A haunted bookshop, a headless guard, and a ‘house that dreams’
Topsham isn’t one of the most spooky places in Devon, but nevertheless, we can hold our own at Halloween, with a select array of ghostly visitations and ghastly happenings.
The Ghosts in the Bookshop
The Topsham Bookshop is a paradise for book browsers and a much-loved landmark in the town. As the website describes it: ‘The Topsham Bookshop is housed on three floors of a beautiful 17th century building in Topsham, an ancient port on the River Exe. Lily Neal, the owner and manager, aims to provide a special atmosphere in which book lovers with varied interests will feel at home.’
But is there more to this ‘special atmosphere’ than meets the eye? As a very ancient building, it would be surprising if it didn’t have some ‘history’. A while ago, as I was having my hair trimmed in a local salon, my hairdresser began to describe how she’d lived for a while in the flat above the bookshop, and had experienced strange goings on. She was convinced that it was haunted. I didn’t investigate any further, though, until I received an email out of the blue from a Mrs Margaret Green. Back in 1968, when she and her husband were first married, they too had lived in this flat. The shop was at the time known as ‘Homecraft’, selling homeware, and run by a Mrs Price. Here’s what Margaret told me:
‘This flat was haunted. We had been there a couple of weeks, and went to bed one evening, only to be woken with a sounds of chains being dragged across the floor. My husband got out of bed and went up into the attic, but there was nothing there. Another evening, we got home from work, and Mrs Price was just locking the shop up to go home. We locked our front door, made our evening meal, and then sat down to watch the TV. We went to bed as usual, but in the morning when we got up to go to work, we found that Mrs price’s shop was all unlocked, her cellar was open, and our front door was open. We had to shut the doors to the shop, lock our front door, and go to Mrs Price to let her know what had happened. She started to laugh and said, “Don’t worry, they won’t hurt you – it’s only our ghosts!’ We never ever saw him or them, but we certainly knew that he or them were around, Such happy days living there.’
So I’ve now asked Lily, the present day bookseller, what she knows about such goings on. She tells me that several of her customers have reported feeling a presence, or having a strong sense that the building is haunted. A few refuse to walk down into the cellar area, as the feeling is too strong for their liking. One is convinced that someone died down there. But perhaps Margaret’s Green’s ‘happy ghosts’ are the more prevalent? When I asked her for permission to use this story, she answered:
‘I am so pleased to hear that your hairdresser had told you a story about feeling something strange. I would be pleased for you to use our memories of what we experienced whilst living in the flat. It was such a homely little flat, and we very much enjoyed living there.’
Here’s a Halloween invitation: Visit Lily’s bookshop, browse, buy a tome or two, and see what you can feel in these surroundings. And you can always write and let me know! Maybe there will be more to say about the Topsham Bookshop Ghosts.
The Headless Train Guard
And now for a ghastly event in Topsham – it may send shivers down your spine. You have been warned.
Have you ever encountered a headless train guard? Have you ever seen blood trickling down your carriage window when travelling on our delightful local train service to Exmouth? No? Well, that might just happen, if the spirit released by a dreadful accident in 1875 still rises to haunt us on the track. And if so, then please ask him to tell you the true story of his demise. Because there’s a mystery hanging over it….
A ‘Fatal Accident on The Exmouth Line’
On a summer’s evening in June 1875, a railway worker called George Richards boarded the last train of the day from Exeter to Exmouth. He was designated as a ‘spare guard’ for the trip, and shared the guard’s carriage with another guard and two porters, all presumably finishing their shifts and in a good humour to be going home. We may also infer, although any influence of alcohol was always denied, that they were a touch merry as a consequence. Then George suddenly left the carriage, saying he’d be back in a few minutes.
Now, it seems there were no corridors in the train, so that ‘leaving the carriage’ meant climbing onto the roof and crawling along to the carriage he intended to enter. But his escapade did not go well. ‘On arriving at Topsham, the attention of one of the porters was called by a first-class passenger, in a compartment some two or three carriages removed from the guard’s van, to the fact that blood was running down the side of the carriage in which he was seated,’ reported the Exeter Flying Post ghoulishly on Wednesday 16 June 1875. ‘A search was made for the cause, and on the top of the carriage the unfortunate guard was found. quite dead, with the back of his head smashed in and his neck broken.’ He had been crushed when the train passed under a railway bridge.’
But what on earth was the guard doing on top of the carriages in the first place? What had his intentions been? The Coroner’s Court was held in the Lord Nelson pub in Topsham, and newspaper reporters flocked to hear the story in all its gory detail.
What state was the guard in? asked the coroner. ‘The deceased appeared very jolly and talkative,’ said porter Thomas May, but hastened to affirm that he was sober. But then May dropped a bombshell: ‘He said he was going to see a young female.’
The Coroner was incensed. He assumed that May’s witness testimony was invalid, and lashed into him. The reporter eagerly jotted it down word for word:
‘Now, look here man, you have taken an oath, and that is a very serious matter. Beware speaking what is not the truth, and you seem to be giving your evidence as if this were not a very serious matter. This man has come to his death by some means, and I should wish you to be a little more cautious in the way which you give your testimony. He must have told you what he was out of the van to do.
Witness—He said he was going out to see a female.
The Coroner—Are those the words he used? He must have given you some reason for his going out beyond what you say?
Witness said the deceased’s last words were that he was going out of the carriage for immoral purpose (statement which caused a sensation among the jury).
Western Times – Wed 16th June 1875
Why was the Coroner so quick to try and refute the evidence? Perhaps because the London and South-Western Railway Company who brought about the enquiry, would have been very concerned to learn that their employees were having ‘immoral’ assignations with passengers? And all the more so when ‘the unfortunate man leaves a young widow and a child about six months old.’ Maybe their reputation was on the line. (pun intended!)
But May would not be swayed from his testimony, though other witnesses were not so bold, and mumbled about Richards saying he was ‘just going out for a minute or two’. All agreed, however, that he was crawling along the carriage roof and met his end at Apple Lane Bridge.
‘The Coroner, in summing up, said the jury had heard how the melancholy affair had happened. It was quite evident that deceased had met with his death by his head coming in contact with the bridge, and the verdict could be no other than accidental death. The jury, after a few minutes’ consultation, returned a unanimous verdict of Accidental Death.’
Searching for the exact location of Apple Lane Bridge, I found that it was apparently near the current Digby and Sowton station, just before Topsham. So when your train next stops there, remember poor George Richards, and speculate about just what he might have been planning to do, in a carriage further along the train. Perhaps don’t even travel on the last train, in the dark, if you are in a sensitive frame of mind…
A Ghost in Paradise?
And let’s end with my impressions – happy ones! – from living in our very own old house in Topsham. ‘Great Paradise Cottage’ was once the central section of a medieval hall house of some stature. We’ve only found rather vague pointers to its origin from local hearsay – ‘a place where the Bishop used to stay’ is one, and ‘previously a medieval grange for corn storage’ is another. Plus, from an archaeologist friend comes a clue that the name ‘Paradise’ is often associated with gardens on old monastic land, so it could have once been owned by an abbey. The fireplace is made of Beer Stone, and is one of only two houses in Topsham known to have Beer Stone in its construction. This honey-coloured, soft stone comes from the caves at Beer, near Sidmouth, which have been quarried since Roman times, and were used in the construction of Exeter Cathedral. Perhaps our slab ‘fell off the back of an ox cart’ when being transported to Exeter? At any rate, the fireplace is late 15th century and the house itself is be older still. In the 17th century, a grand oak staircase was added, along with ceilings and upper floors. However, because of the rather heartless 18th century division of the house into three vertical slices by builder Richard Cridland, some of the Beer Stone was shaved away to accommodate a tiny front door for our central section.
After we had renovated the house and moved in, in 2016, I recorded my impressions of the ancient layers of memory in the house. These were perhaps not so much hauntings, as presences stirring.
Sep 10 2016
This old house tells me its stories at night. In the deep wastes of sleep, where dreams float filmy, like colour washing through the amber waters, I am told what it remembers. Cargo unloading – ships, rough or dilapidated. Some inchoate feeling of – perhaps – a deal in dispute – a ship not arrived. It’s all rough and ready, plainer and simpler that we might portray it today. It’s the feel that tells me – yes, this is in the fabric of memory here.
Dec 22nd 2016
Last night both Robert and I seemed to hear or see things. I woke up in the first part of the night and wondered what Robert was doing out of bed. He appeared to be moving to and fro across the window, as if he was arranging the curtains or something. He seemed to have on a kind of dappled or patterned robe, kind of dressing gown. I asked him what he was doing, and he answered that he wasn’t out of bed – he was in fact lying next to me. Then twice later on in the night, he asked me, ‘What did you say?’ I told him that I hadn’t said anything…My experience felt puzzling but benign. Can it be that we have some kind of ghosts or hauntings here? I’m intrigued by the prospect!
Dec 2017 – How the house loves bunches of holly in jugs! This feels right.
And yes, we’ve filled the house with greenery at Christmases ever since. It seems to come alive, and rejoice when we do this.
So the Topsham spirits I’ve heard about and perhaps encountered seem to be benign ones. Why be alarmed if they are gently living their own lives among us?
Below: Looking forward to Christmas at Great Paradise Cottage