Su­per­nat­u­ral in­ves­ti­ga­tions

A look at gar­dens with a spe­cial at­mos­phere

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page - Tim Richard­son

In his lat­est book, Tim Richard­son re­vis­its the in­trigu­ing topic of ghosts in gar­dens Do peo­ple who pass through gar­dens leave be­hind in­vis­i­ble im­pres­sions?

Gar­dens can be such at­mo­spheric, mys­te­ri­ous places that it seems sur­pris­ing that the very first book on the sub­ject of ghosts in gar­dens should have ap­peared, or man­i­fested it­self, only rel­a­tively re­cently. Peter Un­der­wood, au­thor of Haunted Gar­dens, was a serial ghost au­thor, com­piler of a gazetteer to Bri­tain’s spooks and pres­i­dent of the Ghost Club So­ci­ety.

The 30 or so case stud­ies in the book, cov­er­ing gar­dens such as Che­nies Manor and Jenkyn Place, are filled with all the usual non­sense about grey ladies and head­less courtiers, pre­sum­ably de­signed to pro­voke a plea­sur­able fris­son in the cred­u­lous, the gullible, the sug­gestible and the sus­cep­ti­ble. We are told, for ex­am­ple, that the lake­side at Charlecote Park is haunted by the fig­ure of a “mys­te­ri­ous” girl in white, who is be­lieved to have drowned her­self there.

Then it is dropped in that Shake­speare is said to have writ­ten Ophe­lia’s death scene at the house. Co­in­ci­dence? Maybe…

Wait a minute. If one stops to think about it, the haunting is ob­vi­ously a to­tal fab­ri­ca­tion, the ghost story sim­ply ex­trap­o­lated from an un­likely, though ap­peal­ing, fam­ily Shake­speare leg­end.

Per­haps I am be­ing a lit­tle over­harsh be­cause I am in fact drawn to this sub­ject. Not be­cause I “be­lieve” in ghosts and ap­pari­tions of the type evoked in ghost sto­ries, but be­cause there is an affin­ity, which may only be metaphor­i­cal, be­tween the idea of ghosts in gar­dens and the clas­si­cal no­tion of spirit of place – the ge­nius loci, as Alexan­der Pope fa­mously dubbed it.

Some­times the at­mos­phere in a gar­den can be so strong that it is tempt­ing to fol­low clas­si­cal prece­dent and think of them as in­de­pen­dent en­ti­ties of some kind.

One can cer­tainly get a sense of this look­ing at old pho­to­graphs of gar­dens – the Ed­war­dian images in Coun­try Life’s ar­chive are per­haps the best ex­am­ple.

Loom­ing yew hedges, crum­bling stair­cases, still pools and even the oc­ca­sional fig­ure dressed all in white drift­ing by – images such as this con­spire to cre­ate a strong sense of at­mos­phere which can seem not a lit­tle ghostly. But of course these pho­to­graphs, like so many good ghost sto­ries, are care­fully con­structed fab­ri­ca­tions.

A few years ago I found my­self for­mu­lat­ing a the­ory of sense of place called “psy­chotopia”, which posits the ex­is­tence of a kind of mind or “psy­che” (if only a set of mem­o­ries) be­long­ing to a “topos” or place. It proved rel­a­tively un­con­tro­ver­sial: pro­fes­sional gar­den de­sign­ers and land­scape ar­chi­tects were happy to ac­knowl­edge that iden­ti­fy­ing and then ma­nip­u­lat­ing an ex­ist­ing ge­nius loci is their bread and but­ter, just as it was for Pope. But of course, in­stinc­tive be­lief in such a pro­cess is not “ra­tio­nal” in the em­pir­i­cal, sci­en­tific sense.

The key to this is the con­vic­tion that the peo­ple who own, visit or sim­ply pass through gar­dens and land­scapes be­come co-cre­ators of the sense of place, leav­ing be­hind in­vis­i­ble yet tan­gi­ble im­pres­sions of their in­ter­ac­tions with it.

These psy­chic al­ter­ations may be so small as to be im­per­cep­ti­ble (some­one vis­it­ing a gar­den for a sin­gle af­ter­noon, per­haps) or they may be de­ci­sive (a keen gardener in their own gar­den – and who would ar­gue that their char­ac­ter will not some­how be bound up in the place?)

Fol­low­ing up on this, I was keen to find out whether the Lost Gar­dens of Heli­gan fea­tured in Haunted Gar­dens.

That is the one gar­den where I have per­son­ally en­coun­tered ex-gar­den­ers who say they have felt un­easy if not down­right ter­ri­fied at cer­tain times and in cer­tain ar­eas of the gar­den.

The rock­ery and fruit store are usu­ally sin­gled out as hot spots: peo­ple pre­fer to work in pairs in these ar­eas.

One of the gar­den­ers I spoke to told me he sim­ply re­fused to lock up the gar­den at night on his own.

In­ter­view­ing Tim Smit at Heli­gan some 15 years ago, I re­mem­ber ask­ing him about the gar­den’s ghosts in a light way. I was sur­prised at how se­ri­ous he be­came, con­firm­ing sev­eral sto­ries I had heard and adding some of his own, and then ask­ing me not to print any ref­er­ence to what he had said. Sev­eral years later, in his own mem­oir of the gar­den, Tim fi­nally re­vealed just how dif­fi­cult mat­ters had be­come from a man­age­rial point of view at that time, with mem­bers of staff deeply dis­turbed and ap­par­ently be­set by an en­velop­ing black mood. Ex­or­cisms had en­sued. It seems to me that in some cases “haunt­ings” are the re­sult of some form of mass, or per­haps more pre­cisely com­mu­nal, hys­te­ria.

That may be what hap­pened at Heli­gan among a close-knit gar­den team, of­ten work­ing alone, sur­rounded by sto­ries of the gar­den’s past.

On the other hand, there is no deny­ing that Heli­gan is an ex­tremely at­mo­spheric place. It may be that the ex­ist­ing “space-flavour” of the gar­den was en­hanced or un­earthed by the sud­den pres­ence of an army of re­stor­ers. Per­haps the gar­den’s “ghosts”, or more ac­cu­rately its in­nate char­ac­ter­is­tics, were re­vealed again just as the tree ferns in the combe also be­gan to see the light of day af­ter a cen­tury and more in ob­scu­rity.

Mys­te­ri­ous: many Heli­gan gar­den­ers (right) were lost in WWI; cer­tain ar­eas are said to be haunted (left); the gar­dens to­day, be­low

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