by Patricia Walsh
Lost manor where I walk continually a ghost
Up your broad stairs mounting with outspread fingers
And gliding steadfast down your corridors
I come by nightly custom to this room,
And even on sultry afternoons I come
Drawn by a thread of time-sunk memory.
From ‘The Pier-Glass’ by Robert Graves
Approaching the still impressive and imposing structure of Lancaster Castle, the colourful layers of its history never fail to strike me. For almost a thousand years it has embodied both the majestic and the macabre and has constantly been the font of mysterious tales of strange occurrences, apparitions and odd noises that, it is said, inhabit the very fabric of the place. Opening up the Shire Hall on this cold, bright, blue-skied January morning, I am familiar with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that comes with being the only person inside this charismatic building. It descends on me always until the demands of the day as one of the castle tour guides inevitably take over. Entering the court room, as my early morning round begins; the silence in here is audible. As can often happen, although not routinely, a quiet whispering ensues along with the sound of footsteps, and these start to infiltrate the space, intermittently breaking into the silence, and ceasing altogether when I try to find their source. It is very unsettling, but also immensely intriguing, and as with many of the occurrences that take place here in the castle, and in the prison section too, it defies rational explanation.
A few days ago, the security guard, Bob, was telling me how he’d heard footsteps recently. He was alone in the building, it was before the court sittings started, so it was very quiet and he was at his post, near the shop area. Suddenly he heard the sound of footsteps walking down the stairs but on inspection there was no-one there. He does not come across as a man prone to flights of fancy and this was the first time he’d mentioned anything like this to me. Many of the people who work in the building, both past and present, have had experiences like this. It’s accepted in the main as part of the job but nobody actively seeks things out, they just seem to come across them. Sometimes figures or unusual things have been seen but mostly things are felt or heard. Another guide, Rachael, had not been in this job very long when she had a frightening experience one night. Whilst locking up inside and switching off the lights she felt something by her right-side and also heard a frightful, very high-pitched sound. She had no idea what it was and told me her that her first reaction was to get out of here but instead she managed to stay calm, hold her ground and continue with the locking up.
It’s not surprising that these stories always come to the fore as I work my way around the different rooms, nooks and crannies of the building. The older parts of the place don’t unnerve me quite as much as the court areas but they do have an effect on some. Where I am now, for instance, close to the three cells, there are frequent remarks on the palpable nature of the atmosphere and sometimes unexpected sightings have occurred. The figure of a small child was observed near these cells by a former manager of the castle and, reputedly, this child is considered to be the culprit who often tugs on people’s clothing or their coat-sleeves. Sitting down for a moment, on one of the stone blocks that act as seats in Hadrian’s Tower and situated at the entrance way to the cells, I wonder if that indignant or mischievous tap on the shoulder that, it is said, happens to those who sit in this very spot, will materialise. Or whether I may find myself instead the recipient of that rather disrespectful shove so many visitors have been subjected to during countless tours. But not today it seems.
From my temporary perch, I observe the three cell doors with their small viewing hatches which offer, when open, their only source of interior light, such as it is. Walking over, I decide to open the door of the middle cell and peer inside, hoping to see the blue orb-like lights that once emerged here. Sarah, another one of our guides, was giving a group the tour when they all witnessed the blue orbs in the deep darkness of this sparse and windowless cell. Phenomena such as this does not, in my experience, repeat itself. However, I stand here this morning and gaze into the blackness, just in case, but see nothing unusual and quickly feel the need to leave the space alone once more. Apparitions never make an appearance on demand nor a visitation by appointment but within these thick and history-drenched walls many a tale has taken shape across the mounting years and will continue to do so. Continuing on now with my rounds, a sudden noise from the corridor startles me but I know, at this hour, there is nobody else in the building. Sue will be the next to arrive today but not just yet and anyway she always announces her entrance. It was her daughter, Zoe, as I recall, who heard a scream and someone crying in the Barrister’s Library one evening a couple of years ago. She rushed into the room to see what was wrong but found nobody to be seen. It seems to me this would be a good time to take a warming coffee break and to relocate myself in the now. Or at least that is my intention.
Back in the office and cradling a hot cup of coffee in both hands, the first tour of the morning begins to take priority in my mind. As I sit there and relax into the thought of my familiar routine for the day ahead, the peace is rudely interrupted by an urgent knocking sound emanating from the hall’s entrance door. “Naomi, are you in?” calls a disembodied voice amidst yet still further knocks. On answering the door, I see that it’s two security guards, who work in the prison part of the castle. One of them is Ben, “You must see this CCTV footage,” he says. We all go through to the office just beyond the solid, dark-hued wooden door and view the security surveillance tape. It’s dated Monday, 28 January, 2013. I watch with them and see nothing of note at first but then, at 5:05am, I see a shadowy figure walking from left to right across the inside of the gatehouse. It’s only a few seconds long but it’s enough to be able to recognise a distinct moving of feet. It is baffling. “That looks amazing! Is it a silhouette coming from the outside? It looks like it could be someone on the other side of the gatehouse, maybe,” I venture. They look knowingly at me. “Yes, that’s what we thought too,” answers Ben, “so we’ve also checked the tape from the other side of the gatehouse, at exactly the same time – and there’s nothing there.” Not one of us can explain it. We don’t know what it is. But it’s definitely fascinating, not to mention unheard of in terms of being captured on film like this. It’s another logic defying occurrence which now takes its place as part of the life of the castle.
Alone again for the moment, I know a return to my task ahead is imminent but I allow myself a little further pondering. Perhaps, as some people have suggested, long-past times and memories are intrinsically stored, somehow, in the bricks and mortar of this ancient building, and then, maybe, a timely collision of dimensions occurs sporadically to reveal, however briefly, a portal into the hidden and the long forgotten. Whimsical, I know. Rooting out the most prosaic answer is usually my wont, even though that can, albeit rarely, lead to disappointment, like the levitating medium, for example, but that’s another story. Keeping an open mind is vital but one question ever haunts me: When so many inexplicable things continue to happen, most of which you can’t put your finger on but they are instinctively felt, if it’s not some sort of ghostly essence or paranormal residue being collectively sensed, seen or heard within these walls, then just what is it? It must be something. So much for my staying in the present – not really conducive to the mantle of a history-tour guide. One thing I can say for sure from working here is that I never know what the day will bring. Very soon now though, my first group of the day will start to gather at the reception point and each of them will be looking forward to taking their own journey through time. They won’t be disappointed. Pouring away the chilly remnants of my long neglected coffee, I muse again on the mysterious new scoop that I can share with the rest of the castle staff and those who’ll take my tours today.
Many thanks to Naomi Parsons, Rachael Jackson and Sue Bambury, at the Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle, for all of their help and assistance.
The ever-present ghost stories and myths which continue to find a home within Lancaster Castle were part of what inspired me to find out more. In various size and form, the castle has been a stalwart of Lancaster’s skyline for almost ten centuries now and this in itself is an incredible feat. But it was also because this dominating and history-soaked piece of architecture is a constant of my landscape and is viewed daily from the street where I live. The idea of speaking to some of the people who work at the castle as tour guides and recording the subsequent conversation really appealed to me because I wanted a contemporary, first-hand account of the unusual occurrences that continue to manifest there. For me, this mystifying aspect of the castle’s extensive life only serves to enhance its already well established appeal.