Six get Spooked in Wales (well maybe just one of us)

Last night I dreamt I went to Murmur-y-Don again.  It seemed to me that I stood at the foot of the steep, rugged driveway, a fallen tree barring the entrance.  Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed, like a spirit, through the barrier before me.  This time I was alone, at midnight, instead of being driven in a second hand Peugeot estate at three in the afternoon.  The car had scraped badly against an unexpected bit of dry stone wall, which juts out alarmingly as you approach the top – such had been the driver’s haste to end a long car journey.  The owner of Murmur-y-Don (the whispering of the waves) had taken a dry stone walling course a few years back, and walled his own impressive garden (the dry stone walling certificate was placed in a prominent position on one hallway window ledge.)

In brilliant moonlight, I passed the un-mowed, sloping garden, filled with orange flowering shrubs, rhododendrons and mile high trees, which led steeply down to the road, which in turn led to the precipitous incline down to the sea.  Murmur-y-Don sits on the very top of a cliff you see.  Utterly alone, I approached the side door to the imposingly large house, with its curiously low hanging slate roof (a roof the ends of which I could touch) and again noticed the ramshackle and shabby appearance of the muddy brown pebble dashed wall and the ancient wooden, sickly green door; the paint flaking, and a door knob that wobbled loosely when turned, as though any moment it might fall off.  In my dream the door was open and beyond it I glimpsed the long, dark hallway leading off from the cavernous kitchen, a large pantry in one corner – the pantry with its own ancient wooden door, the one I feared unseen hands would shut behind me, and then lock, every time I put the dishes and cups away.  The long hallway led into a second hallway, ending in a large staircase.  Climbing it, it turned back on itself ending in a long, narrow, entirely empty corridor, from which various doors led off, into four bedrooms and one large bathroom, containing an original 1907 bath.

Moonlight can play odd tricks upon the fancy.  As I stood at the open door, hushed and still, the house an empty shell, a shadowy figure began walking towards me down the darkened hallway – I turned and fled.

*******

That’s enough of that and I’m no Rebecca.

I’ve just got back from a spooky seven day holiday in Wales, spent in a Hagrid-type house (complete with one conical roof) rented from Airbnb.

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It was filled up to the ceiling oak beams with gigantic old sideboards, dressers and cupboards.  In the study (it had a study) there was a presidential type desk, the kind you’d be alarmed to find Trump sitting behind in the Oval Office.  It was plonked in front of a massive brick fireplace and, opposite it, stood an upright piano which didn’t work.  The off key, deadened chiming of the defunct piano provided the perfect unsettling accompaniment to this house from another age (1907 with many of the original features preserved.)

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I tried coaxing a light and pleasant tune from it, to counteract the dark and heavy ‘sense of place’ which overflowed from every nook and cranny, and failed.  On top of the piano there was a huge pile of old board games.  Son no.1 however had brought along his own stash of modern board games – no Monopoly or Cluedo for him – but games called The Resistance and ‘Betrayal at house on the hill’ which was fittingly about building a haunted house.  I was coerced into playing The Resistance by accusations of being a killjoy and the most boring person on the planet (as a side-note to myself, this is exactly what the sister used to call my teenage self – although substitute ‘party pooper’ for ‘killjoy.’)

During my 30 minutes of Resistance play (and I was resistant) I never got the hang of it at all and failed miserably when it was my turn to be a ‘spy.’  You see, each player received a card which told them they were either a goody or a baddy (spy). There were two spies and each player’s job was to unmask the spies via deduction.  Play began with every player closing his/her eyes and the two spies were then asked to open their eyes only.  During every round I’d been ‘good,’ so the eye opening bit had sort of gone over my head.  When I eventually got a spy card, I opened my eyes as instructed, found another person with their peepers also open (looking furtively around) and immediately laughed hysterically, practically falling off the settee with the hilarity of it all, causing the other person to also break down with mirth, and the game was UP before it even got started.  I am a useless spy and even worse at deduction.

Leaving complex board games aside, imagine you’re a film location scout (this is a job) charged by the surreally weird Tim Burton to go forth and find him the perfect setting for his re-make of The Turn of the Screw/The Woman in Black (any unsettling gothic tale will do.)  And further imagine your delight when you happen upon Murmur-y-Don, set within the ancient town of Harlech, and within a stone’s throw of a gigantic, forbidding castle, perched on an equally gigantic rock.

Within the house you find dark, oak wood floors, which curiously echo the sound of footsteps, so that more than once you thought someone was walking up behind you, when they were, in fact, walking about in another room.  This unnerving sensation caused you to frequently turn around in mild consternation, to find no-one there.

You find dark, forbidding furniture lining every wall.  Furniture which seems to ‘own’ the place, so that you wonder if it all comes to life after dark and makes dastardly plans against you, its unwelcome cohabitant.  You resolve to stay the night and find many ancient, multi paned windows, with equally ancient latches, and spend your evening obsessively checking that all these windows are latched and their casement stays locked in place.  You find that the back door, with the wobbly door knob, has three bolts on it (presumably to make up for the wobbly door knob) which need to be bolted at night.  You fasten the bolts, on what fails to ever feel like a particularly sturdy door, and then return to the door repeatedly, just to check your bolts are in place – for the owner, in his entertaining house manual, provides the comforting information that yes, the house has been burgled via the study door.

You, however, do not live in fear of burglars; your fear is based in the life hereafter.  To this end you never go in the study again, feeling that this room is particularly ghost ridden.  When you go into the depths of the pantry, you turn its light on and leave the door wide open so you can make a quick getaway.  Whilst hanging your mug up on its ancient hook, attached to an ancient black wooden shelf, your hair tends to rise up on the nape of your neck, at the thought of what else is out there in the cavernous kitchen (according to the husband there’s a mouse in the kitchen, which he didn’t tell me until we got home.)

There is a circular dining room, jutting out from the main house, from which you can see the entire surrounding view through multi-paned windows.  And what a view it is – a cinematographer’s dream.

A nearly deserted sandy beach sweeps from right to left (or left to right) in a majestic inward curve.  In the distance, across the wide expanse of aquamarine sea, there’s an undulating ridge of Lord of the Rings’ type mountains, which make their way inland, getting larger and larger as far as the eye can see.  A line of low hanging cloud sits permanently above these mountains, even when the rest of the sky is blue, bright and clear.  You think that maybe there’s a Welsh dragon up there roaring out his smoke and fire.

When you go upstairs into the blue bedroom (where the husband and I slept, and from where the husband heard a door slam in the middle of the night, leading him to believe in the ghosts) you find a door leading out onto an ancient wooden balcony.  You stand on this balcony feeling that you could be on the deck of the Titanic (being of a pessimistic disposition this is where your thoughts naturally turn) as the sea is immediately below you, but you also take great care not to lean on the wooden railing, which is looking non too safe.

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There is also a pink bedroom, a green bedroom and a yellow bedroom.  All hung with unnerving religious paintings – the kind that warn you about Hell and suchlike – and painted in that scarily Medieval fashion, the ones with anatomically incorrect animals and hideously grotesque people, guaranteed to give you nightmares just as you’re nodding off.  There’s also a giant painting of an Elizabethan looking woman in the lounge, her head turned coquettishly towards you, her eyes following you around the room and, freakishly, down the hallway too.

*****

But enough use of the second person – I’m getting quite befuddled.

One disconcerting aspect of staying at Murmur-y-Don was that I couldn’t stay in the house alone.  I have a history of this kind of thing, dating back to teenage years when, if everyone else was out of the house, I would have to keep a back door open or, occasionally, rush out of the house.  I don’t know what it is about being in a vast house alone that is just so plain scary – all those out of sight, maybe not so empty rooms?

On a couple of days the husband went fishing and the sons went off coasteering and climbing mountains; being into neither of those things (the one is too boring, the other too dangerous) I opted to stay at home and then realised I couldn’t actually ‘stay at home’.  Thanks goodness we had such brilliantly sunny weather.  My solution was to sit out on a rock hard, white metal garden chair, in the lovely garden, and read a book entitled ‘A Century of Creepy Stories.’

Murmur-y-Don had about six gigantic bookcases, filled with 1500 books.  Our host is, amongst other things, an author, having written many books on architectural Follies, type fonts and the game Mahjong.  Two of his books could be found in his bookcases, he informed us in the house manual and both, according to his wife, are guaranteed cures for insomnia.  Out of his impressive book selection, my eyes managed to pick out a thick, musty smelling book filled to the gills with ghosts and, fool that I am, I chose it as my holiday reading.  Occasionally I felt in need of sustenance and so made a sort of mad dash, via the circular dining room, through the lounge, down the creepy hallway and into the kitchen, poured out a drink and then rushed out again.  Oh, what self-inflicted traumas I put myself through.

The other major trauma was the six hour drive to the house which, unbeknownst to us all, involved the husband driving up the side of a mountain.  It took a few seconds to register that this was happening.  One moment we were on a normal road, the next I noticed the road curving steeply away and upwards; a thin low hedge, and a few trees, being all that was between me and a truly mind blowing vertical drop.  I was on the left side, inches away from the drop, the husband was in a psychologically more reassuring position on the right, near the mountain face.  Immediately I grabbed the door handle in absolute terror, starting squealing like a stuck pig, when I wasn’t making rapid panting noises like a dog in hot weather, and demanded to be let out of the car.  There were several cars behind us and the husband refused to stop, requesting, through gritted teeth, that I close my eyes, until it was over.  I didn’t close my eyes, I find not overseeing what’s happening even more discombobulating.  Son No.2 got his phone out, pulled up a Google map (you can get internet up a mountain!) and informed me that we’d soon be going back down again, into a valley.  Ten minutes later we were back at sea level and I swore I’d never drive to Harlech EVER AGAIN.

The week was spent:

1 – In walking down the 88 vertical steps to the beach, which ended with a railway track curving round the coastline – quite stunning and also quite scary, being that you had to cross it to get to the beach.

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The train came every two hours and always announced its arrival via a loud horn.  To get to the steps you first had to cross the extremely dangerous road.  The road curved at both sides, which meant you couldn’t see oncoming traffic and had to rely on sound.  This would have been fine, except the local drivers were filled with murderous intent.  The speed at which they came round the corners was terrifying – I once got three quarters of the way across before a car appeared suddenly, from nowhere, and would have driven into me had I not broken out into a run.  It didn’t slow down at all.  My modus operandi was that the husband and sons crossed first and then told me when to cross.  However, I couldn’t quite trust them, and found myself on the pavement, hopping about from one foot to the next before breaking out into a sudden mad dash across the road.  Son no.2 regretted not filming this performance and the mad look on my face.

2 – In visiting Tesco in Porthmadog, which the husband referred to as ‘Port-mad-dog’, some 8 miles away, for supplies until I realised that the very local Premier shop stocked just about everything.

3 – In walking to the other side of the beach, in search of fishing ground for the husband, where I happened upon a very old church (c 485AD) right on the beach.  I forced the husband and two of the sons to go in for a gander, finding a tiny, whitewashed stone interior filled with about eight sets of pews and an altar made from a table covered with an Anglo Saxon looking woven cloth.  Various stone relics lay near the altar, claiming to be significant, ancient stones from the original church site – looked just like your average pebble on the nearby beach to me.  This prompted the husband to suggest that he could probably flog some stones from down our local harbour on Ebay, as ancient artefacts from the local castle.  But holidays should never be about cynicism.

To the husband’s great misfortune I noticed a leaflet pinned to the church gate, which announced a Celtic concert to be given that very evening.  I took this as a stroke of great serendipity and immediately whinged to go. The husband and sons stood around in male solidarity, unified in their moment of distress, unable to contemplate further church related torture.  The husband, however, agreed to accompany his wife to hear a duo performing on the harp, bagpipes, flute, whistle and mandolin – musical heaven, I say.  The sons were exempt.

We were to be found that evening at 7 pm, amongst an audience of precisely 31 (I counted) sat on rock hard, 6 inch deep pews; two iron work candelabras, filled with actual candles, hanging above our heads and every nook and cranny of the church walls also filled with candles.  The air was filled with burning incense and the husband was filled with a burning desire to leave the premises.  However, as soon as one of the duo (Ben Walker, a bloke capable of playing every instrument known to man) started blowing into his north African (I think) flute, the husband settled back, occasionally whispering that the whole thing sounded very like John Denver (which it most definitely didn’t) but that made everything alright; being that JD was the husband’s long ago musical hero.

We left during the interval, due to time constraints and a long walk back to the house, having not realised I’d subjected us to 90 minutes worth of wailing bagpipes and suffocating incense, but without much feeling of guilt, being the entrance fee had cost fourteen quid.

4 – In spotting very large jellyfish, left stranded on the beach by the tide each day.  My first encounter had been on day one, when I’d spotted what I thought was a black rock on the beach.  Going up to it, the black ‘rock’ suddenly flew away.  It turned out to be a poor stranded jellyfish completed covered in sandflies which were devouring it alive – absolutely YUKK and a perfect example of why I hate the natural world so much.  There’s oh so much violence, death and disease lurking beneath the picturesque surface.  I avoided jellyfish at all costs after that but the husband had a curious compulsion to go up to every single one and poke it about or nudge it with his foot.  He was also strangely drawn to a spectacular pile of massive blue stones on the beach, at the bottom of the cliff.  Here he would clamber about on their wet, slimy, seaweed covered surfaces, losing his footing, nearly breaking his legs, and slipping off into rock pools.  No amount of stern remonstrance from me stopped him from doing it.

5 – In visiting Harlech castle, where we found the tiny, ancient town of Harlech next to it; full of old fashioned sweet shops, ‘hand crafted’ ice cream shops, coffee shops etc.  The castle was a complete surprise.  It’s an impressive sight, perched right on top of a cliff as it is but, from the roadside, hadn’t looked as though it had much to offer.  But it was well worth a visit.  The tour begins at the gift shop, where you turn into a small cinema to watch a film mounted on three walls, giving a rapid historic rundown.  There’s an impressive, modern bridge to get to the castle.  There are corkscrew stone steps inside two turrets of the castle – we walked up these to find ourselves out on its top wall, able to walk all the way around, a mighty drop just feet away, but a fantastic 360o view of the entire area. Strangely, walking around a precipice does not fill the heart with the same fear as being driven along one.

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There’s also a giant model dragon in the bailey (the space inside the castle walls) with a smaller dragon acting as a water fountain.  The best bit was the entrance fee – just £6 per person and a quid less than the smashing Celtic duo!

6 – In being cooked for by son no.1 and his gf.  Every evening the Amazonian warrior gf would stride purposefully, her cute nose and chin in the air, from the kitchen to dining table bringing in dishes filled with gorgeous food.  The husband and sons were in eating heaven, as opposed to eating Hell, being that I’ve never had much interest in developing culinary skills.

The gf presents her food, instead of just throwing it onto the plates, never sparing a thought for her diners’ artistic sensibilities.  Therefore the veg and salad arrived arranged in separate dishes to be spooned onto the plate.  The tomatoes were peeled and sliced (I chuck mine whole on the plate, sometimes complete with stalk.)  The guacamole (for a Mexican) was homemade.  Everything was seasoned and tasteful and bountiful. At my house, you get what you’re given and, if supplies run short – hard luck.

The gf also kept things warm by actually using our host’s hotplate (this thought would never have occurred to me.)  A jug of water was always placed on the table.  We were catered for as to dietary requirements.  In short, the gf (and her sous-chef, son no.1) were impressive whirlwinds of domestic  energy.

I could go on and on, further testing your blog reading patience, but over 3,000 words is stretching it a bit, even for me.

This account of our holiday may seem to be filled with what son no.1 would say is my constitutional negativity but Murmur-y-Don, and the surrounding area, is a lovely, magical, if haunted place – I’m still struggling to return to oh so crappy normality.

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