“No wonder we loved Ely so intensely; .. for me, Ely was the home of all homes.”
Chapter 6 in “The Joy of the Snow” is called simply “Ely”, and it is clear that Elizabeth, who moved there from Wells in Somerset when she was 11, loved the cathedral, the small city and surrounding fenland, as well as “the big, rambling, cold old house”. The only child of her parents, it appears that the second floor was largely her domain. “The top floor of the tall, rambling house was extraordinary. There were six rooms, the schoolroom and five bedrooms with steps leading up and down between them and a huge skylight in the roof above the landing. One felt as though on board ship, there was so much light and air, and when the wind blew from the fen, such a turbulence of sound.”
At some point during the eighty years following Canon Goudge’s appointment as Principal of the Ely Theological College, those six rooms were converted into two apartments, and by 1990 the building was used as the Chapter House, besides housing an assortment of cathedral staff. In August that year, our family moved into the larger top floor apartment on a temporary basis, when my husband, Stephen, became Presentor-designate. We had three main rooms, all very large. Elizabeth’s schoolroom, “a big room taking the curve of the roof” that she remembered “perpetually filled with sunlight” – and which later became her bedroom when she went to boarding school, served as our dining and sitting room. The large attic room over what had been her father’s study, became bedroom and playroom for our two older children, Alison, aged 9, and Jonathan, aged 8; this room also appeared to have been used as a schoolroom at some stage, because there was a low platform at one end. Stephen and I shared the third main room with David, who was just three.
Until we moved to Ely, we did not know of Elizabeth’s link with the place, but it was not long before someone told us that she had lived in the Chapter House as a girl, and had recounted some of her memories in “The Joy of the Snow”. At that stage I had not heard anything about the ghosts whose appearances are well-documented locally; and when I had the frightening experiences described in my article for the Cathedral News magazine, I had only just begun to read Elizabeth’s book. Her reaction to encounters with “our Ely ghost” was to ask her mother if she might change her haunted bedroom for another. Her father agreed to her request (for other reasons), but “the ghost came there just the same, and when later I moved to yet another room he followed”. She goes on to say that she was not alone in seeing the ghost, because “subsequent dwellers in the house have seen him too.” That was many years before our short sojourn there, while waiting for the Precentor’s House to become available for our use.
Whether anyone else has encountered the ghost since then, I do not know. During Dean Michael Higgins’ time, most of the building became the Deanery once again, as it had been when Elizabeth wrote “The Joy of the Snow”. When we left Ely, Stephen returned to the BBC to work as a producer and presenter of worship programmes. During a visit to Ely for a broadcast, he met the current Dean of Ely, the Very Revd Dr Michael Chandler. In our copy of “The Joy of the Snow” I found a note card from Michael, dated 27.3.04, thanking Stephen for sending him a copy of the book, and saying that they use the room where I had my disturbing encounters for guests. “I don’t think we will tell them of its history, so far no one has reported any strange goings-on! ” All I can say is that I hope the Dean’s family and guests have continued to enjoy peaceful nights, because I would not wish the experience of that malign presence on anyone else.
I DID NOT LIKE HIM EITHER!
I imagine that most of us suffered nightmares during our childhood; that sense of being gripped by terror, unable to move, trapped in a situation from which there is no means of escape. One consolation of adulthood is that these terrible dreams return very rarely. Not all dreams are pleasant, but few begin to compare with those dreadful visitations one experienced as a child. There was one night, however, about 18 months ago, when all their horror came back to me.
We had moved to Ely in August 1990 and we were living temporarily in the large flat on the top floor of the Chapter House. It had not been possible to manoeuvre the larger items of furniture up the narrow stairs from the first floor, so Stephen’s desk, the piano, a wardrobe and our large double bed had been left in what is now the architects’ office. I decided to sleep down there for a few nights on my own at the beginning of September as I had been under the weather and was being disturbed at night by David, who shared our bedroom upstairs.
It was during the second or third night on my own that I was suddenly awoken by the sound of approaching footsteps. I assumed at first that it must be Stephen. Perhaps David had woken and needed attention. Then, suddenly, I was gripped with fear and, I’m ashamed to say, I burrowed under the bedclothes. I lay there, frozen to the spot, heart pounding, unable to call out, until the sensation subsided and I dared to emerge. I put on the light and read for a little while before trying to get back to sleep. Even while I lay there I wondered whether the whole thing had been some sort of nightmare, albeit an extraordinarily vivid one. Eventually, I fell back to sleep.
How much later it was I do not know, but the same thing happened again. I was awoken by the distinct sound of footsteps, and surprisingly, I was even more convinced this time that it was Stephen. Not only could I hear the footsteps themselves, but I could also hear the vibration of items on the piano with each step. Then once again I was seized with terror, again I dived under the bedclothes and again I experienced those nightmarish sensations. As before, the horror passed and I plucked up courage to turn on the light. I wanted to go upstairs but I was too fearful of the darkness on the landing. So I read a little more and, leaving the light on this time, I lay down and managed to get back to sleep.
In the cold light of day the experiences of the night still seemed as vivid and real, and yet it was already seeming more likely that I had had a recurring dream. I don’t usually mind the dark, but I had felt uneasy moving round the Chapter House in the evening. Perhaps this uneasiness had preyed on my mind and resulted in bad dreams.
Imagine, then, the impact that a passage in Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography had on me when I happened to come across it less than a week later. She is writing of the period when she was living in what is now the Chapter House while her father was principal of the Theological College.
“The experience was always the same. I would wake suddenly from sleep as though woken up and alerted, and would find him standing beside me. I would feel fear and revulsion, a sense of struggle as though I fought against something and then he was gone”.
While the external details were different – I had only heard footsteps while she saw a figure – I felt that Elizabeth Goudge could not have described my own experience better. What was worrying was that this was now Monday, 17th September, and Stephen was due to leave early the next morning to attend a conference in York. I did not like the idea of being left in the house with the children on my own, even if Miss Goudge’s experience was that “he was not a frequent visitor”. I decided to try to find out if the diocese had an adviser on exorcism because I didn’t want to meet “him” again, nor did I see why future residents should have to suffer him either. The following morning, however, Jonathan was suffering with acute pain in his hip and had to be admitted to Addenbrookes. I spent the whole day at the hospital and by the time I arrived back in Ely at 8.15 p.m. it was too late to do anything about the other problem. I took the precaution of bringing Alison into the bedroom with David and me and we passed two peaceful nights before both Stephen and Jonathan returned home on the Thursday.
In this way, I let the matter of the exorcism drop, though I think I should have looked into it further. If you have not already done so, you may well enjoy “The Joy of the Snow” by Elizabeth Goudge, which is the book to which I was referring. She describes her home in some detail as well as life in and around Ely during the early years of this century. And you can also read of her encounters with the Ely ghost, whom she “disliked intensely”. I couldn’t agree with her more!
Ely Cathedral News, April 1992, pp 17 – 19