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Hunting Britain’s Ghosts

Lopez is a Times editorial employee.

It is a quaint and charming village like many in the county of Kent. Narrow roads weave in from the peaceful countryside and on the main street stand familiar, gentle, picturesque sentries: the parish church, the village school and the pub.

Yet, few people come here in search of tranquillity and antiques.

They visit because Pluckley is the most haunted village in Kent, a haven of historic hauntings, 12 ghosts and one ghost-buster, an ex-Bobby named Dennis Chambers.

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When Chambers talks about ghostly sightings, he shies away from cold and academic words such as “supernatural” and “occult . " Instead, the 52-year-old retired Manchester policeman speaks in informal, almost personal terms about his ghostly subjects, his “personalities from the past” who indulge in “supernormal activities.”

His tone is professorial. Tall, with a close-cropped, graying beard and mustache, he could be teaching mathematics at the nearby University of Kent at Canterbury. Yet, this summer Saturday he is sitting in the Black Horse pub (there’s a mischievous ghost among its regulars, he says, “a rackety spirit, a noisy ghost”), lunching over a pint of bitter and talking of his colorful acquaintances . . . the White Lady, the Red Lady, the Monk at Greystone.

A Close Encounter

It began, he recalls, in 1966, when he was living in Cheshire near Manchester. His blue eyes narrow. It was a close encounter of the most disturbing kind. In his own home.

“There were noises, odors and cold spots,” he remembers. “We thought it was the Ouija board we had been using out of curiosity that had attracted other forms of life. Or it could have been some stones in the paving behind the house. They had come from Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, an area well-known for witchcraft.

“I’m not a person who likes to be kidded,” he says. “Twenty-five years as a police officer has instilled a high degree of logic in me and so I called on experts. Mediums from the Britten Fellowship in Manchester, a center of spiritualism. We conducted two seances on the property, after which things calmed down. Then we sold the house.”

A year later, he moved to Maidstone and to a new beat as operations sergeant with the Kent Constabulary. In 1979, at the end of 25 years of police work, he retired from busting crooks and expanded his interest to busting ghosts. His major in ghostly matters has been all forms of psychic phenomena; his minor has long been Pluckley.

Hence, Denela Ghost Tours, his one-man, one-topic travel agency for the curious, the skeptical and for any tourist who would rather know about ghosts than gawk at Big Ben.

And he never tires of walking Pluckley and working his philosophy of good haunting: “If you want to see a ghost, you will. If you don’t want to see, you won’t. It’s the bloke who doesn’t give a damn and isn’t looking for anything in particular who really is going to stumble on a sighting.”

We stroll from the Black Horse to the Parish Church of St. Nicholas and its mossy graveyard.

“The Red Lady is said to wander among the tombstones,” Chambers said. “She is a sorrowing ghost, a mother searching for the body of her baby lying in an unmarked grave. But she never finds the child and so her mournful search is endless.”

As the Red Lady sobs outside the church, he explains, the White Lady haunts the inside.

She is the spirit of the beautiful young wife of Lord Dering, lord of the manor 500 years ago. She died young. To preserve her beauty, Chambers says, her body was dressed in a white gown, sealed in a series of airtight lead coffins, and then was buried in the family vault.

Now, claim several sightings, she stands at night near the family crypt, her white dress flowing, a red rose to her breast.

Chambers leads the way to nearby Bethersden Road and Rose Court, a large, 250-year-old house.

‘Killed Herself’

“The Tudor Lady of Rose Court is said to have been the mistress to one of the Dering lords,” Chambers continues. “Killed herself. Drank a poisonous concoction.”

Bad love affair?

“Seems likely. Legend also has it that the Tudor Lady and the Monk at neighboring Greystone house had a ‘friendly’ relationship.” Chambers points to the area behind Rose Court. “On several afternoons the Monk and the Lady were seen walking her dogs across these fields.”

Then materializations aren’t always nocturnal?

“There are no rules to ghosts,” Chambers says. “It is said the Tudor Lady visits between four and five in the afternoon. But I do believe that certain natural factors are required, if there is to be a sighting. Such as forested areas, for trees and water have influences on life as sources of energy.”

Chambers turned away and we walked down the lane in silence.

Has Pluckley’s ghost-buster ever busted a ghost?

“No, I’ve never actually seen one. But one day I will. And I hope it’s a personality I’ve had no knowledge of beforehand, not a Lord Nelson or someone famous,” he said. “I suppose I’d like to see a vision of something that can be pursued as a personality, something I had no inkling of before, someone I can trace through records and amass a quantity of information about that could then be confirmed by photograph.

“That would be a matter of pure personal satisfaction. Then I’d die happy.”

We’d reached Pinnock Stream and the bridge where an old woman burned to death. She was known as the Watercress Woman, a village peddler who gathered watercress from the bank to sell in town.

“It is said one night she was resting on the low parapet of the bridge,” Chambers said. “As was her habit, she drank gin and smoked a pipe. A spark from her pipe fell on her gin-splashed shawl. . . . And, well, you can imagine.”

What tourists must now imagine (although there haven’t been many recent sightings) is the glowing outline of a figure seated on the bridge.

Another stop. Another creepy legend.

‘Fright Corner’

We’re at Fright Corner, where, the story goes, a highwayman fought another man to the death. The highwayman came in second. Chambers points to the surrounding woods.

“They’re called the Screaming Woods and Fright Woods,” he says. He’s grinning. “There was a hollow tree, right here at Fright Corner. The highwayman and his intended victim, a passing traveler, fought with swords. The highwayman was stabbed and pinned to that tree.”

It was then the wind blew through the woods. The noise was raspy and mournful. Sounds of nature? Or muted voices?

“To believe in ghosts,” Chambers said, “you have to have a belief in the afterlife. And I do believe in an afterlife.”

And I did believe it was time to test Pluckley’s ghosts.

That night. At midnight. In the graveyard.

I wouldn’t dare go alone. So I drafted my friend. And where he went, so would his 15-year-old son.

The sky was black and the wind was silent as we walked to St. Nicholas’ church. The small wooden gate creaked loudly as I fumbled in the darkness for the latch. Our footsteps crunched the gravel as we walked past moss-covered tombstones.

Why are we doing this?” asked the teen-ager. His voice creaked.

Speaking in Whispers

“Because it’s an adventure.” I hissed. “Now just follow me to the Dering family plot and stop stepping on my heels.”

“Why are we whispering?” asked my tough friend. “Afraid to wake the dead?”

We proceeded, in single file, careful not to trip over a grave site. We approached a low stone wall. Beyond it was an open, fallow field.

That’s where we stopped.

That’s where we saw it.

Something.

It was large and oval-shaped and diaphanous. It drifted, smoothly, quickly, about 20 feet ahead of us. Without wavering. A silent, white mass floated across the field. Then it vanished.

“Let’s get out of here!” shouted someone.

Like the Three Stooges, we tried. The grown-ups ran into each other. The kid tripped. I fell.

The wind mocked us as we ran. The trees rose over us--tall, black and sinister against the moonless sky. We darted past the creaking gate. A chill oozed up my spine. Icy fingers clamped my neck.

We huddled in the car. I shivered.

“Did you see? . . . What was it?” I asked.

Not a Sound

“Too large to be a dog, too small to be a sheep and it moved too smoothly for an animal,” rambled the teen-ager. “And there was no sound, no bark, no whine. Nothing.”

“But did you hear anything?” I asked my friend.

“I saw something weird. I even heard something. It was my heart quitting.”

I continued to stammer as we drove away: “Could it have been? I mean, was it a . . . ?”

Maybe it was.

Or maybe it was the greasy plaice and soggy chips we’d all had for dinner.

For information on Denela Ghost Tours, contact Dennis Chambers at 9 Northleigh Close, Loose, Maidstone, Kent, England ME15 9RP.


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