Talk by Robert Halliday, 13 March 2018
Of course I don’t really believe in ghosts, but the other night when my husband was out and I was in bed I heard a strange thrashing-about from the attic. Instead of thinking rationally there I was, imagining suddenly that some terrible deed might have been done in our 1980s house and some horrific phantom had returned to exact vengeance. … Well, not exactly, but I did briefly experience the sort of frisson that the idea of a ghost might bring on. I put it down to having heard Robert Halliday’s stories about hauntings in Cambridge at the latest History Society meeting.
Robert has been investigating local ghost stories for many years and has written a number of books on the subject. He’s had a few brushes with them but no direct sighting – having been custodian at All Saints’ church in Jesus Lane for five years, he noted with some irony that its ghost chose to appear only after he had left the job. He maintained a dispassionate, historical attitude when recounting the tales of revenants at various colleges. Corpus Christi has perhaps the best. There’s the young lover of a daughter of the Master permanently locked up in a cupboard after hiding there from the girl’s irate father. There’s also the true story of Henry Butts, Master of Corpus, who hanged himself in his garters in the Lodge in 1632: he had selflessly stayed in Cambridge to help the citizens during an outbreak of plague, but then was ridiculed over the failure of a play he wrote to welcome Charles I to the town. His loyal dog is said to have stayed with him long after: if you walk along Free School Lane and look up at a back gable of the college you’ll see its watchful statue still up there. (Alternatively, it’s a symbol of a Talbot-family benefactress of the college: take your pick!)
Other stories came from Peterhouse – very recent apparitions in the Senior Combination Room; St Catharine’s – poor scholar freezing in a room above the chapel; Clare – what happened to the bones of an arrogant rival to Isaac Newton…. More locally, Robert told us the tale of a knight-in-armour who appears if you utter the correct challenge inside Wandlebury Ring, and another of a poltergeist at Haggis Farm near Barton. No wonder that of the Cambridge tours offered by the Visitor Information Centre, Ghost Tours are the most popular!
P.S. John’s rational explanation of the nocturnal tapping in the attic is that he earlier encountered a bewildered blue-tit up there, apparently prospecting for a nesting-site. But do blue-tits fly at night? What to believe?