Sunday, 4 April 2010

Ghosts and Ghost Stories... with a note on Wicken Fen!

I had a familiar discussion today. The subject – as you may have guessed, was ghosts. Or rather, ghost stories. As most of my chums are aware, I collect ghost stories. I don’t do anything with them, I just keep them – as you would any other collection. Occasionally, if I am in a new area I may venture off to visit somewhere I know to be haunted, but mostly I just write them and file them. The subject came up however because I also collect books, many of which are fictional ghost stories of the Victorian era. By the chaotic nature of my bookcases they are all mixed in. Fact and fiction happily living side by side because I value them the same.


We’d had this chat before, but I felt the need to argue the fact that when someone says they believe in ghosts you can’t stereotype them into someone who believes in anything. (I have had this same argument about vegetarianism, but that is another rant entirely!) Even limiting the subject to ghosts (as opposed to including a belief in other supernatural elements, mythological creatures or out of body experiences etc) you cannot know what idea to which someone subscribes until you have asked them what their definition of a ghost is. For instance, some will explain them as a spirit, capable of interaction, whereas others will tell you they are merely recordings of something past. There are many variations and for those undecided in their true beliefs, it might be that the definition is moulded to the story they wish to be true. Personally, in todays environment of computerised ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, I like that so many people have so many explanations. It is good that there are still some mysteries.

Going back to my point of collecting both fiction and non-fiction… I was asked how I knew which to believe and which to not, because surely if I was collecting a tale from an individual there was always the risk of embellishment to make a good story. Of course this is true in some cases, but I said it did not deter me. I love the stories and if you view it with the right attitude, it essentially did not matter. If you enjoy a story, then the fact that elements may actually be true only adds to the excitement. Whereas, taking something as fact , only to find bits which don’t ‘add up’ is just too disappointing to be entertaining or of value. A point in case is that of a tale still told with utter conviction here in Cambridge – that of the Everlasting Club of Jesus College. It is a great story, but that is all it is, written by a former Master and published in 1919. Nevertheless, I would still tell anyone who’d listen to find themselves a copy of ‘Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye’ and read this wonderful collection for pure enjoyment.

It is a question of exercising the imagination, while relating our thoughts to reality. For example, I like to walk across the fen by Spinney Bank and the Wicken Nature Reserve while accompanied by my imagination. To the ordinary soul this landscape must seem flat and empty, with a sense of ‘nothing ever happened here’ but this is not so. Allowing your mind to wander could have to bumping into the likes of Charles Darwin collecting specimens as he did here in the 1820s. Perhaps you may see the author James Wentworth Day, who lived in the village and even owned part of the fen at one time, or the spectral black dog that he spoke of stalking the causeways by night. From Spinney Bank you can see Spinney Abbey, which despite its name was actually a Priory. The ghosts there are well documented, although you will mostly hear of the monks or the chanting and less so of the former residents. One of which, Prior William de Lode, was murdered in the priory church by his own canons. A more peaceful occupant who walked the area was the 4th son of Oliver Cromwell, Henry. After the Restoration he was allowed to live here without too much trouble and I believe is still buried in the churchyard. A more mysterious local to said to be buried somewhere out here is PC Richard Peake, who mysteriously disappeared after a dispute in the village and whose body was never found. The 24 year old constable was last seen on the 18th August, 1855. For a landscape unchanged in 500 years, the atmosphere is heavy with history and in a way that cannot be read like the architecture of an old building. I have never visited my favourite haunt with a medium, but I should like to one-day if only to see what else is out there. It must surely be the nearest thing to time-travel that we will be likely to experience.

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