My Blog for Quercus yesterday about Borley Rectory:
On Halloween night this month, police will gather in an isolated hamlet on the Essex Suffolk border to turn away crowds of fascinated spectators.
The watchers will come in their droves and in nervous anticipation from miles away, all of them searching for the one thing that has always attracted strangers to these parts.
They will come looking for ghosts.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the construction of Borley Rectory, a rambling Victorian mansion that gained fame in 1929 as “the most haunted house in England,” when the Daily Mirror called in the famous ghost hunter and arch sceptic Harry Price, to investigate.
Price’s arrival at the Rectory on 12 June 1929 coincided with a range of unusual happenings – stones and mothballs were thrown, bells rang, a candlestick came hurtling down the stairs and a brick crashed through the verandah roof. The rector and his wife soon departed, leaving Price to write a book on the affair which fixated the nation: Borley Rectory – The Most Haunted House in England.
But was it quite right to describe the house as most haunted, or even haunted at all?
That is the question I have sought to examine in my debut novel THE GHOST HUNTERS, which is published later this month. This novel is certainly not a faithful retelling of Harry Price’s association with the house, which stood on a hill overlooking the windswept Essex marshes, but a fictional representation of what might have happened, based on historical reports and witness testimonies. I trawled newspaper archives, dug deep into Price’s private files, left no stone unturned to weave the most famous haunting of our age into a chilling historical novel.
Many will remember how the tale began. According to the legend of a Benedictine monastery built in 1362, a monk was in a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. Once their affair becomes public news, the monk is executed and the nun bricked up alive in the convent walls.
Soon, stories about the spectral nun walking near the rectory started doing the rounds, as did tales of a phantom coach and horses, inexplicable footsteps, voices, touchings, smells, fires, movement of objects, written messages and poltergeist activity.
But what is it about that red-bricked monstrosity of a building that still keeps us talking about it after 150 years? Just a few months ago I met a lady who remembered visiting the place as a child. She, like many of the locals, still find something odd about Borley. As a local taxi man put it to me: “I genuinely think there is fear in the village, still -fear at whatever is up there.’
It’s a journey I have made often, retracing Harry Price’s footsteps. If you take the road from Sudbury towards Long Melford, about a mile before that town you’ll spot a turning – Rodbridge Corner; and if you take that turning, crossing an old disused railway line, you’ll come to Hall Lane. Here, taking the hill, you might glimpse the spire of Borley Church in the distance. In winter, it can appear a very austere place indeed.
An old friend who accompanied me to Borley revealed in confidence that he had heard strange noises as we approached the churchyard. In his words: “the sound of a coach and horses pounding the road.”
The odd thing was: we hadn’t seen any coach or horses. And when I mentioned this to an elderly woman living close to the site of the old Rectory, she became curiously serious and said quietly, ‘Yes, people do keep reporting that… But if strange things do still happen here, I’m hardly likely to tell you. Don’t expect anyone else here to discuss it, either.’
What’s interesting to me, isn’t what the story tells us about spirituality and life after death, but rather, what it tells us about the living. The era of Harry Price was a grieving nation, in some ways a desperate nation, that needed something to believe in. A pre war world as remote as Borley itself.
So come with me, if you will, back into the 1920s. An era where war injured servicemen stood in the cold and the fog on London streets selling bootlaces and copies of the Daily Worker; an era of longing and despair and a little hope.
It’s January 1929 and a renegade writer and researcher, has announced in the Times the gala opening of a new laboratory in South Kensington where spiritualist mediums will be put to the test. Everyone is speculating about its work, including a young woman recently returned from Paris. Sarah Grey. She is lost, without purpose, until she witnesses the marvels of the Laboratory – where the floors are made of cork, where wooden shutters keep rooms devoid of light, and where mediums are strapped into devices that resemble the electric chair.
She doesn’t know it yet, but Sarah Grey is destined to come face to face with arch sceptic, Harry Price. And her whole life is about to change…
The Ghost Hunters is published by Quercus on October 24th, you can pre-order your copy today.