Monday, 5 November 2012

The Ghosts of Haunted Rye

Have you heard of the ghosts of haunted Rye? The history of Britain is long and has frequently been bloody, so it has perhaps not surprising that there are so many stories of hauntings and the paranormal.  And Rye is one of the towns that is most famed for its ghosts and hauntings.  Rye was once one of England’s ancient Cinque Ports and is perhaps the quaintest and most picturesque old town in the whole of the United Kingdom.  The position of Rye, high on the hill, commands beautiful views across Romney Marshes and to the sea.  Rye was heavily fortified in medieval times although only the Landgate, Ypres Tower and a small part of the town wall still survive.  The centre of Rye is filled with sloping cobbled streets, 16th century half-timbered houses, old inns and little shops.  The town used to be a thriving port before the harbour silted up and its colourful history contains many tales of smugglers, pirates and the revenue men who tried to catch them and stop their illicit trade.  Indeed during the 18th century Rye’s prosperity was very heavily dependent on the smuggling trade, much to the dismay of the evangelical preacher John Wesley who visited the town in 1773.  It has also been home to many writers in its time, including Henry James, E F Benson, Joseph Conrad, G K Chesterton and H G Wells.

Mermaid Street, Rye - Wikimedia Commons
Mermaid Street, Rye

So where in this old town do you go to possibly see one of its famous ghosts?

Lamb House

This old house was built in the 1723 and is now owned by the National Trust.  Henry James moved into Lamb House in 1898 and his later novels were written there. Henry James claimed that a ghost of an old lady used to visit him and help him with his writing.  Poltergeist activity has also been recorded in Lamb and the house is also said to be haunted by a man called Allen Grebell who was murdered by a butcher.

Mermaid Inn
Reputed to be one of the most haunted pubs in the United Kingdom, the Mermaid Inn dates to the early 15th century, though it is thought that parts of the cellars and the foundations may date as far back as 1150.  During the 18th century the Mermaid Inn notorious for being a smuggler’s haunt, and the inn has concealed staircases, rooms with moving wall panels, an a concealed entrance to a ‘Priest’s Hole’.  Room 16 of the Mermaid Inn is known as the Elizabethan Chamber and during the 1930’s a guest sleeping in the room witness a pair of phantom duellers fighting with rapiers.  The ghost who won the duel is then said to have dragged the loser’s dead body through the Inn and dropped it through a trapdoor.  A grey lady is also said to haunt the upper floors of the building, with Room 5, which is known as the Nutcracker suite, being one of her regular locations to materialise.  She is seen drifting through the closed door and halts once at the foot of the bed before disappearing.  It is thought that she is the ghost of a girl who was murdered for being too indiscreet about her smuggler lover’s illicit activities and that she is now endlessly searching through Mermaid Inn to find her murderous beau.

The Mermaid Inn, Rye - Wikimedia Commons
The Mermaid Inn, Rye

In rooms 10 and 18 a man who fades away has been seen entering and leaving, and he is often seen disappearing through the wall. In room 1 a lady wearing pale garments has been seen sitting in a chair by the fireplace, and even guests who have not seen the apparition have complained that they have hung their clothes over the chair at night only to find them soaked with water the next morning.  One of the rocking chairs at the Mermaid Inn is has also been seen rocking of its own accord and the chair cushion was seen to squeeze down as though an invisible someone had sat down on it.

Monastery Hall

In Rye’s Monastery Hall during the 1940’s a line of monks was seen in the hall and gardens.  This may have been related to the digging up of several skeletons in the garden at that time and there was some evidence that they had been buried alive.

Needles Passage

In Needles Passage echoing footsteps can be heard by people walking through the passage although there nobody can be seen when they pass by.

Reysons Farm

In the 1930s loud footsteps were heard going up and down the stairs and the ghost of a man was also seen at night.

The Union Inn

The Union Inn is an old, medieval building and has been a pub since 1420.  The name of the Inn probably derives from the union of England and Scotland at the accession to the throne of King James I, who had previously been James VI of Scotland.  The inn boasts the ghost of a little girl who was often seen wandering through the kitchen and restaurant of this old inn in the mid 1990’s, many of the people spotting her believing her to be real.  It is also thought that the inn is haunted by the ghost of an unmarried mother who died when she fell down the cellar steps.
Rye Town Centre

In the town centre of Rye, two female ghosts have been observed walking down Mermaid Street wearing long dresses and a little girl dressed in blue has been seen crossing the street.  In Watchbell Street the ghost of a little boy wrapped in a white sheet has been seen and disembodied footsteps have also been heard.  In the Old Tuck Shoppe in Market Street there is said to be the ghost of a grey lady.

Turkey Cock Lane

Ghostly sounds like those of a turkey gobbling used to be heard in Turkey Cock Lane.  They apparently emanated from the ghost of a monk who broke his vows of chastity and went mad after he was bricked up alive after being caught trying to elope with a local girl that he had fallen in love with.  The shade of the monk is apparently still sometimes seen, but the spectral sounds are no longer heard
White Vine Hotel

From November 1995 the White Vine Hotel in Rye has been a focus of poltergeist activity.  The kitchen gets rearranged by unseen hands and food gets moved around and hidden.  Sometimes the poltergeist activity moves to the bedrooms, but always eventually comes back to the kitchen.

So could Rye be the most haunted town in Britain?  If you wanted to visit haunted Rye for yourself, there is a good range of accommodation available from self-catering through to hotels and old inns.  For a taste of the paranormal, try staying among the ghosts at the Mermaid Inn itself or Rye Heritage Centre runs a Ghost Tour Experience which you can book onto.  There is plenty to see in the old town, such as Rye Castle Museum, and some glorious walks in the surrounding countryside.  So have a happy ghost hunting break in ancient Rye!

Mermaid Street Image Ian Macnab Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 
Mermaid Inn Image Chris Whippet Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Story of St Nicholas, Father Christmas and Santa Claus

Did you know that the origins of Father Christmas and Santa Claus lie with an early Christian Saint called Nicholas of Myra?  He came from the Lycian port of Myra in south west Turkey and lived in the fourth century AD.  He was an early Christian bishop and he probably died on 6th December as this was celebrated as his feast day in the medieval calendar.  He was regarded as a patron of sailors and navigation. It is thought that he was a survivor of the persecutions of Diocletian, and that he had been exiled and imprisoned.  Later accounts state that he attended the Council of Nicaea and argued against the Arian heresy.

Old Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Old Father Christmas

There are several legends that surround St Nicholas.  One that is credited with being the legend that linked St Nicholas to gift giving is that he was told of a man who could not get the money together to provide dowries for his three daughters.  Because of this man’s pecuniary difficulties, he was planning to send them to work in a brothel.  St Nicholas reputedly saved them from this fate by throwing three bags of gold through their window one night.  This legend led to St Nicholas being regarded as a protector of marriage.

Another legend of St Nicholas is that he found out that the cook of an inn offered the meat of children that he killed to his patrons.  When he investigated, he found the bodies of three small boys pickled in a tub.  He blessed the bodies of the dead children, which instantly restored them to life.  Because of this legend, St Nicholas became a patron of children and it became a custom in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, to give children presents on his feast day of 6th December.

He was buried in the cathedral church in Myra and a unique relic called manna was said to form in his grave.  This manna was a miraculous liquid that was purported to heal people. The bones of St Nicholas were brought to Bari in Italy in 1087 by a group of Greek merchants, after the Turks captured Myra, and buried under the altar of a new church, the Basilica San Nicola, inaugurated by Pope Urban II.  Some of the bones were taken to Port in France and others were taken to Worms in Germany.  Many churches in Europe were dedicated to St Nicholas, especially in the ports of the Hanseatic League.  The reformation in many parts of Europe, brought to an end the veneration of Catholic saints, but the old customs and legends of St Nicholas persisted and developed into modern times.

It came to be believed that St Nicholas judged whether or not children had been good or bad and in the Netherlands he was supposed to ride his white horse across the sky, dropping presents down the chimneys of the good children on the evening of 5th/6th December.   They would find these gifts the next morning, and they would often be hidden in shoes.  If the child had been bad during the year, it was believed that a small bag of salt would be left in place of the presents. Hiding the gifts in the shoes was a reflection of the older custom of putting money into poor people’s shoes on the feast of St Nicholas. He became known as Sinterklaas, and actors would dress up in bishop’s robes and visit children and tell them how to behave.  In Germany they developed the custom of electing a boy bishop on December 6th.

Sinterklaas is said to have had a helper or helpers, known as ‘Black Pete’, and they carry a bag containing sweets for good children and a swatch of willow branches with which to spank naughty children.  This is linked to the legend of St Nicholas saving the lives of three small Moorish boys who had been condemned to death for a crime that they had not committed.  In gratitude they stayed with the Saint and helped him to deliver the gifts from the rooftops.  The dark colour of their skin is said to be linked to the Moorish origins of the three boys rescued by or because they are associated with chimney sweeps. Traditionally Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive in the Netherlands and Belgium on a steamboat from Spain, and nowadays they are then paraded through the towns, cheered on by crowds and even broadcast on television.  Sweets and ginger biscuits are tossed to the children in the crowds and traditional Sinterklaas songs are sung.

Sinterklaas is the basis for the American figure of Santa Claus.  New York started life as an old Dutch colonial town called New Amsterdam which had been traded by the Dutch for other territories.  It is believed that during the American War of Independence, because the customs surrounding Sinterklaas were not of English origin, they were changed and incorporated into a figure called Santa Claus.  In 1835 the Saint Nicholas Society was formed by a group of New Yorkers, including Washington Irving, to celebrate the heritage of New York City, and in 1850 a teacher called Jan Schenkman published an illustrated children’s book called ‘St Nicholas and His Helper’ which introduced the concept of Christmas presents being delivered down the chimney.

The modern American Santa Claus is depicted as a rotund figure that is dressed in a red suit with white fur rather than a bishop’s robes and has a sleigh with flying reindeer rather than a flying horse.  Drawings by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1863-66 encapsulated this modern vision of Santa, and this figure was used by several large advertisers such as Coca-Cola.  Santa Claus is believed to live for most of the year at the North Pole with his wife Mrs Claus, his myriad helper elves and the magical flying reindeer, where they make all the toys that they will need for the coming Christmas.  Children now write a letter to Santa just before Christmas that lists all the toys that they would like Santa to bring them and outlining how good they have been throughout the year.  In turn, Santa Claus is said to make a list of all the children who were ‘naughty or nice’ that he uses to calculate how many Christmas presents each child is to receive.  Especially naughty children are believed to be left a lump of coal on Christmas Eve by Santa rather than presents.  It has also become a tradition to leave out a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and some carrots for the reindeer.

The English Father Christmas was initially represented as a Christmas visitor and the personification of the spirit of Christmas, rather than an entity that delivered presents at Christmastime.   In Saxon times, they had a ‘King Frost’ or ‘King Winter’, who was someone who was chosen, dressed in green and given a big hat or crown to wear. ‘King Winter’ was believed to be able to make the winter weather less harsh and help them get through to the spring.   In the Middle Ages in England the local parish would hire an actor or borrow a religious person from another parish to disguise themselves and go around the homes in the area to see which families had any problems.  They would then go back and report to the Parish Priest, who would then try to make sure that those families received help.

Father Christmas - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Father Christmas

 An archaic version of Father Christmas was mentioned in an old carol in the fifteenth century, and he became more popular with the publication of Ben Johnson’s ‘Captaine Christmas’ in the seventeenth century.  The Puritans tried to do away with all English Christmas traditions, including that of Father Christmas, but they were not successful and Father Christmas continued to make his Yuletide visits.  He was often depicted as a pagan figure with either ivy or icicles around his head. The whole concept of Christmas went through a great revival during the Victorian era in England, and by the 1870’s Father Christmas was delivering Christmas presents and hanging Christmas Stockings from the end of beds just like the American Santa Claus.

These days the English Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus are almost indistinguishable and a fat jolly old gentleman in a red suit with a white beard can be found in Santa’s Grotto in most major department stores in the towns of America and the United Kingdom.  He is surrounded by elves giving out candy canes, no longer admonishes naughty children and hands out presents.  He is now a totally benign figure that adorns our Christmas cards and decorations, and slides down our chimneys on Christmas Eve to stuff our stockings with gifts!