It’s the question that sceptics love to ask – “Have you ever seen a ghost?” Naturally, it’s a trick question. If you answer yes, then they look at you as if you’re crazy and need to be locked up. If you say no, then they usually say something like – “well there you go, of course ghosts aren’t real”.
It’s hard to convince a sceptic that ghosts are real until they experience it for themselves – like I did at Woodchester Mansion.
The old building is a Gothic Revival Country House commissioned by William Leigh in 1857 and designed by Benjamin Bucknall. It’s located in the hidden valley of Woodchester Park near Nympsfield, Gloucestershire. The building appears reasonably complete from the outside but is largely a shell with many unfinished rooms, missing floors and open ceilings that reveal the complexity of the timber supported roof. Many questions about its design, purpose, positioning and occupants still remain unanswered.
When William Leigh died in 1873 work on the house was discontinued and his descendants seem to have lacked the funds and William’s passion to see the project completed. The architect, Benjamin Bucknall even wrote to William’s son in attempt to encourage him to complete the project. He is said to have written:
“There is nothing sadder to the sight than an unfinished work and it is even more forlorn than a ruin of a building which has [at least] served its purpose.”
Although William Leigh had hoped to sire a great Catholic family with Woodchester at the heart of a new catholic community, the last of his line, Beatrice Leigh, died in 1949. After passing through several owners, the unfinished mansion was acquired by Stroud District Council, who leased it to a building restoration organisation, the Woodchester Mansion Trust, in 1992.
We do know that for a while the house was used as hideaway for William’s brother, Vincent Leigh who was considered to be a borderline recluse and very odd fellow.
It was later used as a secret training ground for soldiers who would storm the French beaches during D-day when the Americans and British fought to recapture France.
It has been highlighted in television programmes such as Most Haunted Live (2003 and 2005), Hauntings and Ghost Hunters International.
in 2006, it was used as the location for a horror film based on the story of Dracula.
Ghosts believed to haunt the area include a phantom horseman, a floating head and a poltergeist said to shove the unwary. These phantoms are largely believed to relate to an earlier building, Spring House that was demolished prior to the construction of the mansion.
I didn’t see any of these restless spirits when I visited during May of 2011. In fact, I found the property both charming and peaceful. I was inside the ruin when I heard the singing. It was beautiful! A girl’s voice with the lilting Somerset accent that is so endearing and recognisable. I looked around for the singer and, when I couldn’t find her, I assumed it was being broadcast on a hidden audio system and sat on a block of masonry near the inner courtyard just enjoying the folk songs. Most of these I didn’t recognise, but one reminded me very much of the tune Scarborough Fair but with different lyrics.
Eventually the music stopped, and I wandered over to a window. There was a light mist in the courtyard that quickly evaporated. I headed back to the main entrance where I met up with my wife and my son who were both highly annoyed. According to them I had been away for at least an hour though to me it seemed like less than 20 minutes.
As we left, I mentioned to the volunteers at the entrance what a great Idea it was to have a hidden music system. They looked surprised and told me that they didn’t. I explained about the singing and an old local man on gate duty just nodded and just said I was lucky to have heard it and I wasn’t the first.
One of the old men did say that there had been some accidents with training down on the lakes and that there were still unrecovered amphibious tanks at the bottom of the water with the bodies of the soldiers still inside. Maybe he was just trying to spook me.
Swimming in these lakes is strictly forbidden and yet people still do it. Allegedly, several people have drowned over the years.
Since my visit, Woodchester Mansion has been in the news for paranormal events. As recently as 2012 the mutilated carcasses of at least two deer and three pet wallabies were found nearby leading to speculation that a ‘beast’, probably a large cat, was on the loose in the estate. The story was featured in several British newspapers including the Guardian and the Daily Mail. In 2013, it was portrayed as a commune for wiccans in the novel ‘Caballito’ by Robin Baker.
In 2018 a teenage boy went into the lake and soon felt a terrible pain in his foot. His friends dragged him out and found a serous crescent shaped wound. According to Bristol Live he needed nine injections into his foot and antibiotics. The cause of the wound is unknown. According to a spokesperson for the grounds, “”We do not allow swimming in the lakes. The water is deep and hides many dangers.” (https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/local-news/warning-not-swim-popular-lake-1756410)
There’s no doubt that the area is seen as a paranormal hotspot and although I started out as a sceptic, I can’t help feeling that I really did experience the ghosts of Woodchester Mansion. I’m sure there are many who will read this and scoff at this story. All I can say is this – wait till it happens to you.
Contributed by Paul V.
Full name withheld by request