It was a dark and stormy night.
It was one of those nights when the wind blows around the roof tops and rattles the windows like an unseen hand demanding attention. It was one of those nights when your thoughts naturally turn to the spectral as you speculate what might be on the end of that unseen hand. It might even have been one of those nights when the hands of the blogger are stained purple by his own prose.
A family was walking quickly along Tarcoola Drive, glancing in at the dark facade of Yallambie Homestead as they passed.
“That’s the spooky house,” said a child.
I witnessed this. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something of the sort.
On that dark and stormy night, I couldn’t help but think, the kid had a point. Taken on the whole, the old pile can look a bit creepy at times. It’s an impression that appears to move some more so than others. I’ve seen many a full moon rise over the chimneys.
I’ve even watched the occasional bat flutter around the crumbling balconies. But for mine, the night I arrived home in a “pea soup” fog to find an enormous white owl perched silently on the iron post cap of the front gates, its grey silhouette just a shade darker than the sky and almost indecipherable from the surrounding gloom, just about sums it up. That was spooky, kiddo.
With that in mind and to underline Halloween, the 31st October, let us suspend all belief and enter the eerie world of things that go bump in the night. And that’s not just in the bedroom.
Halloween or “All Saints’ Eve” is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows Day, the time in the liturgical calendar dedicated to remembering the dead. The word Halloween comes from the Scots and means “hallowed evening” with a focus on the use of humour and ridicule to confront death.
Halloween wasn’t something that was observed when I was a kid but we knew a bit about it all the same from American sit coms where children were depicted “trick or treating”. Today Halloween bumps have become a bumper business in Australia. Halloween fills in that gap in the commercial calendar in the lead up to Christmas. The shops here have been filled with suggestions for weeks. Personally, I’m still awaiting the coming of the Great Pumpkin from last year.
Small children might point at Yallambie Homestead and call it “spooky” but any house that’s been lived in for a long time by successive families develops a history. The stories of the occupants of a home become intertwined with the story of the building. The present Homestead was built over 140 years ago and stayed in the hands of the original family for the first 90 years of its life. There have been three subsequent owners.
The lives and sometimes the deaths of these people are the interwoven tapestry that are its story, even where that tapestry by chance was touched by misadventure. The third son of Thomas Wragge managed to shoot himself in the garden at Yallambie in 1906 after going out alone in the early morning in pursuit of a fox. When the body was found it was assumed that in the process of climbing over a fence with his gun loaded, the weapon had discharged accidentally while pointing at his body at point blank range.
Will was 30 years old and a bachelor when he died. After the event there was a rumour circulated that the death was suicide resulting from an unhappy love affair, but this theory seems to have been contradicted in later years, rather than confirmed. (Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, pp143-144).
So much for just one thread. Before the War, Bonnie Meares, the wife of the renowned psychiatrist Dr Ainslee Meares, was adamant that Yallambie Homestead was in fact, haunted.
The Meares were friends of the Wragge family and in 1934 purchased the western most portion of the Yallambie estate to build “Aldermaston”, the fine neo-Tudor home still standing today within the grounds of the Simpson Army Barracks. Bonnie believed one room at the Homestead, a room that had in the 19th century been used as an upstairs billiards room, was the particular hang out of the friendly phantasms. This room had been altered in the 1923 renovations and its floors raised to bring it onto a level with the general first floor layout. It had originally been built on a level somewhat lower than the other upstairs rooms with access being gained from a side return taken from the original, Victorian era stair case. The net result of this alteration today is that the ceiling in this area appears to be somewhat lower in relation to the other upper level rooms. Access is gained along a narrow corridor, itself an early addition to the house and the feeling as you walk into it I must say is one of somewhat uncomfortable constraint. Even today it’s easy to understand Bonnie Meare’s reaction.
I have known a visitor to Yallambie Homestead run out of the house and refuse to return after entering this room alone, claiming she had heard and even felt a presence behind her, breathing down her neck. In an intriguing aside, when I went to the Simpson Army Barracks in March prior to writing my post, Diggers in the Garden State, the security guards I chatted with on the gate proffered what they said was a commonly held belief at the barracks, that Aldermaston was itself haunted. So maybe Bonnie never really left the area after all.
There have been others who have made claim to similar and additional clairaudient experiences at Yallambie (the thump of a clodhopping possum can sound amazingly like a footfall, can’t it?) and several have made claim to hearing ethereal voices. One friend who was staying with us and who was alone in the house at the time told me that he had listened for some time from the stairs to low voices emanating from a back room where a fire had been left burning low on the hearth. Another mentions this room and the bathroom next door as a place she is uncomfortable with. She would rather cross her legs she says than experience “a feeling of resentment felt from the spirit toward having people in the space.” I guess it makes for short visits. The other day my wife complained about somebody leaving the toilet seat up. I said I thought it must have been the spook. I don’t think she accepted this excuse.
The “spook” is a good generic explanation for anything of an unexplained nature that happens around the home. When our son was a baby, a clock work, musical mobile suddenly burst to life over our bed next to the cot in the dead of night. I suppose the mechanism must have been finely balanced and was left ready to act unprompted. Maybe a change in air temperature started it moving. That’s what I told myself anyway as the mobile spun little elephants wildly about, playing a maniacal tune in the night as we pulled the bed covers back over the top of our heads. Then there was the mechanical Santa that was found inexplicably singing Jingle Bells over and over again when we arrived home one Christmas Eve after a night out. Obviously a short circuit…
Occasionally unexpected aromas have been experienced, like the strong smell of pipe tobacco in the vicinity of the Wragge’s old smoking room (this, in a smoke free and, pertinent to this story, generally alcohol and certainly hallucinogenic free house hold). On another occasion a trace of kerosene as once burned in early oil lamps was identified, but where today no kerosene is present.
My wife once claimed to have smelled a cake being baked and was so convinced that I was home and busy in the kitchen baking for her benefit that she was disappointed to find me absent when she investigated. Perhaps these smells permeate the fabric of a building and can somehow present themselves years later to the subsequent occupiers of a building? A bit like the boy’s tennis socks after a Saturday morning game.
At the Homestead launch of Winty Calder’s book, Finding Uncle Harry”, (Winty Calder, Jimaringle Publications, 2004), during the speeches some reference was made to the unusual circumstances surrounding the discovery of Harry Wragge’s diary which had led to Calder’s publication. A wag in the assembly joked out loud that the Homestead was obviously haunted and that Harry’s spirit must have been hanging around like Casper, just waiting to be found and his story told.
As if on queue the flash of an old camera being used immediately exploded without damage but with a loud report. This was followed by a few nervous titters then silence from the audience before the book launch proceeded in a more subdued fashion.
Probably the oddest thing we have ever experienced here however and something that I can honestly attest to, occurred some years ago. My wife and I were sitting up late in front of a fire in the dark. The glazed doors of the room looked into the front hall but were closed against the cold that evening. For a moment a small light appeared in the darkened hall outside and was seen to float along the passage before passing through the glass of the front entrance and reappearing briefly outside and dissolving in a sudden, silent flash. Astonished I immediately asked my wife what she had seen. She described the event exactly as I had seen it. Maybe if I had been on my own I might have thought I had dreamed the experience but this really happened just as I have described it. Looking for a rational explanation later we speculated that perhaps we had witnessed the very rare phenomena of ball lightning. Such atmospheric electrical events are so rare however that scientists for years even doubted their existence. The alternative explanation though seems to me even less likely.
In truth, I don’t really believe in ghostly manifestations although they do make a good fireside story on a dark and stormy night. Or improbable material for an unlikely WordPress post.
I do believe however in the occasional guiding hand in life along the road of life’s long highway. The so called “shifty shadow” or “hairy hand of God”. In the United States where the Constitution prohibits religious teaching in schools, the idea that there is a grand plan to the universe is called intelligent design. In Europe they smash protons together at close to the speed of light in a tunnel under a Swiss mountain range in search of that designer. The way I look at it, like in John Conway’s “Game of Life”, (not really a game but an exercise in creating an artificial, deterministic universe), sometimes things just seem to happen with an apparent purpose although all the signs are that the impression is largely an illusion. After all, as one writer so ably once put it, “Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so.” There have been times when I have wished I could borrow Herbert George Wells time machine to go back for a second crack at it all the same. Doesn’t everyone wish that at some point?
Harry Houdini, who devoted a large part of his career to debunking spiritualists, promised that if it was at all possible, that he would return after his death to give a sign from beyond the grave.
Houdini died prematurely and people are still waiting for that sign to come from him. I don’t think I’ll be attempting that one myself when my time comes. There are already enough spooks here.