A Ghost Story

Here in Kent it does not feel very much like Halloween. Up the road in Gravesend the warmest ever October 31st was recorded this afternoon, when the mercury peaked at 23.5 degrees centigrade. In our Broadstairs garden it was a shade cooler, but t-shirt and shorts weather nevertheless. A splendid day for gardening, only not quite long enough. Gardening days never are.

As the shadows fell across the terrace I descended the narrow steps to our basement undercroft to stow my tools. It’s dark, damp and musty down there, the odd wisp of tree root protruding through the vaulted ceiling and spider’s webs criss-crossing the entrance. The spiders are enormous this year, their bodies fat and their webs strong and expansive. A warm night should lure plenty of tasty treats into their sticky gossamer traps.

I am never 100% certain how stable the undercrofts’ brick arches are, but they have made it to nearly 200 years old so are considerably more resilient than they look. I keep meaning to tidy up the melange of compost sacks, canes and pots that have accumulated, only there always seems to be a more attractive task to do. Even though daylight is only a few steps away, I often wonder what it would be like to be a miner, stuck underground in dark, dirty confinement for hours on end. My mother’s family all hail from a village called St Agnes in Cornwall which was at the very centre of the Cornish mining industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hers was a farming family, but doubtless there were miners among them too. Tonight, on All Hallows’ Eve, I am reminded of the well-known story of Dorcas, a female ghost that has troubled St Agnes’ miners and villagers for centuries.

This is how the story is told by Maurice Bizley in his 1955 book about St Agnes called ‘Friendly Retreat’:

“One mine, at least, in the St Agnes district is said to be haunted. Polbreen is situated at the foot of St Agnes Beacon, near the village, and in a nearby cottage once lived a woman called Dorcas. One night the poor creature lost her reason and threw herself down a deep shaft of the mine. Although her broken body was recovered and removed for burial, her spirit still remained in the mine, where it took a malicious delight in tormenting the industrious miner, calling him by name and alluring him from his work. Although no one is credited with having seen the ghost of Dorcas, her voice has caused much trouble and, indeed, more than one miner is reputed to have had his clothes torn from his back by the spirit. On one occasion, Dorcas saved the life of a miner by calling his name so persistently that he left his ‘end’ to find out who was calling him. Immediately he had moved the roof of the level fell on the spot where he had been working. The lucky miner ever afterwards declared that he had been saved by Dorcas. Although the spirit has not been heard for many years, even today there are those who have ‘felt her presence’ when near the mine.”

My Great Aunt Edith lived in a bungalow in Polbreen Lane, very close to the abandoned mine (so much so that part of the drive once subsided into a disused shaft, a common occurrence in the village), but I don’t recall her mentioning the neighbourhood ghost. Perhaps she has finally found her peace.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Pumpkins and Squashes, Trengwainton Gardens, Cornwall, September 2014