refused to go through the stable arch again.

Jo Mason from the National Trust said: "There are two theories that may explain these odd apparitions. The first Lord Cawley altered this wing of Berrington around 1900-04 to create the present stable block, and all the male members of the family were keen horsemen. Tragically, three of his four sons were killed in action in France during the First World War.

"During both world wars, parts of Berrington Hall were used as a hospital for wounded and recuperating soldiers, who would have been encouraged to take gentle exercise as part of their rehabilitation.

"Riding would have been considered an excellent aid to recovery of both body and mind. So perhaps the glimpses of a striding figure heading for the stables, and two horses in the loose boxes, are traces of an earlier event, picked up by sympathetic figures from our own times."

The hall's visitor services manager Gareth Gwilt believes Berrington Hall to be a friendly house.

Although there are a few stories of ghostly figures at the hall, he said many had been handed down from generation to generation and modified. "I tend not to listen to them too much because I live here!.

"We wanted to do something that was history-based. It's not very often that you get to see the house lit up like this. We are definitely looking at doing it again next year."

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