Things That Go Bump in the Night
As a species we have the inherent need to tell stories. It appears that language first developed from oral traditions and even today remote tribes still exist without a written language, relying on toredors and oral historians to keep their beliefs and culture alive. And at the centre of our need to tell stories, inexplicably linked to our basest fears and desires, is the ghost story. Assemble a group of people around a fire on a dark, windy night and more or less straight away the subject of ghosts, ghouls and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night will come up.
It is something that the English, with our long winter nights and fondness of sitting around the fire with a bottle of brandy, do very well. If we picture the classic ghost story it always takes place in a rambling English Manor house or a drafty castle. Like our warm beer, bad public transport and mediocre football team, it is part of our culture.
Undoubtedly, there’s certainly a cathartic effect to hearing a ghost story and being scared out of your wits without ever being in any real danger. Ghost stories ultimately reflect religious beliefs concerning the importance of a proper burial and the survival of the spirit after death. The dead have a need to rest in peace, while the living have a need to believe in an afterlife. Which is why, a few weeks ago, I found myself staying the night in one of the UK’s most haunted hotels.
I am open minded about life-after-death (though after watching Liverpool play last weekend I am slightly more sceptical) and have had one or two paranormal experiences myself. One of these was even when I was relatively sober, so spending the night in a haunted hotel didn’t worry me too much. The long-suffering GHG, who had been dragged along to provide a subjective and totally unbiased view, was more concerned. The only spirits she cares to see come in litre bottles and are either called Remy Martin or Johnny Walker and as far as seeing dead people go she has watched Liverpool kick a ball around enough this season to have had her fill of corpses. On the way to the hotel she outlined her rules:
- If at any time I began to speak in Latin, projectile vomit or use a voice other than my own she would hit me with the heaviest object to hand and immediately leave.
- If at any time I began to exhibit uncharacteristic behaviour such as hissing, biting, thirst for blood, howling, glowing eyes, unnatural hairiness, marked resemblance to demons, excretion of ectoplasm or other forms of gelatinous goo, flaming appendages, extra appendages, etc., she would hit me with the heaviest object to hand and immediately leave.
- If at any time she felt inclined to take a shower (which she assured me was as likely as a Dutch man buying a round of drinks), the second the plumbing started talking to her, or spewing out bodily fluids, she would dress, hit me with the heaviest object to hand and immediately leave.
- If at anytime she saw anyone wearing a long razor-fingered metal glove, no matter how sincere and personable they seemed, she would hit me with the heaviest object to hand and immediately leave.
- If at any time we were invited to inspect the cellar – especially if the person who had invited us happened to be carrying (or could have concealed somewhere on his/her person) a razor sharp axe, she would hit me with the heaviest object to hand and immediately leave.
The Bell Hotel
The Bell Hotel in Thetford, despite its fearsome reputation of being one of the country’s most haunted hotels, sits quietly on the main square of the sleepy village. Since the fifteenth century the Bell has been a thriving hostelry. It is, perhaps, an archetypically quaint English country inn. There are 46 en-suite rooms, all with full facilities including one main suite with a four poster bed (The GHG checked and there were no dead people under it). The room is reputedly haunted by a monk, whilst downstairs the drawing room is haunted by Betty Radcliffe. The classic English comedy, Dad’s Army, was filmed here and the place is soaked in charm. There is, however, a brooding feeling to the long, winding corridors and it doesn’t take much to imagine them flowing with blood.
No sooner had we arrived than the friendly landlord, Alan Judd (who, I doubt will mind if I say that a conversation with him is worth the price of the room alone) offered to show us the cellar. As he didn’t have a hunch back (which I thought was a bit poor – I mean, who has ever heard of a haunted hotel which isn’t run by a hunchback?), gloves made from razor sharp knives or, we hoped, a large axe concealed on his person we thought we might risk it. He did, however, have a frighteningly large bunch of keys, which he clanked with ghoulish relish. I was just itching for him to say, “Let’s head on down to the cellar and carve ourselves a witch…” as he descended deep into the bowels of the pub. But all he did was politely remind us to mind our head.
Beneath the pub is a maze of hidden rooms, bricked off tunnels and a lot of deeply shadowed corners just right for hiding boogie-men. Most of the rooms are still waiting to be explored and Alan took us into an old storeroom where they had recently been renovating and found a hidden room bricked up behind a bookcase. Perhaps, he whispered, rubbing his Maori charm to ward off evil, it was a Priest Hole, or perhaps it was something much more sinister. We both felt a shudder run up our spines and inched our way to the door, “Yes, Alan, very interesting. Can we leave now please?”
Beneath the main bar we poked around another storeroom and Alan pointed out the way the original walls seemed to suddenly stop, suggesting that there were more rooms beneath us. It was here, next to the boxes of Scotch and brandy, that Alan had often felt a mysterious presence and despite the irony of meeting spirits in the spirit store I didn’t feel entirely comfortable standing there myself. Perhaps it was the anxiety of standing next to a lifetime’s supply of booze and not being able to drink a drop, but I definitely felt my heckles rise and could hear the first strains of a creepy violin being tuned. “Very nice, Alan,” we said, “and now I think we will check out the bar.”
Over a few pints we quizzed the locals about the hauntings. Most of the bar staff had felt something in the drawing room or in the upstairs rooms. It was hard, they said, to really pin down what they felt, but there was definitely something there. Some felt icy breath, some heard footsteps and some even caught sight of the coweled monk or the whiff of Betty’s perfume. One young barmaid told me that she was absolutely terrified about entering the suite we were staying in and there wasn’t enough money in the world to get her to deliver breakfast there. I didn’t mention this to the GHG as we climbed the narrow, creaky stairs to our magnificent suite.
The Thomas Paine Suite
The Thomas Paine Suite is one of the hotel’s finest suites. The wattle and daub walls, the uneven floor and ancient beams set the atmosphere perfectly for a good haunting. The four-poster bed is straight out a fine Gothic novel and we kept expecting to see a manic Nicole Kidman rush in and check that the unbelievably thick drapes were tightly closed. Despite there being a lack of dismembered corpses, headless horsemen, demons from Hell, or spookily-masked-knife-wielding-physco-teens, the room was suitably spooky.
We dimmed the lights, then thought better of it and turned them back on. I pulled the curtains across on the bed and then, after realising we couldn’t see what was happening in the room, quickly opened them again. I thought I would open the window to get some air into the room but when I pulled back the thick, velvet curtains I realised that our room looked out straight onto the local churchyard. I gave up on that idea and rather grumpily returned to bed.
As we lay in bed we went through some of the historical papers Alan had lent us. One told the story of a recent guest who had, due some mysterious combinations of foggy weather and a broken down car (it already sounds like a Scooby Doo script. doesn’t it?) ended up spending her wedding night in our suite. After falling into a fitful sleep she woke up to find, ‘a six foot hooded monk standing over the bed.’ She went on to say that, ‘she wasn’t scared and was just more concerned that her husband wasn’t awake to corroborate her story.’
Eventually, the GHG fell asleep and left me alone to face my fears. And write in my diary:
11pm: All is peaceful. Just looked out the window and there is an evil looking mist rolling across the churchyard. Feeling a little bit nervous.
12am: GHG is snoring so loud even the most determined demon from Hell would think twice about disturbing her.
1am: Woke up feeling freezing cold, breath steaming, covered in goose-flesh. My heart is pounding. Wrestle with a sleeping GHG for some duvet and drift back to sleep much warmer.
2am: GHG wakes up, decides to call my parents who are baby sitting for us. My phone has mysteriously discharged itself. (Later we realise I forgot to plug it in) GHG jabs me in the ribs with her index finger and tells me that if she wakes up dead I am in big trouble.
3am: Still no dead people under the bed. Wonder if I should try to catalyse things with a shower.
4am: Finally fall asleep.
7am: After a wonderfully deep sleep I awake to find that the night has passed uneventfully.
A splendidly large breakfast (fried bread, eggs, beans, sausage, toast, black pudding and kippers) sets us up for the day and we left with full stomachs and happy hearts. We promise Alan that we will come back for one of the hotel’s regular murder and mystery weekends, or perhaps even for the clairvoyant weekend.
“Ghosts,” mocks the GHG as we load up the car, “we laugh in the face of ghosts.”
It’s only then that we notice that all four of my car’s tyres are mysteriously flat and the battery is drained of all power. Perhaps the ghosts of the Bell Hotel had the last laugh after all…
About the Author
Philip Blazdell has travelled and written about 5 continents for BootsnAll. When not lost in the foothills of Tibet or berating the hapless staff of Air Portugal at Lisbon airport he can be found at home with his golden haired girl friend (GHG) and their baby son in a little Cambridgeshire village. He lists his likes as sleeping late, Copenhagen airport and Northern Finland. He can be contacted, when not travelling, at firstname.lastname@example.org