Monday, 10 October 2011

Getting spooked Welsh style

'In the castles dark corners and creaking stairs abound. The Welsh take great delight in their child-like fear of the unexplained. Who dares?'

That little paragraph had me at hello. You know how I love me a good ghost story, and tales of myths and mystery. And you may remember my fascination for Wales. So those combined make quite a treat! Well, for me at least.

Here's another delicious headline snippet:

'Halloween, but for real. You get to experience it in Wales, where haunted castles and unexplained phenomena are rife.'

Two years ago my dad brought me a newspaper clipping which he thought I might like. And as is so often the case (not always though!), he was right. It was quite a lengthy article from the travel section of the AD (one of Holland's main newspapers), titled 'Ghost Hunting in Wales' (very appropiately issued towards Halloween).

And as I liked it so much I've now decided to share it with you. So remember, I didn't write the below (meaning don't go looking at me if there are any mistakes in there). I only produced the (not all-too-literal) translation. The original article was written by a Egbert Jan Riethof, a free-lance travel journalist. Nice bit of work there Egbert Jan (yes, bit of an old-fashioned name - no, can't blame you if your mind immediately wandered towards Dilbert or Dogbert). Mind you don't get upset at EJ's sometimes cynical view of things. It didn't stop me from wanting to hop on the next plane to Wales to soak up the atmosphere!

Getting spooked Welsh style

At the bar of the Talkhouse we find Welshman John Wake, age 63, a former inspector of Cardiff's homicide squad and now a successful business man. He downs another whisky. It's precious Penderyn Malt, one of the few local whiskies. He'll shortly go up to his room, that bears the name of Myfanwy. It is decorated in shades of blue, with a bathroom in the style of the twenties. But John is stalling his retreat for a bit.

The Talkhouse is more than a pub, it is a white-stuccoed property dating back to the 15th century, well-kept, where Steve and Jacqueline Garratt serve top meals and accommodate guests as they would have been in the 19th and early 20th century. The place smells of good wine and old wood. Floorboards are creaking and window frames are groaning. The silence outside is all-pervasive, as not many people reside in Pontdolgoch, a hamlet near the town of Caersws in Mid-Wales. John would have preferred a different room than the one allocated to him, but he's determined not to let it get to him.

Myfanwy is haunted.

Which means that strange phenomena are known to occur in the room. Guests have spotted apparitions, like a woman walking through a wall. In olden days there wasn't any wall there obviously. Land lady Jacqueline contributes to the story.
'I don't believe in the supernatural at all, but what I'm about to tell you is a fact. I had been cleaning Myfanwy, locked the door behind me and walked down the stairs. I then realised that I had left a bucket in the room and walked back. But there was something heavy against the door, on the inside of the room. It took a lot of effort from both Stephen and myself to get it open. It turned out to be the wardrobe that had always been against the wall by the door. It had moved a couple of metres. It's unexplainable.'
The room is furthermore always cold - virtually impossible to heat up. John bends over his glass and shakes his rugged head. He mildly swears under his breath: 'blast'.

Pontdolgoch at dusk

We don't need to feel sorry for John Wake. He could have easily booked himself a room at the Sheraton, a couple of hours' drive down the road. But he's been through some tough times before and the man is actually enjoying his own fear. Welshmen like him take great pride in their ancient celtic culture, that distinguishes them from large neighbour England. Their spiritual heritage is delivered through age-old myths and legends of heroism, mystery and magic. In Wales, people like mocking their own tales of ghosts and spirits. At the same time they are fascinated by them.

Take Ian Crawford (age 40) for instance, who lives in Caldicot in the South-east of Wales, next to a cemetery. 'My mother was a psychic' he says, 'I am more of a sceptic'. However, even this sceptic feels something weird is going on at the cemetery - several times a week. At around 1 AM he goes there to take pictures. He shows me a couple of them. 'Look' he says, 'you can see orbs here and here'.

Orbs are of course celestial bodies. In this case however, they are strange balls of light that appear to float over the headstones. All energy according to Ian. In the balls you can vaguely distinguish squiggly lines. This can't be explained in any way. It's paranormal. No, it's not an effect of digital photography. Ian has already looked into that. In that case the orbs would be in every picture. And they're not.

St. Mary's church yard Caldicot

Wales has several more of these spooky places. Per square kilometre there are more ancient castles and mansions than anywhere else in the world. In total over 600 of them. And as you would guess, many political and family dramas are known to have taken place there. No wonder a ghost or two have lingered. Like in Llancaiach Fawr Manor, near the former mining village of Nelson for instance.

According to a recent poll, people view the manor as one of Britain's most haunted houses. The building dates from 1540 and played a role in, among other things, the English Civil War (1641-1651), in which followers of king Charles I and the Parliamentarians fought each other to the death. There are 7 ghosts haunting the mansion, or so a chap dressed in 17th century garments who introduces himself as Jonathan tells us. Jonathan guides visitors around the place and also does nightly ghost tours, that allow people to sit in the creepy rooms with torches, in the hope of experiencing the energy.

But the local ghosts are good sports and also show themselves during the day-time. 'There is a strange energy in this house. Sometimes you can hear voices in places where no one can be found. Some visitors can feel little hands. There have been sightings of a man in Victorian dress. He walks through the walls and once he even went outside. Where he promptly caused a traffic accident.'

In Llancaiach Fawr Manor, scientists are investigating the phenomena as well. Once they spotted a cat strolling past on video. The camera had been placed in a locked area of the manor, where no one had ever spotted a cat before. Jonathan states: 'We don't make any promises, but many participants do pick up on the emotions of the place, in particular in the upper stories of the house.'

A bit further north, in the overwhelmingly beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park, we can find Craig-y-Nos Castle, literally meaning the 'Rock of the Night' Castle (built in 1846). Here, in the Swansea valley with its boisterous river Tawe, world-famous opera singer Adelina Patti made her home from 1878 onwards. The private theatre the Italian had built is still in existence and even in use, complete with its original, albeit somewhat dusty stage props and sets. The famous composer Richard Wagner stopped here once to listen to the diva (note from little miss know-it-all: obviously Bertie came a-visiting as well - when he was still the Prince of Wales).

Craig-y-Nos isn't just a place to stay on for a week or so in one of its suites and to walk in the solemn surrounding nature. This grim-looking building, partly renovated, partly with miserable looking corners, gaping holes, dilapidated staircases and rooms in which no one has moved anything for decades, is very popular with die-hards of the paranormal. Participants of the Night Time Ghost Tours hold candle-lit seances in the basement, sitting around wonky tables in the presence of psychic mediums. Either that or a specialist of The Paranormal World makes an appearance. The Paranormal World is an association that strives to give good information about supernatural phenomena and that is seeking for evidence for the existence - or non-existence - of spirits. They can for instance show you how you can make a table 'float'. Dinner, an overnight stay and breakfast included.

Adelina Patti

'The first owner of Craig-y-Nos, a Captain Rice Powell, was cursed, which explains why things are so weird here' says Sandeep Bacheta, the castle's PR man. Via the internet, people can watch images of the most eerie rooms direct. They are sending daily e-mails to inform the Paranormal Team of Craig-y-Nos of their findings. Ghostbusters Sandeep calls them. 'Their numbers are increasing and more and more people come in person to partake in the investigations.' His eyes are glistening. 

And so everyone has his or her own incentives to believe or not to believe that there is more between heaven and earth. Colourful Geraint ap Iorwerth is a vicar of the Anglican church, stationed at Pennal, in National Park Snowdonia. Welsh is Geraint's first language, his English being only slightly more understandable than Moldavian. He gained nationwide fame when he applied for a drinks license for his historical church, St. Peter ad Vincula. 'Everyone is welcome here, from every faith', he says. 'We have a lot of people coming to this valley, 'The Valley in the Mist', the mystical and mythical heart of Wales. There is so much ancient history here, the mist hangs so low... There are things happening here you cannot put in words.'

St. Peter ad Vincula Pennal

He himself has seen visions of the Divine Feminine, the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung, who passed away in 1961, and several knights crusaders. The energy Geraint experienced at those times was magical. He also stepped into 'a white ball of light' once. Some of his colleagues say he is 'possessed of the devil'. But he says he accepts the visions as part of life. 'The turning point for me was 25 years ago when I saw The Green Man, a central figure in celtic mythology. He became my spiritual guide. My church superiors are not really happy with me. But everyone is still welcome here.' He gestures towards the drinks cabinet. 'Even though I'm not too sure how long I'll still be here'. (note from Sacha: I checked. He's still there alright. Last got into the news for burning pages from the Bible, the what he called 'negative, nasty bits'. Not your average vicar indeed!).

The further north the traveller penetrates Wales, the more rugged and at the same time lovelier the land becomes and the more patriottic its - very hospitable - people. Welsh is the official language next to English. In the south, English is usually mentioned first on street signs (slow / araf), in the north its the other way round. The pronounciation (note: in Dutch!) of Llangollen, known as the 'spiritual town' is Glengoglen, with very harsh guttural g sounds, as if someone is suppressing a sneeze with much force (note from Sacha: this comment I find really funny - we Dutch are always told our language sounds like we're trying to cough up furballs and here this guy is commenting at another language with hard guttural sounds. It's got a bit of a 'good to know we're not the only ones' feel to it if you ask me!).

Plas Newydd Llangollen

Nearby we find the medieval castle of Plas Newydd, which became famous throughout Britain when tv show Most Haunted set up camp there. Another gloomy, angular building with a rich history in a setting that makes a person stand in awe, it's that beautiful. Here too you can participate in ghostly activities, for things appear to go bump in the night in this place as well. The caretaker investigated the castle's history. 'I don't believe in these things myself, but once I was standing in a doorway when all of a sudden someone put a heavy hand on my shoulder. But there was no one there. You don't have to believe in the supernatural, but you don't have to go and deny a fact either.'

Mystical and supernatural phenomena abound and there are plenty of places to enjoy getting spooked here in North-Wales. Take Castell Dinas Bran for instance, full of mystery, an enormously complex castle high above Llangollen, and Ruthin Gaol, a building that was already a prison in the 16th century in the charming town of Ruthin that is full of houses in the Tudor style. A lot of men have been put to death in this place, you can tell.

And then there's Gwydir Castle in Llanwrst, 20 kilometres away from the northern coast. Peacocks have kept watch at this house that is creaking in all its joints for the past 180 years. Sightings have been reported here of ghosts and even of strange smells. Peter and Judy Welford bought Gwydir in 1994 and have since then been busy with its restoration. 'We have always listened to Gwydir's subtle frequencies. They have developed over the centuries and are an extra plus over the history and matter of the place. It has its own dense and layered atmosphere. My wife and I protect that vulnerable soul. Everyone who comes here, must experience it for themselves. If you enter a sceptic, you won't experience anything. You have to want it.'

And maybe that's just it. You have to want it.

Towards the east, near the northern shore is Bodelwyddan Castle. In the Watts Hall, many people can hear footsteps, if they want to, footsteps of inhabitants long gone. Rachel has been guiding tours of people trying to experience something for the past three years. 'I sometimes hear a few things myself, but in all truth not really much. We have recorded sounds that you can listen to over the internet. We experiment with for instance equipment that measures electromagnetic fields. They tend to be 'off' when there's a ghost somewhere. Sometimes groups pick up on all sorts of things, other groups leave heavily disappointed.'

Gwydir Castle

"I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them".

Mark Twain


  1. Ehmmm, hope you'll never try to get me to go with to Wales... You know I'm not fond of ghosts... LOL

  2. What happened to your love of all things Celtic? Plus you went to Scotland too - do you really want me to tell you how many ghosts Scotland is supposed to have? ;-)

    And I'm pretty sure you would fall in love with the Welsh countryside - like you did with Glen Affric!


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