The Haunted Abbey Ruins
Well, as its Christmas (or close to) here is a ‘ghost extract’ from my new book due for publication in April. It involves an investigation into the atmospheric ruins of Netley Abbey said to be haunted by a phantom monk. I was there with my second wife, Colette, in 1985 and this is basically what happened on our trip. But its really self-explanatory . .
The Ghost of Netley Abbey
BUT WHILE interest in the Highgate ‘vampire’ was spreading to the extent of being exploited in such countries as France and America (an interest which, I was well aware, I had inadvertently started, although by this time it seemed to have taken on its own momentum, helped considerably by my Old Bailey trial), there were still many other cases of reported psychic happenings coming into the Society, which had either been set down for official investigation or simply held a personal interest or fascination.
One of these involved Netley Abbey, an old Cistercian abbey that lay on the outskirts of Southampton Water, and the figure of a phantom monk had been constantly reported.
Colette and I decided to visit the ruins and speak to local people in the hope of gaining more precise information. We also intended to camp out in the ruin, should the monk perhaps decide to make an appearance.
We had already made previous enquiries about the ghostly monk, so when we eventually set off we had a fairly good idea about the Abbey’s legends and history.
It was laid in 1239 by Henry Ш and was a thriving religious community until its dissolution in 1536, and said to house a secretly buried treasure guarded jealously by the ghost of a ‘hooded monk’.
Nothing much seemed to be known about the origins of this phantom figure (known by some as ‘Blind Peter’), although he had been witnessed on many occasions over the years around full moon; both in the grounds and sometimes hovering menacingly at the Abbey sacristy (the place where sacred vessels and vestments were once kept). But apparently the monk also chose to manifest itself by means of a ‘hostile presence’; presumably as a warning to anyone foolish enough to wander into the Abbey ruins by night. To this end, the ghost was well known but – as in the case of many psychic manifestations – accounts and descriptions of its appearances varied.
One legend I came across certainly put a sinister slant on the Abbey’s past history. It told of a ‘secret chamber’ or vault where the treasure lay concealed, and also where a ‘renegade nun’ had been bricked up alive.
Then there was the Poet and Romantic, Thomas Gray, who visited the Abbey in 1764, and was told by the Ferryman conveying him across Southampton Water one day that he . . . “would not for all the world” go near the Abbey at night for . . . “there were things seen near it” and .. . “a power of money was buried there.”
It should perhaps be remembered that at this time the Abbey had been standing derelict for over 200 years, and was situated in the midst of dense woodland, so from the point of view of stimulating the imagination it must have looked an eerie sight indeed.
In fact, by this time, I had acquired an old etching of the Abbey from around this time, and the whole ruin was encased beneath thick ivy, its stone walls scarcely visible beneath the stems of its merciless predator.
It was a hot June day when we arrived at Netley Abbey. A few people wandered nonchanantly around the grounds, and I was surprised to see how well kept these were. The grass had all been neatly cut and even trimmed at the edges where it met the tall ruin walls. Sunlight bathed the ruin, while a gentle breeze brought the fragrance of burning pine wood from somewhere out of sight nearby. We sat on a bench eating the last of some packaged sandwiches; Colette obviously pleased at the chance to relax after a fairly long drive. Several swifts were flying high up, disappearing into crevices in the walls, and I guessed they were feeding their young in secluded nests. It was pleasant just sitting there in the warm sunshine, and almost impossible to imagine any sinister atmosphere in the place – even by night. The sunlight dissipated such thoughts but darkness, I realised, could give its own impressions, and bring nocturnal sounds and shadows that sometimes seemed to ‘come alive’ at night.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Abbey ruins, although it was all fairly open inside with no secluded rooms or alcoves. Unlike many major Abbeys destroyed during the Dissolution (as Netley had been) most of the exterior walls were basically intact, and it was easier to visualise it as a place where communities of monks lived and worshipped.
That evening, we parked the van near the Abbey and took directions for a place to eat.
It was a local pub and before long we had got into conversation with an elderly gent sitting opposite at the table. By coincidence, a large framed watercolour hung over an old stone fireplace, which provided an excellent opportunity to eventually ask about its history.
The painting dated back to the mid 1930’s and was by a local artist. The structure of the Abbey had changed little. Although the grounds were much more over-grown then, mature trees – long since disappeared – virtually hiding the structure, giving it an almost sinister appearance.
We got to talking and learned his name was Steve, and he was a long term resident of Netley itself; in fact, he said, most of his life had been spent in the village. Netley town proper hadn’t changed much over the years, he emphasised, although in recent times, mainly since the 1960’s, a few town houses had sprung up around its circumference. He had lived in the town wife and two children, but his wife was now dead and his children had since moved away and were now married. But they still visited regularly when time would permit, and in this respect, he still had an ‘estranged family’.
On the subject of the Abbey itself, he was fairly vague, other than confirming it had a reputation of being haunted by a ghostly monk.
He said his wife had seen something back in the late 1950’s while she was walking their dog near the grounds one night, a ‘black figure’ in the distance, which had disappeared after moving slowly across the grass. The dog whined continuously until she walked it away, but she never had been able to explain its abrupt disappearance; indeed, she avoided the grounds from then on at night when walking the dog.
Time had slipped by unnoticed, and when we were ready to leave the pub, we bade Steve goodbye and set off back towards the van.
It was a clear night, and the moonlight became even more visible as we left the street lights and approached the Abbey. We decided to spend at least an hour or two inside the grounds before settling down to some well-deserved sleep. It was quiet when we approached the Abbey boundary and, once inside, the sun-lit stones of the ruin seemed to have changed into dark out-lines silhouetted only by the night sky, which seemed to absorb the ruin into its eerie darkness.
We sat on a rough stone bench near the central ruin, and there was an uncanny silence away from any activity in the small town. It was just silent; not even a sound to suggest we were less than a kilometre from the dying life of the town.
A fox ran across the distant grass, obviously unaware of the two figures sitting silently – just waiting.
It was quiet, almost too quiet; just a strange tranquillity which took the place of material sound.
Then suddenly, and unexpectedly, a distinct shadow moved across the ground in the moonlight; this moved with precise precision across the ground, like some ‘living figure’ with nothing to display its source of origin. It disappeared by a wall some twenty yards or so distant, but there was nothing to identify its shape, other than it resembled some ‘elongulated man’. That was all: a silent shadow that moved across the lawn, although with nothing to show its exact causation.
We waited in further expectation for an hour or more – almost expecting ‘it’ to return, but nothing else occurred and so, more than a little tired from the long day, we decided to get some sleep in the comparative comfort of the van . . .
Next day we familiarised ourselves a little with Netley town and returned to the Abbey around lunchtime. It was almost deserted, except for three workmen who were making a repair to one of the walls. They appeared to be cementing a small crevice where a couple of the stones had come loose. We decided to approach them as there seemed more likelihood of getting relevant information from ‘on the ground’ maintenance staff. One of the men (who we later learned was in charge) was exceptionally helpful and not in the least ‘off-put’ when we introduced the subject of ‘ghosts’.
Mr John Morrison, who lived in Southampton, told us that he had worked for English Heritage (the Trust who owned the Abbey) for several years and that his work often took him to other Trust sites in the area. He was only too pleased to talk about the Abbey’s past history.
He confirmed the story about the ghostly hooded monk and how it supposed guarded the secretly buried treasure, but went on to explain how there was an old curse in existence, that would befall anyone trying to locate this or who might be similarly inclined to disturb the Abbey ruins.
Someone who seemingly chose this ‘portent of doom’, he said, was a certain Victorian land developer called Walter Taylor, who bought the land rights to Netley and proceeded with the demolition of the Abbey on the promise of a handsome profit. Taylor abandoned the project prematurely, however, when one of his workmen was critically injured by a piece of falling masonry which lodged itself precariously close to his brain. He died under surgery but there was little doubt to all concerned that his death was to the Abbey’s ‘deadly curse’.
Yet more recently, he said, events had occurred that would appear to confirm the presence of some lurking ‘sinister force’ in the confines of the Abbey ruins.
In 1981 two people, who had cause to camp out in the ruins with their dog, were awoken in the early hours by some ‘sinister force’ that drastically reduced the temperature, and appeared to be lingering around their tent. The dog growled incessantly and, when enticed to seek out the unwanted visitor, made a hasty retreat.
A similar experience befell two nuns who had occasion to visit the Abbey around this period – in this instance by day. Both sensed what appeared to be a ‘distinct presence’ in the vicinity of the sacristy, and the area turned unaccountably cold. Again the presence seemed decidedly hostile.
We thanked John Morrison for these exclusive accounts, and exchanged addresses after he had kindly given permission for these to be published.
There was obviously no ‘material proof’ readily available to confirm these experiences, but if nothing else, it provided some proof that the ghostly monk of Netley Abbey (or ghostly ‘something’ said to haunt the ruins) was still decidedly active.
But yet more new information about this supernatural entity was still to be forthcoming, and before leaving Netley, we were put in touch with a lady who actually claimed to have encountered the ghostly monk in person.
Mrs. Anna Neil, who lived in Netley, told us that one Summer’s day in 1970 she had gone into the grounds of Abbey House (just adjacent to the Abbey) with a friend to conduct a dowsing experiment.
After a while, the dowsing stick reacted violently and followed a given course for several yards. Ahead, Mrs. Neal saw the tall lean figure of a monk dressed in a brown cloak with loose-fitting hood that shaded the face.
The figure beckoned twice using its right hand with a slow and deliberate movement, then pointed in the direction of the Abbey.
Mrs. Neal was unable to tell exactly this confrontation lasted; it seemed like several minutes but she later recalled it was probably in the region of fifteen to twenty seconds. What she did recall vividly is that throughout the duration of her experience it seemed that she’d become ‘entrapped’ in some other dimension, where time and tenable reality ceased to matter.
Interestingly enough. Mrs. Neal did not pick up any sense of evil from the figure; rather, that it was trying to convey some message about the Abbey. Her friend, whilst not seeing the figure herself, did sense the ‘potent atmosphere’.
Back in London, I typed up all my notes on the Netley file while events and impressions were still fresh. It had been an interesting few days, and I felt we had managed to accumulate quite a lot of new information.
All these stories and sightings, of course, could well have comprised of a mixture of imagination based upon known legend and superstition; but it was hard to doubt that some common cause – whether supernatural or otherwise – had not given rise to them.
It may have been that the existence of the Abbey’s hidden treasure could have been a feasible possibility; at least, that the Abbey’s accumulated wealth had been hidden or disposed of rapidly at the time of the Dissolution; despite the fact that the Abbey declared its total revenue in its final year to be less than £100. This was still quite a considerable sum of money in those days but they would have had to declare some revenue to avoid imprisonment and possible torture. If the amount was really far greater than this, it would have been quite understandable that the ecclesiastical hierarchy would not have wanted this to fall into the greedy hands of King Henry νш .
But hidden treasure aside, it remained a fact that for over 200 years Netley Abbey had had its fair share of legends and ghostly tales, maybe some of which could have actually given some credence to the ‘hooded monk’s’ authenticity . . .
© David Farrant
NB Please not that I will not be on-line for most of Christmas Day, although I expect to be back later in the evening.