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Saturday, 30 August 2014

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New book sheds light on supernatural Cumbria

A schoolteacher is killed on the road and reappears in her classroom. Long-dead children can be heard laughing and playing. A man visiting a graveyard vanishes into thin air. A tall woman in white who fell from a window to her death still wanders the streets in search of her lover.

Helen Ivison photo
Helen Ivison

Truth or the product of overactive imaginations?

Helen Ivison is happy to accept them as fact. “If anyone tells me a ghost story, I believe them,” she says without question.

“There are some things that still can’t be explained.”

Helen has been collecting ghost stories for the past 40 years and many of them are published in her new book Supernatural Cumbria.

Perhaps it’s not surprising Helen is so engrossed. Her home town of Workington, she boasts, “is distinguished by being one of the most haunted places in Cumbria.”

Stories of floating apparitions, rooms with eerie atmospheres and things that go bump in the night are often dismissed by sceptics – and those who claim to have had a supernatural experience are often laughed at.

But Helen feels anyone who is prepared to brave the ridicule and tell their story has to be taken seriously. If they weren’t absolutely sure about what they’d seen they’d keep silent.

There’s certainly a lot of it about these days. In February this year a ghostly image was caught on camera flitting in and out of an off-licence in Botcherby, Carlisle. The footage was posted on the News & Star website, and has been watched by more than 26,000 people all over the world.

Then last month an old regular at the Brewery House in High Harrington turned up there again. He had died there several years ago – but that hasn’t stopped him visiting his favourite pub and sitting in his usual chair.

At a travel agency in Penrith, a computer mouse began to move on its own, and immediately afterwards a large poster fell off the wall. And ghostbusters have been called to La Pergola restaurant in Castle Street in Carlisle after figures in Victorian dress were spotted by staff.

Tales like these are nothing new to Helen.

The 67-year-old author accepts that not all reports of ghostly activity can be believed. An overactive imagination, a mind playing tricks, or too much to drink can all give rise to them.

But she also feels there are far too many credible ghost stories, told by far too many sober, sane people, for them all to be dismissed.

“The belief has been there for too long,” Helen says. “These stories are people’s perceptions of what has happened. There are definitely some things that we don’t understand.”

She also admits that she simply enjoys the stories. “Folklore has fascinated me for years – it’s important that we know where we come from. And ghost stories have always been a big part of it.”

Helen hasn’t seen a ghost herself – so far. But most of the stories in her book she has on good authority, from people she trusts.

One of the first came from her father. It happened some time between the two world wars in west Cumbria but Helen won’t be any more specific about the area, for fear of frightening people who live or work nearby.

Her father and his two brothers were making their way home from the pub one snowy winter’s night. At the top of a lane, two of the men stopped to light cigarettes while the other, Willie, headed on down the path.

Then they heard a howl and a thud and, assuming he had fallen into the dyke, they raced down after him.

He was nowhere to be seen. But he was found at home, whimpering on his knees in front of the fire, his face grey. He was convinced he’d seen the Devil dancing in front of him. His brothers thought it might have been a cow but Willie claimed the figure had jumped over a gate.

“Until the day he died, my Uncle Willie believed he’d seen the Devil that night,” Helen says.

There have been other strange occurrences at the same unspecified site. The road has no dangerous bends or corners but she adds: “There have been a number of road accidents there, some fatal ones. Cars have driven off the road without explanation.”

Another story is one Helen heard from the niece of a witness. During the early years of the last century a young teacher at a village school near Penrith was killed in an accident with a cart. The schoolchildren were all devastated at the loss of their well-loved teacher and were given two days off.

When they returned to the classroom they immediately fled again in panic. Their dead teacher was there, sitting at her desk.

Another woman tells of a ghost she saw in a churchyard in Camerton near Seaton 20 years ago. She was walking her dog there when she saw a tall, well-dressed man of about 40 looking at a gravestone.

Throughout their conversation the dog was becoming agitated and uneasy and as the woman walked off she turned to wave to the man but he had disappeared into thin air.

Graveyards are of course typical ghost territory and one of Helen’s friends told her of a very frightening experience he had in a churchyard in Egremont as a boy in the 1970s.

He and some friends had decided to camp overnight there, as a dare, and one of them awoke in the grey half-light of the early morning to see a dark shadow moving outside the tent.

Then it began to knock against it and suddenly a tent peg shot out. He screamed, the others awoke and they all fled in terror.

Only later that day did they pluck up the courage to return to the churchyard and found the tent had vanished.

One of the theories surrounding the appearance of ghosts is that a violent or brutal death can leave some sort of negative energy lingering in the area for years to come and Helen believes this may explain strange goings-on at the law courts on Ramsay Brow in Workington.

Lifts work by themselves, objects sometimes move on desks and office staff think they see figures in black walking along corridors.

“They’ve had one or two problems there,” she says. “But on that particular site there was a really vicious murder. A guy was chased and killed with an axe.

“It could be that that has left bad vibes around – some places definitely do feel bad.”

Many of Helen’s ghost stories are also love stories, and the “girl with the candle”, frequently spotted in Lowther Street in Whitehaven, is one example.

She lived during the 1700s and fell in love with a man of a lower social class. Her father refused to let them marry so the couple planned to elope on one of the many ships that passed through the busy port.

A rope had been smuggled into her room, but as she tried to climb down it she fell to her death, at her lover’s feet. Now the figure of a tall woman in white is seen around town. Nightwatchmen in the 1800s were all familiar with the apparition.

Another tragic story is that of the wronged woman who now haunts Overwater Hall, on the road between Ireby and Uldale.

A man thought to be called Joseph Gillbanks bought the property in the 1800s after making his fortune in Jamaica. A woman who felt he had betrayed her followed him there.

He persuaded his former lover to join him in a rowing boat on Overwater Tarn to discuss the situation and then threw her into the water.

She clung onto the boat by her hands so he hacked them off with his sword. As a result the figure of a woman with bloody, handless arms can sometimes be seen banging at the windows.

Just up the road from Workington’s law courts are the grounds of Workington Hall, the setting for many a ghost story. Visions of old-fashioned children’s toys – and of children in old-fashioned dress – have been reported at one of the main gates there.

But the story Helen finds most chilling herself is the tale of the rhyming children.

“In the mid-90s a friend of mine was on holiday relief at the Helena Thompson Museum up there. She said she had been disturbed on and off by noises until they became quite loud and she realised they sounded like children playing.”

She could not make out distinct words, but from the rhythm of their speech she realised they were chanting nursery rhymes.

During the violence of the border raids families were incarcerated in the dungeons of Workington Hall. They were eventually released but many had died while imprisoned and the rhyming children are said to be the ghosts of the children who didn’t survive. Many people
have heard and seen them there.

“Not all the stories in the book frighten me, but that one does,” Helen admits. “That place makes me shudder.”

Supernatural Cumbria, by Helen Ivison, is published by Amberley Books and costs £12.99.

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