‘A CELTIC CHILDHOOD’
BILL WATKINS 1999
I spy Mike and Paul, two of my erstwhile confederates, lurking about by the service entrance to the big Georgian hall.
“What are youse lot up to?”
“Shoosh!” They are listening at the window of the site office.
“What’s going on?”
Paul takes me conspiratorially aside. “I was in the office with my mum this morning, to pay the site rent. Anyway there’s these three geezers in there talking to old Mr. Rice about ghosts! So I starts to ear-
“Oooh, there's great possibilities of a good wheeze looming large here! When are they coming?”
“Friday night, and they’re staying for the weekend.“
I give Mike, still listening at the window, the thumbs-
“We will, by crikey! We haven’t had a good wheeze since we got the flogging.”
Now, I know the Georgian hall inside and out. I have many times sat daydreaming on the elegant great oak stairway, waiting for my pal Mark to come out of his parents’ apartment to play. I’ve always felt curiously at home in this Mecca of silk tapestries, marble fireplaces, Greek urns, and gilt-
I have never seen the Gray Lady and no credible person to my knowledge has. “But she’s there!” we are told by the old ones in hushed tones.
“Dad, do you believe in ghosts and the like?”
“You worry about the buggers who walk around this earth on two feet and don’t be bothering yer head about any old spooks or such nonsense!”
Well, that is good enough for me. The plot thins. If my dad thinks there is nothing to be scared about, then we can enter into our dastardly plan unfettered by fear of the hereafter. “From ghosties and ghoulies and long-
Once more the game is afoot!
Lady Maria Anne Fitzherbert had a secret -
Wootton Hall, like so many stately homes of the eighteenth century, has a priest hole! This contrivance manifests itself in a secret underground passage from the hall to the old church. By means of this, the priest can give the banned sacraments to the Catholics in the household, under the very noses of the king’s militia. Also, if caught in attendance on the papist sympathisers, he can make his ecumenical escape through the tunnel, just like a rat up a drainpipe.
This priest hole, we think would be the epicentre of the psychics’ endeavours, and so we prepare to lay a trap. I know the layout in the labyrinthine maze of underground passageways that make up the service basement of the old mansion. Oftentimes I have accompanied my dad as he stokes the main boiler when the caretaker is on holiday. Forearmed with this intelligence, we will wait until the ghost hunters are set up and then creep in and give them a fright to remember!
I have an old McMichael valve wireless that suffers from incurable I.F. instability. The frequency-
Our simple ruse is to preposition this old radio in the priest hole tunnel with a long length of twin flex running back to a mains outlet. Here, at the crucial time, when they call out “Is there anybody there?” we can switch on the caterwauling apparatus and run away giggling.
It is time to do a reccy. We need ﬁrsthand intelligence of where and what our prospective dupes will be doing. Unnoticed, our little team of Paul, Mike, and myself slips quietly into the service door of the great hall and presses forward to the inner basement door. Down into the dark abyss of the cellars we slowly ingress, like three souls descending into Anwyn, the Celtic underworld.
There is a long, dank passageway to the right that leads to the priest’s hole. We turn the corner, and miraculously a light comes on. I look around, but none of us touched a switch. There is none to be seen anywhere. We walk on through the ancient asbestos-
“This is it!” I whisper, swallowing hard. My saliva seems to taste like frothy lemonade, and my ears are hissing with the crackling excitement of it all. Paul’s huge brown eyes look like dinner plates, and Mike has a face as white as a ghost’s arse! Lighting our bicycle lamps we swing open the iron door, which replies with a spine-
We step over the threshold into the rank smell of decayed soil and the lifeless humors of a long-
“Aaaaagh! Aaaaaagh! Aaaagggh!” Mike is screaming, his face completely enveloped in a giant spider’s web whose disgruntled owner still at home and biting.
Paul is already running for the exit, emitting a high warbling whimper. This all put the dread of the Devil into me, and fearing the loss of my immortal soul, I lapse into the old Latin and blurt out, “Pater noster qui es in coelis: santiﬁcétur nomen tuum . . .” My teeth chattering chant fades as I flee the accursed tunnel with my terrified companions. With a rush like a hot spring’s geyser, we erupt into the daylight and stand in a trembling triangle staring at each other. For several minutes we drink in enormous drafts of cold clean air, then without a word shamefacedly, make our way home. This almost became the ruse that never was, but fate had a trick up her sleeve.
“Well, there’s a thing!” Dad is reading the local paper. “Do you remember those loonies from the big city who were looking for spooks here a while back? Well, they reckon they may have found proof of a murder of a young woman by a Catholic priest!"
“Go'way! Lemme see!“ says Mam, peering over his shoulder with interest.
“It says that the microphone they left secretly in the priest’s hole recorded footsteps and weird muffled whispers, then the old rusty door opening, and a woman's horrible screams mixed with whimpering like a lost soul and to cap it all, the definite voice of a Catholic priest or old monk chanting away to himself in Latin! Maybe there’s something in it after all?“
“Do you believe in ghosts now, Dad?”
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than were ever dreamed of in your philosophy!” Dad replies mysteriously, and, as usual, I have little idea what he is talking about. He throws the Stratford Herald onto the table. Mam picks up the paper; on page three there’s a picture of the Pope. “Oh, that’s a shame. It says here that the Vatican is to do away with the Latin mass. The service will be in the language of the country. That’s a scandal so it is, a downright shame!”
[This makes it November 1963 or July 1964]