The House of Sir William

I’ve been here before… A long time ago, yes, but I’ve been here before. I can’t say where it is, it’s too close to Hell to name, but I have been here before. An elderly relative used to live not far from this park and a chunk of my childhood is embedded here. It always seemed green, even in winter, not dead and cold like it does now. The canal which cuts through this place then seemed sedate and queenly. Now it’s clogged, diseased, and cuts a sorry figure as it limps on towards the river. The massive railway viaduct cutting through, still shunting trains up to Manchester, was bolder and cleaner. It was less covered by guano and graffiti. Maybe this is memory cheating me, but this place was much when I was younger.

The bit that always fascinated me about this place was the old house tucked away at one edge of the park. It was your average haunted mansion, the windows and doors boarded, tangled undergrowth snaking their way around the foundations, ragged trees covering any clear view of the house. It was dark, dingy, not quite a ruin but abandoned and neglected all the same. I always wanted to go inside and have a look but never did, for obvious reasons. Now I probably never will because it has been turned into fancy apartments.

The house as it stands is Jacobean, but was built much earlier- Around 1280. There’s not much trace of the medieval left at all but it was, believe it or not, was built on an earlier monastic grange site by one of my distant ancestors, one Sir William *—-*, who lived from 1226 to 1300. It remained in his family until the late fifteen hundreds (about one hundred years after my own line diverges) when it was sold to Robert Dudley (he who probably pushed his wife down the stairs because he was in love with the queen, Robert Dudley) to pay off debts. It was after that the building was remoulded into the shape it is today, with the last bit of proper medieval being knocked down in the late seventeen hundreds. There’s a rumour that Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed here in 1745 but I doubt it is true. We’re well on the wrong side of Manchester for that.

I said that it once looked like a haunted mansion and supposedly it is haunted. I read somewhere that it is the most haunted house in the area. There’s a ghostly white rabbit which is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll- It’s meant to turn up at the same time every night but for some reason it’s always late. (That’s a terrible joke James… Hang your head in shame!)

The other ghost is ‘The White Lady,’ one of those innumerate spectres who are named after the colour of their dress. They’re always female as well. You never hear of ‘the violet man,’ or ‘the grey man.’ Male ghosts always have more interesting, more creative names. According to one version of the story, she’s an old lady who has often been seen by the old gates, or sometimes looking out of the windows of the hall, and she’s been identified as being ‘Isabel.’ If that is true it makes her my sixteen times great grandmother… But the story I read said that the reason she haunts the places is because she’s pining for her murdered husband. To me that doesn’t make much sense, for Isabel was not old when she died, only around thirty five, and I don’t have any evidence that her husband John was murdered, though he did die at only twenty eight. The only notable event of her life, that I can find, is that she was kidnapped and carried off to Birkenhead, where she was then ravished and her attacker fled into Wales. This incident is mentioned in several different texts as Isabel petitioned the king (Henry VI) for help and the perpetrator attained for treason. What happened afterwards I cannot find out.

Where this ghost story does make a bit more sense is with the next generation. This time there was a murder, of another John, and his wife Margaret lived for another twenty years after the murder. Even then, I wouldn’t have said she was particularly old, not by modern standards anyway. She was only forty five. Who the old ghost is, therefore, I couldn’t possibly say.

There is also supposed to be the ghost of a servant hanging about as well and it is known that the perpetrators of this crime (I’ll tell you, one of them was Lord Stanley!) hung the servant who’d let them into the house to commit their foul deed.

Beyond the house, somewhere along the way to the woods at the back, is a hedge maze… Or there used to be. The maze is still there but it’s locked up tight, the gates padlocked, and the hedges untamed. At the centre there used to be a statue of ‘Isabel’ but she’s gone now. Vandalised, removed, and stolen from wherever she ended up. Much like the rest of the park this has been abandoned, left to rot.

It’s a curious state of affairs… Once it was the hall that was abandoned, impenetrable. Now that’s all fancy and clean whilst the park surrounding it has fallen to rack and ruin. I don’t like that it has been turned into apartments either. There are precious few buildings of this age around here, precious few late Jacobean buildings of this style open to the public. There could have been a real opportunity to turn this in a really good, really unique heritage site. But no… This place doesn’t do heritage. Heritage here is left to rack and ruin. Heritage is disposed of, something to be sold off, something to be turned into apartments. It is not to be bothered with.

I had to dig deep to find out about Sir John and William and Isabel. Despite being minor nobility they left scant trace on the historical record. It was hard finding out about them and this place in which they lived. Maybe there is more information out there, but I doubt it is online.

I imagine this is what the ghost looks like… Image is actually of Miss Havisham and Pip, from Great Expectations (courtesy of Victorian Web.)

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