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Frightful fun in Bath
From a jasmine-smelling apparition to an abandoned graveyard where one can hear screams, Bath has strange things that go bump in the night.
This is the most haunted spot in Bath, " said Dave Pugh, our burly guide, dramatically lowering his gravelly voice and sweeping his hands in an arc around the spot we were standing on, near a holly tree in Royal Victoria Park. We jumped back instinctively, feeling our flesh crawl as though a ghostly wraith had encircled our waists with its bony, fleshless arm.
We were on a ghost walk around Bath - one of the most alluring cities in England. In the 18-19 th centuries, Bath had become a social and fashionable hub, focussed largely around its hot springs. Indeed, it is a beautifully preserved city with honey-coloured limestone buildings that glow at night with an almost unearthly sheen under ornate street lamps.
That night, the park was largely shrouded in darkness with only the beams of a half-moon creating pools of light and shadow. It was once a duelling ground where many cuckolded husbands and lovers duelled to win their lady love. A make-shift tent would be erected nearby and surgeons would be on standby to carry out hasty amputations of arms and legs of the survivors (winners and losers). These operations were carried out without anaesthesia and patients suffered horribly, screaming in pain as wounds would be cauterised and sealed with hot wax or even sprinkled with gunpowder and then lit with a match! Many died as a result and their restless spirits still stalk the park at night.
Dave then requested our group to move under a holly tree where the makeshift tent used to stand and asked us to be receptive to the unusual - feel the nape of our necks tingle, a gust of icy wind, screams and groans of pain. Anything paranormal. We thought we heard the lonely hoot of an owl, someone reported that an icy hand had brushed the nape of her neck, others just felt fear, raw and primeval, rake their bodies.
Within minutes, everyone had rushed out of the hollow to stand in Dave's comforting shadow. We were on a supposedly down-to-earth ghost walk, created by a historian who had actually felt and researched the paranormal in Bath. Yet, it was a theatrical, chilling experience.
We then staggered into the lamp-lit streets, relieved to see the landmarks that we had explored in the day - the soaring Abbey (3, 000 people buried there but no ghostly activity reported in its precincts), the Roman baths where toga-clad Romans had built a spa and a temple to their goddess Minerva and the chandeliered Pump Room where high society would take/drink the hot spring waters in Georgian and Victorian times. And the gorgeous Assembly Rooms, the scene of high society balls and much dalliance.
Even modern-day Bath has a lilt and sway but at night, more so. If you stand in front of a pretty white house and look up at a lace-curtained window, you may well see the fuzzy outlines of Maria Fitzherbert. She was a woman who had staked all her assets to set herself up in Bath, in the hope of ensnaring a royal husband. George IV (a 21-year-old prince regent at the time) fell in love with Maria though she was older than him, a "commoner, " twice widowed and a Roman Catholic. They were married secretly but the Crown refused to recognise the union and Fitzherbert died of a broken heart.
After her death, several people reported seeing a wraith-like figure standing at the window of her home, with a fake plastic tiara stuck to her head. The last sighting was reported seven years ago!
There were many more stops on the way: a toilet in a small hotel that sends chills down the spines of people who use it;an apartment where the new owners had to negotiate through a sêance with the spirit of a past tenant about the placement of furniture;a housekeeper who sometimes appears in front of what is today a solicitor's office waiting for her master's carriage that never arrives and an abandoned graveyard where, should anyone report strange noises, screams and howls, the local police will not respond.
Our tour had begun and ended at Garrick's Head Pub adjacent to the Theatre Royal and the setting of Bath's most dramatic ghost story. In the first quarter of the 18th century, on the site of the present-day pub and the adjoining theatre, was a public house - a place for drinking, eating, carousing and love trysts. One night, the air was rent by continuous screams emanating from one of the upper rooms. The husband of a young woman, in bed with her lover, had caught them red-handed and challenged the man to a duel. The lover died of shock on the bed and the hysterical woman ran out screaming, her cries cutting the air like a pair of scissors ripping thick fabric. Still screaming, she jumped to her death. The crowd that had witnessed the event only recall that she was young and beautiful and that they were assailed by her strong perfume - of jasmine.
Even today when the ghost of that tragic woman trails through the pub - lights flicker, the air chills dramatically and the space is suffused with a strong aroma of jasmine. She also appears in a scented cloud in the adjacent Theatre Royal, specifically in the top left-hand box facing the stage (which Dave told us corresponds to the room in which her lover died). Dressed in 18th century dress, her visage is the colour of grey parchment. There have been occasions when members of the audience swore that they had seen her onstage, as an extra in a play.
It was the end of the tour and as we thanked Dave for scaring the daylights out of us, we decided to hail a taxi to our hotel, a restored 19th century mansion. As we crossed the leafy courtyard to our room, we looked over our shoulders, just in case. Were those soft footsteps or the rustle of leaves? The chilled night air brushed the nape of our necks like trailing fingers and we. . . inhaled.
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