It wasn’t a real castle. Just a huge, fire damaged mansion with castellated frontage and a massive cellar that once housed racks of wines and spirits. Renovation of the house was out of the question, but salvaging a portion of the exterior and building a compact unit behind it was a distinct possibility. The owners were just desperate to get rid of it, for any money. It was holding up the sale of the rest of the property’s estate, as building land, because the developer did not want the hassle of an old building he could neither convert at a reasonable cost, nor knock down completely without long delays, and local objections, in the planning application. The council was minded to preserve the edifice (as long as it did not have to pay). That meant Jim bought himself a bargain basement, with a cherry on top: a customer attracting venue for foodies. And the town planners loved both his idea of keeping the frontage – a prominent local landscape feature – and the attraction of new trade and employment for the town.
Eight months, it took, to get the work done. With some inexplicable delays. That, plus three months of planning. So, it was almost a year from when they’d agreed the project that the family moved in to their first floor living space, above the new shop and bistro. And beneath those was the real project, tucked into the cellars, once cold, dark and musty, but now equipped with bright LED lights, heating, air conditioning and hydroponic growing platforms. Vertical horticulture.
The building work was the real nightmare. After unsafe walls had been demolished and the frontage shored up, the above ground construction seemed to be going well – until one morning the builder arrived to find his materials in total disarray. They had been neatly stockpiled where the remains of the old stable and coach house had been, but everything had been moved and scattered loosely around and what looked like fresh ash left in their place, with hoof-prints and carriage wheel tracks running through, as if a coach and horses had been moved out in haste. It was the spot where the original fire had started, seven years ago. To the day.
Vandals on horseback. Probably come with a cart to load up, but must have been disturbed and run off, thought the builder. Or spooked, according to one old local. The ruins certainly used to be an eerie place at night, with a low whistling of the wind, from the coppice to one side, and a luminous shimmer from the small lake, now filled in, to the rear. And a hint of mischief in the dark shadows cast by the moon. Or a prank, with the cart used to bring the ash, thought another. But no one had seen a horse and cart, let alone a carriage, anywhere near, that night. Though it was said that one of the old retainers to the mansion, in its glory days, remembered hearing horses whinnying, while he was acting as a caretaker to the fire ravaged remnants. At night; a year after the event. He’d quit the next day. And died a week later.
Then there was more trouble when they started on the cellar. Apart from a large square area, which the last owner had added for extra storage and which ran under the rear terrace and beneath the short formal beds set into the landscaped lawn, the cellar was vaulted and had been interspersed with bottle racks, keg racks and assorted storage shelving. The owner was an elderly wine and spirits wholesaler and had kept a considerable stock of the finer labels right under his feet, where he thought they were less likely to be plundered by thieves. Well, apart from his family and one of his ageing staff, inherited with the mansion, to whom he turned a blind eye.
The cellar had been cleared and its contents mostly thrown into skips and taken away, except for five wrought iron wine racks the builder thought Jim might want to send for auction. A few odd bottles of wine had been discovered in the process and these were left upright on the floor – the previous owner would have been horrified – and the cellar locked up for the night. Next day, the builder counted only four wine racks when he came on site. Someone’s paid us a night visit, he thought, better lock the other four away, so he instructed two of the workmen to carry them over to an old shipping container, where he stored the more valuable materials.
Wandering down the narrow stairs to unlock the cellar door, he inserted the key, turned it and went to push it open. It wouldn’t budge. He heaved his shoulder against it. Nothing. He tried again, harder and there was just the faintest of movements. All the days before, it had swung open sweetly and silently on oiled hinges, so he was puzzled. He called down the strongest of his navvies, who shoulder charged it at speed. It moved only an inch, at the top. They did the same together, tripping over each other’s feet, as the door swung inwards, and landed in a tangled heap on the floor.
They stood up. To their amazement, the cellar floor had been swept clean of the debris that had been left behind the day before and the missing wine rack stood resplendent against one wall, half filled with the bottles that had been left there. And they could also see two wooden wedges that had obviously been driven-in to secure the door – from the inside.
Why anyone would want to do this was a mystery. Even more so, when they went to the double hatch doors that opened upwards, on one side of the building, so that goods could be dropped down to the cellar. It was securely bolted and padlocked on the inside, just as the builder had left it. No one could have entered that way, nor exited through the hatch or the cellar door, once that had been locked and wedged tight.
The nervous navvy, surveying the scene knew spirits were kept in the cellar. Now he was wondering what sort. Time to call Jim down on site.
At this stage of progress, Jim only visited the site three or four times a week, to check on the heavy work. He would be there nearly all the time when the equipment was installed, but for now, he was still in his old job at the shoe shop, trying to keep enough money coming in until the project got fully underway. So, it was nearly two hours before he got there, by which time a jumpy workforce had downed tools and refused to go anywhere near the basement.
Jim and the builder examined the cellar walls, tapping nearly every brick to see if there was a hidden exit. These old places often had more than one way of coming in and out and they weren’t so far from the river that there couldn’t have been a secret, smuggler’s tunnel from down by the gorge. But all the walls were solid. One of the builder’s men explained that the wooden wedges were the ones used to keep the door open while they were working. Perhaps some idiot had left them close behind the door, so that when it was pulled shut the bottom of the door drew them along the floor. As unlikely as Jim thought that could be, he agreed, so that the workforce could be calmed and return to work.
The third delay was the worst. Water. Hundreds of gallons of it. The whole basement area was flooded two feet deep. It was the day they drained the lake. The lake was at the bottom of a gentle slope and well below the level of the cellar floor. Water gurgled slowly through the natural drain, which seemed to be silted up, so the builder had brought in a large fire pump, which he ran most of the day. It was turned off for the night, with the lake already half empty. Next morning, when workmen arrived, the lake was just a muddy expanse, with just a few puddles of water and half-a-dozen small fish they hadn’t been able to save flapping limply in them, and a large pike, gasping its last. Perhaps the drain had cleared itself, with the flow of water through it.
He soon knew that wasn’t the case, when his painter and decorator came running up in a right old state, the bottom of his overalls saturated. Having finished all the cellar walls and ceiling, in pastel shades of green and cream, fitted laminate panels in what were to be clean areas and spent a couple of days pouring and smoothing an impervious floor coating, the decorator had gone down to finish the detailing around the pillars in the vaulted section and had trouble opening the door, which once again was jammed. A hard shove had seen it open a crack and water started seeping towards him. Another firm push and the flood gate opened, swamping his feet and the bottom two steps of the flight leading down to the cellar. Filthy brown water floored the whole floor, reflecting the new lights above. As he looked down a small fish popped its head to the surface, two bright round eyes looked up at him, then quickly disappeared back into the murk.
Vandals. This is one for the police. The builder called Jim and he stood horrified at the sight as he stared down from the void for a new set of side stairs, that would come from the floor above and would be used by staff, once all the work had been finished. The police came and examined the simple CCTV that had been installed after the second incident. Not a soul could be seen between the builder’s workforce leaving, the previous day, and arriving that morning. But the hose from the pump had been moved in between the short recording intervals of the CCTV and for three hours of the night was pumping water up to the opened hatch into the basement. How could that be, without someone being caught on camera? Who opened the hatch, locked from the inside? And how could the heavy hose have been moved in almost an instant, exactly between CCTV frames on the time lapsed video?
The police sealed off the area for two days, found nothing of use and then allowed the water to be pumped out and humidifiers brought in to dry out the cellar. Which took over two weeks before the water damage could be repaired and the decorating re-finished.
No one was ever caught for that act of vandalism, a more sophisticated CCTV system was fitted, which was never needed again, and no other explanation was found that made sense, no matter how many theories local people put forward.
The final three months passed without further incident. It was decided that, however they’d achieved it all, someone had a grudge about the old mansion being turned into a modern enterprise. A grudge against the partial demolition and rebuilding, a grudge against the sacrilege of converting the wine cellar and a grudge against the draining of the lake, the last of which Jim had been forced to do, to make room for a new car park. The council had said it must be hidden behind the property to preserve the surrounding country view. Even though it was allowing a hundred new houses to be built next door to Jim’s re-born edifice. Albeit with a thin screen of new trees. Then he didn’t know any councillors and the developer knew a few.
At last Jim, his wife Maureen and son Charles, straight from catering college, could start business in earnest. While younger son, Christopher, finished three more years of school and college. They would have six months of hard graft ahead to train four local staff they had employed and grow the first batches of scientifically produced foodstuffs. Castle Cellar Culinary Supplies and Caswell's Old Manse Bistro were soon to be launched.
The first job was to plant out all the subterranean produce for the commercial catering supplies. Dozens of tomato and salad leave varieties, herbs, peppers and gourds, all neatly stacked in trays fed by nutritional water and each section within its own micro-environment and lighting and heating regime. A separate section of the cellar was kept for mushrooms and exotic fungi and above all this, the ground floor was divided between packing lines and the new bistro and shop. A large vegetable plot was established across half the lawn, for produce not suited to hydroponic raising and the remainder turned into a neat, formal garden immediately behind the bistro, with a new terrace for al fresco diners. The newly constructed buildings behind the ancient façade were purposely designed sympathetically, to create a leisured-life ambience, carried through to the Edwardian cum Gallic themed bistro interior.
The whole project had cost a fortune that Jim could barely afford and he would be in debt to his bank for at least five years, so he was pleased that his earlier troubles were over and he could concentrate on fitting out the bistro ready for a summer opening. A grand occasion had been planned for the evening of Mid-Summer’s Day, with waiting staff dressed in Edwardian costumes. Everyone would get a free drink and be able to sample a range of delicacies. And those who wished could stay on to order meals and drinks from the normal fare, though Jim suspected many would just be coming for the freebies. With its unique atmosphere and imposing, castellated exterior, Jim was expecting much interest in the new venue, being so close to the town, and a good start to the Old Manse Bistro.
The day arrived. Gloriously hot, a few puffy white clouds accentuating the blueness of the sky, and a gentle breeze. Large parasols over the outdoor tables gave some shade, for the balmy evening, while inside the air-conditioning kept everything comfortably cool. There would be six staff serving, as well as three bar staff, working with hosts Jim and Maureen, while Charles, with his recently gained Advanced Diploma in Cuisine & Patisserie, supervised the kitchen. Young Christopher, dressed as bellboy (which he hated), had been given the task of handing out leaflets describing the environmental purpose of the venture and listing everything that could be sampled that night.
It all started smoothly, with a trickle of customers arriving early and the numbers increasing mid-evening. Bite sized samples of all the vegetarian and vegan fare that was home grown, plus a small selection of meat options and a free glass of good wine were offered to everyone. Staff were kept busy and when a customer complained that she’d tried to order some drinks for her table, but the waitress just walked by, Jim was full of apologies, explaining that some of the staff were still being trained. He fetched the drinks himself and thought no more about it.
Almost relieved that something hadn’t gone perfectly, as he had been so nervous of some worse disaster, he circulated amongst his clientele, asking if they were enjoying the delicacies and received many compliments on both the fare and his adventurous project. Then another customer made a similar complaint to the first; another said one of the waitresses had refused to take her food order, just saying dinner was at nine, when the gong would be sounded; and yet another said he saw a waitress loitering on the lawn and not coming when called over. She had just walked away and disappeared around the side of the house.
Jim decided to station himself over in one corner, next to the door leading to an old staircase, retained as part of the preserved frontage. From there he could survey the whole scene, even out onto the terrace. All the staff seemed to be very efficient, as he watched them. The table nearest to him had four guests and they had praised him on the service they had received. ‘But, is that your fridge you’re guarding behind you, in case we nip in for a free bottle of chilled Chablis?’ one of them quipped. ‘It’s a fierce chill blast, whenever the waitress comes through.’ Now Jim knew that none of the staff should be using that door. It was the old servants’ staircase and now only led up to the new roof. Perhaps one of them had gone up for a crafty smoke.
Jim looked around at the staff scurrying back and forth only then did he notice four waitresses. He’d only employed three. And one, whose dress was similar, but not as new looking as the others, was carrying a silver tureen that was definitely not from his tableware. He strode meaningfully towards her, but she didn’t look up, just placed the tureen on a table and started to walk his way. As she came up close, and he was about to speak, he felt a sudden shiver of cold air. Then she walked so closely by, it felt as though she had walked straight through him. Slightly nonplussed, he turned to see her enter the door up the old stairway.
Knowing there was no exit for her, other than coming back through that door, he turned back ready to see what she had actually brought down in that tureen. A tureen that was no longer there. He turned again, hurried back to the stairway and climbed to the top, opening another door that once led to a corridor along the original servants’ quarters. It now gave access to an array of solar panels and a small, private, rooftop garden for secluded family use in good weather. He walked every inch of that roof and stared downwards over the parapet at the back and through the castellations that had been preserved around the rest of the building. No one. Not one sign of anyone. And though the sun still gave out an evening warmth, he shivered – partly with fright. He had never believed any of the local folks’ weird tales. Until now.
Back down in the bistro, Jim was wondering if he had had some sort of funny turn. Everyone seemed to be bubbling with enjoyment and he could no longer see any staff other than those he had employed himself or hired for the evening, from an agency. He would speak to that agency, next morning, to check they had not sent anyone extra. When the exhausted family retired upstairs, after the event had finished, he said nothing, not wanting to worry them. Neither did Charles say anything until the following day, not wanting to worry his dad about his own strange experience.
There had been a number of special guests to the opening event from Jim’s commercial clientele – chefs, catering and hospitality managers, restauranteurs and hoteliers – who had all agreed to place orders for the produce grown in high volume, without soil, in the old cellar. They were impressed with the clean, pest free, environmentally friendly growing regime that produced crops of excellent taste, using recycled water and infused nutrients, which, while not technically organic, avoided the overuse of many chemicals and pesticides found in intensive horticulture elsewhere. Gently circulated air from ceiling fans reduced discolouration from mildew and air filtration removed most airborne hazards. And there were no weather problems when it came to harvest the produce, which could be supplied the same day to a wide area without a high carbon footprint. Jim’s original vision was complete.
However, his other vision, of the previous night, gave him troubled thoughts of disturbed spirits and when Charles spoke to him about the cook who came blustering into his kitchen, in the early evening, complaining about the roast not being nearly done and then disappearing for the rest of the night, he was even more shaken. The agency had not been asked to send a cook.
The two of them decided to investigate further and spent the day looking for any way pranksters could gain access without them knowing. They drew a blank. All the known entrances were secure, either locked from inside or covered by staff and CCTV. There was just no way a physical body could have arrived without being known. So, where did the cook come from and vanish to, and how did the extra waitress materialise then disappear, when she went up to the roof? There was a locked fire escape from the roof garden, but access to that was via a metal barred gate that needed the key kept adjacent to it, in a glass fronted box, to open it. The glass and the box were intact. They key still inside. The gate still locked.
It was time to study all the plans of the building, new and original, to see if they had missed something. Nothing obvious, although the new kitchen was in the same position as the original kitchen and scullery. The current roof top was originally a third storey with sleeping quarters for staff and a small communal rest room. Next they looked more deeply into the history of the mansion and, indeed, it had once been a fine household with butler, footmen, cook and maids, together with coachman, gardeners, groom and stable lad. In later years, with servants less necessary for the childless wine merchant and his wife, the domestic staff had shrunk to cook, parlour maid and scullery maid, indoors, plus a gardener and a groom for the estate and horses. By the time of the fire, the gardener was so old, he had been replaced by contractors, but was allowed to come by and fish in the lake. The groom, who had started as just a stable lad, was tasked with looking after two ageing Suffolk Punches and an old brewery dray that was used only for festivals and occasional promotions.
The domestics still lived in the top floor bedrooms and at night the scullery maid would slip down to the stables for tryst with the groom, hoping he would become a groom of a different type, one day. They both smoked and one night they were so caught up in passion that they left their still smouldering cigarettes perched on a stable window ledge, the window open. The day had been hot, the ground parched after weeks without rain. The strong wind that night dislodged them and they fell into tinder-dry hay. By this time the passionate pair had moved up into the hay loft and it was only when the smell of smoke aroused them from deep pleasures that they realised the stable was on fire.
The scullery maid ran to alert the cook and parlour maid, first, then ran down to wake the merchant and his wife, but by this time flames had been wind-blown across to the house, setting alight old timbers. Soon the whole roof was ablaze. Meanwhile, the groom, bravely tried to save both the horses and the dray, though somewhat stupidly wasted time harnessing them and driving them out before running to phone the fire brigade. He got them out safely, but was never thanked for it. For, even more stupidly, he ran back to salvage some of his own meagre belongings and never came out. Well, not alive.
The cook and parlour maid thinking the fire was only in the stables, hurriedly put on day clothes, but by that time the fire had spread down the single stairway down to the ground. Neither survived the burns they received, struggling down against the flames. Not knowing the fate of her amour, the scullery maid seized the chance to raid the cellar and save a few fine bottles. Not for her master, but for herself and the groom, running down to the lake and hiding them just below the surface of the water. She went back for more, dropping through the outside hatch, but this time she became trapped by a blazing timber that fell from the roof and blocked her exit.
The owners survived and the gardener, who lived in his own cottage nearby, took on the job of caretaker to the ruins. He found the stash of spirits in the lake, which did no good for his failing liver, and after a traumatic incident at night, which he put down to spirits not from a bottle, he suddenly quit.
‘Sounds quite a story,’ said Jim, ‘and all the locals must know it. Whoever caused those upsets during the building must be behind it, creating illusions to scare us. They probably know the building better than us and did have a way in and out when we were distracted. You know how when you can look for things and never find them, yet you come back later and they are right in front of you.’
‘And there were so many milling around or eating at the tables and so many meals to get out it was a whole night of distractions,’ noted Charles. ‘I know my head was spinning trying to keep tabs on everything.’
‘I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out who but at least we can be on our guard against further intruders,’ said Jim. ‘And we can add a few more security lights, so we can see anyone who comes on to the property at night.’
Come Christmas, trade became even busier and the modern day below-stairs staff had to work at a hectic pace to keep up with harvesting the produce, while also sowing replacement stock. That was when Jim found out there was tension in the basement. Someone had been cutting small amounts of produce, seemingly overnight. Only enough for a large tureen of soup, or the trimmings for a banquet sized roast, but each worker was looking accusingly at another. Especially when two bottles of wine went missing from the locked store, down there. Jim interviewed them all, calmly and kindly, and told them they had nothing to worry about, he trusted them and it must be an outsider gaining access at night. He would watch out and catch the culprit if he could.
The petty thefts continued and yet it was obvious no staff were involved. He told his family the story about the fire and possibility someone had a grudge against them and said the best way do deal with it was to make a success of the business. Rather than believe his dad’s dull explanation, however, young Christopher decided, with a typical boy’s delight, the place must be haunted. And, being brave beyond his age, though still with some trepidation, he crept down some nights, in the hope of seeing the cook, the parlour maid or the scullery maid, but they never appeared for him. Although, on those nights, nobody took any greens, either.
Winter settled in and all the traumas of the previous months slid to the back of the family’s minds. It was boom time for Jim, in a severe winter, being able to supply out of season produce at a good profit to all the local hotels, hostelries, the nearby supermarket and some village shops, at prices more attractive than the major wholesalers. No more apparitions, no more strange events and his only wish, one morning of deep snow, was that he had one of the old horses and a cart (or, better, a sleigh) for deliveries. He knew that there must be one somewhere in the vicinity, because he’d seen the hoof prints and wheel tracks where someone had crossed his land during the night, near where the old stable used to be. There was no sign of anything on the CCTV and the security light had failed that night, but he wished he had been up, so he could have asked if he could use it. Despite all his enquiries, however, nobody could think who it could have been.
When the lake had been drained for the car park, he incorporated an ornamental pool just to one end, to absorb some of the run-off during heavy rain and reduce the risk of flooding for the stream that crossed the bottom of his property. Although on his land, he encouraged the local children to come pond dipping in spring, knowing most parents would respond by walking up to the bistro for a coffee and pastry and often return a day or two later for a meal. One day he was surprised to see an old man sitting on the bank, with a short, crude, fishing rod in his hand, made from a thin length of green willow. And well-worn gardening gloves stuck in his belt.
As Jim approached him the old man looked up. ‘There used to be a vicious young pike in here, but still a big ‘un,’ he said. ‘Nearly got it twice, before it wriggled away. Snapped the line. I’m still hoping. House looks grand in the sunshine. Must do the lawn before the master’s tea. He likes to have tea on the terrace. Always compliments me on the neat stripes when it’s freshy mown. Looks like the mistress is on her way down: probably to remind me my lunch break’s over at two. Doesn’t give me a spare minute, that one.’
Jim turned to see who was coming, but saw no one. When he turned back, the old man had gone. Just a willow stick with piece of string tied to it, at the side of the pond. Probably left by one of the pond dipping youngsters, Jim thought. The old man must have picked it up to look at it. But where had he gone, so quickly and quietly? There was no sign of anyone walking away down the driveway. But it suddenly struck Jim who the old man must be. And the other visitors, he would now expect to visit again, from time to time.