Britain's Haunted Heritage, by John West
Reviewed by Chris Phillips
Britain’s Haunted Heritage by John West is a collection of twenty accounts of alleged ghosts and other paranormal phenomena from England, Scotland and, in one case, Wales. The book has an introduction by Uri Geller, a foreword by Jason Figgis, a film director, and a one-page prologue by the author, in which he writes that he hopes to provide “a thrilling and informative look into our ghostly past, the result of over 35 years of personal study and investigation into the twilight world beyond death.”
The cases include some well known ones – such as the events following the discovery of two enigmatic stone heads in Hexham in Northumberland, a vision of Roman soldiers in the Treasurer’s House in York, the ghosts of Borley (though with a focus on the church, not the rectory) and a vampire story from Croglin in Cumbria – as well as others not so well known, at least to me. Certainly, many of the narratives are entertaining, and even thrilling in parts. There is the account of an apparition in Gladwish [Glydwish] Wood in Sussex, with an “almost fleshless face, eyes bulging and the long neck hanging to one side.” There is the tale of the Croglin vampire’s victim, who sees “a hideous brown face with flaming eyes” outside her bedroom window, and its “long bony finger” reaching in to turn the handle. And there is the terrifying ordeal of another woman besieged in a lonely Welsh cottage by “a creature that appeared a strange mixture of human and wolf.” Not all of the stories are quite so sensational. Some of them catalogue events that are less dramatic but still suggest the presence of the paranormal. And others are most notable for their sheer oddness – the oddest being that of the vicar in west London who made friends with the ghost of a medieval monk, and even got him to dictate an article for the parish magazine!
I enjoy reading ghost stories, and particularly thrilling ones. But if they are meant to be true stories, after I have been thrilled, I like to see some critical discussion of the reliability of the source material. Some of the most thrilling of these stories read more like fiction than fact, and many of the items in the bibliography have titles like “Unsolved Mysteries” and “50 Great Horror Stories.” Unfortunately, this book does not contain very much critical discussion of its source material. For example, the author leaves us really not knowing what to make of the Welsh werewolf, except for a passing suggestion that it may have been just a large dog. The lurid account of the Glydwish apparition, in which one witness is supposed to have smashed the ghost’s skull into fragments with his walking stick, particularly calls for critical examination, but seems to be accepted as fact.*
For the story of the Croglin vampire – which was first published in the 19th century by Augustus Hare and embellished by subsequent authors – there is some discussion of the origins of the tradition, drawing on the research of Francis Clive-Ross (1963) and Marc Alexander (1978), which suggested the tale might already have been 200 years old when Hare told it. But strangely there is no mention of Alexander’s discovery of a quite distinct local version of the story, which placed the event early in the 19th century and actually identified the vampire as a 17th-century rector of Croglin. Nor is there any reference to the comprehensive account of the case published by Geoff Holder in Paranormal Cumbria (2012).
On the whole, while the stories retold in this book are entertaining enough, it will probably disappoint the reader who prefers a more critical and investigative approach to hauntings and heritage.
*The Glydwish story comes from Robert Thurston Hopkins, who recounted it in two books, Adventures With Phantoms (1946) and Ghosts Over England (1953). It is prefaced by another account, also taken from Hopkins, about Rudyard Kipling being pushed out of the same wood by an unseen force. Probably this also calls for sceptical consideration. Hopkins wrote that Kipling had told him the story, and purportedly quoted Kipling's own words. But elsewhere in Ghosts Over England he used almost exactly the same words himself when describing an entirely different Sussex wood.
Alexander, M. (1978). Haunted Churches and Abbeys of Britain. London: A. Barker.
Clive-Ross, F. (1963). The Croglin vampire. Tomorrow, 11(2), 103-109.
Holder, G. (2012). Paranormal Cumbria. Stroud: History Press.
Hopkins, R. T. (1946). Adventures With Phantoms. London: Quality Press.
Hopkins, R. T. (1953). Ghosts Over England. London: Meridian Books.