Last night I zoomed over to Bristol for Steve England’s Ghost Walk in Stoke Park estate. I love Stoke Park, it’s where I used to do most of my barefoot running, so it was great to revisit it in such different circumstances.
It was, at heart, a historical walk, and Steve’s knowledge of the estate is rich, varied and deep – proper history, not just based in dry fact but in a deep knowing of place, explored intimately since childhood and clearly deeply loved. He walks on this land, eats from this land and literally shoves his hands into the land in quest of relics and hidden histories (todays uncovering was a medieval culvert, in case you’re interested)
I was very glad the emphasis was on history rather than jump scares as a) I am not-very-secretly genuinely scared of ghosts and the small number of experiences I have had have done nothing to change that view and b) I had not prepared fully by mascara-ing my eyelashes into 4 solid spider leg clumps à la Yvette Fielding. The history was haunting – love-driven suicides, bodies found in the lake, a spectral horsewoman and acknowledgements that the Monument is one of the most paranormal spots in Bristol. The monument was awesome last night, with a view of a huge creamy peach full moon rising over the wood next to the silhoutted Dower House as if it had been specially ordered for the occasion.
Steve took us round what would have been the working agricultural bits of the farm – the remains of the farmers cottage, the old slaughterhouse that served Stoke Park Institution, old cobbled roads that would have allowed horse and cart to carry corn and crops, the watering hole for gentry and farm horses alike. The (earth covered) cobbled road led down through a tunnel, and Steve invited us all to go down there, as apparently it’s a bit of a ‘hot spot’ where torches and phones misbehave in some quite strange ways.
I didn’t go down there. I really didn’t like it.
We circled up and round to the Dower House itself. That house, and the new houses there – well, as Steve said, if you knew anything about the history of the place then like him, me and a fair few other Bristolians you wouldn’t live there for love nor money. It’s just…. a bit wrong. It feels wrong. If I subscribe to any ghost theory, its the ones that place has memory, they hold echoes of the events of what has happened there. And any ‘mental institution’, as they were still called when I worked in Brentry and Glenside around 1990, when they were still known as ‘colonies’ by the locals, will have a dark side. They weren’t all bad by a long shot – while I saw some disturbing things in my time I mainly remember people who were fairly content and pretty well looked after. They were much worse off when they were all booted out under Care In The Community, poor souls. But people who are largely confused and chaotic and disturbed and violent in life are unlikely to be anything other in death, and that does not bode well for a lasting impression, a flavour of a place. The main house and surrounding estate has this in droves. Do not live there.
It was particularly exciting being in the woods at night. Even nowadays, our primal brain is hardwired to find them deeply scary and to be avoided at all costs, lest us poor, weak, rubbishly-visioned selves get pounced on by big scary stalking toothed things with excellent nightsight. I find woods alone at night really frightening, though strangely I was fine when camping. I feel a need to be as small, quiet and still as possible, and then I feel safe and unseen.
As an aside – like a lot of people who grow up with a lot of freedom, especially outdoor freedom, I’m not sure if Steve knows how exceptional his childhood was. Most children simply do not play all day with ‘mentally sub-normal'(as they were called) children all day long in the woods, and consider them friends. Nor do they, as a matter of course, take tea and biscuits with institutionalised ancient old ladies from horrible blue NHS china teacups. (I remember those teacups. They were to blue, as NHS prosthetic limbs are to pink. Vile.) I’d talked with my mother about something similar the day before as we walked in Badocks Wood – as I’ve described before, she and I would walk across the woods and top field to the horses field at about 7am (dark in winter!) and then ride the horses bareback down through Westbury Village to the stables on Parrys Lane. It seems too magical to be real, in the middle of a city not that many years ago. But it was.
These tales, and others, of Steve’s childhood on the estate set the scene for what was to follow…
So, the big question is, did I actually see a ghost? The answer is both no, and sort of, and best described in the context of this time of year. Halloween is a time for dressing up, being fun-spooky, sweets and indulgence. But Samhain is in part at least, a time for rememberance, for thinking about those that have passed, for our ancestors.
For me, the part of the walk that had the biggest impact was when Steve talked about the children of the past there with real compassion. There was no pop psychology or in-depth analysis, just empathy. He showed us a photo of all the children with their nurses, and then very simply said ‘and just think, they’re all gone now’. We walked past the slaughterhouse and he told the saddest story, of what it must have been like for these simple, confused children, who would have seen the sheep and pigs as their pets and friends, perhaps their only friends, and their terror and distress as they watched them being taken to slaughter.
And that was where it happened. I didn’t ‘see’ anything, but I felt an almost overwhelming sense of misery and anger and powerlessness, as if I were one of those children, and even to scream or cry my distress would lead to punishment, and wouldn’t make one bit of difference to my friend, who was walking to the slaughter.
It really wasn’t very nice at all.
Those poor children, some of whom may genuinely have needed shelter and care, some of whom would simply have been dumped there, in a way unthinkable now.
So no, I didn’t see a ghost. Nor did I feel temperature drops, or hairs raising, and my phone and torch stayed boringly on. But… I most definitely felt a haunting that I can still feel now.
And so, as well as having a very excellent and informative night out, the evening also gave me my Samhain rememberance focus – as well as remembering my own familial ancestor s, I will be remembering the institutionalised ones, part of society yet seperate, often forgotten, who had their own small lives, sometimes happy, sometimes not, but still felllow humans for all that.
Happy Samhain folks, and enjoy the restful dark.