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Witley Court

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So, whereas most of the stories on this site are fictional, this one is, at least, purportedly true. If it is not as elaborate and action packed as the other entries in this wiki, that is because I have chosen not to embellish it with added details to enhance the story’s scare factor; I am merely passing on what I had heard. My Uncle George told me this story many, many years ago when he joined us in Canada after having lived for many years in Australia (my family is originally from England).

A bit of background about my Uncle George: my father’s older brother, he was the first of my dad’s family to be born in England once they had returned to the Home Country after having been in India for several generations (oddly, they considered the move back to England as “returning home” despite the fact that none of them had ever even visited England). Somewhat of a vain man, after spending some time in the military and as a mercenary, my uncle moved to Australia where he made millions as a prospector, millions which he would end up frittering away on a lavish house and a collection of luxury cars, losing the final chunk in a shady life insurance scam. Now more or less destitute, he moved to Canada to help out with his younger brother’s oil filter business. This did not work out and the two brothers – who had generally had a rather strained, distant relationship – became further estranged. Uncle George returned to Australia and spent his last days scraping by with little money and operating under the apparent delusion that he was an English Lord.

Nonetheless, he always had a penchant for telling interesting stories, particularly from his time as a mercenary soldier. If he hadn’t become estranged from the family when I was young, I would have loved to help him compile his memoirs, which surely would’ve made for interesting, if not necessarily historically accurate, reading. Given his somewhat pompous, vainglorious demeanor, I’m sure many of these stories had a not inconsiderable quotient of bullshit to them, and he always had a bit of a knowing twinkle in his eye when he told them as if he were enjoying the self-serving embellishments he was adding to the whatever kernel of truth was buried deep beneath the hyperbole. One of his stories, however, was a bit different. He didn’t seem to tell it with quite the same relish as his war adventures, becoming somewhat somber and withdrawn as he told it. Unlike his war stories, he didn’t come off as being particularly brave or daring, and, indeed, he seemed rather embarrassed as he told it, but pressed on as if it were important to pass on this particular story.

So, I will try to recount the story as best as I can remember. I haven’t talked with my Uncle George since he left Canada to return to Australia two decades ago. He fell out of contact with the rest of the family and sadly passed away a few years ago (I will always regret not being closer to him despite the gulf between him and my father). Anyway, I’m sure I’m missing a few details and will patch up some gaps with some reasonable conjecture. I should also mention that I am rather a skeptic when it comes to stories of the paranormal and whatnot, but I will simply relate what I heard without commenting on its veracity. I will say, however, that regardless of the ultimate truth of the story, I do believe that my uncle genuinely believed what he recounted and wasn’t simply bullshitting us. Make of it what you will.

Back in the early 1950's, when my Uncle George was a young man, he was enrolled in a military academy. Too young to have fought in the Second World War, he desperately wanted some adventure and a chance to enjoy some glory. Later on, he would serve with the British Army in Nigeria and, after the British pulled out of their African colonies, he found himself serving as a mercenary in the Biafran War and, at some point, in Vietnam (which he described as “a ball”). Anyway, as is somewhat typical of certain strands of the British middle-class, my Uncle George had an eye for social climbing. And so, when it turned out that one of his fellow students at the academy was the son of some well-to-do Lord or something, naturally, Uncle George made a point of befriending this young aristocrat.

Now, it so happens that this young man's father was looking to buy an old country estate to do up and renovate. He visited one particular property – Witley Court, near Ludlow, a town in the English Midlands – with a real estate agent. Long ago, the property had been an expansive estate built in the seventeenth century, but had since fallen into disrepair. There was no electricity or water, and a fire in 1937 had damaged large sections of the building and grounds (although the estate's chapel was curiously unscathed in the fire). The basic plan for the house was like a capital E turned sideways: a large central hallway with a stairway to an upstairs gallery with rooms branching off all around.

The estate agent gave the Lord a tour around the property. For some reason, the Lord had brought his dog along with him, and the faithful pet followed them around as they looked around the property. Perhaps distracted by the disheveled beauty of Witley Court, the Lord eventually noticed that his dog was missing. They called out the dog's name, but it didn't answer. They retraced their steps and found – to their horror – the dog lying dead in one of the hallways. I'm not sure how the dog died (my uncle did not have any information, and it's not like they would have performed an autopsy), but there were no visible signs of injury. Just a dead dog, a dog that had been perfectly healthy mere moments before.

Now this caused a bit of a stir: the dog was rather well pedigreed and therefore quite valuable. Not to mention that he was beloved pet and loyal companion. Clearly something was afoot; perhaps a murderous squatter was secretly inhabiting the abandoned house.

When my uncle found out this story from his friend, naturally, they decided they needed to investigate. Somehow – I’m not too sure how, exactly – the Lord had managed to hold on to the keys he had obtained from the agent. Perhaps, as a result of the uproar over the dead dog, the agent had simply overlooked the keys, although, come to think of it, I would have thought that the agent would have kept a hold of the keys himself. Regardless, my uncle and his friend had a set of keys to the property.

And so, they snuck out of the military school one night with all sorts of “borrowed” military equipment – tents, lights, and, of course, a rifle to defend themselves if need be. That night, they set up their camp in the main central hallway lobby in front of the grand staircase. Though a beautiful building in the light of day – even in its state of disrepair – Witley Court became rather sinister in the dark. Faint streams of starlight (or at least whatever starlight could penetrate through the proverbially cloudy English skies) streamed through the dusty windows, drawing faint shadows in the gloom. Fortunately, they beat back the darkness with some powerful lanterns set up in their lobby camp and steeled themselves with the assurances that they were soon to be proud members of the powerful British military machine that, for a time at least, had more or less mastered the globe.

Once set up, they decided to methodically search each room of the house one by one, attentively listening for any possible movement in the unnervingly quiet house. With a pair of flashlights, they walked through the dark, deserted downstairs gallery, opening each door and checking that every room was indeed empty.

They came upon one particular door, but it was locked, and none of the keys they had would open it. They briefly considered breaking the door down, but realized that, first, that they didn’t want to cause any damage to property (especially if my uncle’s friend’s father was indeed going to purchase the property) and, second, that since the door was securely shut – presumably for decades if not centuries – that it could not be concealing any furtive squatter. Figuring there was no way into that room, they walked on to the next door in the hallway.

Suddenly – and at the exact same time – both my uncle and his friend felt an inexplicable chill, the hairs on the back of their necks . Without looking at or saying anything to each other, they both instantly, impulsively turned around. The previous door that was firmly locked and unopenable was now creaking open! Both of them felt extreme terror. In fact, my uncle – in a most uncharacteristic incident of self-deprecation – claimed that he shat himself on the spot!

Out of extreme fear, he didn’t bother to look too closely into the room, but caught a glimpse of an outline of some figure standing inside the darkened room. He was carrying the rifle and, without thinking, fired a shot into the opening doorway. They both turned and ran out the front doors, leaving all their equipment behind and scurrying all the way down the road to a local pub where they spent the rest of the night.

The next morning, when they awoke in the bright daylight, they both felt very foolish. "What's wrong with us?" they said, "We're two strong young guys training to be soldiers; we shouldn't be frightened by a door opening in the night!" They contacted the estate agent and sheepishly explained what had happened. Naturally, he wasn't happy that they'd snuck into the house (they apparently glossed over how they had got the keys), least of all firing a rifle inside!

With the agent, they went back to the house to see what damage they had caused. In the daylight, they could see their footprints on the dusty floor. They were able to retrace their steps, and they could see where they had both suddenly turned around and fled. However, the door that had been creepily opening by itself the night before was once again firmly shut and locked. The agent had a key for the door. That key hadn't been included with the others because that room led into the servants' areas: a labyrinth of dark, unlit rooms that would be easy to get lost in. The agent claimed there was no way that door could have been opening that night, but when they opened up the windowless room, they found a bullet from the rifle my uncle had "borrowed" embedded in the wall (it had also grazed the door frame, which they had to pay for). Otherwise, the room was completely empty, and there was certainly no evidence of the figure that my uncle claimed he briefly glimpsed.

Needless to say, it was in front of that same door where they had originally found the dead dog.

Post-script: Some years later, my father was in the same area with a girlfriend. They came across Witley Court and its famous gardens. Even in disrepair, they were still beautiful. They spent the afternoon wandering the gardens and even managed to find a way into the house itself through a broken window. However, when the sun began to go down and the shadows began to lengthen, both my father (who, like me, is a complete skeptic when it comes to paranormal matters) and his girlfriend felt an indescribable fear and, for whatever reason, could not get out of the house quickly enough! It wasn’t until my father heard my uncle recount the story years later in Canada that he remembered he too had been to the same place.

Post-post-script: It was fairly common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for old, abandoned, ancestral homes such as Witley Court to be bought up by the nouveau riche. Often times, they would tear down the house just to harvest the raw materials. Is it possible that this house itself killed the dog and terrorized intruders to prevent itself from being sold and demolished...? For what it’s worth, this gambit may have worked (if one subscribes to such a paranormal belief), as the property, even in its ruined state, is now managed by English Heritage and is in the process of being restored despite the predations of previous scrap merchants (perhaps the house’s efforts at preserving itself where not all that successful after all).

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