Thursday, 31 October 2019

We’re going on a ghost hunt…

What could be more appropriate on Hallowe’en than a tale of a haunted house, where the mysterious scent of cigar smoke and the hint of a disgruntled former resident were said to permeate its corridors?

This was Rokesle, a Georgian rectory just inside Kent, which my grandparents Ethel and Bill bought in the 1950s when it was a decaying and gloomy shadow of its former self.

Before Rokesle was restored with my mother, Pat, in the centre

An experienced builder, the ever-practical Bill set about restoring it and making it habitable. It became a vibrant family home to Ethel, Bill and my mother, Pat, and later my dad, my siblings and myself.

While Bill was the down-to-earth sort, Ethel and Pat were of a more romantic disposition and were convinced that the former rector was still an occupant in spirit form. They were certain that they had caught the strong perfume of his cigar smoke, believing that he was hanging around to supervise the restoration works.

His portrait now hangs in my current sitting room, keeping a disapproving eye on things. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel he still lends some kind of protection and guardianship to his adoptive family.

Days at Rokesle were made for relaxing on the lawn...

The only spooky aspect of Rokesle that I recall was an incident late one night when I woke to police officers searching our garden with torches.

The next morning I overheard my mum tell my grandmother that she had called them after a young woman had appeared hammering on the door saying she had been chased down the lane by someone or something, then had run off in a state of terrorised panic. The police officers did not find her in our garden that night.

Rokesle in 1967

I only remember Rokesle as a warm and peaceful place, full of the joy and family affection that childhoods should be made of. I know it was with deep regret that my mother left there in 1979, and if anyone’s spirit is hanging around there today it will be hers – tending her roses and looking out for the badgers that would emerge after dark.

A place of joy and family affection

So convinced were Ethel and Pat that the house was haunted that they invited a reporter from the now-defunct Kentish Times to spend a night. Here is the subsequent report – inconclusive but leaving enough doubt to entertain the possibility that the supernatural is real.

Ghost Hunt
“There are more things in heaven…than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” Repeating this quotation from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to myself, I went off on a ghost hunt this week.

I was investigating some ghostly rumours about the former Rectory of Foots Cray. The house in Rectory-lane, renamed Rokesle after original spelling for Ruxley, is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. W. Roberts and their daughter Patricia. They very kindly invited me to stay overnight to see if I would meet their ethereal visitor.

Although I was sceptical on the whole question of ghosts, I tried to keep an open mind on this particular spirit. Mrs. Roberts and Patricia seemed firmly convinced that there is, or was, a ghost attached to the house. Mrs. Roberts’ private theory on the phenomenon is that the ghost was a former Rector who had a deep affection for the Rectory. His spirit used to frequent the house because the building was in a run-down condition and he was unhappy about it, but now that it has been renovated he comes less often.

200-Year-Old House
Former occupants of the house are reported to have seen the ghost, but I could get no denial or confirmation from them. Mrs. Roberts and Patricia have both smelled a strong odour of cigar smoke, not attributable to any earthly source, in the garden, and one bedroom in a part of the house reputed to be 200 years old, is for no apparent reason, so cold that Mr. and Mrs. Roberts could not sleep there and had to move to another bedroom.

It was against this background that I began my lonely vigil soon after 11 on Friday night. I settled down in the bedroom, which, although it had had the sun on it all day, remained cold. I reluctantly switched the light off, but kept the switch close at hand.

Brilliant moonlight streamed through the windows, making deep shadows and bright highlights. The passage and stairs through the open doorway (if the ghost was to appear I did not want to hinder his entrance) looked black and forbidding.

Up the stairs floated the loud sounds of two antique clocks in the hall. Suddenly there was a loud knock and some quick scrapings. And with the first chime of the bewitching hour, I realised, not without relief, that the noise had been the old striking mechanism going into action.

So 12 was here. If anything ghostly was going to happen, this was the traditional time for it. I opened the door a bit wider and fearfully yet eagerly concentrated on the darkness outside the room. Then, with my heart palpitating, I heard a measured creaking as if somebody, or something, was coming up the stairs. It was the second clock’s mechanism preparing to strike a few minutes after the other.

After I had calmed down, about half-an-hour later, I looked out at the extensive garden. Here the moonlight played monstrous tricks and the whole garden looked peopled with weird beings. The ridiculousness of this acted like a dose of cold water to my overworked imagination and I reminded myself that I did not believe in ghosts.

Therefore, when I heard the bump in the corner of the room just after one, I reasoned all supernatural implications away. It was about 1.15 when the bump came again. Not a loud, but still a decisive, sort of bump. I investigated and found – nothing. Not even something that could logically have made the noise, which made it a bit eerie.

Just before two the edge of light on the door jamb, marking the end of room moonlight and the beginning of passage darkness, started to waver and form the shape of a face. I ignored it and looked away. When I looked back it was still there. I got up and walked towards it and found it was the light from a bicycle wobbling up the lane.

And so the night wore on. Repeatedly I was disturbed by things I could not explain and sometimes by things half explained. Gradually the light faded as the moon set in a rose-coloured glow and my long vigil came to an end. I left Rokesle in the morning convinced that I had not seen a ghost, but less convinced that they did not exist. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Alive at Midday

Amidst startling bursts of floral colour, and in spite of the white heat, dozens of finches, some dull, brown bird, parakeets and squawking myna birds flit about with vigour. It’s midday and they are so alive.

The scene is gaudy. Hot pink, aquamarine and scarlet. In a surprise swoop, the dullest birds opens its wings and skims the blue water, revealing a myriad of turquoise and green tones on its underside.

Somewhere, the laughing dove mocks my wonder.

Ordered patterns elsewhere counteract the assault – the base layer for some intricate drawing. Spirals, patterns, dimensions within dimensions - impossible constructions.

I disturb a lizard. Its camouflage is too good to be real, and I expect it to dive back into a two-dimensional plane.

There’s a dark, shady section of this scene where the other-worldly creatures lurk. I daren’t peer behind the thick green leaves. I’m not one to take fright but it’s the just that these skulking things have a habit of shifting and shaping just to startle you.

Its time to step quietly inside and leave the grotesque to rule.

Inspired by the work of M.C. Escher.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Greenwich, Me and Time

The Royal Borough of Greenwich is perhaps best-known for its naval history, its smart Georgian and Victorian architecture and lending its name to Greenwich Mean Time. It encompasses a number of lesser-known districts, the names of which are so familiar to me, yet visiting them feels like something of an adventure, being so different from East Anglia where I have spent much of my life.

On my mother’s side, my family lived in the Greenwich area from at least the early nineteenth century, around Woolwich, Eltham, New Eltham and Lee and neighbouring Lewisham. Research in the censuses has revealed that my ancestors were simple folk, described as ‘coachman’, ‘groom’, ‘laundry wash’, ‘grocer’ and even ‘prisoner’.

Well Hall Road, Eltham

So, an adventure we had a weekend or two ago as we returned to Greenwich after a long absence. There was a homely feel as we made our way up Well Hall Road in Eltham. Arts and Crafts style houses lined our route, with many well-tended, rose-filled gardens. If it weren’t for the South Circular Road, you could imagine yourself in the depths of some very pretty, very English village.

The road is notorious for being the site of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993. The spirits of my grandparents were not far as I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought of this sad infamy.

Heroes' Corner, Greenwich Cemetery

At the top of Well Hall Road is Greenwich Cemetery, set on the slopes of Shooter’s Hill - one of the highest points in London. Here we spent a good hour visiting relatives’ graves and exploring the site. I had forgotten about the parakeets that are peculiar to south-east London, which I remember from our former garden in Kent. They darted about shrieking to one another, too quick to be captured on camera.
It was worth walking to the far end of the cemetery to see Heroes’ Corner commemorating World War I burials, and to take in the panoramic view of London. It is a good place for reflection.

I wondered what my ancestors would have made of my life. Having recently sifted through boxes and boxes of family memorabilia and photos, and through censuses and other records, I feel I can piece together a little of their lives.

I have just marked the anniversary of my eight-year-old great-grandfather Frank starting school in nearby Lewisham in 1883. His parents must have had high hopes for him. Sadly he died aged only 33, leaving behind a young family. A poignant note that his wife, Selina, wrote their daughter, my grandmother Ethel, later in life suggests it was a struggle after Frank’s death: “…you worked with me all your young days, when you ought to have been playing”.

My mother Pat in the garden of 36 Castleford Avenue, New Eltham, in the 1930s

For many years, my devoted grandparents Ethel and Bill stayed close to the area where they both grew up, although World War Two enforced a separation when Ethel and my mother Pat were evacuated to Wales for a period. Handwritten letters between Ethel and Bill tell of Bill’s duties as an air raid warden, and are surprisingly passionate, considering that Bill was known as a taciturn man. Though I was only six when he died, I have clear memories of him not saying a lot but pottering about fixing things, ensuring that doors were locked and padlocks secured, usually with a ciggie at the corner of his mouth.

My mother, Pat, with her parents Ethel and Bill, 1940s

Ethel, Bill and Pat only moved out of Eltham in the 1950s to Foots Cray, Kent – not far away but something of a step up for them as they purchased a decaying Georgian rectory which Bill, a builder, restored to an idyllic home. It makes me happy to think how thrilled they would have been to bring their new home to life.

Ethel and Bill in Foots Cray, Kent, 1950s

No matter where I go, their imprints are everywhere. Tracing their footsteps in South London makes me hyper aware of their history, but I don’t need to go far to be reminded of them - I’m surrounded by their knick-knacks stuffed in display cabinets – their bridge trophies, a few defunct cigarette lighters dotted about here and there, bits of china that are worthless but too precious to throw or give away.

Ethel, 1950s

In troubled times it’s always my grandmother Ethel who comes to me, making time stand still. Always smiling, telling me to get my coat on and hurry up and put some lipstick on as well during a difficult house move or “Don’t worry, it’ll all turn out alright in the end”. And it did.