Hunting Britain’s Ghosts

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

There’s a restless immortality for many of the famous, most of the infamous and at least 10,000 ordinary blokes of these sceptered and thoroughly haunted British Isles.

A retired teacher, Stella Horrocks of Bradford, claims that through her moving pen, many who have gone over but seem reluctant to stay there, still write--Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Charlotte Bronte.

Believers say the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia, keffiyeh streaming, still rides his motorcycle across Dorset. Henry VIII, long the reigning monarch of all spooks, has been seen bellowing and strutting and belching in a dozen spots. So have most of his wives, some fully restored, some with noggins tucked under their arms. All sobbing and screaming and demanding alimony.


You don’t even have to be very long gone to come back.

Last month a Liverpudlian publican and two of his regulars swore on a stack of Watney’s (and to Astrology & Psychic News) that Richard Burton stops by for a pint at their (and Burton’s former) local.

The devil you say? Well, he’s got a haunting staked out in St. Leonard’s Forest in Sussex. Cardinal Wolsey establishes equal time for God and Catholicism by shuffling around Hampton Court. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, with true spectral ecumenism, moans the Protestant cause at Oxford. All of which poses the question: Is it fair for even departed men of the cloth to scare the living bejesus out of us?

“We’re supposed to have 10,000 officially haunted sites in the British Isles,” says Tom Perrott. “But each site could have up to a dozen hauntings by any number of people. Say, one headless horseman. Or two lovers who committed suicide.

“In the city of York there’s the Treasurer’s House, where a plumber says he saw an entire Roman legion and a half pass through the wall. He probably saw a half-dozen or so and presumed the rest.”

Perrott, 65, is bald, avuncular and retired; he talks in chapel tones befitting the professional ghost-buster. He is chairman of the Ghost Club (Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were among its 1862 co-founders) and a broadcaster, lecturer and investigator for the British Society of Psychical Research.

Perrott also is a ghost guide for anyone interested in visiting not only England’s cathedrals, abbeys and stately homes, but also the wisps and wails of their original occupants.

He works only with the best, a spiritual monarchy of dead kings and queens, plus the country’s overflow population of unhappy heroes and restless villains. As befits such carriage trade, he has a Beverly Hills agent--Ruth Stevens-Freund of Global Guests Inc., 8501 Wilshire Blvd.

On July 21, Perrott and Stevens-Freund will team to take the brave and inquisitive on yet another of their Mystical and Mystery Tours, a two-week $2,320 visit (including hotels, meals and motor-coach transportation, but not air fare) to some of England’s better haunts. To Westminster Abbey, where the entombed Unknown Warrior has started making himself known. To Canterbury Cathedral, where the Headless Bishop wanders.

And, of course, to Pluckley, where ghosts are doing for this Kentish village what cheese has done for the Somerset town of Cheddar.

Other Haunting Features

The Perrott-Stevens-Freund tour also includes one of those solve-it-yourself murder mystery weekends with the bonus fillip of an Agatha Christie setting, a costume ball and visits to the more benign sights of London, Stratford and the Lake District.

Yet another American search for British spiritualism arrived last week. This two-week tour is being led by Nonie Fagett of Metco Tours, Beverly Hills, who clearly is California’s counterpart of Perrott. She’s a psychic and an exorcist and was technical adviser to the movie “Ghostbusters.” She also lives in the Benedict Canyon home where mystery writer Muriel Davidson was murdered in 1983.

“Our tour will spend one week in London and one week in the countryside,” she explained. “I don’t say: ‘Come with me and you will see an apparition.’ But every place I take people has a current apparition, one that shows itself.

“I know because I’ve seen most of them.”

Perrott, on the other hand, has never seen a ghost. Oh, he has felt their chills. He accepts that the living, human presence creates energy and that a violent or dramatic end will excite that force. It might be possible, he says, for such energy to survive the death of the person and cling, swirling and boiling, to some final or familiar place.

Faith, Not Facts

Conversely, Perrott says, England is a country of dark superstitions, wild eccentricities and outlandish folklore: “In the dark, distant past, England was rich with isolated communities. During long winter nights people would regale themselves with stories. Most of those old stories had little basis in fact . . . but they came to be believed.”

Therefore, there’s a magnification, embellishment and elevation of the natural to the supernatural until allegations may have become the truths that begat a cottage industry.

“There also could be greater interest in ghosts in England,” Perrott theorizes, “because a lot of people here cut their teeth on Dickens and ‘A Christmas Carol.’ ”

Whatever the explanation, Perrott, a retired personnel manager, continues the research that will eventually build his computerized gazetteer of where spooks go to be seen. From his existing card index have come a dozen tourist packages (“it combines a little bit of visiting ordinary cathedrals with a little bit out of the ordinary”) for several hundred amateur ghost-hunters.

Nothing But Tea

In 1984, he took 30 people and a Seattle disc jockey to Gwydir Castle in north Wales. Nobody saw anything, but a lot of people sensed something. It could have been jet lag.

Last year Perrott escorted a four-person tour for Dale Kaczmarek, president of the Ghost Research Society of Chicago. Again, nothing.

“But we did have tea with the great-great niece of Jane Austen.”

He has four or five tours set for this season, which runs from early summer until whenever tourists prefer the American Bar at the Savoy over fog and mud-up-to-your-Burberry on some blasted heath.

“I like to operate in a populist sort of manner--not blinding (clients) with science--which is frowned upon by the psychic pundits,” he says.

“Of course, I’m not in any way denigrating what psychic researchers do. I’m deeply interested in whether there’s anything in it. But we strive to make ourselves as untechnical as possible when approaching the general public.”

(We’re sitting in the parlor of Perrott’s two-story home in middle-class Muswell Hill in all-class north London. It’s in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, the birthplace of television. One day, they say, the now-dead and burned-out studios may be haunted by Milton Berle.)

Ghosts for the Daring

One joy of ghost-hunting in Britain, Perrott says, is the wealth and frequency of solid hauntings. And few are off-limits to those willing to dare and indulge.

In Smarden, an hour southeast of London, there’s a beamed and clinker-built 15th-Century pub-hotel-restaurant called the Chequers Inn. Clothing moves in Room 4. Nocturnal bumpings come from Room 6. Landlord Frank Stevens will be happy to let you stay overnight in either.

The Grenadier is an ancient pub in London proper and a short walk from Harrods. Hoist one here to the memory of a 19th-Century Guards officer who was beaten to death when found cheating at cards. He’s around often enough that he just might be back.

But in death as in life, warns Perrott, time and progress dissipate all things.

The famed Gray Nun of Borley Rectory in Essex hasn’t been seen for 25 years: “That great magnet disappeared when the rectory was torn down for a housing development.” The White Lady at the Tower of London became the Gray Lady before disappearing altogether: “She de-energized, if you wish, like any form of energy being sapped over a period.”

History’s Celebrities

Yet, despite the ravages of demolition and overexposure, there remain more than enough ghosts to go around. With a car and a map and Perrott’s picks . . . well, good haunting.

“At the Tower of London there are about 15 ghosts and mostly famous historical characters. Lady Jane Grey. Sir Walter Raleigh. Anne Boleyn. There’s supposed to be a spectral bear because the Tower once was a kind of zoological garden.

“Thomas a Becket. Guy Fawkes. The Little Princes. The headless wonders are near the Bloody Tower. The ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh in the Beecham Tower. So many, really.

“York is very fruitful. Apparently every church, every pub has its star ghost. Yorkshire has 97 hauntings, far more than any other country. . . .

“Hampton Court. Three there, and Catherine Harris is supposed to beat her fists on the chapel door. . . .

“At Windsor Castle there’s Jane Seymour on a staircase and Mrs. Sybil Penn, nurse to Edward VI, who has been seen with a long gray robe and a white cap. . . .

“At Glamis Castle in Scotland, the Queen Mother’s family home, the story is supposed to be some terrible family secret. There are blasts of cold air, a tall figure in armor and it might be Earl Beardie, a ghost who is supposed to gamble with the devil. . . .

“At Westminster Abbey there’s Father Benedictus, who was murdered by thieves in 1303 and who walks through chambers talking in medieval English. . . .

“There are at least nine ghosts attached to Prestbury in Gloucestershire near Cheltenham. There’s a galloping horseman and a Civil War cavalier or a messenger from the Battle of Tewkesbury. Villagers have heard spectral music, or seen the Black Abbott, and at Walnut Cottage there’s Old Moses, a groom who was murdered while watching alterations to the cottage.”

‘Ghosts Are Human’

Therein lies a lesson for any handy homeowner thinking of telling his ceiling man that the studs are off center.

There is, Perrott notes, no rule of translucent thumb for the appearance or disappearance of ghosts. Similarly, places that might seem rich and happy hunting grounds are often free of phantasms.

What of St. Paul’s Cathedral then, the resting place of the Duke of Wellington (it was an officer from his regiment who was offed in the basement of the Grenadier) and Lord Nelson?

“Strangely, there’s only one ghost at St. Paul’s. It’s a little clergyman. Not very interesting, really.”

How about Stonehenge, that mysterious granite arena on Salisbury Plain and supposedly a gathering place for Druids and site of human sacrifices?

“Nothing there, either. Of course it is very wet, cold and windy on Salisbury Plain, so maybe the British climate has something to do with it.

“Ghosts are human, after all.”