There’s a Georgian mansion house and gardens occupying the spot where the Norman motte and bailey once was. These days, the only thing surviving of the stone castle that followed on from it are the vaults and tunnels beneath.
‘A little health and safety before I take you in,’ says the guide. ‘Can you hear me at the back? Shuffle up! No-one’s going anywhere until I’ve gone over the rules.’
I’m a little worried about mum. This is her ninetieth birthday party, after all, and although her health is pretty good generally, her right hip is beginning to give out, making her walk at a loping slant like a pantomime pirate. On the plus side, it might actually work to her advantage down there in the lopsided environment of the vaults. On the minus, she’s taking her miniature Schnauzer Amelia down with her. She won’t be dissuaded.
‘She’s sensitive to ghosts,’ she says. ‘It’ll be like taking a canary down the mines.’
‘Keep your hard hats on at all times,’ says the guide, tapping his head by way of illustration. ‘The ceiling is low and it curves in steeply either side. I estimate that each of you will bang your head four times. I’m never wrong about this.’
‘Is there a hat for Amelia?’ says Mum.
‘No,’ says the guide. ‘She’s low enough for that not to be a problem. Okay? If you’d like to follow me, then…’
And he turns and leads us down the worn stone steps, through the iron gates, and into the gloomy vaults that stretch ahead, lit by emergency lighting at spooky intervals.
Someone bumps their helmet on the lintel.
‘That’s one!’ shouts the guide.
‘He’s good’ whispers Mum.
Mum had her eightieth party at the castle, too. For some reason she didn’t go down the vaults then, which either suggests the older she gets the more risks she’s happy to take, or – more likely – that the poodle she had at that time was too elderly or sick to manage it. Everything Mum does is based on the dog of the moment. She refuses to put them in kennels, have a dog-sitter or leave them alone for a minute. Any family event, the primary concern will be the dog. It wouldn’t surprise me if she turned up at a wedding or a funeral with the dog carried in by four oiled slaves on a litter. Every dog she’s ever had has been utterly dependent with high-end requirements, existing on boiled rice and chicken, and pet soaps on the telly.
Funny thing is, Amelia is much less of a monster than you’d have any right to expect. Mum says she barks all the time, but she hasn’t barked once at the party. She’s quite content to sit in the shade under the table. She even lifts a paw and when I ask her – to shake, I thought, but I think she wants me to kiss a claw, like the pope’s ring.
‘She’s a very biddable dog,’ I say.
‘She’s protective,’ says Mum. ‘She won’t be parted from me for a second.’
Amelia puts her head on one side and stares into my eyes with that odd, gruff-wise expression Schnauzers have (or Schnau-tzers as Mum pronounces it, like it’s a make of machine pistol). Arriving at the party I half expected to see Amelia’s face on the balloons and banners when we came round the corner into the garden; as it was, she was prominently displayed on Mum’s lap, receiving tribute from the guests as they arrived, accepting all their strokes and tickles with the imperious and unquestioning hauteur of a president.
‘That’s two!’ says the guide, calling out from the front.
‘He’s very good,’ says Mum.
‘Now then,’ says the guide, stopping by a particular vent off to the left and gesturing with his stick. ‘We’ve got a colony of bats in there. Please don’t disturb them with any flash photography. They’re a protected species. If they do happen to fly out, resist the urge to flap around. Just remain calm and stand perfectly still. They’ll do a couple of circuits then go back in to roost. But don’t worry,’ he carries on. ‘They’re the only animals we’ve got down here. Present company excepted. There aren’t any others, not even rats.’
‘Rats don’t like bats,’ says Mum. ‘Or is it the other way round?’
It sounds like a quote – Alice in Wonderland? – and adds to the dreamy feel of the whole thing. Mum’s holding tightly to the arm of my eldest brother as we carry on into the vaults, either because of her frailty or because she doesn’t want to lose him again. After all, no-one’s seen him for ten years or more, but against all expectations he’s turned up at the party with his daughter. No one knows why he disappeared for so long, and Mum’s party isn’t the place to ask. For now, proceeding in a shuffling crouch through these dimly lit vaults, it feels like we’ve been magically called together for one, last ceremonial journey into the underworld.
We emerge into a longer, larger hall. Off at the far end is a single plastic chair, eerily lit by the emergency lighting. In front of us is a camping table with more of the chairs. The guide sits down on one of the chairs.
‘Gather round’ he says. ‘Now – this is where the local paranormal society like to set up their equipment. As you may or may not be aware, the castle – and particularly these vaults – are some of the most haunted spots in the county. Every so often we let the paranormal society camp down here for the night with all their equipment, their EVP recorders, full spectrum cams and what have you. Myself? I don’t believe in ghosts particularly, but they seem to think there’s something going on down here. They’ve shown me pictures of a dark figure over there in that corner where the chair is. The Blob, they call it. I don’t know. It’s an interesting phenomenon, whatever it is. And the place certainly takes on a special feeling in the early hours. I’ll tell you a story. Last year the paranormals were down for one of their regular sessions. And there was this chap – nice guy, very down to earth – and he came along with his girlfriend, because although he didn’t believe in ghosts she was very into the whole thing and he wanted to show her support. So here we were, all set up, and it was about two or three in the morning, and it was time for one of our regular breaks up top. And this chap, he says “I’ll stay down here on my own”. “Oh” we say “Are you sure about that?” “Sure I’m sure” he says. “I’ll be fine. And turn out all the lights when you go.” I think it was bravado – you know. Showing off in front of his girlfriend. Anyway, we did as he asked, we all left the chamber, and the last thing I did before I came up into the garden was turn out all the lights with the master switch. Then I joined the others having a cup of tea on the veranda of the main house. Well – I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced perfect darkness? Absolute, perfect silence? It’s a strange thing, something you don’t often get. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s rarely experienced, because however dark it gets there’s always a glimmer of something, even if it’s just starlight. Anyway – about ten minutes after I shut off the lights, there was this terrible wailing scream from the vaults, and the poor chap came sprawling up the steps, staggered across the lawn, and literally threw himself at us on the veranda. When he’d calmed down enough he told us what happened. Apparently he sat there in the dark, getting used to it, feeling quite relaxed, sleepy even – when suddenly he heard a scratching noise from over in the far corner. He didn’t like it, but he dismissed it as a rat – which, as you know, we don’t get down here. The next thing was the feeling of a heavy hand on his shoulder, and someone’s face at his ear, making gritty grinding noises with their teeth. That’s when he screamed and ran – headfirst through the pitch blackness. How he didn’t knock himself cold, I don’t know. And the worst thing was, he said – the worst thing – was he could hear footsteps following close behind him. I said to him, I said “that was probably the echo of your own footsteps” “So how come they followed me across the lawn as well?” he said. And that was that.’
Mum looks down at Amelia.
‘How strange!’ she says. ‘She hasn’t barked once!’