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Chinese Whispers
by Chris Huff

There are innumerable books giving lists of allegedly haunted places (not to mention web sites). Most serious investigators soon learn to take these with a pinch of salt. Even a casual investigation usually uncovers that the last sighting was fifty years ago by an unknown passer-by or something similar. Chris Huff looks into how certain sites gain a reputation for being haunted, whether deserved or not, and finds that we should not always dismiss them all as mere tourist traps.

There are many, many accounts in the popular literature about castles, halls and great houses, usually those in a severe state of disrepair or of Victorian Gothic style, which, thanks to horror writers and Hammer films, have acquired an almost universal reputation for being haunted. Indeed, throughout my researching activity here in the north-east, it has been an education discovering just how many of these buildings have acquired this reputation solely because of their appearance.

In my NOT HAUNTED files there are many examples of buildings which have acquired this status, where, upon serious research, no documented phenomena other than local folklore can been traced. In conjunction with this there is also the frequent situation where the named witnesses to such phenomena can never be traced, the ‘oh, they moved away years ago’ or ‘I haven’t seen them in years’ syndromes. Alternatively, questioning about witnesses to the paranormal events produces the response that they were an unnamed man or woman, some playing children, holidaying visitors, a member of staff or a passing member of the public, often returning home late at night. The unsubstantiated stories usually make a good read or are an anecdotal tale to be told in the pub to newcomers in the area or, of course, any fool passing through asking silly questions about whether there are any tales of the paranormal in connection with the local castle, hall, public house etc.

Those buildings which may have a genuine ghostly presence, or at least had one or more occurrences of the paranormal manifest there, have also invariably had the paranormal tales twisted and extended. Why this happens is due to a variety of reasons, and I strongly recommend Paul Chambers’ article on eyewitness testimony as a starting point. Paul eloquently demonstrated the fallibility of memory as a key element in the gradual transmogrification from the mundane account to a story with the blanks filled in by the unconscious imagination. Secondly, he identified the effect which can occur by aggressive, rather than passive, questioning of the witness. Thirdly, for the purposes of this document, the way in which the events were transformed by a cultural viewpoint, the expectation of what should occur over perhaps the events which actually occurred. I will also add, in my own experience, that sometimes the tale is deliberately enlarged upon for the storyteller’s prestige - especially if the account concerned them directly.

This gradual transmogrification of the evidence is what I have chosen to call the Chinese Whispers Effect. It is a factor to be considered when faced with stories of haunting, whether by mouth or in print. This was certainly the case in an earlier article on the haunting at Hylton Castle (Anomaly 29) where the altered tale became so popular that it was converted to a stage play, which bore very little in common with the details of the original haunting. Another of these Chinese Whisper Ghost Stories, suffering from an acute case of transmogrification, but which has not yet been converted to tread the boards, is presented below in three acts. The first deals with the known history of this little studied castle, the second chronicles the folklore associated with the building and finally the third part assesses the physical evidence for a haunting potentially occurring at the site.

Therefore, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs, I present for your delectation and delight tonight’s play entitled ‘The Lady in White or The Awful Spectre of Blenkinsopp Castle’.

Act 1: A Brief History of Blenkinsopp Castle

Blenkinsopp Castle was probably first constructed as a fortified stronghold sometime after the Norman ‘Harrying of the North’ in response to the northern uprisings against the Norman usurpation of the Saxon throne. At this time the area was unquiet and troubled, under constant threat of raids from Scotland and local unrest. The original stronghold, a square keep of about 15 to 16 meters square with an enclosing curtain wall constructed at a distance of 4-5 metres outside was probably begun in the late eleventh or early twelfth centuries.

The castle is documented to have been rebuilt in about 1330-40 allegedly re-using much stonework from nearby Hadrian’s Wall. The stronghold was subsequently fortified against the Scots in 1340, when it was granted a licence to crenellate and it is mentioned as a castle (castrum) in a document dated 1415. Richardson (1844.148-9), in passing, further informs us that the castle was vaulted beneath. It was in the possession of the Blenkinsopp family for many generations until finally falling into disuse some time during the nineteenth century; Pattison (Richardson 1846.144), writing in 1845, comments that ‘ Until about 1820 there were some poor families who occupied a few of the rooms which the hand of time had spared, but these are now ruinous and deserted’. Richardson (1844. 148-9) records in his records for 1830, that ‘About this year was built into the south side of Blenkinsopp Castle, a new dwelling house, in the castellated style, as a residence for the agent of the adjoining quarry. Until this time the castle had been partly occupied by two or three labouring families, who contrived to find a shelter in a few of the least dilapidated rooms...’ The demise of the building went further when, in a very poor condition, it was used as a farmyard for cattle by a local farmer.

During work to clear and convert some of the older structures for this new use, a small door was found located beneath the debris from years of neglect at the ground level of the keep. The original description of this find is given by Patterson (Richardson 1846.142) who remarks on the discovery thus: ‘A few years ago , the vaults of the keep of the castle were ordered by the occupier of the neighbouring farm to be cleared for the purpose of wintering cattle. On removing the rubbish, a small doorway was discovered on a level with the bottom of the keep. On clearing out the entrance, the workmen were surprised by a large swarm of meat flies, and the place itself smelt damp and noisome. The news soon spread abroad that the entrance to the Lady’s Vault had been discovered. And people flocked in great numbers to see it. Of the whole number assembled, however, but one man was found willing to enter. He described the passage as narrow and not sufficiently high to admit of a man walking upright. He walked in a straight forward direction for a few yards, then descended a flight of steps, after which he again proceeded in a straight forward course until he came to a doorway. The door itself had fallen to pieces, the bolt rusting in its fastening, and the hinges clung to the post with palsied grip. At this juncture the passage took a sudden turn and a flight of precipitous steps presented themselves. Opening his lantern, and turning the light, he peered down the stairs into the thick darkness, but encountering thick noxious gasses his candle was extinguished, and he was obliged to grope his way back to his companions. He made another attempt but never descended the second flight of stairs, and so little curiosity had their employer about the matter, that he ordered it to be closed up, and the contents of the vault remain undiscovered to this day.’ The article is concluded with the remark that the last time he saw the doorway (pre 1846) was after some of the infill had been broken away, and some young boys were throwing stones through the opening and listening to the noises that they made as they fell, presumably down the steps.

The final chapters on the history of the castle show that Blenkinsopp had somewhat of a revival of fortune in the 1870s ; in 1877 to 1880 it was largely rebuilt by William Glover in the Tudor Gothic style much favoured at the time. Unfortunately the rebuilt castle came to an abrupt end in 1954 when the building was gutted by fire, and it has remained a partial ruin since this event

Act 2: The Legend of Blenkinsopp

With a brief overview of the history of the castle itself sketched out, we move swiftly on to the local legend, which asserts that the ruin is haunted by the ghost of a White Lady. In some variants of the tale she is credited to only appear to children, in order to show them where buried treasure is hidden. The various folk tales which have been undoubtedly invented to account for the haunting by the White Lady all subtly changed to heighten the story. The White Lady in residence at Blenkinsopp is always alleged to be of the Blenkinsopp family by marriage, a rich woman brought to this country from Palestine by one of the Crusading knights, Brian de Blenkinsopp (some would have the name as Blenship). As the third and last Crusade took place in 1189-92 and the current ruin dates back only as far as 1330-40, either the story of the haunting has become associated with a popular historical event, or the castle of the haunting is an earlier fortification, concealed beneath or within the present ruinous structure. Robson (1993) suggests a date of the 1500s, but this is equally vague and unhelpful.

The legend of Blenkinsopp Castle is one of greed and a marriage for money, for local tradition describes how it required twelve men to carry the chest containing the dowry. It is also alleged that after the marriage the unnamed woman retained a tight control over the purse strings (somewhat unlikely in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries) and did not allow this fortune to be easily disposed of. This tension over money soon led to quarrelling between the lord and lady, whereupon Lady Blenkinsopp is supposed, in the best traditions of the ghost story, to have buried the treasure in a cellar or dungeon. Robson alternatively suggests that the money was buried by the woman to test whether her husband’s love was for her or for her money and, as it appears that the money was the most important factor in the marriage of Brian de Blenkinsopp, she left (also highly unlikely). I am sure that in the middle ages, when killing was a fact of life, if the money was more important than the wife, some means would have been employed to make her talk eventually and then have her calmly and quietly disposed of.

The Castle is supposed to have been deserted soon after this familial quarrel. Numerous ‘reasons’ for the desertion of the castle are given by a variety of authors. Oxley suggests that the lady was left behind to keep her treasure company by her disaffected husband. Tegner (1991) asserts that the couple mysteriously disappeared. Braddock (1991) suggests that first Brian de Blenkinsopp left and later, after perhaps one year, his wife followed in an attempt to find him. Finally, Robson (1993) suggests that the lady died after five years desertion by her husband, distraught in the dungeons where she buried the treasure. Curiously, no ‘dark deeds’ are recorded in the local folk literature that could obviously account for the female ghost that has been witnessed at the castle. This, to me, was rather surprising considering the state of border warfare between England and Scotland which has dominated much of the history in Northumberland, and why I firmly believe that the haunting by the White Lady has had a historical character invented to ‘fill in the blanks’.

The story of a hidden passageway is told and retold by all and sundry with various twists and turns to heighten the script. This passage was allegedly discovered in 1880 during restoration (perhaps by Coulson) and was traced for some distance by a brave-hearted man, who in one story took with him a canary to warn of gas, and in another a lantern or candle to light his way. At some point along the passage the canary succumbed to the gasses therein, or the lantern went out, and so the exploration was halted. There seems something almost compelling for writers on the paranormal, when re-telling a previous tale, to add to or over-dramatise the story with invented detail. For example, in the case of Blenkinsopp, we have Oxley writing that the passageway mentioned above was located at the ground level of the keep, in the east wall, and was discovered during work to clear the moat of accumulated debris. What happened to the curtain wall and the farmyard within? Forster (1971.16) informs us that the man, having descended the stairs, found that his way was barred by a door which he pushed open to continue his exploration. But with a sudden rush of evil smelling air the candle went out, and he was forced to grope his way back to the light. What happened to the canary? Tegner (1991.53) reports the finding of a well or a dungeon and paraphrases Patterson’s last sighting of the doorway (by which time he is firmly asserting that it is a well), adding that the boys were throwing stones down it to listen to the sounds as they hit the water far beneath. So did the unnamed brave soul who ventured into the cellars of the keep via the small doorway at its base actually descend a well? No wonder the candle went out. Or did the canary drown?

Of all the paranormal occurrences in the castle, the most famous account, claimed to be a witnessed event, is once more to be regarded more as folklore or local legend, considering the twisted tales about the haunting. In the tale, a gardener and his wife and their son were housed in the castle at some time in the eighteenth century (Braddock 1991). In the night the son was heard screaming from his room, and when his parents reached him he told of a ghostly white woman who had sat on his bed and promised, if he would go with her, to show him where a great treasure was hidden. When he didn’t move for fear, the ghost is alleged to have attempted to carry him off forcibly. Three times more this happened, until he was moved from the room. Not surprisingly, the family moved from the castle, which was occupied at various times by poor families until the building was bought in the later nineteenth century by one Colonel Coulson.

The apparition of the White Lady is claimed by some authors to have been seen by others. Robson (1993.8-10) also records the local tales of the White Lady, which assert that she is to be seen dressed in a white, wispy dress floating about the castle keep and on the castle walls, and that she may be seen in the dungeons (vaults?) weeping (access on special open days via the small door that is blocked up, no doubt). A local author, Tegner (1991), attests in his ‘Ghosts of the North Country’ that he knows a man (unnamed, yet again), described as being neither psychic nor credulous and romantic, prominent in Newcastle upon Tyne in the book trade, who has seen the White Lady. This unnamed man is recorded as stating that he ‘ran like hell’ on the occasion, but can this testimony be accepted without one shred of corroborative proof? Probably not.

Lastly in this twisting story is a peculiar tale, recorded first by Richardson and later others, which involves the visit to the area in the nineteenth century (sometime between 1800 and 1845 is the closest that can be ascertained) of a woman (unnamed, of course) who stayed at an inn (unnamed, of course) at Greenhead, which is about 1km from the castle. The tale attests that she told the landlady, in confidence, who then apparently told everybody who would listen, that she had a dream about a strange white lady who wanted her to find a chest of gold that was buried in a castle called Blenkinsopp. This visitor is alleged to have waited for several weeks for the owner of the castle in order to gain permission to look in the ruins (the owner was away somewhere unnamed, of course). Eventually, she left, presumably out of money, having not succeeded in searching for the hidden treasure. Her name, address and any other detail which may have been of use were not recorded for posterity. As such, in its present form, the tale is anecdotal and of little use to the serious paranormal investigator, who is fully justified in asking, with so little evidence, whether it really happened at all.

So, having read all of the above, what are we to believe of the tale? When I first read the most accessible of the literature on the castle my reaction was ‘what a load of *****’. All that was needed was a variety of headless ghosts, horses pulling carriages down the drive, clanking chains, dark, hooded figures, owls hooting, bats flying and perhaps a banshee or family retainer making an appearance to portend death, to complete the assemblage.

After playing with the scripts for a while, I was on the point of consigning it to the box of no return (the large box-file marked NOT HAUNTED - FOLKLORE) when I got lucky. While digging through the local section in Durham University’s Palace Green Library on matters archaeological, I became distracted when lo, there was the original description of the haunting, in Richardson’s Table Book(s), a series on local events published at various times during the 1840s. After reading the account by Patterson contained therein, I was determined to find out more. I got lucky twice more shortly after this by finding a copy of Braddock’s ‘Haunted Houses of Great Britain’, and Warren and Wells, ‘Ghosts of the North’. Both of these books dealt factually and fairly with the evidence for a haunting occurring there, and without them there would be no Act 3, on recorded phenomena at the castle, nor in all likelihood this piece on Blenkinsopp.

Act 3: Documented Phenomena at the Castle

In the 1890s the Anne family rented the renovated castle. Braddock (1991) relates some tales of the paranormal which were obtained from Major George Anne, whose family had the tenancy of the castle in the 1890s. On one occasion when Major Ernest Anne, the head of the household and father of George above, was about to leave for a trip to Iceland in 1893, he saw the figure of a woman in a white dress leaning on the banister and looking ‘piercingly’ at him as he was about to ascend the stairs. Thinking that it was one of the two female servants who were employed at the time, he decided not to climb the stairs but to go for a short walk in the garden. There he saw both of the servants in the garden, which made the presence of the woman in white on the stairs quite inexplicable. This woman was also witnessed by the Major’s youngest son, Bob, who died in combat in 1917. As a two-year-old he is known to have shouted while in the nursery, ‘go away, lady’. Major George Anne also told Braddock that there were unexplained knockings on the bedroom door (unspecified as to which bedroom) which would occur at 2am and 5am.

The present owner of Blenkinsopp, Michael Simpson, related some tales of the ghosts of the castle (Warren and Wells 1995) which would certainly support a case for the castle still being haunted. On one occasion he was in his bedroom when he heard the steady but loud and unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps in the corridor outside. The footsteps appeared to stop outside the bedroom door, and by the bright moonlight Michael Simpson saw the knob of the door slowly turn, as if to open, and then turn back to its original position. Assuming it was his brother returning from a late night, in a state of some inebriation, he thought little more about the incident, until he discovered that his brother had not returned that night. On balance, it would seem that a haunting has occurred at Blenkinsopp, but whether it is still active is unknown. The evidence presented by Braddock suggests that there may be some fact behind the folklore of the White Lady, even to suggest that she appears to children. However, short of staking a young child down during a vigil in the ruin and waiting and watching what happened, I suspect that this would be hard to prove. The recorded phenomena are of such low intensity that I suspect a vigil or three at the castle would not stand a very good chance of witnessing anything of the paranormal. I fear that this little-known haunting will remain, like so many others, just that, and slowly fade into obscurity.

The Epilogue

If this piece has a purpose, it must be to act as a caveat to one and all about assumptions. The danger of assuming that, because a site is in a book on ghosts, or is in a state of ruination or is dark and forbidding of aspect, it must be haunted. Also, the assumption that all old or only old or ugly buildings are haunted. Or the assumption that all the recognised authors in the field have bothered to research the facts, and by accepting blindly we become equally guilty of complacently regurgitating the same old tired *****. Even the assumption that ghosts are best seen at night. None of the above assumptions are true. They are what they are: assumptions coloured in by our own preconceptions. Conversely, just because the tales of a haunting twist and turn in convoluted Chinese Whispers, it is impossible to dismiss them out of hand without first digging deep into the older, more obscure accounts as well as modern accounts by more reputable authors, who check their facts and do not elaborate for the sake of that pernicious and persistent legacy from Victorian Gothic Horror, a good ghost story.

Further Reading

Braddock, J., 1991. Haunted Houses of Great Britain. Dorset Press Brooks,.John, 1994. The Good Ghost Guide. Jarrold
Chambers, Paul, 2002. The Eyewitness. Anomaly, Number 30.
Forster, Eric,1971. Weird Tales of Northumbria: A New Collection. Pexhall Publications.
Grundy, J., McCombie, G., Ryder, P., Welfare, H and Pevsner, N.,1999. ‘Northumberland’. The Buildings of England. Penguin.
Oxley. C.T., The Haunted North Country. 2nd impression, Dobson, Harrogate.
Patterson, W., 1845.’ The Legend of the White Lady of Blenkinsopp’. In Richardson. 1846. pp 144-8
Richardson.1844. Richardson's Local Historians Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences. Historical Division IV
Richardson.1846. Richardson's Local Historians Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences. Legendary Division III
Robson. Alan.1993. Nightmare on Your Street. More Grisly Trails and Ghostly Tales. Virgin books.
Sandhill Press. 1996. Ghosts and Legends of Northumbria.
Tegner, Henry,1991. Ghosts of the North Country. Butler Publishing, Rothbury.
Warren. M., and Wells. T., 1995. Ghosts of the North. Broadcast Books