Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dorset, UK – spookiest county in England? Minky thinks so.

Now, I know there are villages/towns/houses/whatevers throughout the entire British Isles that are desperate to lay claim to “most haunted” but to me there’s something particularly … ominous about the atmosphere in Dorset.

Thomas Hardy, who could be described as the grandfather of emo, based most of his novels in the area he called Wessex, and he never exactly managed “cheery”. The brooding landscape is as much of a threatening physical presence as Mr Total Bastard or Master Wanker (Hardy did tend to telegraph the traits of his characters).

Possibly it’s because of Roman invasions (the place is teeming with ruined temples and villas) or the battles fought between the invaders and the natives, or maybe it’s because I’ve only had two genuinely scary things happen to me in the whole of my life and they happened seven miles apart in Dorset. The area has burial mounds on every hillside, Neolithic wargraves, and the ghost of Lawrence of Arabia can be heard zipping around country lanes on his Brough Superior motorcycle in the pre-dawn darkness.

According to the BBC news, Judge Jeffreys, known as the Hanging Judge for his part in the Bloody Assizes, has been seen or heard as recently as September 2010. At Bettiscombe Manor, there is a skull that is rumoured to scream whenever it’s removed from the property. And Minky’s entire family had various ghostly encounters in a cottage called Conygar, in Broadmayne.

100-plus years old, belonging to Minky’s grandparents, and with the usual amount of deaths in situ that older buildings acquire, it was a gloomy house at the end of a long tree-covered driveway. The next-door neighbours were undertakers, there was an electricity pylon in the grounds that would crackle when it rained, and the whole area was honestly totally effing terrifying. One night, an aunt saw a figure crouching by the door that she thought was her husband until she realized he was in bed with her. A cousin felt a hand on her shoulder as she made coffee in the kitchen, and after my grandmother died, we found her diaries detailing her fears that the evil trees in the garden were trying to capture her. She had a brain tumour (q.v. pylon in garden), which could’ve explained things, but then all of us had felt that sense of inexplicable threat.

My own Conygar experience was one of the earliest to suggest that things weren’t quite normal at Conygar, and involved the Victorian gothic style games-room that sat in the garden – surrounded by those trees. It had a harmonium in it, along with toy train tracks and ping pong. My cousin would always get to the harmonium (like a reed organ, only British) first after lunch and never let me have a go (hey, I was 8 – this was a big deal). One day, after being sure about beating the evil cousin, I was totally pissed off to arrive only to hear the harmonium playing. So disgruntled that the fact that the door was still locked didn’t register. And then, as the door swung open to reveal the empty games room with the organ notes still dying in the air, I was left standing there absolutely shitting bricks and convinced that my 8-year-old mind had gone mad.

By the time my grandparents had both passed on – although Mr Lee in Po-Sun, the Chinese restaurant, swore my granddad couldn’t be dead because he’d come in for takeaway a couple of weeks after the funeral - the atmosphere in the house was so ominous that no family member ever wanted to be left alone in any of the rooms or the grounds. The bathroom was the exception but only because we’d all take turns standing outside the bathroom door keeping up a reassuring commentary. I guess that when we all started to compare notes, we began to realize that what we’d taken as anomalous personal experiences suggested a larger, more ill-omened sweep.

Of course now the innate skeptic in me has downgraded those experiences, and there were other spooky events that I can’t even remember now. Maybe it was the proximity of the pylon – some weird electrical field causing disturbances. Maybe it was mass hysteria, of a particularly low-key English kind. Rationality is a funny thing, but not quite as bizarre as the thought of a whole household of eight people, adults and children, refusing to be alone in any room of a house. And a couple of times we’ve gone back to see the house, which although it has now been substantially remodeled is still damn creepy.


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