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.