Who you gonna call…


I’ve tended to shy away from ghosts within my landscape/folklore/archaeology research (with the obvious exception of the ‘haunting’ of Jacob Seley, which can be found here). This is not through lack of interest, more due to the fact that it is a pretty emotive subject.
Unlike tales of pixies, giants, and demons, the belief in ghosts (or lack of it) is not something that can always be approached objectivity, and in many cases belief, or the need to believe, in the existence of ghosts are tied up in personal experiences of loss and bereavement. By questioning validity takes away the needed link to a love one. Equally, by following up on stories could reflect back to a real person and/or tragic event.
Though the collection and mapping of folkloric stories across the South West of England I came across a number of visual places in the landscape held stories relating to ghostly occurrences (and I’m not referring to ‘sightings’ of famous and historical figures), but I’ve always been avoided further analysis of them. I think the reason comes from a personal observation of the danger of forgetting the people in the stories told (and I’m changing/omitting the names and location deliberately in this next paragraph).

A number of years ago there was an investigation of a haunting of a house next to a relative of mine.
Their new neighbours were experiencing supposedly ghostly interactions with the former occupant of the house who had passed away about 6 months before.
They described in detail the appearance and mannerisms, and suggested the activities were strongest in particular locations that reflected the habits of the person when alive.
A team of investigators arrived, and subsequently published the account in a book on regional ghost stories.

Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, despite changing the name, the details listed relating to the location and suggested haunter were such that a family member of the ‘ghost’ ended up finding out and recognising their loved one. Obviously, to find a relative is supposed to be haunting your childhood home is not something I think anyone wishes to know.

So, as I think a semiconscious result of this, I’ve deliberately avoided working in this area, and edged around the ghost stories in my database. That is until recently. Maybe my reputation as “the girl who talks about fairies” means that I appear more approachable, but I have been asked to undertake archaeological and landscape investigations a number of supposedly haunted buildings or places.

I’ve not been asked to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, let me make that clear, nor am I undertaking any ‘ghost hunting’ of my own (I’ll leave that to those with the specialism and the fancy equipment!). But through documentary and map evidence, and clues in the landscape I have tried to piece together the background to a location, and suggest a reason for the story to occur and be tied in a place. In one case I was asked to research the siting of a school, and from a landscape perspective overlaying the modern building on to old maps, and discussing what is now a built up area before the urban spread, was fascinating. For another, I actually had a name to work with, and finding reference to it in the archives in the right place did come as a bit of a suprise!

That said, it could be argued it merely a straightforward piece of landscape research; being pragmatic by nature, it’s certainly the best way to approach it, and how I conducted it. But I’m conscious of the ethical issues relating to something that could uncover real people, and real tragedies, misremembered and the context lost and forgotten. After all, as Prof. Tolkien wrote “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth…”

I’m continuing to look into the stories as a little distration from my normal day job and research, but fully aware of the veritable minefield of issues that come from it. Maybe I’m being over cautious, but I’m probably going to stick with pixies and petrification myths in the long term. After all, the likelihood of upsetting someone by investing fairy activities is much less likely than that of a tale of hauntings.

The Wanderings of the Monmouth Men part 2


Yesterday I set the scene for a fantastic story about the ghosts of the Monmouth Men

We now move forward 5 years to 1690, and stories of lost souls wandering the Blackdown Hills are common. The story that I want to tell is of Jacob Seley who was so convinced he had been’ bewitched’ by the ghosts of Monmouth men, and that they stole his horse, he reported it to the judges undertaking the Western Circuit.

It goes like this:

Jacob was travelling from Exeter to Taunton on September 22nd. Leaving around 3pm he headed north on the “Hinton Clist Road” to Blackdown, and stopped at a public-house called “Cleston”. Here he stayed for a while and ordered “a pot of beer and a noggin of brandy” (or at least that is all he owned up to!) and went on his way.

By 7 or 8pm he met what he described as a Country like farmer who told him to turn back as there was good lodgings a mile or so behind him. After travelling back to the dwelling, the house and  the farmer suddenly disappeared, and Jacob tells of being surrounded by figures, that took his horse (giving it “something like treacle”). He was trapped and when he tried to slash at them with his sword “could find nothing but shadow”.

This continued until four in the morning when he managed to get away, and went to “Coldstock”; to report the whole incident to the judges, and then again publicly to his neighbourhood when he returned to Exeter.

The leaflet that came to press some two weeks later details how the house where Jacob was taken to belonged to “one of the Monmouth Men, and hang’d on the sign post, and the spot of Ground where Mr Seley was confin’d was not far from the house where several of them were Buried that were Buried, and Executed on Monmouth’s side, and goes by the name of Black Down.”

strange and wonderful

The landscape and the story became bound together, creating the atmosphere that allowed Jacob to be bewitched.

The Blackdown Hills had a reputation for criminal activity at this time, I have always thought that this could be a clear example that many bandits and thieves traded on the superstition and fear which surrounded the area in order to move through the landscape unchallenged.

Could it be that in the public house his head was filled with stories of the ghosts of the men who died only a dew years previously? Were people using the fear that could easily be generated in this landscape of steep sided valleys to take advantage of some robbery and horse stealing?

We’ll never know for sure, but I love the fact that the landscape of the ‘Black Down’ becomes steeped in this story, and almost becomes a key character within it.

I have written a longer paper on this – and if anyone is interested I’ll post it here.