It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every self-respecting country house is in need of a ghost,’ wrote our architecture editor John Goodall this time last year (Country Life, October 28, 2009). One would imagine it was a truth also universally acknowledged that prospective country-house buyers would want to know whether a house is haunted before committing to buy.
But that’s not always the case. For some house buyers, particularly in America, owning a haunted house is a treat rather than a trick-especially if they’re planning on setting up a B&B, thus guaranteeing business as Halloween approaches. And even on this side of the pond, some buyers are quite comfortable knowing there is paranormal activity.
Hugo Thistlethwayte of Prime Purchase has been on both sides of the argument. ‘We did buy a house once that apparently was haunted by the butler, who had killed his mistress, set fire to the house and drowned himself in the lake. It was quite a story, but the clients weren’t bothered. Some are in touch with their spiritual side; others think it’s a load of baloney.’
Last summer, however, the reverse was true. ‘We’d taken some clients to a pretty Georgian village house. It had a bit of road noise, and a few other factors that were making them think hard, and then they asked the vendor whether there was anything else they should know. “I think that’s it,” he replied. And then he dropped the bombshell: “I mean, even the ghosts are friendly here.”‘
According to Mr Thistlethwayte, the vendor then explained that there was a ‘sweet’ ghost of a maid, and another ghost who had the ‘tiresome habit’ of leaving doors open. He finished with the deal death nail: ‘But it’s nothing really. They were much less friendly in our previous house.’
As a rule of thumb, most buying agents will gently turn questions towards such matters only if the house is appropriately historic-or when there is a sense of unease about the place. ‘If it is genuinely spooky, it could affect the marketability and value of the house, so we’ll ask questions about the house’s history-staff tend to be a good source on such matters if it’s too awkward to go direct to the vendor-and see if something comes out that way,’ explains Mr Thistlethwayte. ‘Some of our clients will just say “For heaven’s sake, Hugo” most Britons are beautifully sceptical-but others will be concerned.’
Those who do find themselves with unwanted house guests can, of course, opt to have the property exorcised. Charlie Ellingworth of Property Vision recalls at least a dozen people saying his property in Somerset was haunted. He shrugged this off, and the first 15 years of ownership went by smoothly. Then, he began to do some work on the house. ‘I was down in the cellar expecting the children to come back from school any minute when I heard footsteps walking up the stairs directly above me. I called out to say hello, but there was no response, and when I went to investigate, there was no one in the house.’
The Ellingworths found the experiences more curious than creepy until it morphed into something potentially dangerous. ‘It was when the electric cooker next to the Aga-which was rarely used, so had a pile of papers on top-mysteriously turned on (a feat that involved pressing down two buttons and turning a knob at the same time) and set fire to the paper that I decided to do something about the problem. I rang someone in Glastonbury, who came over to perform the exorcism. We haven’t had a problem since.’
Houses that pass through people’s hands more often than is considered normal is one sign that something might be amiss. ‘As a buyer, make sure you ask the selling agent how many times it has passed through different owners in recent years,’ advises Mr Ellingworth.
Five haunted houses to visit
Blickling Hall in Norfolk was the birthplace of Anne Boleyn and it’s said her ghost returns on the anniversary of her beheading
Buckland Abbey is said to be haunted by Sir Francis Drake, and his accompanying ‘hell hounds’
Cotehele in Cornwall has reports that hazy figures are often seen, accompanied by the sound of music and strange, herbal smells
East Riddlesden Hall in West Yorkshire is haunted by any number of ghosts, including a woman in white and a grey lady, who was starved to death by her husband for being unfaithful
Belton House in Lincolnshire is home to a black-clad ghost, who is supposed to enjoy stalking the Queen’s Bedroom
For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk