RICHARD HOLLAND revisits a grotesque story that helped get him hooked on ghost-lore
As a 14-year-old first ‘getting into’ ghosts, after the poltergeist which had bothered me had long ago faded safely back into the ether, I picked up a copy of a little book called Discovering Ghosts by Leon Metcalfe, which turned out to be a cracking collection of spooky snippets.
The outré headline of one story immediately leapt out at me: ‘The Leper in the Bird Cage’. Only on turning to page 28 did I discover that the Bird Cage was the name of an inn. We shall pass discreetly over the ghastly image the headline had first conjured up to my gruesome boy’s imagination (alas, not much has changed) and continue instead to what is in fact a fascinating ghost story.
Metcalfe first of all informs his readers that the inn is one of the oldest buildings in Thame, Oxfordshire, and that its odd name may have been suggested by its having once been the village ‘lock-up’. Way back in the 13th century, however, it was an ecclesiastical building where lepers were cared for. It is believed one of these poor souls may have been responsible for the repeated knockings heard on the wall of an upstairs room.
An exorcism was carried out and the leper’s spirit apparently contacted: it was very unhappy at having been disturbed and those taking part learnt that its knocking was no plea for help but merely a malevolent attempt to frighten people away so that it would be left alone. Shortly afterwards, during renovation work, the so-called ‘knocking wall’ was stripped of its facing and a cavity discovered which ‘exuded an unaccountably pungent odour’.