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Monday, 19 October 2009

The stately ghosts of England

To my regret, I have never felt a ghostly presence at any of the palaces I have visisted. Nor did I experience any chills at Ham House, the seventeenth century mansion, where I took my friend on a ghost tour. I did feel the male guide was quite rude about the seventeenth century Duchess of Lauderdale, who had done much to transform the earlier mansion. Little wonder that the shade of the Duchess is said to irritably push aside those who get in her way as she descends the great oak staircase.

Ham House, Richmond

My only encounter with a stately ghost happened at Kenwood House, the eighteenth century mansion on Hampstead Heath. I used to wonder why I felt so drawn to the place. I only recently discovered that its exterior is very similar to Hylands Park in Essex, which I was taken many times as a child, although the latter was then sadly derelict and seemed destined to decline further. I daydreamed about living in that house as I walked under the grand portico and would peer longingly through the cracks in the shuttered windows at the brief glimpses of the Georgian interiors. Thankfully, Essex County Council was able to restore Hylands House to its former glory. According to its website I can now even get married there if I but had a fiancé.
Hylands House
I saw no ghosts at Hyland House but at Kenwood, as I was standing alone in a room given over to a small but stunning collection of Stuart portraits, the door suddenly began to close with tremendous speed and slammed shut.
“I didn’t touch it!,” I assured the warder as she dashed in from off her perch in the other room.
“It’s the ghost”, the warder explained and said she had told others about how the door would inexplicably slam shut when no one was around and yet usually it could not be moved without some effort. We began chatting about the pictures. She explained that the portraits displayed the blue veins of the women as a sign of imperfection. I said I had read that actually the veins were meant to highlight the milky pallor and translucency of the skin, a sign of great beauty.
Kenwood House
Once in Leeds Castle in Kent we seemed to be followed around rather too closely by a warder. We stopped in front of an Ancient Egyptian statue of a cat. I explained to my guests what the hieroglyphs engraved along its throat were, having studied the subject at evening class.
“ I never even knew they were there, let alone what they meant” said the warder to me in admiration as we were leaving.
Leeds Castle, Kent

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