We begin today’s missive with a confession: I’m not very good at talking to people.
This caused a problem in my early years of journalism when I attended events. “Go and make some contacts,” my editor would say. “No,” I would say quietly to myself with the churlish disposition of a petulant adolescent, “you go and make some contacts.”
Call it a throwback to childhood social anxiety, call it general social anxiety or, if you like, call it rudeness. I’m usually ok after a while when I’ve got a feel for someone – not literally, of course, there are laws against that sort of thing – and once common ground has been established all is well.
Essentially, it probably boils down to a subconscious fear of what people may think of me. I suppose I do care.
Anyway, before Christmas I was invited to Hampton Court Palace, to a social event at the Tudor Tavern, which would be followed by a Ghost Tour.
Weirdly, this concept didn’t trigger the usual reservations about talking to strangers. I reasoned that if, and it was a fairly big if, I did come face-to-face with Catherine Howard, worrying about what she might think of me or my writing would be the last thing on my mind.
I grew up in the area around the Palace and am well versed in the many yarns of screaming queens and conversing cavaliers. And yet despite having visited the Palace more times than I can count, I have never seen a ghost.
It sounded like a good idea.
So, traipsing through the blizzard on Thursday night, the editors of Exhibition News and Access All Areas and I headed to the Palace where, two of us at least, hoped for a chance encounter with the Grey Lady.
At the gate we were greeted by none other than the King of England and Wales himself: Henry VIII. He didn’t seem as tyrannical or imposing in real life as Damian Lewis would have us believe. In fact, he was quite jovial and, I was sure, also the voice-artist for Daddy Pig, father of the famous Peppa (this remains unverified).
Anyway, before too long we were sampling some of Ampersand’s finest cuisine: roast beef with Yorkshire puddings and potatoes, washed down with lashings of ale and hot toddies, to fortify us for the rigours ahead.
Buoyed by the fact that I might have a genuine Peter Venkman moment, my usual social anxiety failed to rear its head, and I found myself talking to all manner of people.
After a second helping of Yorkshire puddings, the King piped up and asked us all to pay attention to a lady in Tudor dress who proceeded to administer a health and safety briefing.
We covered slippery steps, fire alarms, and even best practise in general darkness. I did however note that there was no official protocol in the event of a ghostly encounter. Soiling yourself, I suspect, would be as good as anything.
Immediately after we were off, beginning with the tale of Sybil Penn, the Grey Lady who famously haunted the Ponsonby family in the south wing of the Palace. She was not available for comment.
Next on the tour was the apartment where an elderly lady, whose name escapes me, lived during the Second World War. Foolhardy as she was, one night she left her air raid shelter and headed back to her apartment to retrieve her false teeth. Then, as you would expect, a face with green eyes appeared and she found herself most bothered.
Then we were taken to the foot of a staircase which lead up to the room where Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s sec…thir…four… third wife gave birth to… to… Edward? Yes, Edward the Somethingth. Anyway, we all know how she died shortly after childbirth. Or did she? Well, because Henry VIII had her internal organs removed and buried in the chapel, her forlorn apparition is often spotted on the stairwell holding a candle that does not flicker. On this occasion, she was not available for interviews.
We then heard the tale of Lady Harrington, an elderly lady who was visited most nights by two young men. Oh, hush your cheeky assumptions. Why, these two strapping young men were long dead, by some 200 years in fact. After making several complaints to Lord Chamberlain, it was only a chance encounter that men laying some new drainage in the courtyard discovered the perfectly preserved remains of two men, who had expired, you guessed it, 200 years earlier. After a proper Christian burial, Lady Harrington was bothered no more.
After that we were shown the CCTV footage of the infamous ‘Skeletor’, a bold spook who had the temerity to set off the fire alarm three days in a row during an exhibition in 2003. The accounts of the security guards reveal a frightening and still unexplained scenario, so I’ll leave the video here and you can make your own minds up…
A walk through the ‘Georgian Rail Carriage’ set of chambers revealed how a security guard in 2005 felt ‘four ice cold fingers brush aside her fringe’ before doing the only logical thing a person could do it that situation and legged it.
The last part of the tour was a walk through the aptly named ‘Haunted Gallery’ where, most famously of all, the screaming spectre of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth (definitely fifth) wife occasionally runs – although she hasn’t been spotted for the guts of a century.
To really give us the shakes, the guides insisted that for the last hurrah we walk through the gallery in the dark, our way lit only by tame faux candles. There’s no other way of saying this, but it was genuinely unsettling.
You weren’t sure what you were going to see: Cat herself, a pranking guide wearing a white sheet with two eye holes cut through it, nothing? Certainly the creaking floorboards were enough to make you, at the very least, cock an eyebrow.
Emotions in our party were mixed. One of the three of us just wanted to get to the end alive, I was still keen to see a ghost but on 21st Century health and safety-attested conditions, and the other appeared to harbour a curious urgency to arrange a séance immediately to contact another realm.
Needless to say we didn’t end up seeing a ghost, and truth be told for a while I forgot I was there on behalf on the conference and meetings industry.
But, no matter; I do come to you after a preposterous 1,100 words with a CN Top Tip: If you’re looking to complement your meeting or conference with something more avant-garde then a Ghost Tour around Hampton Court Palace is a genuinely good idea. Even better if you want to put the fear of God into some of them. I should add, though, that the professionals are far better at regaling the ghost stories than I am.
It might be scary, but it’s not as scary as needlessly worrying what other people might think about you – or your writing.