GHOSTS AND MYSTERIES
Woodchester Mansion, Woodchester Park, Nympsfield, Gloucestershire.
A sense of genuine enchantment holds sway over the sylvan landscape that cradles Woodchester Mansion - one of Britain’s most enigmatic haunted houses - in a tender embrace.
Woodchester Mansion is approached via a long and rutted track that meanders through a tranquil valley where with every step taken you feel the modern age slip further behind you.
Suddenly, you round a bend and there, huddled against a hillside, is a glorious apparition in golden limestone.
Turrets and towers loom over you; hollow windows gaze outwards; whilst grotesques and gargoyles leer down at you from the soaring walls of an imposing house that time forgot.
The valley now occupied by Woodchester Mansion was originally the estate of the Ducie family.
Legend holds that when the 2nd Earl of Ducie threw a lavish dinner to celebrate his succession to the Earldom in 1840, he was somewhat taken aback when his father’s ghost interrupted the festivities by occupying the seat that he was intending to sit in at the head of the table.
Indeed it gave him such a fright that he left the place never to return.
In 1845 the northern part of his estate was purchased by William Leigh, an immensely wealthy gentleman and a recent convert to Catholicism.
Leigh set about planning a house that would stand as a lasting testimony to his Catholic leanings and approached the master of Gothic revival architecture Augustus Pugin, whose designs included the Houses of Parliament in London.
The two men, however, didn’t exactly see eye to eye, especially where money was concerned, and by the 1850’s the project of realising Leigh’s vision had fallen to a much younger local architect, 21 year old Benjamin Bucknall.
Bucknall set about designing a truly grandiose house, and for sixteen years craftsmen and builders laboured on its construction.
But then suddenly in 1868, for reasons which have never been fully explained, the workers literally downed tools and left the site, leaving its rooms unfinished and its windows unglazed.
Rumours persist that a murder on the site was behind the exodus.
It has even been suggested that supernatural activity may have been responsible.
The likeliest explanation is that the project proved too costly, even for William Leigh’s deep pockets and the money simply ran out.
Whatever the explanation for the cessation of construction, the result today is that on entering the mansion you step into a time warp and stray onto a mid-19th century building site.
Victorian tools lie scattered about the interior. Ladders remain propped where they were left against exposed walls, fireplaces hang suspended in mid-air, doors lead nowhere, and upstairs corridors end at precarious drops from which you truly begin to appreciate the sheer magnitude of this remarkable house.
Following William Leigh’s death in 1873 his son, also named William, asked Bucknall to furnish him with two quotes, one to complete the house, the other to demolish it.
When both proved prohibitively expensive, the mansion was simply abandoned.
There was a sudden flurry of activity in 1894 when the drawing room was hurriedly completed for a visit by Cardinal Vaughan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, but this was the only room ever to be finished and thereafter its fortunes were left to time and fate.
During the Second World War American and Canadian troops set up camp in the pasture opposite and commandeered the house’s cellars to store equipment.
They used the lakes in Woodchester Park to train for the D-Day landings and during one exercise a bridge over the lake collapsed and several soldiers were drowned.
Their bodies were brought back to the mansion and despite over sixty years having elapsed since the tragic event, vestiges of it still seem to linger.
Mediums have sensed the presence of people in military uniform inside, and the eerie sound of 1940’s music has been heard echoing along the corridors.
Without doubt one of the most curious and grandest parts of the house is the chapel.
Some people have reported the strange smell of freshly extinguished candles there, although no candles had been burning prior to the appearance of the mysterious aroma.
Others have caught sight of a short man standing in one of the chapel doorways. He does nothing except gaze up at the ornate windows and he gives the impression that he is somewhat concerned about them.
It has been surmised that he may be the ghost of a stonemason and that his anxiety may be caused by the fact that water penetration during the years when the house was abandoned has caused a lot of damage to the chapel’s stonework.
He may also be behind the small stones that visitors have from time to time reported being flicked across the room when there is most certainly nobody visible in direction from which they came.
A phantom female voice has been heard singing an Irish lament in the kitchen, whilst in this same room there have been reports of a youngish man crouched in a corner who is apparently hiding from somebody.
He may have links to the revenant of a tall man who stands in the kitchen doorway and who appears to be searching for somebody as he leans towards the very area where the younger man has been sighted.
Perhaps these two ghosts are in some way related to the manor’s past and their appearances related to some long forgotten incident?
Indeed it would seem that only the fact that they choose to manifest at different times has kept the younger man from being found since, as many witnesses will attest, his hiding place is not that hidden.
A young girl has been seen skipping playfully up and down the house’s grand staircase, seemingly oblivious to the startled reaction she evokes from those who chance upon her.
On the first floor corridor the spectre of a young woman has been both seen and heard and she has been known on occasions to stand at one of the windows watching the comings and goings of visitors below.
The pet dog of the house’s caretaker seems to be more than aware of the ghostly presences that roam the building.
On one occasion the caretaker watched it sit on the sofa and wag its tale at someone who it could obviously see but who remained invisible to the caretaker.
Moments later the dog proceeded to lick thin air, and although no-one was visible, its tongue was definitely brazing against something!
Woodchester Mansion is a truly special and unique place and a true aura of enchantment hangs over the whole edifice.
I can honestly say that I found it one of the most moving properties I have ever visited and it was with some reluctance that I walked back along the rutted track and left the house to its memories, mysteries and shadows.