Hunting for Britain’s Haunted Villages

by MJ Wayland

We all know Halloween is a silly season in the media where it is common to read about the ‘top 10 Britain’s most haunted cities’, ‘UK’s most haunted hotels’ etc. Once you dig down into the article, it is easy to see that they are usually PR generated articles by imagination-lacking PR companies who are desperate to gain a few column inches of media coverage for their otherwise boring clients.

I decided to wander into the archives and look for similar stories from over a hundred years ago – surely such stories were being printed then? Sadly I was disappointed, aside from annual Christmas collection of ghost stories usually with very serious titles, there were no claims of being ‘Britain’s most haunted’ whatever.

What did strike my attention was two villages that were living in fear of the appearance of ghosts and their reaction to the sightings.

Dorset’s Most Haunted Village?

In July 1923, Swyre, a small Dorset fishing village was claimed to be a haunted village with the inhabitants claiming to be terrorised by a ghost whom they described at the time as “a seafaring man in uniform with luminous buttons.”

The villagers believed that rather than being a hoaxer, that the sightings were linked to a death in the village. The Dundee Courier wrote,

They think they know what worries the ghost. Some years ago a labourer, working on the foreshore, unearthed the skeleton of a six-foot man. He did not re-bury the bones, but laid them in a dry ditch, where they were hidden by weeds and long grass. The skeleton is believed to be that of a smuggler killed more than 100 years ago in a fight with Excise officers.

The villagers told the newspaper that they were frantically searching all the dry ditches of the district for the skeleton and they believed that its owner, the ghost, was annoyed at the way in which his bones were treated. If the bones were found they would be give the skeleton a proper burial.

The ghost itself was said to linger in Mile Gate near the end of the beach and look like a smuggler of the “old days” and usually chose a misty, dark night for his wanderings. Scooby Doo anyone?

Wiltshire’s Most Haunted Village

The Yorkshire Evening Post on 1st February 1895 reported similar circumstances in the Wiltshire village of Ham,

On Thursday last week the occupants of the haunted house – a cottage occupied by a married man – were suddenly alarmed by an unexpected movement of chairs. The wife was naturally greatly agitated, and sought the aid of her neighbours, who, however were unable to restore her composure or allay her apprehension.

The man sought his employer, the village publican, a policeman and a ex-prize fighter called “Jack” to investigate his haunted home.

The police man had his lamp alight, and the party also took with them two cats (?!? MJ) It is alleged that soon after they had established themselves a distant rumbling sound was heard, and one of the number, “Jack” sought to make his exit, but the door was blocked by the entrance of the ghost, who bade “Jack” resume his seat. This was impossible because the chairs, without any visible sign of interference were tumbling over each other in delightful confusion. While this was proceeding the watchers are said to have departed in great fright.

The family soon moved home and visitors began to visit the “haunted house”, one set of visitors claimed to have witnessed the apparition manifesting as, “having a face resembling a cartwheel, and a frightful tail, the extremity being bifurcated, and in appearance like an inverted V, with eight pairs of tins and scales like a fish. They also allege that the chairs turned over, the pictures acted in a similar manner, and so alarmed were the poor cats that one jumped into the fire, and the other was apparently forced across the room.

Other sightings were reported ranging from eight pairs of boot seen flying all directions, including out of the oven!

The story continued in Western Gazette on 8th February 1895, “By Monday the feeling had increased, and the news of these supernatural experiences having got abroad, a number of people visited the village.”

A local ghost hunter, “Posty” Challis told the villagers he would uncover the mystery and at 10 o’clock visited the “haunted house”. The villagers told the Western Gazette, “they heard unearthly noises; sometimes it appeared as the wailing of an infant, sometimes like the cry of a sailor in distress; at other times the cry for help, succour, and relief.”

Many of the visitors left the village after being disappointed in not witnessing an paranormal activity, some stayed and visited the village inn to listen to some of the stories from the villagers themselves. One villager told the Western Gazette that long ago,

a man who was prone to use bad language went to the haunted house, and whilst standing outside the door, the step suddenly opened, and he fell in the cavity above his knees, and the step closing quickly his legs were snapped clean off. For years afterwards the village declared they saw him going home at night with the aid of two bean-sticks. The mystery thickens and refuses to be solved, and as a result the whole village is scared.

Both stories are just thirty years apart but show the different ways in which a haunting was dealt with, within a small community. Surprisingly it is the newer story that relies on a folklore story to explain the haunting – it must be the skeleton of a smuggler, and no mention of a hoax and the older is just a collection of unsubstantiated reports – no direct interview with the original witness “the married man”.

As with many explosions of ghostly activity from the late 1800s/early1900s, the stories disappear without any conclusion, so who knows maybe the smuggler still wanders Chesil Beach?

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