Spooks from Elmstein to Essex
ALAN MURDIE takes a tour of haunted southwest Germany and remembers the late Ronald Blythe
GHOSTS OF THE PALATINATE
In July 1938 a gentleman signing himself Herr Franz Jungbauer of Oberdonau (a German province created by the Third Reich after the Anschluss with Austria in May 1938) wrote to The Times newspaper in Great Britain, having gleaned from German newspapers there were currently 150 haunted castles in England that were proving difficult to sell. He stated:
I am very interested in these ghosts and guarantee to ‘lay’ them if one of the owners would give me the run of the castle and are willing and pay expenses of myself and helpers. Fee would only be payable after successful conclusion of affair.“Please let me have the address of some person afflicted with a haunted house.
Thanking you in anticipation, I am Yours Franz Jungbauer
(Published in The Times, 28 July 1938) Herr Jungbauer shared a global perception well entrenched by the 1930s that Britain was the place for ghosts with English castles as the premier location for them. That same autumn a writer in a Colombian newspaper pondered a contemporary story of a haunted house
Deep forests, antique monasteries, ruined castles and ivy-shrouded tumbledown dwellings
in the capital Bogota, declaring: “It was as haunted as any English castle” (El Spectador, 1 Oct 1938). Nearly 60 years later sceptic Carl Sagan complained Britain was “obsessed with ghosts” (in Demon Haunted World, 1996).
In fact Herr Jungbauer would only have needed to look closer to home, as demonstrated by a new book, Spuk Orte in der Pfalz. Von Irrlichtern, Geisterhunden und Weißen Frauen (2022) (‘Haunted Places in the Palatinate: Of will-o’-the-wisps, ghost dogs and white ladies’) by FT’s Ulrich Magin and illustrated with photographs by Peter Kauert. It reveals there are more than 100 castles across the Palatinate in south-western Germany, a high percentage coming with a ghost. Many were ruined during the Palatinate War of Succession (or ‘Peasants’ War’) of 1688-1697 with the remains, including some still habitable today, attracting all manner of tales of apparitions.
It is a book the late Tom Perrott (1922-2013) – a past chairman of the Ghost Club and a great Teutonophile – would have loved. Even for non-German speakers, it is a pleasure going through this evocatively illustrated collection. More than just a book of landscapes, it is a book of archetypal dreamscapes, summoning up the wider European perception of the nocturnal countryside being dotted with numinous and uncanny places, particularly deep forests, antique monasteries, ruined castles and ivyshrouded, tumbledown dwellings longabandoned by the living, but not – it is averred – by the dead.
The book’s lavish and atmospheric photographs invoke a feeling of awe and wonder, some pictures suggesting an eerie sense of presence, reminiscent of the work of the late Sir Simon Marsden. The very best convey an impression of something just evading the lens of the camera, or project the disconcerting sensation you may meet with when entering a room where you are told
someone has recently died.
Natural features like major outcrops of rock or deep pools attract uncanny tales and legends too, of revenants, woodland spirits, and gatherings of witches. For example, frightening rumours surround the Ungeheuersee (or ‘Monster Lake’) in the Leininger Sporn, high above Leistadt. This shallow moorland pond with a constantly fluctuating water level set within a deeply wooded area can clearly pose a physical hazard to the reckless and careless. Tradition also avers the spirit of a forest woman prowls at midnight ready to seize the unwary, particularly children, and drag them into the depths. Such stories are universal traditions, operating to deter minors away from dangerous stretches of water. However, other stories are less ascribable to folklore and fireside tales, with modern reports of apparitions and shadowy forms and eerie noises emanating from forests after dark. Other presences are felt rather than seen, often accompanied by a chill in the air.
One site offering opportunities for prospective ghost hunters is the Ruine Jagdhaus at Elmstein. It is the remains of a hunting lodge, originally built in 1839 and then quickly abandoned because of being badly haunted. The apparition of a man wearing a curious and distinctive hat menaced the area, riding a phantom grey horse around it. Even worse, “sometimes he grinned through the window into the living room”, to the terror of occupiers. So disturbing did the manifestations become that the last forester left in either 1833 or 1850 (accounts differ), whereafter the building was abandoned to the mercy of the elements and fell derelict.
This manifestation of a face peering through a window recalls a case published by the Society for Psychical Research in 2014 of a strange photograph of an eerie face captured by a digital camera looking into a woodland cabin in southern Germany (‘A Remarkable Photographic Anomaly and its Interpretation’ by Gerhard Mayer’ in Journal of the SPR (2014) vol 78, 30-43).
Naturally, the poltergeist – that most ubiquitous of manifestations – is well represented in the country which labelled it. For instance, the Fussgönheim Palace, built in 1730, has a poltergeist that moves between rooms, while the Villa Ludwigshöhe provided the base for a royal ghost hunter, the Bavarian King Ludwig I (1786–1868). From it, Ludwig launched enquiries into a poltergeist infestation reported at the Munich Inn Zum Rockerlgarten and another outbreak inside Haidenau Castle, both in 1840. The King required his officials to regularly brief him on events that included a selection of typical poltergeist tricks – strange noises, inexplicable stone-throwing and strange moans and sighs. Whether after his abdication in March 1848 the King still engaged in ghost hunting, the newspapers of the period, alas, maintain a discreet silence….
Notably, whilst the Palatinate is a landscape shaped and ruined over time by once powerful and violent men, many ghosts walking its castles are female, the predominant form being the ‘woman in white’, the Weisse Frauen who appears often at the time of the death of a great prince or landowner. Again, it is part of a greater European-wide tradition. Tall of stature, attired in white, she often wears a white widow’s veil adorned with ribbons and with a faint luminosity radiating from within the folds. Beyond their high
concentration within the Palatinate, her appearances are recorded across Germany in ancient castles of families at Baden, Brandenburg, Berlin, Bayreuth, Darmstadt, Karlsruhe, and Trebsen – and spread into Poland and the Czech Republic. She glimmers and glides down corridors and through apartments inside castles and palaces as the death of one of the family approaches, taking a melancholy pleasure in visiting and hovering about those who may be direct descendants.
A close encounter with one of these phantom ladies can prove more terrifying than many a male apparition. An example is a story from Baron Joseph von Eichendorff, born in 1788 near Ratibor (now in Poland), who in his youth consorted with a friend, the Count of a neighbouring castle. In winter, youthful conversations often turned to a ghost alleged to haunt the Count’s abode, and one midnight they decided to explore a chamber lying behind a locked iron door at the foot of a flight of stairs that had supposedly been sealed up for a century. Nonetheless, this door was said to open by itself during the winter months, when a slender female figure could be seen gliding out and flitting up the staircase. Eichendorff, the Count, some other young male friends and a footman carrying a lighted candelabra all went to the door and Eichendorff managed to force it open. Before he could step inside, the figure of a thin, veiled woman in a grey dress slipped out of the chamber and ran up the stairs. The servant, who knew nothing of the tradition, gave chase, following the figure up to the point where the stairs branched left and right. He was heading left when a white hand appeared and beckoned him right. He followed and both vanished from sight. Suddenly there came a hideous shriek and the candlelight was extinguished. The young men were horrified. Eichendorff, the first to recover, immediately collected and lit another candelabra, then raced up the stairs. Lying at the top he found the footman, quite dead with a look of terror stamped on his face. As they carried the body downstairs, the door of the sinister chamber slammed shut of its own accord. Similar cases of severe or fatal fright involving white lady apparitions are recorded at several locations in the 19th century (e.g. Willington Mill, Tyneside and Worstead Church, Norfolk).
Sources: Spukorte in der Pfalz Von Irrlichtern, Geisterhunden und Weißen Frauen (2022) by Ulrich Magin and Peter Kauert; The Folklore of East Anglia (1974) by Enid Porter; Journey to Infinity (1974) by Johannes von Butlar; Phantom Ladies by Andrew Green, edited by Alan Murdie, in press).
RONALD BLYTHE AND BORLEY
On 1 March 2023 a memorial service was held at Bury St Edmunds Cathedral for the life of noted author Ronald Blythe who died on 14 January 2023, aged 100. He was one of our last direct links with the story of haunted Borley immediately after World War II. Born at Acton in Suffolk in 1922, he became a full-time writer in 1953, residing mostly in East Anglia. For the latter half of his life he lived entirely at ‘Bottengoms’, a remote converted farmhouse reachable only down a rough and stony track, at Wormingford in Essex. It was here I visited him in June 2011 to talk of East Anglian life, books and ghosts.
I found him pleased to share memories of his Borley connection, principally because it enabled him to recollect his dear and revered friends, poet and author James Turner and his wife Catherine, two important figures in the post-1945 story of the hauntings. The Turners were the first to live on the site of the infamous rectory, eight years after it burned down, moving into the surviving rectory cottage in 1947, in an ultimately doomed effort at running a mushroom farm business on the land. Even with the rectory gone, the label ‘The Most Haunted House in England’ endured from the numerous claims of unrivalled paranormal activity between its construction in 1863 and its blazing end in 1939. Throughout their time at Borley, the village continued to attract curiosity seekers and would-be ghost hunters, who pestered Turner and his wife at all hours. The couple also had a series of personal uncanny experiences themselves (though their accounts were somewhat contradictory) with Turner later writing a humorous semi-fictional account, My Life with Borley Rectory (1950).
Befriended by the Turners, Blythe became a frequent guest of the couple who greatly encouraged his own literary efforts. In 1948 faculty was obtained from the diocese to restore the chancel of the church by the Revd AC Henning, the rector since 1936. Blythe joined Turner and others carrying out renovations involving lifting the stonework around the altar. Blythe told me that beneath it they found and extracted an enormous quantity of human bone fragments, a discovery receiving national coverage and prompting Turner to speculate if these were the cause of the hauntings (Daily Mail, 27 May 1947).
By chance, their excavations narrowly missed a large crypt eventually
Beneath the altar they found and extracted an enormous quantity of human bone fragments
rediscovered beneath the church in 1988. The existence of this spacious and echoing chamber, subject to flooding, may provide the explanation for odd noises reported inside the building over the years, save for the unexplained sound of solemn organ music.
Another curious recovery was the mysterious ‘face in the wall’, an antique carved fragment fixed to an outside wall adjoining the cottage and long concealed by thick ivy. Unearthed many years earlier when the Bull family occupied the rectory, it appeared to be part of a mediaeval carving. Blythe sketched it for ghost hunter Peter Underwood, its rediscovery boosting popular convictions that a mediaeval building had once occupied the former rectory site.
It was one evening, while staying at the rectory cottage in 1948, that Blythe saw a ghost for himself. Going into the upstairs bathroom to wash his hands before dinner, he spotted a strange cat. Initially thinking it was Holly, one of the two cats belonging to the Turners, he quickly realised it did not resemble their pets even slightly. Even more puzzling was its sudden disappearance. Blythe went downstairs and told Turner, who revealed a series of sightings of ghostly cats or anomalous animals roaming in and around the cottage.
After an earlier visit by Harry Price (1881-1948; see FT229:28-34, 338:1618) to Borley, James Turner was attracted increasingly to psychical matters. Later moving to Cornwall, he enthusiastically collected West County ghost stories (published as Ghosts in the South-West
(1975) and in a tribute to Price edited and issued Stella C: An Account of Some Original Experiments in Psychical Research
(1973), the records of experimental sessions conducted by Price with the English trance medium Stella Cranshaw (1900-1986) in the early 1920s.
Temperature variations, object movements and damage to furniture and the production of ectoplasm were among well-witnessed manifestations. At one sitting even the researcher Dr Eric Dingwall (FT299:44-49, 300:50-54) – later a great Price critic – admitted he “saw an eggshaped body beginning to crawl towards the centre of the floor under the table. It was white and where the light was reflected it appeared opal. To the end nearest to the medium was attached a thin, white neck like a piece of macaroni…”. Stella’s mediumship dwindled after she married, though she did return for one final set of sessions. She was still living in England when Turner’s book appeared, but amid the excitement of Uri Geller’s arrival in Great Britain no parapsychologist felt sufficiently inspired to reach out to her to try and shed more light on the test conditions of 50 years before. Consequently, this detailed study languished and was buried under numerous books on the paranormal appearing at the time.
Ronald Blythe admitted not finding any significance himself in these phenomena and, regarding ghosts, confessed to Peter Underwood that he was “no more than very slightly interested in alleged psychic happenings” (see The Ghosts of Borley (1973) by Peter Underwood and Paul Tabori). It was an attitude he maintained when discussing the Turners with me in 2011. Despite seeing the phantom cat, he said ghost stories only thrilled him as fiction, particularly the classics penned by writers such as MR James or any tales set in his beloved East Anglia. Occasionally, he referred to sensing unseen presences of departed inhabitants around the old houses of parishioners in Wormingford and at his own home, but he considered these routine and scarcely worthy of note. Nonetheless, recognising my own fascination, he kindly gave me his personal copy of Stella C, signed by Turner and presented to him by the author nearly 40 years earlier.
Though uninspired by psychical research, Blythe had long previously set off upon his own literary and spiritual pilgrimage into the English countryside, exploring it more deeply in his own book Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), itself hailed an instant classic. A devotee of the English metaphysical poets and Anglican mystical writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, Blythe became a lay reader in the Church of England and an honorary canon of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral. Over the years he increasingly sought out and described the hidden spiritual aspects of rural landscapes expressed within history and poetry, in the process being justly called by Richard Mabey our greatest contemporary countryside writer.
Among his notable works was his long-running ‘Word from Wormingford’ column in Church Times, a weekly part-rural commentary, part-devotional feature published each week between 1993 and 2017. Many of these pieces were subsequently issued in book form, depicting and celebrating the still detectable natural patterns of everyday rural existence apparent in the life of his local village and their reflection in the rituals and holy days of Church worship.
Possessed by a quiet confidence, a believer in the communion with the saints who once trod these lands and in the resurrection of the dead through faith in Christ, he doubtless knew the lines from the service of Compline by heart: “From all ill dreams defend our sight, from fears and terrors of the night; withhold from us our ghostly foe…” Having recited these words many times at his little local church and numerous others and still writing into his late nineties, I am sure Ronald Blythe had no fear of ghosts and little time ever to be troubled by them.