Wednesday, 9 November 2016

A ghostly owl in a dark corridor


I must have a Gothic streak in me, because despite being easily startled and a thorough whimpette, I do end up wandering alone around old buildings, where the atmosphere is creepy and suggestive of lurking horrors. Especially if I am there at sunset. But even a building mostly well-lit by sunshine can have its shadowy corners, dark passages, cellars, and rambling upper corridors that echo and whisper and creak.

In early October, I visited a National Trust property in Somerset called Barrington Court. This consists of two large country houses, with stables and many outbuildings, and an extensive surrounding estate. The older of the two houses dates from the 1550s in its present form, although its nucleus is much older, and it underwent restoration and modernisation in the 1920s. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrington_Court. But essentially this older house looks Jacobean, and rather like another National Trust property I know (Chastleton House in Oxfordshire), has creepy and scary corners - just the kind of place you'd expect to have a reputation for ghosts and things like that. To my eye it had this 'feel' even in sunshine - I was visiting on one of the last really warm and mild days of the year:


Look at all those twisting chimneys!

Inside it was hard to distinguish the 1920s restoration work from the ancient wooden flooring, wall panelling and staircases. The new blended in admirably with the old to re-create that 1500s look in the main rooms and corridors, even though 'modern' 1920s fittings abounded. The National Trust had taken care to keep room furnishings to a bare minimum, deliberately intending to conjure up 'atmosphere' and let the visitor's imagination get working. Well, they succeeded. And as you will see, perhaps too well in the upstairs galleries!

First, a few shots around the ground floor...


Pretty easy to keep cheerful so far! But it would have been gloomy on a dark evening. Some of the lower-floor corridors had a forlorn look...


There was a narrow, confining stairway up, clearly not the main one. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was a disturbing quality to it.


But I did find the main stair. At first the staircase and the rooms above seemed safe, well-lit and welcoming.


I examined several of those upper rooms. All was serene, if more shadowy than downstairs. 


But there were distant stealthy noises even further up that I couldn't puzzle out. What were they? I found another narrow stairway, and slowly walked up it. Looking down, you could imagine it in a different, sombre, more menacing kind of light:


There were bare, bleak corridors and galleries on these upper floors, and the noises were louder now. Shuffling noises. Strange hooting noises. And I was completely on my own. Nobody else was up here with me. 


Thank goodness for the light coming in through the windows! But it didn't penetrate far down this maze of eerie passages. The noises had a disturbing fluttering element to them now, and seemed to be coming from around the next corner, then the next, then the next, then the next.


Just around the corner coming up was a veritable cacophony of random sounds, as if Something was waiting for me there...


I faced it. Turning the corner was...a ghostly owl. It was perched on a pedestal, at the end of this branch of the corridor. It had staring eyes that had me in its gaze, as if I were its prey.


At first it just stared. Then it flew at me.


There was no need to flinch. It was just a projection with added sound effects. It was very scary, very effective!

Afterwards I spoke to one of the Trust people downstairs. I said 'I found the owl', and got an odd, wary look from her, as if not many people ever penetrate the upper passages sufficiently to reach it. I almost felt that I had passed some test.

But it had been an unusual and startling thing to encounter in a normally-benign Trust property. I suggested that while some children would be deliciously thrilled, some children would not, and might be so frightened that they'd have nightmares about it. But maybe I'm out of touch, and this is exactly the kind of creepy thing that Hallowe'en-saturated young visitors relish nowadays, even their parents getting an enjoyable frisson of surprise.

And yet I well remember a conversation I had in 2014 with a thirteen year old in the cellars of Chastleton House. Her parents had gone into the deeper, darker cellars. She was spooked, and stayed outside. When she saw me, she said fearfully, defiantly and somewhat tremulously, 'No way am I going in there, no way!' As if she thought I'd make her go. I gave her emphatic reassurance that I didn't think her silly, and that I too found the cellars as scary as she did. And I meant it.


I won't be taking part in an all-night vigil inside some ruin with a grisly reputation, just to see what might happen. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do see how too much induced mental strain could be bad for one's health and happiness!

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