Ghosts of Woodchester Mansion
In my last piece I described the more ancient places and legends of the area south of Stroud in Gloucestershire, and how these ghosts of heritage still inhabit the landscape. Just across the road is another area of strangeness from a more recent age.
Woodchester Mansion is a mystery in itself, an unfinished gothic revival mansion sitting on the shelf of a slope amid landscaped grounds. The original owner of the estate turned it into a large deer park with a hunting lodge at one end. This became too expensive to maintain and he sold the land to Sir Robert Ducie in 1631. Ducie and his descendants decided to build a grand house there and create a huge formal landscaped estate and gardens. An ill advised idea as half of the estate was in shade and the new house was almost at ground level with it, spoiling the grand views across the land you'd expect from such a place. Down the centuries they shaped and remodelled constantly, even reworking the landscape again with input from the famous Capability Brown. Needless to say this vision was an expensive nightmare and despite a royal visit from “mad” King George III the continuous remodelling and repairs took their toll on the successive generations of the family. The second Earl Ducie sold up.
William Leigh bought the pile in 1840 and began to transform the estate. For 12 years he worked with various architects to demolish the old Woodchester and replace it with a huge gothic edifice. Unfortunately the work stopped upon his death, and with his family unable to afford to continue, the unfinished pile stood more or less empty for sixty years until it was eventually sold to a charity with the intention of creating an “upmarket asylum”. This plan too came to nothing, and the stately home stood silent until it was commandeered during the Second World War as a base for American and Canadian troops. It's fair to say that Woodchester Mansion has had it's fair share of sadness, deaths and misfortune, but this came to a tragic and dramatic head while the military were in residence. The landscaped estate was used for training exercises for D Day, and during an experimental landing manoeuvre a large group of men, and a couple of vehicles, were making their way across the main lake on a new type of pontoon bridge. The bridge collapsed, sending them all into the water, and with their full packs and gear over a dozen of them drowned.
The ghostly presence of these people is often reported, with 1940s music being heard and transatlantic accented mutterings in the areas the men were billeted. Visitors have also seen the water of the lake suddenly frothing for no reason, and most bizarrely a single coffin floating on the surface. Woodchester Mansion is now probably more famous for it's hauntings than anything else. In fact, the reason often given for the mansion not being finished is that the workers all left in terror! There were odd deaths during the construction along with tools flying about and people claiming to have been shoved off ladders. A French plasterer died there and his ghost was believed to make working there a very tense experience. A very tall man was, and still is, often reported to be standing in the chapel and walking along the corridor towards it. A floating head, a crying girl, a singing Irish maid, an old lady who grabs at visitors, a phantom horseman, a headless horseman, a Civil War soldier, the list of spooks and spirits alleged to reside at Woodchester is mindboggling.
One can see how it got this reputation, with three previous large dwellings all standing under the unfinished edifice, along with the mysterious atmosphere of the general area. The nearby burial mounds and chambers I previously posted about add to the aura of the area and the location of the mansion almost completely hidden in it's little valley gives it an isolated feel. “Ghost tours” are now a major source of income for the National Trust appointed managers of the estate with overnight vigils a very popular event. As you'd imagine, the spirit sightings go on and on and most customers get something for their money even if it just creepy noises. In perhaps the most genuinely disturbing encounter during one such evening, a group of would be ghost hunters fled in absolute terror from the main cellar when what they described as a”filthy, scruffy dwarf” appeared from nowhere and proceeded to shuffle towards them, making “amplified hedgehog sounds”!
This bizarre experience was put down to an “elemental spirit”, and while a tour and vigil with a group would undoubtedly be interesting, that cellar is not somewhere I'd want to stay the night completely alone. Perhaps the damp valley atmosphere is conducting an unexplained energy around the place, or is it just the lonely atmosphere that stirs the imagination? Who knows, but Woodchester mansion is well worth a visit at any time of day. A plethora of TV ghost shows have descended on the house from all over the world with Most Haunted making two memorable visits. The house has stood in for the home of Count Dracula in a BBC adaptation and more recently featured as a location in The Crown.
The interior is so interesting, room after room of unplastered Cotswold stone with seemingly every single ceiling in the building having decorative vaults and arches. Benjamin Bucknall, the architect of Woodchester, was fascinated by Moorish architecture and you can see the influences of this interest entwining with the Gothic Revival style. One has to wonder how the place might have looked once finished and fully decorated. Ladders and tools lie around unused since the 1800s, and unfinished gargoyles sit waiting to be chiselled. Some of these beasts are resident on the outside walls and the detail on them is impressive, a griffin, a snarling wolf, a boar, all lean out alertly. Late in the afternoon, as the sun lowers, the Cotswold stone almost glows, giving the house a marvellous golden hue.
The magnificent views over the Severn from the nearby Coley ridge are worth the trip alone, and with the neolithic sites along the ridge too this is a highly recommended day out. If you set out early you might even be able to nip down to Wotton to take a look at the now derelict and locked Ancient Ram Inn, once billed as Britain's most haunted pub and also a frequent venue for TV ghost shows. It is indeed ancient, with a building being there continuously since 1145. Most Haunted? I think Woodchester Mansion probably is!
The gargoyles stand sentry
A pair of snarling boar guard the west windows
The site of the World War 2 tragedy involving the pontoon bridge, site of several alleged hauntings
The lake with it's boathouse
The Ancient Ram Inn, once "Britain's most haunted pub"
Entrance to the Ancient Ram, with a dedication thus - "here lodged the carpenters and stonemasons while building the parish church during the 13th century...memorial to Stephen Hopkins, pilgrim father, Mayflower 1620, of this town"