The Spectre of History

So where does one begin with this one? Perhaps a moment of consideration for the current situation of the Author. Sitting in tartan “lounge pants” and a T-Shirt. Not my normal attire, I must point out, but as I’m in my study and writing, relaxing and contemplating, I accept the attire. I’m also watching “Most Haunted” and their Halloween Special. I missed it during it’s original broadcast because of my involvement in what I’m actually writing about. Ghost Walks. Ghost Tours and the associated organisation, research and delivery. More on that slightly later in this post, once I’ve done a bit of pre-amble and background.

I remember the first ghost story I was ever told. It wasn’t a M. R. James tale, chilling me to my bones (They came later) nor was it one of the other great Victorian tales such as Charles Dickens’ “The Signalman”, which equally turned up and influenced me later on in the meta-narrative of my life. No, the first tale of spooks and such that I was told came to me in the most traditional way, through the great oral tradition. I was nine years old and I was in Sheffield. I was staying in what I have come to refer to as my “Spiritual Homeland”, with my, now deceased, Great Aunt Ada Mavis. She was a remarkable woman, a spinster and a traveller. She showed me the wonders of the Yorkshire moors and the rich industrial heritage of the city she’d grown up in. She was also a skilled story teller, without ever realising it.

It was one of these stories that a young boy was told, in a creaky old council house, with shadows in every corner and noises in the night that never sounded natural. My Great Aunt had travelled with a close friend to a hotel in France, their lodgings consisted of an oddly shaped (L Shaped if poor memory is correct) room. Her companion had been taken unwell during the day and had retired to bed early. Ada eventually retired to her own bed just after midnight, sober and aware. Her bed was clearly hidden from the other bed in the room, due to the shape of the room. She went to bed and fell asleep. At an undisclosed Ada woke, she became aware of a figure standing next to her bed and as most of us would, with the contextual awareness of the unwell companion, believed she had come to seek assistance. As her eyes focused, Ada realised that it was not her sexagenarian travelling companion, but a man of middle age in clothing that she would go on to describe as “all lace and ruffles” – After locking eyes with this individual, Ada Mavis swiftly rolled over and attempted to forget the occurrence. She never mentioned it again, consigning it to the list of “Odd dreams” and “Unexplained events” – Had she seen a ghost? The answer that a nine year old Author would give was yes! As the years carry on and cold hard scepticism takes root, the answer becomes less assured.

So there you have the Author’s introduction to ghosts. Other stories would be offered up from various other friends and family over the years, along with the aforementioned beautifully crafted literary examples from Dickens and the remarkable M R James. It is fair to say that it was a combination of these elements has left the Author with an interest in Ghosts, academic, romanticised and for the purpose of entertainment.

It doesn’t help that the Author has a love and fascination with the age of Industry and Exploration, that which is named for it’s Monarch and Dynasty building force of sexuality, contradiction, pride and power; the Victorian Era. It is in this heaving chest of ever present social contradiction that one finds the sudden explosion of “Ghost Stories” – This is an age where discovery and science are at the head of the procession of society, leaving some with an uncomfortable sense of awareness and a desire and longing for something…. supernatural in the face of expanding understanding of the natural world. There are a number of forms in which this manifests – the rise in “Spiritualists”, the fascination with death and ultimately the rise in popular mass access fiction. We forget sometimes that one of the most influential and long lasting stories from an Author of equal note, is one in which a miserable and cruel miser receives a quartet of ghostly entities. We won’t dwell to long on the doorstep of Bob Cratchit, we have more modern ghosts to be haunting…

So what’s the point of this post? Other than for the Author to out himself as a fan of spooky stories, it is a post that seeks to embrace the aid that Ghosts and the Supernatural can offer to Heritage and History. This post is a combination of a love letter and a begging letter.

If you’ve been to any major city in the UK, you may well have seen a figure, or figures, in a mix of costume, often Victorian, either touting for business or leading groups of enthralled individuals through historic streets, telling tales of horror, spooks and gore. The industry of Ghost Tours is, unlike it’s subject matter, very much alive. York has a plethora and Cambridge a decent pantheon of such guides. This year, the Author joined those ranks, unwanted perhaps but none the less, his boots are now heard in the dark, along with a combination of nervous laughter and raucous laughter.

A bit more context is required, and it will be provided. Just over a year ago, the Author was involved in a limited run series of tours in Ely in which he played the three fold role of a trio of ghosts, adding a sense of realism to an often intangible subject matter. The bug bit on those cold October nights and the swelling finally came to a climax 11 months later.

In the intervening months, the Author pestered and pontificated from his desk. The issue on which he was so inflamed? Ghost Walks and why they didn’t happen more frequently in Ely. Under the cloak of secrecy, in Lunch breaks and during other overlapping duties, the Author began whispering and listening to what was said in response. From Tea-rooms to Bookshops, to church yards and shops frequented by some of societies less adored individuals, he did what his heroes had done. He collected stories and he stored them away in his head. He would eventually ware his illustrious leader down; causing her to turn against tradition and risk serious upset. He donned his tailcoat and tall hat, he lit his lantern and the Eerie Ely Ghost Walk was born.

From that point forward, with concerns about ticket sales and routes eventually put to rest, every Thursday was dedicated to leading groups of individuals around Ely, starting from Oliver Cromwell’s House and taking in sites including a church yard, a tea shop (sitting above a plague burial pit) and a bookshop with some very odd associated tales. The enormous cross section of society that has booked tickets has amazed everyone involved, from local folk to distant travellers, to ghost fanatics and non-believers. The one thing that became very apparent was that only a few of those who were paying for the tour, had ever visited Oliver Cromwell’s House or indeed knew much of the associated history that came lock stock and barrel with the tour and it’s stories. Now this is the whole point.

If one of those people, who has walked down those streets a thousand times, or wandered past Oliver Cromwell’s former home, take a moment the next time they do that particular activity, to think about something associated, something personal connected to the heritage of the area, to their own heritage associated with Ely or beyond, then the job of a tour guide is done.

Ghost continue to be incredibly popular, as a race we love to be scared. What Heritage professionals need to do is harness that, is grab the spectral hand (whether one believes in it or not) and utilise the power that exists within the concept and turn said power to the aims of a heritage environment. Let ghosts lead visitors to you and from there? Let the Heritage do the talking – Show people a haunted room but lead them there via the kitchen. Tell them of the horrid and grisly death of the Parlour maid but do not let her death be in vein, no. Open up the conversation about  that Parlour maid and her life, let her death be the doorway to her life. Discuss what her world was, before she left it, bring about a conversation about subjects that would otherwise been ignored. Use the inquisitive minds that are seeking ghosts and spectres, to enquire about the past.



“How to solve a problem like… Team Building?!”

It was possibly the oddest brief I’ve ever had, whilst working in Heritage. I took a call from a friend and colleague, Steve Blake of East Anglia Puzzle Rooms, who I first met during the gestation of the “Royalist Round-up” Pop-Up Escape Room at Oliver Cromwell’s House. A project which began as a slightly crazy idea, combining an site of great historical importance, the oak panelled office in which Oliver Cromwell would have worked during his time as Collector of the Tithe, with the latest craze in “Experiences” – the Escape Room.

An Escape Room is the physical version of the internet craze of the early 21st century, often “Point and Click” flash games, with problem solving driven scenarios, usually a combined selection of seeking and finding key items and solving puzzles, allowing the player to progress. They are now often found in industrial estates, with wonderfully crafted but still “synthetic” surroundings and props. It’s fair to say, since they appeared in Japan, they have begun to spread across the globe, creating a whole new sub-section of “Tourism” – Escape Room Tourists, like their E-Gaming cousins, dedicated and professional individuals or teams who tour their local area and beyond, taking on every room they can. The disposable income and the hunt for non-tangible experiences has driven this industry to a point of great expansion.

What Steve and the Oliver Cromwell’s House team wanted to do however, was to create something unique, something that couldn’t be put in a box, taken from one place to another, unpacked and recreated. From a single weekend per month, with sceptical and ultimately limited hope, the Royalist Roundup went from a few sessions booked to extra sessions being added, corporate groups seeking a new and exciting form of team building and over a year of great success, leaving Steve Blake and I in a position where we both take pleasure in saying “We never ever get tired of hearing people say “Wow” when they enter the puzzle room.” It’s been fun, it’s been frightening at times and it’s been hugely successful. But where next?

Steve received a call from a client, wanting a large scale team building exercise to allow a cohesive union of different office groups, due to a large scale restructuring, he was given a location, a budget and left to his own devices. That’s where I came in. As i said at the start of this post, Steve called me. He called me one evening and said “Remember we talked about….” This unspecified point of reference is and was, a theatrical experience Steve had enjoyed in Suffolk, based around theatrical led interactions and puzzles, imagine a large scale Murder Mystery event and throw in the concept of “Cluedo” or as our beloved US cousins would call it, “Clue” and you might begin to get the idea…. Well we’d talked about it over a few ales, in a beer garden in a pocket city and then we’d sadly put it to the back of our minds. Steve had a Lord Protector to be coping with, as did I, Steve also had his business running other pop-up Escape Rooms all over Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and I had my job, which was consumed by large scale events for the coming season. Now however, the ideas came clawing back to the front of our minds.

The planning began, in earnest. Steve found the venue, the wonderful Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds and after an initial visit, I was given the outlined logistics of what Steve wanted to achieve, agreed with the client, and an enormous span of History and Heritage to work from.

Sir Terry Pratchett, who I miss dreadfully having read his books since my early teens, once said of Folklore “I think about folklore the same way a carpenter thinks about trees” – It is perhaps a little heavy handed to say the same thing about Heritage, but it should be noted with a second quote by Pratchett, “A good carpenter works with the grain of the wood and should endeavour to make a table that leaves the tree glad that it became timber”, that the same should be done by any Interpreter of History and Heritage. Preserving the integrity of memory, association and legacy of an artefact or event should be the primary objective, though equally it should share it’s position on the pedestal with engagement and entertainment.

Without going in to the laborious aspects of the planning, research and consideration, and causing you to drift away from the blog post, the narrative became apparent, the characters began to form from either the rooms, their exhibits and their stories, along with a decent sized lump of imagination and humour. What began as a slightly odd idea, became something more tangible. Utilising murder, medieval history and warfare, along with an exciting Sci-Fi exhibition, a story of mischief and madness took shape and the next steps became apparent.

Steve Blake, it must be said here and now, is a dangerously devious genius. Truly a Puzzle Master, who can be given a very brief narrative idea at 11.30pm on a Monday only to return to the author at 8.34am the next day with the framework of the puzzles, including their links to other later aspects of the experience. It’s like alchemy, you lob the raw base metal in and suddenly you’ve got gold.

As things progressed, we set the date, booked the venue, polished the narrative, Steve designed the puzzles and I found the players for the snap-shots in History that we had chosen. I had a great deal of fun with my own character, The Celestial Meddler (An entity who finds joy in confusion, sadness and puzzles).

Bringing in trusted comrades, one of my closest friends with whom I’ve appeared many times on stage, Damien O’Donovan, and the remarkable History Needs You team, Matthew and Gill, Steve and I with the rest of the team, met outside the venue as the sun set on a Friday evening in November. What we went on to create, with laughter and trepidation, was something truly unique.
Four teams, four rooms, four snapshots of History, each featuring a unique puzzle based around the room, it’s contents and it’s particular narrative, with a rounded character (in appropriate costume) acting as a location specific guide and narrator, turned in to a fast paced, fun and testing event, culminating in a final salvo from The Celestial Meddler, in which all of the teams came back and formed a single unit and were forced to take aspects of each room and defeat the well attired antagonist of the piece.

After the dust had settled, the warmth and delight that emanated from a group of people who had, in many parts not known each other before hand, knocked the entire team of their feet. As people left, they shook our hands and smiled, thanked us and in many cases said they would be coming back to the museum to have a more leisurely wander to explore the heritage of the area.

Whilst we changed back in to a normal selection of clothing and tottered off to a local pub for a well deserved pint, we left a museum and staff, slightly bemused but enthralled by what 5 very odd people can do within a venue that can often be overlooked.

We left very proud, we also left in a very reflective mood, buoyant from what we had achieved, with pockets full of ideas, modifications and future plans. So, when you hear about an “Immersive Theatrical Problem Solving Experience” in a heritage site near you, perhaps it’ll be Magpie Memoria and East Anglian Escape Rooms trawling through the wonderful collections of your local museum, country pile, townhouse or place of faith, crafting something truly wonderful from objects, stories and places, to show you the future in history.

For further information, don’t hesitate to get in touch and keep an eye out for events near you, in the near future, set in the past.

Magpie Memoria

What does Heritage mean to you? That’s not the easiest question to ask, I know. Heritage is a massive subject. If it was a machine, it would be similar to the old style computers that took up entire rooms. The computers of memory and myth, with complex aspects, presided over by individuals, experts in their own fields.

Heritage must be personal, it must engage with the audience on the multiple levels in which it is accessed; such as the individual tourist who has discovered, or through the directory of such agencies, a large historical home with no direct association apart from, perhaps, a sense of nostalgia instilled by, depending on generation television programs such as “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey”. Perhaps they are someone with an associative memory and connection to the site. a former resident (Though rare, not entirely impossible) or perhaps this particular site houses a noteworthy example of ‘something’ – such as a complete and personal set of stamps, collected by a former occupant and now a part of the very fabric of the building, displayed in a quasi contextual manner in a drawing room, as if the collector had simply “popped out for a piss”. (N.B. The Author swears.)

The biggest question is how does one reconcile all of these particular interests, casual to academic, personal to professional, distant to intimate?

Magpie Memoria is a small operation, dedicated to discovering and disclosing heritage and history in a personal and fun way. Having worked with some of the best Interpreters on a number of projects, with years of combined Historical Re-Enactment experience ranging from the 12th century to the 20th, along with professional experience in Heritage sites, Magpie Memoria can provide and produce engaging activities and historical events along with long term heritage interpretations.


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