It is nearly Hallowe’en and, however sophisticated we may or may not be, most of us occasionally like a bit of a “fright” on All Hallows’ Eve. Technically, of course, it is supposed to be the day when we reflect on those we knew who have died, to take the time to remember and honour them. It was also, in Pagan times, the night the dead walked again and these days, certainly in the west, that idea takes precedence and it is more about visions of poltergeists, shrouded figures and spectral skeletons rising up from long closed graves.
Until recently, Hallowe’en did not have a huge cultural role in the UK as it was overshadowed by our celebration of Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th with its traditional firework displays. Now Hallowe’en activities abound, from trick or treating, costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack o’lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, watching horror films, acting out murder mysteries and telling ghost stories.
Our long dark winter nights in the northern hemisphere lend themselves to ghost stories and things that go bump in the night. One of the most famous and much loved of these is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. In a way this was the “Harry Potter” of its day. Not only was it an enormous commercial success in terms of sales but also, along with Queen Victoria’s introduction of Christmas trees and her revival of tartan, realigned attitudes towards Christmas in Victorian England. Even better, it has a happy ending in that it is about redemption and Scrooge does indeed make gifts and share with those who have less. Such is its prominence that I used it as the background in my book, “Christmas at Highclere”, to relate a few of the ghostly sightings that have taken place here at the Castle. What I think is particularly fun is that those pages are reversed so that it is white text looming out of black pages.
By reputation there are a number of ghosts or presences at Highclere. A few appear apparently in the park, there may be some restless souls by the bronze age tumuli, (I have to say I have not looked), one in a yew tree, one in the Tower, various presences on the top floor, a lady in black by the Gothic stairs, one who I saw in an old downstairs corridor, one who sits on the foot of a bed every so often and one lady who used occasionally to follow me round the Gallery. Everyone here has their own story and the places they don’t like to visit on a gloomy evening.
The most malevolent of these apparently lived by a very old Yew Tree by the ruined church of St Michael, just outside what is now the back door of the kitchens. St Michael was a saint associated with the late Anglo-Saxon period who was linked to high places and apparitions and who was the patron saint of cemeteries. He is reputedly called Grampas which, rather than being a misspelling of Grandpa as so many assume is, in fact, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Grama – a fiend. The story goes that this ghost was eventually banished by a posse of six Bishops into the Yew Tree and from thence to the Red Sea for some unexplained reason. Long may he stay there.
The word “spirit” has a more benign etymology in that it is all about breath and breathing which is much more peaceful, whilst “ghost” likely links to the Germanic “gast” and thence to the word guest. So they are not all bad and, in fact, I think Highclere has a lovely warm, homely atmosphere which welcomes guests from every spectral plane and will continue to do so for many years to come.