PUBLISHED: 01:16 21 September 2011 | UPDATED: 12:05 28 February 2013
With its witches, hobgoblins and ghosts, Michael Wright asks: Is Warwickshire England's most haunted county?
In October, as the nights draw in and autumn mists descend, and the leaves fall from the trees, many turn to the works of Montague Rhodes James Englands greatest exponent of the ghost story.
M.R.James, born in 1862, was an eminent Cambridge scholar, specialising in medieval history. But his abiding passion was the ghost story. He published many volumes of short stories before his death in 1936 and Warwickshire is the location for several, including The Casting of the Runes, in which a rather unpleasant occultist terrifies his Warwickshire neighbours with spells and incantations, until inevitably, one backfires, and he is condemned to eternal torment.
James may have known of Warwickshires reputation as one of the most haunted counties in England. Shakespeare, creator of some of the greatest literary ghosts and witches, must have been soaked in local folklore and superstitions as a young man.
Many of his works capture the feeling of threat and terror that afflicted ordinary folk in Shakespeares England. J. Harvey Bloom, in his excellent work Folklore in Shakespeare Land (first published in 1930) says this:
Village folk must have lived in an ever-present dread of evil spirits; possibly the terrible picture of Hell and its denizens, which adorned the walls of their little church in all the crudity of rude painting, may have helped; in any case, belief in a personal and very active devil and his earthly helpers, witches, was seldom far from their thoughts.
Despite its bustling towns and cities, Warwickshire still possesses some ancient corners where rustic superstition is never far from the surface. Its still difficult, for instance, to find anyone willing to talk about the death of farm worker Charles Walton on St. Valentines Day, 1945 on the slopes of the brooding Meon Hill in south Warwickshire.
A quiet old gentleman, who didnt socialise much with his neighbours in Lower Quinton, he was reputed to have certain powers of communication with birds and animals. He was found with his throat cut and impaled to the ground by his own pitchfork. Even the brightest brains of Scotland Yard failed to find the murderer, or even a motive for the crime.
Its easy to be sceptical about the supernatural, but everyone has experienced that unsettling feeling, when alone in a quiet place, that theres someone watching.
Its nearly 50 years since a film crew arrived at Ettington Park, then a private home, to do the external shots for a film called The Haunting. Why they chose the place is obvious from the start: it looks like a haunted house. This Gothic pile was described by Pevsner as the most important and impressive High Victorian house in the county.
Held since antiquity by the Shirley family, it is also said to be one of the most haunted in the country. Today the building is reborn as a four-star country house hotel but some of its guests are reluctant to leave.
I first visited Ettington Park, just six miles from Stratford on Avon, in the 1980s, to attend a two day conference. One of our number, a highly sensible female executive, walked up to the front door, looked up at the splendid faade, and said: Im not going in there. She turned around and drove home.
The hotel admits to many similar incidents. Daiman Cornock, a front-of-house porter at Ettington Park, says: Only a short time ago a woman missed her sisters wedding here. She came in and walked up the stairs and then said that the portrait was talking to her. She literally ran off and didnt come back.
The portrait in question was of one of the Shirley family ancestors. He clearly took a dislike to her, says Daiman. If you ever visit the hotel, Daiman is always on hand to guide you through the hotel, telling its history, and pointing out some of its most haunted spots.
The Shirleys are one of Warwickshires oldest families. They can trace their roots back to the Domesday Book and beyond. Shakespeare himself is likely to have visited Ettington he was a friend of the farming family Underhill, who leased the house from the Shirleys in Elizabethan times. Indeed, Shakespeare included the Shirleys heroic involvement in the battle of Agincourt in the play, Henry V.
The house, though rebuilt in the 1800s, dates from Norman times. Its ghosts, however, are timelessand remarkably active.
Michael G. M. Kenny, the now retired night manager at Ettington Park, observed: When these events occur they happen quite spontaneously when you are busy working and your mind is generally occupied elsewhere. The last thing on your mind is ghosts. He experienced many an event during his tenure.
Some of the supernatural activity at the hotel was recorded by Dr David Cross, a scientist with a special interest in the paranormal. In the reception area on a night before Christmas Eve, he witnessed a floating candle and a shadowy presence by the entrance door, and the ghost of a man and his dog crossing the reception area and disappearing into the Library.
The ghost of a serving girl is often seen on the main staircase, where, it is said, she was pushed to her death; while the shade of a Victorian lady is frequently heard pacing back and forth in the Conservatory.
The doors and curtains of the great drawing room open and close mysteriously. Voices can sometimes be heard, and there is the ghostly presence of a young boy.
The Library is particularly haunted by noises and voices, and a certain book, St.Ronans Well, by Sir Walter Scott, is often thrown from the shelves by an invisible hand. It always lands with the same page open, revealing the words: A merry place, tis said, in days of yore, but something ails it now, - the place is cursed.
Dr Cross recorded that there was a very strong feeling of being watched in The Long Gallery upstairs. He said there was a brooding atmosphere at timesa feeling many others have reported. One of the most regular ghosts is that of Lady Emma, who prowls the corridors at night, sometimes banging at guests doors, pleading desperately to be admitted. The spirits of two young children, thought to have drowned in the River Stour, which flows through the estate, frequently run and play throughout the building.
There are many other ghosts and happenings at Ettington Parkso much so that in 2010, Carol Vorderman and a film crew spent the night in the most haunted roombut nothing happened.
Tales of witchcraft abound in Warwickshire. It is said that the eerie Rollright Stones, at the very southern end of the county, has been the gathering place for many a coven in centuries past. Another famous Warwickshire witch was Moll Bloxham, who lived in a hovel by the walls of Warwick Castle. She was allowed by her master to sell surplus milk and butter from the Castles table. But she took to cheating her customers and was eventually evicted. She cursed the castle, and roams the grounds as a ghostly black dog.
Blooms book contains many anecdotes about witches. A favourite theme, repeated in many cases, is the witch that assumes the form of a cat or hare, and is variously shot, run over or injured in another way. The suspected witch always turns up the following day with her arm bandaged up.
According to Meg Elizabeth Atkins, author of Haunted Warwickshire, Charlecote Park was the home of a particularly unpleasant coven. Their leader, Diana, rode a stag through the grounds. And if anyone upset them, theyd be turned into cattle.
There were many supernatural hazards to be faced by our rural ancestors. Anyone unlucky enough to see the phantom calf on the A34 between Stratford and Clifford was guaranteed to be visited by misfortune.
Another place popular with ghost hunters is the site of the Battle of Edgehill. Here, it is said, the battle is replayed in the sky on the anniversary of the conflict in 1642. One paranormal investigator, who set up his equipment one night, thought hed recorded nothingbut later complained that he was followed around his Birmingham flat for a fortnight by the ghost of a Roundhead soldier.
If you visit Edgehill, take a break at the Castle Inn part of which is the renowned folly called Radway Tower. If youre lucky, you might see a spectral black dog, said to haunt the area.
Thanks to the popularity of television programmes like Most Haunted sceptics might question the motives behind many modern hauntings. Ghost tours abound in Stratford, Warwick and elsewhere, usually advertised with plenty of bloody gore and gruesome pictures and there is always a chance of a happening when hysteria overtakes a nervous crowd of tourists.
But even sceptical folk might be baffled by the astonishing number of people who see, feel or sense the spirits who are said to inhabit Shrieves House in Sheep Street, Stratford. Now home to the Falstaff Experience, the 500 year old half-timbered building is described as probably Britains most haunted house.
Visitors of all ages report feeling dizzy or sick. Some are overwhelmed by feelings of depression or nausea. Others are pushed, pulled, stroked or pinched by a variety of different spirits. In 2004 a group of 10 people attempted to spend the night in Shrieves House. Eight of them quit after a couple of hours and the two who stayed said it was the most terrifying night of their lives.