My usual Friday blog post last week was dropped as, quite rightly, I was busy elsewhere ensuring that my wife, Karen, had as lovely a birthday as possible...
Part of this extravaganza of generosity and celebration entailed lunch at one of Warwick’s finest eating establishments – The Saxon Mill. If ever you’re around these parts I can recommend it. I won’t wax lyrical about the menu as, really, with the best will in the world, mere adjectives and metaphor can hardly replace the reality of eating food. Suffice it to say, you had to be there. And, no offence intended, I’m rather glad that you weren’t as it would have cramped my style and ruined the atmos somewhat...
But talking of atmos...
The Saxon Mill – being (surprise, surprise) a converted mill – is built over the River Leam. On the opposite bank stands what at one time would have been a very grand old house indeed: Guy’s Cliffe House.
The legends surrounding this building are numerous. And as varied and embellished as Chinese whispers. The one strand that runs through them all, however, is that the place is haunted. Haunted by a woman who – through being jilted / abandoned / widowed / whatever – threw herself into the River Leam far below and drowned. Quite when this occurred nobody really seems to know. 500 years ago... maybe more... medieval period some even say.
Then layered on top of this legend is another one. A newer one. The building was purportedly used at one time – again in some unspecified period of history – as the HQ for a local coven of witches and Satanists. They are supposed to have used the cellars and caves that the house is built upon to carry out their perverse rites – orgies, blood sacrifices, the lot. The Butlins of their day.
Nowadays the Mason’s own the property. Nothing unusual in this except why buy a building that nobody does anything with? About 20 years ago a major fire further gutted what was already a ruin and thus the building has (barely) stood... closed off to the public, free access granted only to the crows and pigeons that roost in it’s shambolic gables. Nobody “straight and true” has been seen there for years. Certainly not by daylight anyway. All very strange.
Anyway, after our meal Karen and I took a slow saunter along the river and viewed the house from the safety of the opposite bank. I say safety because Guy’s Cliffe House gives me the freaking willies.
Partly because of the legends and the hearsay and partly because of personal experience.
When I was 18 me and my good friend, Tris, being full of youthful bravado and foolhardiness decided to put the legends to the test. Mostly though I think we just wanted to cock a snook at the Masons and so climbed over the boundary wall and took a wonder through the grounds. As it was, even then (before the fire), the house was visibly unsafe and so we wisely steered clear of venturing within the crumbling walls but we did skirt the perimeter and work our way round to the cellars / caves at the back. To do this we followed what I assume hundred of years ago would have been the old river bed.
I recall it being jungled with massive leaves and vegetation which seemed to have grown elephantine in the August weather. It felt almost prehistoric and I remember feeling quite disconcerted and dwarfed by my surroundings. Maybe this merely added to the burgeoning sense of atmosphere – who knows? All I do know is that as we turned round to the back of the house the air itself seemed to grow black in a split second. We both experienced it and stopped dead in our tracks. I have never felt such an oppressive, furious, outraged atmosphere as I did that evening. The air seemed to increase in mass and waves of anger bore down on us like a nuclear wind. That and the distinct feeling that we were not at all welcome and should get the hell out of there immediately. We both flinched under a snarl of “get out!” mentally screamed at us from a source that appeared to have no shape or form. Neither of us had to discuss it. We turned tail and ran like something out of Scooby-doo, me bringing up the rear praying that nothing was pursuing me... because, let me tell you, at the time it felt like a real possibility.
We laughed about it afterwards and shrugged it off. It was an August evening, the sun was setting; it had merely dropped down behind the house and plunged the ground level into shadow. What jolly japes. Ho ho ho.
I’ve never been back but have often wondered about that evening many times over the intervening years.
I didn’t see anything coalescing out of the air but do remember the impression of something trying to. Maybe if we’d found more courage and stood our ground we would have seen something... an apparition, an orb of light, Derek Acorah in his cheap imitation gold jewellery... who knows.
All I know is the atmosphere was unquestionably real and it produced a very real reaction in us both.
Was it a ghost? Was it our minds playing tricks on us – using the rich food of local legend to fuel a waking dream?
Or is it as someone whose name I can’t remember once wrote: human memory exists in two places – in the hearts and minds of people; and in the buildings, stones and earth that house them?
Maybe a distraught young woman hundreds of years ago, dashing out her unendurable sorrow into a treacherous river, unwittingly impressed herself onto the stones of Guy’s Cliffe House and every now and then treats foolish young visitors to a sensory cinema show where the only tickets required are gullibility?
You’re guess is as good as mine.
Sleep well, people. Sleep well.