A Bit of Spoon Throwing On a Chilly Spring Night
A few weeks ago I went to a Victorian Séance Experience at Brighton’s Preston Manor. For those of you who don’t know, Preston Manor is a gloriously mismatched manor house on the edge of Preston Park, right in the heart of the city. The original house dates from the early 1700 but there was a religious small-holding there in Saxon times and the Manor is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as belonging to the Bishops of Chichester. The foundations are still visible in the basement, and this is where you first get that spine tingle that comes with knowing a place has such a long history. The temperature suddenly drops and you fancy you hear footsteps on the stairs along the corridor or feel the brush of a breeze, though there are no windows at hand and no-one else has joined the tour.
The rest of the house was added by degrees and refurbishments over the centuries, the house was substantially renovated in 1905 by the last private owners the Stanford family. Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford commissioned society architect Charles Stanley Peach to design a veranda, guest rooms, servant’s quarters, an enlarged entrance hall and dining rooms to enable her to entertain the great and the good. And this is what remains today, along with a beautiful Italian garden and a scrubby little graveyard beyond. An empty Manor House with its own graveyard? Perfect for ghosts, don’t you think? The most haunted house in Sussex – so says the brochure. Preston Manor has been subjected to many spooky encounters over the years, including a famous episode of LiVINGTV’s Most Haunted in which the crew supposedly made contact with the White Lady, a solid manifestation claimed to be responsible for many of the weird happenings in the Manor.
I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. I mean, I think there could be some sort of energy floating around, but dead people? Nah. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. I do think there are unexplained phenomena though, and as a writer I’m always up for visiting places with unusual atmospheres. The first time I visited Preston Manor out of hours was to attend a workshop on the uncanny. I took my friend Gill for her birthday, safety in numbers!
We were shown into a room and discussed Freud’s famous essay and looked at photographs which backed up his claims. We were asked to tell the group about any paranormal activity we had experienced. One man said nothing like it had ever happened to him and he was just there because his wife wanted the company. ‘It’ll be you then,’ said my friend. And sure enough in the dining room, as our guide was telling us how a noise like the rolling of a barrel is often heard outside the window with no explanation, the man pointed to a painting of a lion and said ‘that’s freaking me out a bit.’ The painting was swinging from side to side on its frame, quite vigorously. We all stared and made comments like ‘someone must have knocked it’ and ‘maybe there’s a draught’ but after a while it didn’t seem frightening anymore, it was just there. We all sidled past wondering what the lion was trying to tell us.
I went back to Preston Manor more recently, this time at night, for the Séance experience. The original séance was held on Nov 11th 1896 by the Stanford family in an attempt to find out about the White Lady and the other strange happenings in the house. They employed the famous medium Ada Goodrich-Greer to make contact and the transcript is held in the Museum Archives. November 11th is also the date of Ellen Stanford’s death several years later and it is my birthday. I had high hopes for the evening.
As my companion and I walked up to the door it creaked open, as if they knew we were coming. The giggles started then. Expecting Lurch, we were greeted instead by a smiling man who showed us into the drawing room and poured us a sherry. The room smelled of polish and sawdust and Mr Stanford’s clocks ticked in the background as if waiting for his return. There were a couple of moth-eaten stuffed cats on the antique tables, posed in hissing mode. Taking in the antiques and the quiet we quickly realised that being in such a place after dark made you want to laugh. The room filled with other victims, gratefully accepting the sherry and trying not to bump into the furniture.
The event itself was held in the dining Room. As we sat around the table I glanced at the painting of the lion half expecting it to see it fly off its mount and crash to the floor. It didn’t move. The table was laid out as it would have been for the original séance with tarot cards, divining rods, candles and an Ouija board. We looked at some examples of Victorian spirit photography and an expert from Sussex University talked about mediums, memento mori (pictures of dead people kept by their relatives) and portmanteau (objects thrown by an unseen presence). Then archivist Penny Balchin took over, the lights were dimmed as she explained what happened at the séance, she told us we might feel cold, hot, and sick, want to laugh or cry, chatter or run away. A Victorian séance was a noisy night’s entertainment apparently and it wasn’t just the ghosts. I could see why. As the lights were turned out completely and we were left in total darkness I just wanted to laugh out loud and found myself giggling silently as Penny explained how the original séance had uncovered the unsettled spirit of a nun, Sister Agnes, wrongfully excommunicated and mysteriously murdered. At this point there was a loud clatter beside the fireplace and everyone screamed and jumped in their seats. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the end of the show. We’d run out of time and the sudden lights blasted any spirits who might have been with us back into the shadows.
Did anyone feel anyone behind them? I can honestly say I did because there weren’t enough seats at the table so one lady was sitting on her own just behind me. My friend told me she was tempted to pinch me and pretend she hadn’t. I could imagine this happening during Victorian séances. The whole thing seemed to makes us all a little hysterical, laughing at poor jokes with fixed smiles and wide eyes.
The clattering was a teaspoon taken from the closed draw in the corner of the room and thrown by an angry spirit onto the tiles. We all looked at the spoon and I couldn’t help wondering why, possibly the least expensive item from the Stanford collection, was the thing the spirit had chosen to make itself heard? Why not a china plate or a priceless glass? My suspicions lie with the woman who turned out the lights. I left with a feeling of disappointment that Sister Agnes hadn’t materialised on the table spewing ectoplasm but then maybe she knows I’m a sceptic. One thing is for sure – I’m going back.