Haunted north Kent – By Neil Arnold
I’ve always been of the opinion that the festive season just wouldn’t be the same without the telling of a creepy, atmospheric ghost story or two. As a child I would always await an M.R. James ghost story on television at Christmas and even today my Albert Finney version of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge always makes its way into the DVD player on Christmas Eve. And so with that in mind I’d like to share with you a few of my favourite festive hauntings pertaining to the county of Kent. I’ve spent all my life residing in the Garden of England; an ancient dwelling coloured by rolling fields, vein-like rivers and streams, old forests and above all buildings infested with ghosts and spectres. So settle down next to that crackling log fire…
Around ten or so years ago I moved to historic Rochester, a gloriously Gothic city riddled with macabre tales that often lay hidden behind a façade of Dickensian wonder. Charles Dickens has many associations with Rochester; using the place in his fictional works and residing close by in neighbouring Chatham and Higham. Many people forget that Dickens wrote ghost stories (my favourite being The Signalman) and so it’s no real surprise then that the great man is said to haunt Rochester. It is claimed that Dickens wished to be buried close to Rochester castle’s moat; but he was interred at Westminster. Local legend states that every Christmas Eve, at midnight, the spectre of Dickens appears under the moon-faced clock of the Corn Exchange in Rochester’s cobbled High Street. His apparition takes out its pocket watch and sets it by the time of the clock. I know of no-one who has ever seen the ghost of Dickens in Rochester, but I do not several people that have on Christmas Eve braced the bitter cold and stood on the exact spot where the ghost is said to appear; and for several hours waited – whilst freezing their thingamabobs off – only to be considerably disappointed by the no show of the wraith. I’ve always believed that alongside Anne Boleyn and Dick Turpin that Charles Dickens is probably the most unreliable ghost in Britain!
Dickens spirit is also said to emerge at Christmas to stare at the ashen headstones in the churchyard of St Nicholas, which sits opposite the castle moat. Maybe he took the name Dorrit from one of those crooked tombstones as information for his novel Little Dorrit. Strangely, those who claim to see a fleeting dark figure around the area and believe it to be Dickens may not know that several lost souls have, over the years been interred into the castle moat. Alleged witches and plague victims occupy the grassy area in unmarked graves, as does a Mr Livingstone; a one-time busker of Rochester who murdered a young boy and was hanged in the car park. Maybe it’s his fleeting form seen on chilly December evenings?
Of course, there are several properties in Rochester’s lovely High Street which also lay claim to being haunted by Dickens. Within the vicinity of the Corn Exchange sits the Dickens House Wine Emporium; retailer in fine wines, Cuban cigars and expensive bottles of champagne – perfect ingredients some would say for a festive party. It is believed that Dickens used to visit the premises when it existed as a toy shop and a pharmacy and the residents of the building believe that it is Dickens’ ghost which can be heard around the cold, festive season; his footfalls; his footfalls echoing around the cold walls. However, may favourite festive-related ghost stories of Rochester concern two extremely old buildings within the locale. Now, like most ghostly tales the following stories exist more as rumour than fact and their origins are always debatable; as are their dates. Even so, one of Rochester’s most amusing ghostly tales is said to concern Restoration House situated on Crow Lane at the bottom of Maidstone Road. Built around the 16th century, Restoration House has had more than its fair share of owners including a local mayor. It is claimed that often at Christmas time the mayor would put on lavish banquets for his friends, but this was not something his young, farmhand son was interested in. And so, one still December night it is alleged that whilst a boisterous party was taking place in the building, the mayor’s son – as a prank – quietly opened the door of the house and drove a flock of ten of twelve sheep into Restoration House. As I’m sure you can imagine, the mayor and his guests were not best pleased, the sheep caused chaos and much screaming and consternation ensued. The young lad ran upstairs; laughing at the commotion he’d caused, but was soon to receive a slap around his chops from his father. Unfortunately the mayor’s son stumbled and fell over the banister and plummeted to his death on the stone floor below. However, it is not the lad whose ghost is said to haunt the building…On certain December nights (some say the 25th) it is said that if the air is still and you should walk by Restoration House, then you may be fortunate enough to hear the sound of bleating sheep!
Arguably one of the silliest ghostly tales I’ve heard, the alleged Restoration House haunting doesn’t really make any sense. I’ve always wondered why the sheep would haunt the building; after all, it’s not as if the scurrying flock would have been killed by the panicking guests. But the house does have another ghostly tale which could well possibly tie in with another of Rochester’s old buildings; the Coopers Arms pub situated on St Margaret’s Street. The legend states that during the festive season (although some argue November, depending on the storyteller!) a young woman dressed in white runs from Restoration House clutching a dead baby at her breast. Her spectral form runs through The Vines and toward Minor Canon Row before vanishing. A few seconds later a ghostly monk follows the same path and too dissolves into the ground at Minor Canon Row. Should you venture into The Coopers Arms (my local pub and believed to be Kent’s oldest inn) then I’m sure you will admire the creaky old beams that straddle the ceiling, the small cellar door and the wonderful atmosphere – particularly around Christmas time. But it’s also worth noting the large, glass case to the right of the main bar (Kings Bar) as you walk in. Encased within this glassy tomb is the life-size model of a monk in black habit. His wild staring eyes can be seen to peer from the gloom of his confines. The figure represents a legend that dates back centuries concerning a local monk who had a rather illicit affair with a local woman and so was bricked up alive in the cellar of the pub. Locals will tell you that it’s his apparition that is responsible for the creaking floorboards, the swaying tankards on the old oak beams, the unusual cold spots and fleeting shadows out of the corner of the eye. But customers will also tell you that his ghost appears during November nights and into December and that it would well be the same spectre seen emerging from Restoration House.
One of Kent’s most remote locations has to be the ancient Isle of Sheppey; a windswept environment consisting of sprawling marshes, fields and crumbling cliffs. I recall visiting the island many years ago, one snow-laced December in order to look for the alleged ‘black panther’ said to prowl the island and I was rather fascinated by the amount of trees on the marsh which sported the carcasses of frozen birds, hung upside down like macabre Christmas decorations. Sheppey has many a ghost story too, The Victory pub (originally in Victory Street, but later moved to Railway Road) in Sheerness, made headlines in 1991 when the Warne family temporarily moved in to manage the Railway Road premises. ‘Ghostly goings on haunt pub family’ was the headline the Sheerness Times Guardian ran of January 31st 1991 in reference to the family’s introduction to the festive peculiarities. According to the paper, ‘the couple (Dennis and Cynthia, accompanied by their sons Adam (19) and eight-month old Christopher) arrived at the Shepherd Neame pub just before Christmas and it wasn’t long before they noticed that there was something “different” about the place.’
Like a number of witnesses to paranormal activity, the Warne’s were initially very sceptical in regards to a possible haunting, despite hearing rumours from locals that the building had been ghost-infested for a number of years. Dennis commented, “I’ve never really taken any notice of this sort of thing, like everybody else I’m too busy worrying about the land of the living.”
However, quite literally as soon as the family moved in strange things began to occur. Dennis added, “…pictures started flying off nails in the wall…there have been many times we have heard noises and seen things we cannot explain.”
One night in early January baby Christopher had been asleep upstairs and the rest of the family were downstairs when suddenly they heard noises, as if furniture was being thrown about in the room above them. “We ran upstairs as quickly as we could,” claimed Cynthia, “but when we got to the study there wasn’t a sign of anything.”
Whether by coincidence, the former landlord (Mike Docherty) stated that whilst he and his wife were moving out of the pub (they were leaving for another pub in Ashford), they returned to the upstairs room and found that the carpet had been rolled up all ready for the removal van!
Those who knew of the peculiar happenings at the pub often spoke about how the unsettled spirit could well be that of an ex-landlord who committed suicide on the premises many years ago. The name of the man was Arthur, but was it him who was responsible for tampering with the pumps? Cynthia added, “On Christmas Eve we were convinced that we had run out of coke and lemonade. The pump wasn’t bringing anything up from the cellar so we used bottles all over Christmas. When Dennis went down to the cellar, though, he discovered that the gas cylinder had been physically turned off. We are the only ones to go down there and we are absolutely certain that neither of us had done that.”
At Warden Bay there have long been tales of ghostly smugglers frequenting the rugged shoreline. Smugglers would often create ghostly tales to deter trespassers from areas they’d kept their contraband. One legend adds that a phantom horseman patrols the area of Warden Bay. There could be a number of ghosts, mounted on equally spectral horses rumoured to haunt the Sheppey cliffs. Some of these could be the ghosts of revenue officers who plummeted to their deaths over the cliffs whilst on horseback, in pursuit of those elusive smugglers who had hidden in nearby thickets. It is possible that due to the overwhelming darkness on certain nights, the pursuers whilst charging through the wilds atop of the cliffs did not see the sudden drop just yards ahead, and then by the time they did it was too late and they fell to their deaths. It is said that even over the last few years people have heard the sound of horse’s hooves galloping around outside Warden Manor and yet no animal or rider has revealed itself in the flesh. Some claim that the spectral horse is one of the island’s most reliable spirits in that it makes itself known on December 18th every year. However, my favourite ghostly yarn attached to the island concerns what is known as Deadman’s Island. Those who perished of disease in the prison hulks once moored on the estuary, were buried in a small island off Queenborough, which became known as Deadman’s Island, with a local website confirming that, ‘…it’s still checked regularly to make sure the diseases are gradually dying away!’
Intriguingly Deadman’s Island has one of Kent’s most bizarre ghost stories attached to it. In 1950 two intrepid journalists, Frederick Sanders and Duncan Rand, took the brave step in exploring the island. To them, the legends of the remote area were rife with rumour that two centuries previous Napoleonic soldiers taken prisoner by the British were buried at the spot, many having died at the hands of the plague. However, when Sanders and his colleague were ferried to the mist-enshrouded location they believed that something monstrous had been present. Several coffins lay strewn about the place and the skeletons which were exposed were bereft of skulls – leading the explorers to believe in the existence of some ethereal hellhound which, to quench its bloodthirsty nature, had slurped up the brains of its victims. According to Sanders the legend of the giant, salivating ghostly black dog had been whispered for many years, with reports stating that the beast prowled the marshes of a night in search of food. Following a search of the area in pursuit of the skulls Sanders could only state, “We found many broken coffins and hundreds of bones, but no skulls,” and despite their fanciful resolutions as to the culprit, they came across no demonic skull-cracking hound either.
Marooned at Deadman’s Island for the night, the journalists at one point mistook wooden spikes driven into the mud at an area called Smugglers Gut, for the ghosts of slain warriors. A few hours in the thickening pea-soup fog had clearly made Sanders and Rand prone to hallucination and so with three trusty flashes of a torch, they signalled for the ferryman to return and on black waters, transport them to safety.
Neil Arnold has been obsessed with Kentish ghosts since childhood and has written a number books on the subject, including; Haunted Chatham, Haunted Rochester, Haunted Isle of Sheppey, Kent Urban Legends and Paranormal Kent, which are all published by The History Press.