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On a ghost tour in Lytham Hall

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:31 25 October 2018

Stephen Mercer (centre) and some of the ghost hunters

Stephen Mercer (centre) and some of the ghost hunters

John Cocks

Cushions that go slump in the night, spirits that make your leg go cold and hooded figures passing through closed doors are just some of the mysterious happenings at Lytham Hall

Stephen Mercer enacting a ghostly happening at Lytham HallStephen Mercer enacting a ghostly happening at Lytham Hall

‘If there are any spirits in the room, please communicate with us. I’m not asking you to perform, just to let us know you’re there.’ In the darkness, it’s just possible to make out the other 20-or-so people lined up around the walls of the wood panelled bedroom. We’re standing silently, waiting for the spirits to give us a sign.

There have been reports of strange activity in this room before – the sounds of shuffling footsteps, a dog barking, a scream.

This is the room where American actress Lilian Lowell Clifton fell from the window after arguing with her husband, Henry, who would go on to gamble away the family fortune.

Almost 80 years later, we’re hoping to hear the echoes of that night. Some are holding dowsing rods, others have energy meters or crystals hanging from thin silver chains. We’re all waiting for a sign, for a rod to twitch, a meter to light up or a crystal to swing.

Minutes pass.

And when something does happen, not everyone feels it. Most of the equipment doesn’t move or flash.

‘Was that you?’

‘No, what happened?’

‘Someone touched my back.’

Lytham Hall's deputy general manager Paul Lomax with Stephen MercerLytham Hall's deputy general manager Paul Lomax with Stephen Mercer

The lights are switched back on and as our eyes readjust, another woman reports that her leg feels cold. Her friend standing beside her says she feels hot. Another woman says she heard a foot tapping.

The activity is centred on the corner closest to the window from where the actress is said to have fallen. Some people begin to edge away from the window, others towards it.

Our guide to the spirit world is Stephen Mercer, who smiles, nods and leads the way to the next stop on the Lytham Hall ghost tour.

These are the kind of strange goings-on that helped attract a crowd of curious ghost-hunters – and Lancashire Life – to the hall, eager to have their own close encounter with the paranormal.

Some of them went home happy and slightly spooked. Others were there apparently determined to prove they were right to be sceptical all along, and they too went home happy.

‘A lot depends on your mindset,’ said Stephen. ‘If you come along to an event like this open minded, you are more likely to see or experience things. If you come along with a closed mind, you are much less likely.’

There are 22 people on the tour, 19 women and three men. There’s a spread of ages, with (at a guess) some in their 20s and a few in their 60s, but most look to be around the middle of that range. Some have been on these events before but most are ghost hunting virgins.

For their first time, they have chosen a Grade One listed hall built on the site of a 12th century priory. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the first house was built here in the early 17th century and the current hall dates from the mid-1700s. It was home to generations of the Clifton family and is now operated by the Heritage Trust for the North West and managed by small passionate team helped by dedicated volunteers.

The tour begins on the ground floor as groups of twos, threes and fours get to grips with the equipment. There are hushed conversations, punctuated by occasional gasps and sharp intakes of shocked breath.

Gathered around the Ouija board are Laura Slack, Liane Hickson, Michaela Boden, Jane O'Sullivan and Andy LiveseyGathered around the Ouija board are Laura Slack, Liane Hickson, Michaela Boden, Jane O'Sullivan and Andy Livesey

Clifton family portraits look down from their heavy gilt frames as we follow our dowsing rods on mazy routes around the furniture or strike up rather one-sided conversations with spirits.

Much of their information is passed on through a bizarre version of the yes-no game where those on the tour ask a series of questions and the invisible inhabitants of the hall gave clues to their one word answers by making the crystal on the chain swing one way or the other – side to side for yes, forward and back for no. Michaela Boden from Blackpool had her first contact with the spirit world as a child when she saw the ghostly figure of a man in her bedroom. Michaela, who is on the tour with her friends Liane Hickson and Laura Slack, is a veteran of ghost tours at Clitheroe, Lancaster Castle and Pendle Hill but this is her first time at Lytham Hall. It doesn’t look like her first time with the pendulum though, as she starts chatting with a spirit almost straight away.

‘Are you a man?’

The crystal lurches sideways.

‘Did you live here?’

The crystal stops abruptly and moves forwards.

‘Did you work here?’

The crystal stops again and moves to the side.

There then followed a 
series of questions and one word answers which established he was a butler who died in old age after a long, hard life, leaving a wife and a family.

Lytham Hall's general manager Peter Anthony with Deborah Oxley and Joanne Stuchfield in Violet Clifton's boudoirLytham Hall's general manager Peter Anthony with Deborah Oxley and Joanne Stuchfield in Violet Clifton's boudoir

Even the avowed sceptic watching dubiously from the doorway has to admit she can’t explain how the crystal moves so suddenly from swinging violently one way and then the other without any apparent movement from Michaela.

Looking back at the notes I made as the conversation unfolded though, the spirit also revealed he didn’t work for the Clifton family, didn’t live at the hall, didn’t die at the hall, wasn’t murdered, didn’t die of natural causes, and didn’t have a family but he was standing next to Michaela and he was making her leg feel cold.

They have a sense of humour, these spirits.

And they’ve been up to their tricks upstairs, too. Violet Clifton was the last member of the family to call Lytham Hall home and her apartment in the former grand bed chamber is regularly the scene of unexplained happenings.

Of all the spooky things you’ll see on sale in shops this month, all the county’s mysterious stories and all the scary films ever released, very few cushions feature (except the one you hide behind during those films). But they are one of the key links to the spirit world at Lytham Hall which have left people convinced the hall is haunted.

Each evening before they lock up, the staff and volunteers at the hall plump the cushions of the settee where Violet used to sit until her death almost 60 years ago. And each morning when they return, the cushions are creased and sagging as if someone has been sitting there.

Peter Anthony is the hall’s general manager and he has no doubt who is responsible. ‘Violet is definitely here,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen her, but you can feel her. The cushions at the end of the settee where she liked to sit have indentations in them in the morning. I’ve seen it dozens of times.’

And as well as the cushions that go slump in the night, there are reports of unexplained noises, icy draughts on warm days, mysterious figures passing silently through closed doors and the rocking chair in the nursery moving on its own.

Tour guide Stephen, a softly spoken Northern Irishman, said: ‘There was a monastery on this site, the Clifton family lived here for many years and it was used as a convalescent hospital during World War Two, and was used as offices for a time as well, so there is a lot of history here.

‘Many people independently have seen hooded men walking through a certain door, volunteers have spoken about a single key on the piano being played when no-one is near it and I have heard time and time again about sightings of a tall woman sitting in a chair.’

Violet Clifton, Stephen later tells the tour, was over six feet tall.

On the night of our visit a number of people said their meters had flashed and their dowsing rods twitched near that door and by that chair. There were also reports of whispering voices and footsteps on the empty second floor.

Draughts? Mice? Stephen said: ‘I believe there is paranormal activity in the places I take these tours and the tours are about getting to the truth.

‘I don’t think everything that goes bump in the night is a ghost, but I have done these tours for many years and I have seen and experienced so many things that I can’t explain.’ 
Most of Stephen’s ghost tours take place on the Fylde Coast, with some further afield. For more details, go to supernaturalevents.co.uk

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