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Have you ever seen a ghost? The Isle of Wight is reputed to be one of Britain’s most haunted places, and certainly has some exceptionally historic and mysterious nooks where one might expect the unexpected. But other than experiencing a blinding headache when stood between the gateposts of the erstwhile Knighton Gorges – location of many well-documented tragic events – I haven’t had any ghostly encounters.
I’m certainly not an expert in these matters, for that you’d need to pick the brains behind Ghost Island, but I have a casual interest. I’ve enjoyed hearing the stories of Lala the little girl who haunts Shooters Hill in Cowes – direct from people who have experienced unexplained goings-on. Some of Lala’s activities involve coins as, too, do those of the story of the ghost of the Castle Inn, Newport. In this ancient pub five pence pieces are left scattered about, as legend goes, placed as financial penance by a murdered stable lad. I went to a party there recently and recounted the story of the coins. A pint of so later a guest emerged from the loo to show me a photo he had taken of a five pence piece which lay enigmatically on the lavatory floor.
But it’s not just the souls of the long-departed that may (or most likely may not) be making their presence felt, it’s also the marks they made in their lifetimes. The Island has many examples of what are known as ‘ghost signs’. In Newport alone there’s faded evidence of Self’s ‘the noted pie shop’ near County Hall, while revellers were exhorted to ‘Commit No Nuisance’ by the Castle Inn.
But what about the presence you can’t tangibly see? My dear pater loves to go to the National Portrait Gallery and ruminate over the paintings. He stares at the distance that the artist himself stared across and thinks about the close proximity of the sitter. Of course, the painting has been moved from its original studio, but what if you could also stand in the right space? Then nothing but time would separate you.
I remember gawping at Hanover Point’s dinosaurs footprints and imagining the great iguanodontid bearing down on me. I’ve looked at Queen Victoria’s bathroom and the bed in which the monarch passed away, and considered her last breath some hundred-odd years later. I’ve also been to Ventnor Winter Gardens where, in July 1984, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum‘s Don Estelle performed in the Star Cabaret. Like the dinosaur and the old queen, Don is no longer with us but I imagined him, in that auditorium, entertaining the fifty-two people that turned up. Not a ghost perhaps, but he occupied that space, just in a different time.
This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 5 March 2017.