Those of you who were regular visitors to Eternal Idol, which is temporarily off-line, will be fully aware of my interest in the prehistory of Stonehenge. At the same time, I’ve openly advertised my fascination with ghosts, magic and other manifestations of the supernatural, something that started around the same time that my interest in Stonehenge took root, while my personal view is that the two go together like hand in glove. I’ve said enough about this in the past, so here’s a brief account of one of the times when “the spectre loomed again”.
In 1997, my sporadic career in front of the cameras was coming to an end and the last time I worked as a performer was when I appeared on the Casualty Christmas special. For those of you in foreign lands who might be unsure what this means, Casualty was and still is a flagship BBC drama production that deals with the lives of those who work in a fictional accident and emergency department. It’s been running for decades, so every now and again, a feature-length Christmas special is filmed and the one in which I appeared depicted a mass pile-up of vehicles on a motorway by night, caused by a petrol tanker crashing.
It was filmed at RAF Wroughton in Wiltshire, so as I’d not long moved to this county at the time, it was a pleasant drive from my home not far from Stonehenge and I made a point of passing through Avebury on the way. At the airbase, a runway had been transformed into a section of motorway, which was greatly facilitated by the fact that it was being filmed at night. The cameras would concentrate on the scene of the action, or the crash; as about twenty people had been hired as extras, on condition they brought their cars to the shoot, it was easy for the director to film the headlights in the dark with a few judicious shots and to give the impression of a great many vehicles having been brought to a halt.
I was co-opted onto the stunt team by the stunt co-ordinator Jim Dowdall, which entailed driving close behind a petrol tanker driven by Steve Street, to come to a rapid halt at a cue over the radio as the tanker crashed ahead of me. It was wonderful to work with Jim and to have a ringside seat as one of the most famous performers from the James Bond franchise performed miracles, but otherwise, as is the case on all film shoots, there were seemingly endless hours of waiting around, with little to do to pass the time apart from chat with the others.
One of my fellow drivers was a girl from Bristol named Melanie, so while we waited for the various scenes to be set up, we turned off our car engines and waited in the cool night air until we were called upon once more. While we talked, I must have advertised my interest in the strange subjects I mentioned at the start of this post, as I’ve always done in casual conversation with others, but this time I was rewarded by a story from Melanie that instantly had me slavering in anticipation. This took place almost twenty years ago, so the passing of time has made me forget some of the details, but the essence of what she had to say was this:
She had some friends in Devon who owned a pub and as part of their attempts to encourage as many people as possible to visit their hostelry, they wanted to transform a piece of land adjacent to the pub into a playground for children, along with a flat lawn where wooden benches and seats could be placed. This all went ahead without a hitch, presumably after planning permission had been sought, but as part of this transformation of the landscape, two old mounds were levelled. Melanie described them as “dragon mounds” and went on to tell me that after they were levelled, her friends were terrified by sepulchral, demonic screams in their bedroom every night at 2.30am; not unnaturally, they linked what they’d heard about the mounds with the unearthly noises and they were beside themselves, not knowing what to do or what might happen.
By the time I met Melanie and had heard her strange story, I’d already visited a couple of hundred allegedly haunted locations in Britain, Europe and elsewhere. In the process, I’d learned that despite the avowed opinions of certain high-profile sceptics, there were most certainly places where phenomena of whatever kind manifested themselves on a regular and predictable basis, while I’ve since added to that enviable list. I had also taken a great interest in the folklore surrounding prehistoric barrows or burial mounds, although I don’t see that you can describe it as ‘folklore’ when it’s part of the historical record, as is the case with the tremendous lightning storm that accompanied an attempt in 1849 to enter the tomb of King Zil, to give just one example. As a result, I was enthralled by what Melanie had to tell me, while I was very keen indeed to see the place for myself, particularly the room where the screaming was heard. There were however a number of reasons why this was just about impossible, the main one being that I was contracted to work on Casualty every night for the next seven nights.
All, the same, I asked Melanie to learn as much as she could and to let me know what was happening in far away Devon. For the next few nights, after she’d spoken to her friends and heard accounts from others who were aware of what what was going on, I realised that things were much the same, although the dread experienced at the prospect of hearing the demonic screams was naturally growing every night, when these awful things dutifully made themselves heard. I’d made up my mind to travel to Devon as soon as filming had finished, but on the final night at RAF Wroughton, I heard of developments that made any journey redundant.
I had hoped to look into the matter myself, as I’d done before elsewhere, to try to establish if there were really some haunting, or as I suspected was far more likely, a hoax was being perpetrated or some natural phenomena were instead responsible. This was all a very long time ago, but I gather that some amateur ‘ghost hunters’ – a term and practise I greatly dislike – as well as a few of the local clergy had been along to the place in question. They’d heard the voice in the night and it had frightened them badly, but they’d been unable to do anything about it. The matter was put to rest when two BBC sound technicians turned up and waited alone in the room in question until the appointed hour, whereupon they too had heard the screams. However, they located the origin of the wailing, then they discovered that a watch had somehow fallen behind an old, empty wooden dresser.
The watch had an alarm that for some reason had been set for 2.30am, but as the batteries gradually died, then so the previously crisp tones had degenerated to a droning wail, which was greatly amplified by the empty wooden dresser that in turn concealed the origin and true nature of the ‘voice in the night’. Now, I do not know if I would have been able to learn the truth in this case, although I flatter myself I would have succeeded if only because I’d inadvertently solved another terrifying case of a ‘voice in the night’ on an island in Greece some years before, something I’ve written about in detail before now.
On the other hand, it’s perfectly possible that I’d have made a complete fool of myself by announcing that the place was indeed haunted, having failed to find the ‘night’s watch’, but as Marcus Aurelius observed, the truth never hurt anyone and as William Blake astutely pointed out “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.”
Things are never quite the way they seem. I’m sure most readers will have seen the subject of this post and assumed that it was going to be a dissertation on some aspect of A Game of Thrones, but I’m happy that it is instead an entirely accurate summary of a modern investigation into allegedly haunted barrows in the south of England. We all make instant assumptions – me included – but I long ago learned that “he who stares too hard into the mist risks tripping over the stone at his own feet”.