Hemingford Grey Manor is the perfect venue for candlelit ghost stories on a cold January evening. Dating back to the 1130s, it is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited houses in Britain. As present owner Diana Boston pointed out, its walls would have witnessed discussions on the Magna Carta as well as Brexit.
Parking in the village High Street, we walk past Elizabethan timbered cottages in eerie silence. Then the Great Ouse river looms suddenly out of the darkness like a lurking monster. Our torch-beam jitters over its murky surface before we turn left, through an iron gate into a magical garden, past a line of manicured bushes shaped like chess pieces. Glowing windows beckon. We let ourselves in – the back door is open, with a handmade sign telling you to Follow the noise and Find People.
We go upstairs to the oldest room in the house where 20 other guests huddle, wearing coats, hats and scarfs, some with blankets on their laps. The room is dominated by the huge papier-mache gramaphone horn. Boston tells us that RAF servicemen came here for music evenings during the Second World War. She puts an old record on, lights the candles, and the storyteller appears. Actor Robert Lloyd Parry pours himself some whisky from a decanter, adds a little water, settles into his armchair and begins to enact one of M.R. James’ most celebrated ghost stories, Casting the Runes.
Parry describes himself as ‘Princeps, Imperator et Grand Panjandrum’ of Nunkie Theatre Company. He has been bringing M.R. James’s ghost stories back to life since 2005, and The Manor is his favourite venue. In Cambridge I have seen him perform on a punt, in the Leper Chapel and at the Whipple Museum. He is currently expanding his repertoire to the stories of Dickens, H.G. Wells and Saki and welcomes invitations to just about anywhere, private or public.
At the interval we are invited to sip a glass wine or ginger ale in Diana’s bedroom. She inherited the house from her mother-in-law, the children’s author Lucy Boston, and there are many Green Knowe books on the shelves. Her son Peter’s illustrations depict many of the things in the house and garden. The attic contains toys used by the fictional children of the past, so visitors get the feeling of ‘walking into the books’. Both Diana Boston and Parry are custodians of the past and their work is a labour of love.
Afterwards I regret not asking Diana about ghosts in the house. Over 900 years, there must have been a few, and many a fireside ghost story told by its inhabitants to kindle a ‘pleasing terror’and keep the darkness at bay.
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