Tim Richardson on haunted gardens

Gardens can be such atmospheric, mysterious places that it seems surprising that the very first book on the subject of ghosts in gardens appeared only recently. Peter Underwood, author of Haunted Gardens, is a serial ghost author, compiler of a gazetteer to Britain’s spooks and president of the Ghost Club Society.

The 30 or so case studies he describes, covering properties such as Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire and Jenkyn Place in Hampshire, portray all the usual things-grey ladies, headless courtiers and so on, presumably designed to provoke a pleasurable frisson in the gullible and the susceptible. We’re told, for example, that the lakeside at Charlecote Park is haunted by the figure of a ‘mysterious’ girl in white, who is believed to have drowned herself there. Then it is dropped in that Shakespeare is said to have written Ophelia’s death scene at the house.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but if one stops to think about it, the haunting is obviously fabrication, extrapolated from an unlikely, although appealing, family Shakespeare legend. Perhaps I’m being a little over-harsh because I am drawn to the classical notion of ‘spirit of place’ as applied to landscapes. Alexander Pope famously dubbed it the genius loci. Sometimes, the atmospheres in gardens can be so strong that it is tempting to follow Classical precedent and think of them as independent entities of some kind. One can certainly get a sense of this looking at old photographs of gardens-the Edwardian images in Country Life’s own archive are perhaps the best example. 

Looming yew hedges, crumbling staircases, still pools and even the occasional female figure dressed in white drifting by-images such as these conspire to create a strong sense of atmosphere, which can seem not a little haunting. A few years ago, I formed a theory about this sense of place called ‘psychotopia’, which posits the existence of a kind of mind or psyche (if only a set of memories) belonging to a topos or place. It proved relatively uncontroversial: professional garden designers and land-scape architects were happy to acknowledge that identifying and then manipulating the existing genius loci is their bread and butter, just as it was for Pope.


Recommended videos for you

Gardens of Heligan


The Lost Gardens of Heligan (pictured), on the other hand, is the one place where I have encountered
former gardeners who say they felt uneasy, if not downright terrified, in certain areas of the garden. The rockery and fruit store are usually singled out as hotspots: people prefer to work in pairs in these areas. One of the gardeners I spoke to told me he simply refused to lock up the garden at night on his own. When interviewing the owner, Tim Smit, at Heligan for Country Life some 15 years ago, I remember asking him, in a light way, about the garden’s ghosts and was surprised at how serious he became, confirming several stories I’d heard and adding some of his own, although, in print, discretion prevailed at the time.

Several years later, in his own memoir of the garden, Tim revealed just how difficult matters had become from a managerial point of view, with members of staff deeply disturbed and apparently beset by an enveloping black mood. Exorcisms ensued. Perhaps, in some cases, ‘hauntings’ could more accurately be classified as communal hysteria. That may even be what happened at Heligan among a close-knit gardening team, its members often working alone, surrounded by stories of the garden’s past, although there’s no denying that Heligan is extremely atmospheric.

Could it be that an existing space-flavour of that garden was ‘unearthed’ by the sudden presence of an army of restorers? Perhaps the garden’s ‘ghosts’ or, should we say, its innate characteristics, were revealed again in just the same way that the tree ferns in the combe also once more basked in the light of day after a century in obscurity.

* For more In The Garden like this every week, subscribe

and save