The county of Somerset in the South West of England harbours a range of supernatural phenomena for those with a keen interest in the paranormal. The following investigates some of the region’s more famous tales.
The Choughs hotel in the centre of Chard dates back to the 16th century and is supposedly haunted by a variety of phantoms. The spirit of the notorious ‘hanging judge’ Lord Jeffreys, 1st Baron of Wem, has been sighted crouched at the fireplace in the hotel’s bar.
In the autumn of 1685, Jeffreys presided over the Bloody Assizes, a series of trials which took place throughout the West Country after the defeat of Monmouth’s Rebellion at the Battle of Sedgemoor. While conducting trials at Chard, Judge Jeffreys sentenced 12 men to be hanged on an oak tree just outside the town. He is reputed to have lodged at Choughs.
There are rumors that witchcraft used to be practiced within the building centuries ago. During renovations of the hotel in the 1970s a small coffin was discovered containing the mummified remains of a chough. Some suspect the bird may have functioned as a witch’s familiar.
Also a previously concealed tombstone was discovered behind a wall in the bar, with the name ‘Winifred’ inscribed on it. People who have tried to photograph this tombstone have found that the resulting image is either foggy or doesn’t appear.
A young girl apparently killed herself in one of the bedrooms and the figure of a hanged man has been seen dangling from the rafters in the attic. Some time back, a woman encountered a mysterious armor clad figure in the hotel which suddenly vanished into thin air. On one occasion a guest at the hotel was troubled by the sound of eerie whispering in the middle of the night.
On waking he left in a hurry after discovering a weal on his face as if he had been struck. There have also been reports of violent poltergeist activity and unexplained bumps and bangs throughout the building.
The Man in the Black Hat
Bath is home to a number of well-documented ghosts although one of the city’s most famous spectres goes by the name of The Man in the Black Hat. This particular apparition has been spotted by a variety of independent witnesses, some of whom sketched their own illustrations of the ghost soon after encountering it. The earliest recordings of the mysterious man date back to the 18th century.
The actual identity of the figure is unknown although he is frequently described as wearing a black cloak, breeches and gaiters. Each sighting mentions a large black hat.
The Man in the Black Hat is said to haunt the city’s Assembly Rooms, a famous Georgian building which features in the novels of Jane Austen. The ghost has also been sighted in Saville Row and Bennett Street.
The Screaming Skull of Theophilus Broome
At Higher Farm in the village of Chilton Cantelo resides the skull of Theophilus Broome, a former Royalist who had defected to the Roundheads during the English Civil War. The skull is housed within its own specially designed cabinet, and apparently certain otherworldly phenomena have occurred when attempts have been made to reunite it with Broome’s body, which is interred in the church opposite the farm.
On his deathbed in 1670 Broome had requested that his head be hidden at Higher Farm from Charles II’s forces. Being an enemy of the king he wished to evade the grisly fate of his contemporary republicans in having his head exhibited on a spike in London, such which befell the deceased Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who had been posthumously executed in 1661.
Since Broome’s death however, subsequent tenants at the farm have tried to rid themselves of the skull, only to be plagued with an unearthly screaming. One particular tenant managed to gain permission to have Broome’s tomb opened, only the sexton refused to proceed any further after his spade mysteriously broke. Since that time the skull has remained at the farm.
Old Mother Leakey – The ‘Whistling Ghost’ with a Message from Beyond the Grave
The coastal resort of Minehead forms the backdrop to a curious tale involving scandal and the supernatural. On her deathbed a widow named Susan Leakey claimed she would return ‘in the devil’s likeness’, the reasoning behind this bizarre utterance remains unclear. She died in 1634 and was buried in St Michael’s churchyard, although that wasn’t the last her family – or indeed the town of Minehead – would hear of Old Mother Leakey.
Various members of the Leakey clan are said to have witnessed her ghost, including her daughter-in-law Elizabeth, of whom she materialized before to communicate a message from beyond the grave.
Elizabeth was married to Susan Leakey’s son, Alexander, who was a shipping merchant. It is said that the mischievous ghost would ‘whistle up a storm’ when one of Alexander’s ships arrived at Minehead harbour. Mother Leakey’s activities grew to such a pitch Charles I ordered the Bishop of Bath and Wells to investigate.
Mother Leakey’s message to her daughter-in-law supposedly concerned John Atherton, the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, and the husband of her daughter Joan. Apparently the Whistling Ghost was aware of an affair Atherton (now living in Ireland) had had with another of her daughters, and desired him to repent.
However some time later Atherton was arrested for sodomy and hanged in Dublin on 5th December 1640. The pamphlet which details the bishop’s execution references Mother Leakey’s ghost, who is still said to haunt Minehead to this day. Her house is now a teashop.
Ben Harry Wright