Thursday, 15 November 2012

Haunted house

Tucked away on the far western edge of Oxfordshire, in hard-to-get-to countryside, is Chastleton House, built between 1607 and 1612 by Walter Jones, a Welsh lawyer who had done well for himself.

He bought the Chastleton Estate from a man desperate to sell it. A man in fear of the rack and a dreadful death, the sort that traitors might suffer. That man was Robert Catesby, a Catholic and the driving force behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot, which is what the bonfires are all about on 5th November each year. Catesby did not suffer the horrible death meted out to co-conspirator Guy Fawkes. He was offered the chance to buy his life if he paid an immense fine. He sold nearly everything, his home included, to raise the necessary money, and I imagine that Walter Jones was in a position to drive a hard bargain. At any rate, Jones had cash enough to pull down Cateby's house and build an entirely new one on the foundations.

Naturally, given the dangers of the times, the house has its Secret Room, which forty years later was actually used by a descendant, Captain Arthur Jones, one night in the later Civil War, when he was hotly pursued to the house by Roundhead soldiers. They couldn't find him, but refused to go away, announcing that they would all make their quarters for the night on the floor of the very room containing the entrance to the secret hiding-place. They loudly ordered food and refreshment from his wife. Unpurturbed, Captain Jones' wife gave them a good meal, but drugged their ale so that they all fell soundly asleep. Her husband could then come out of hiding, treading carefully over the soldiers, and he got clean away on a fresh horse.

Backtracking a little, the nouveau-riche builder of the house, Walter Jones, went on to make an advantageous marriage. This established his family among the nobility of the land, and naturally in the years that followed their sympathies and loyalties were entirely Royalist, supporting Charles I against the rising tide of Puritan feeling.

The Royalist cause was of course doomed. Charles I was beheaded in 1649. As he finished his prayers on the scaffold where the axe would shortly fall, Charles handed his Bible to faithful Bishop Juxon. This Bible was taken into retirement by the bishop, but he gave it to the Jones family as a cherished momento of Charles, to whom they had been so loyal, and it is still there in the house. An unlucky gift perhaps. After the Parliamentary forces won the Civil War, and Oliver Cromwell had established the Commonwealth, the Jones family were singled out for special taxation. It was intended as a heavy punishment for being on the losing side. Starved of money, the family had to sell of bits of the estate to get by, and because acreage mattered - noble landowners had to live off their rents - they sank into relative poverty. They never recovered financially.

But they did manage to keep the house going for some 400 years altogether, though without adequate repairs. The house therefore remained in its original 1612 state, never modernised, and was still like this when it came into the hands of the National Trust in 1991. It was by then a very rare example of an intact Jacobean house with a period garden, and the Trust decided to keep it largely as they found it, and not embark on extensive restoration work.

So the visiting public sees a house that has all its original features and furnishings, except of course those that had to be sold to keep things going. The house has a bareness and half-emptiness that accentuates things you might not otherwise notice, such as strange, dark and curiously-carved wall panelling, heavily plastered ceilings, the unevenness of very old wooden floor planks; and just under the level of awareness, sundry mysterious echoes and creaks. This is a house that talks to itself.

The house does not look unusual from the outside, but inside, towards the end of a late autumn afternoon, as I saw it recently, when the sun is low, and the desolation of a cold evening is growing, then you might be glad of company when walking through the maze of rooms. The Great Hall, with its roaring fire, is cheerful enough, but the passages leading off, that twist and turn, and the odd way that rooms interconnect, all disconcert you. You might easily get lost on the upper floors; you would certainly not want to be caught there in the dark. And all about, faces leer at you from the dark oak panelling:

The staircase is very spooky indeed. It winds up and up, full of blind corners, those sharp-pointed bannister spikes, so much like the spikes traitors' heads were once impaled upon, follow you up as you go and would cast menacing shadows if a flickering candle was your only light:

I looked down near the top, but all I saw was the stairwell of a screaming dream, spiralling down to infinity:

Upstairs is the Long Gallery. It was built to enable the people in the house to get exercise, and read, and sew, when the weather was too wet or too cold to venture outside. It catches the sunset, light streaming down its entire length:

But after dark this place would be full of unsettling silence, a place of whispers and vague, impossible movement, like old portraits that seem to come alive once the sun has set. Scattered about the house were paintings such as this. I was much struck by this one at the foot of the stairwell:

This very careworn lady, holding a hymnal in her hand, seems hemmed in by the dark background. I couldn't make out which hymn was her particular comfort against the things she was afraid of. What was there in the house that made her afraid? I rather fancy she prayed constantly under her breath, as a way of defying the devils that made those stange and insistent little noises upstairs that she couldn't quite be certain about.

In the middle of the house was an empty area, closed in except skywards, a gloomy place of blank, staring windows:

Perhaps another place not to go after dark. Especially alone. If you look closely at the dark window (bottom centre) there seem to be two points of red light. Something electrical? Or red eyes watching? Whose red eyes?

Finally (the last place I went) there were the cellars. First, a fairly ordinary subterranean space with a big ladder in it and not much else. But then, there was a deeper chamber with strange columns, that reminded me of the columns in the Temple at Luxor in Egypt. But there were no hieroglyphs on these. It was only the Beer Cellar. But it was as silent and oppressive as the grave, a place in which you would take care not to shut the door on youself, and not let your candle blow out. You wouldn't want to see any red eyes in the darkness, would you now?

Two women with a little boy followed me in. I was surprised to see them, but relieved that they had joined me. Back in the main cellar was a slightly older child, a girl who might have been twelve or thirteen. She had hung back. She looked defiantly at me. 'I'm not going in there!' she said, 'No way I'm going in there.' I assured her that I wouldn't make her. We agreed it was really creepy. Children know.

No question, this was a haunted house.

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