“Besides this earth, and besides the race of men,
there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits;
that world is round us, for it is everywhere
(“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte)
Christmas isn’t Christmas without a ghost story and my family has one that is all its own. Like the tree lights, holly wreaths and tinsel garlands, each year the story is taken out and dusted down to be told once again. Each year it never fails to disturb, to send each listener uneasy to bed.
Since our midnight flight from Preswylfa Gwyrdd – the “Green Dwelling Place” – we have pieced together the troubled history of the Welsh farmhouse where we spent one Christmas in the mid-1970s. The events of those days echo the facts as we have uncovered them – and continue to defy any logical explanation.
But logic has no place in a ghost story, especially a Christmas ghost story. It is 155 years since Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol – and inspired our passion for Yuletide phantoms. They became the staple fare of the December issues of popular weekly and monthly magazines. Writers such as Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Nesbit, M R James, Rhoda Broughton and Bram Stoker provided their most macabre imaginings for the Christmas specials that would sell out within days, passed dog-eared and crumpled among friends or read to an avid audience in a darkened room on Christmas night.
The tradition continues. New-age mysticism and alien abductions may have displaced gothic horror, but at Christmas we return to the traditional format beloved by Victorians and Edwardians. We want our Christmas horror tales to have weeping women in white, sinister strangers who never speak and tragic, long-deceased children. Which brings me to my own contribution to the genre.
Dylan Thomas is partly to blame. It was his cosily evocative memories of Christmas – of that “great snow-bound and turkey-proud yule-log crackling holly-berry-bedizined and kissing-under-the-mistletoe Christmas” – that inspired my mother to take us to Wales that year. The farmhouse in the tiny coastal village where we had spent several long summers was duly acquired for a winter break, compensation for yet another Christmas spent without my father who was in the navy.
On the day before Christmas Eve five over-excited children, their harassed parent and a disgruntled grandmother who had never before spent a Christmas away from her own hearth, arrived at Preswylfa Gwyrdd. A five-foot fir tree was on the roof-rack and a rapidly defrosting turkey in the boot; we had sacks of pine logs for the open fire and an enthusiasm for Christmas like never before.
The brochure described Preswylfa Gwyrdd as “secluded”, but isolated was a more fitting adjective – and that was why we loved it. The 150-year-old house stood among open fields in the shadow of a scrubby hill, at the end of a mile-long drive lined with glistening hedgerows.
In Thomas’s memory every Welsh Christmas may have been “as white as Lapland” but this was not one. Instead, we had a thick hoary frost that had persisted all day, coating each withered leaf and blade of grass.
The key, as usual, had been left by the agent under a stone on the step. As my grandmother wrestled with the lock, my four-year-old brother Connor called from the over-grown garden: “Mummy, look, there’s a lady waving at us.” We all looked up, expecting to see the letting agent, come to welcome us. There was no one. Just Connor pointing at an empty window in the deepening twilight.
The house was bone-chillingly cold but we soon brought the ancient heating system to life and got a fire blazing in the grate. By supper time the tree was up, my mother and grandmother were arguing over what must be done to save the turkey and my siblings were fighting over the television. Upstairs our youngest brother, Lawrence, just six months old, was sleeping in the cot. When we first heard a child crying we assumed that it was him.
My mother disappeared upstairs to attend to him, returning minutes later complaining that the hall and stairway were colder now than when we arrived. Lawrence was, she said, sleeping peacefully. The crying went on and on, plaintive sounds that suggested great distress. Must have been cats, of course, farm or feral cats out in the fields rehearsing their own Christmas chorus.
The crying continued on and off throughout the evening and it woke me in the early hours. I crossed the small landing to my mother’s bedroom, which she was sharing with Lawrence, and suddenly was aware of passing through what seemed to be a wall of icy air.
Lawrence was asleep but my mother was wide awake and her light was on. She shot up from the bed as I opened the door: “What’s the matter? Is everything all right? Are the others all right?” My mother’s ability to sleep through anything was renowned, but she was not sleeping tonight. “Would you like to sleep in here with me?” There was a single camp bed in the room, but it was unmade and I preferred my own room anyway.
Next morning at breakfast Helena, my sister, suddenly announced: “There’s a ghost in this house, you know.” My mother told her not to be so silly, but Helena persisted: “It’s not me, it’s Connor. I was helping him downstairs this morning and he stopped and said ‘that’s where the ghost is’.” He had pointed to a window at the front of the house, on the landing between two bedrooms.
Connor said nothing. He was very bright and self-possessed but spoke little. He was old enough to know about ghosts and that they were meant to be frightening but it became clear that Connor’s “ghost” fulfilled none of the expected criteria of a child’s imagination. It was not dressed in white, it did not emit mournful sounds, nor did it seem to scare him. His ghost was a “lady” who sometimes had a baby with her, sometimes not. She watched us from the window, he told us, while we were playing in the garden.
On Christmas morning, my mother was up early on turkey duty and had somehow managed to accommodate the 16lb monster in the tiny gas cooker. She was drawn and weary and her usual passion for Christmas was absent. She said that she hadn’t been sleeping well and blamed the bed. She had also moved Lawrie into my grandmother’s room “because it was warmer”.
She had gone to bring the baby downstairs for his first Christmas dinner when I heard something I had never heard before. It was my mother screaming and we went running. She was standing with Lawrie in her arms and pointing to the handrail on the landing. A rope was tied to it, hanging in a perfect noose. “What have I told you about playing with ropes before? Who has done this?” Silence. “Which one of you has done this?” It was the rope used to secure the Christmas tree to the roof rack.
My mother’s anger seemed out of all proportion to the offence. She could surely not have thought that we would have attempted to swing on the rope. The distance between the landing and hallway below was too great and the wooden rails too fragile. Some clumsy replastering on one wall suggested that the handrail had already come away.
Our Welsh Christmas departed markedly from the Thomas script after that. The adults were strained and miserable. On Boxing Day it was a relief to get away from the house for a while to visit friends in the village. Griff Williams and his wife Mary had three children and were holding open house that day. Neighbours, friends and relatives dropped in and stayed for hours, a mixture of Welsh and English chatter growing louder as the alcohol took hold. Even my mother looked happier – until we were about to leave.
“And where are you all staying?” asked one of the guests, an elderly man who farmed on the outskirts of the village.
“At Preswylfa Gwyrrd,” replied my mother.
“Oh, I know where that place is – and you wouldn’t catch me spending a night there . . .” He was interrupted by a sharp reprimand from his wife, speaking in Welsh to him. “I’m only joking,” the farmer said, seeing my mother’s face. Despite her questioning he laughed off his comment, claiming it was the whisky speaking.
That night I woke again. As I went to get a drink of water, I noticed that my grandmother’s light was on. She was sitting up in bed with her rosary beads and on her bedside table was a small plastic bottle of holy water. My grandmother was a religious woman but not given to flights of fancy.
Next day I tackled my mother and with some reluctance she told me that on the first night in the house she had been woken by a terrible dream – except that she had felt she wasn’t dreaming, that she was awake and it was real. She had felt she was being dragged from her bed by a hugely powerful force – “like a spinning top” – drawing her to the door of her bedroom. “I was clinging on to the bed because I knew that I musn’t go to the door but it was so powerful, I was slipping . . . Whatever it was wanted me to go out on to the landing and I knew it would be worse if I did.”
She dismissed it as a nightmare but then it had recurred the next night and after that she had been too terrified to fall asleep. She had confided in my grandmother.
This Christmas treat for her children had become an intolerable strain for my mother. But she could not bear to disappoint us by cutting it short. “It’s something to do with a baby,” she told me. “I’m sure the crying we’ve heard is a baby . . .”
Our Christmas came to an end the following night. The weather had changed abruptly and from early evening violent electrical storms lit up the hill behind the house and set the lights flickering manically inside the farmhouse. First the Christmas tree lights went off, then the television screen erupted in static. Michael, my oldest brother, tried the portable radio but there was nothing. “Batteries must be dead,” he said. There was no telephone and it seemed to me – my imagination given full rein now – that little by little we were being cut off from the outside world.
At midnight I was woken by my mother who urged me to get dressed and gather my brothers and sister together. We were leaving Preswylfa Gwyrdd. The electricity had failed altogether and she refused to spend another night there. Later she would tell me the real reason for our departure. She had dozed off at about 11pm and woken in some distress to find herself on the landing where Connor had said he saw his ghost. She had never sleep-walked before and has never done so since, but the experience finally persuaded her that we had to leave.
Like refugees from a war zone, we arrived at Griff Williams’s house and he seemed to accept that electricity failure was a good enough reason for our flight. The next day we returned to Preswylfa Gwyrdd for the last time to pack up.
We have never been back to the village, but we have learnt the history of the farmhouse. At first local people were reluctant to reveal the story, fearing loss of holiday business if it got out. But eventually they told us about the large family who had lived happily in the house and farmed successfully some of the best land in the area. Then the father started drinking heavily, another child was born and died in mysterious circumstances. The father disappeared (no one knew where) and then the despairing mother hanged herself from the bannister rail at the very spot where Connor claimed he saw his ghostly lady.
For some years the surviving children had remained at the farm but it had fallen into ruin and relatives had taken in the orphans. A succession of new owners had failed to make the land pay and seemed dogged by bad luck. The farm had then remained empty for two decades until the letting agency had bought it and refurbished it as a holiday cottage.
So what are we to make of the story of Connor’s ghost? Did we perhaps have an encounter with Bronte’s “invisible world”, a place where tragic events of long ago are played out by tormented souls? Did her “kingdom of the spirits” collide, just briefly, with the “race of men”; could a baby, just six months old, have precipitated such disturbing events?
Or was it all just a string of coincidences that befell an over- imaginative family? I don’t know the answer and probably never will but whenever someone asks me if I believe in ghosts, my reply must always be “maybe. . .”
This is a true story, but some names have been changed. Liz Hunt is deputy features editor of the “Daily Mail”