Saturday, October 3, 2009

Peek in the Past – Cellars, Mushrooms, & Highwayman Higgins

A few weeks ago, I mentioned our cellar in the Knutsford, Cheshire, England house (click here). Today, I’m sharing more about that cold, damp place where mold grew in patches of brown and green across archaic stone walls that had witnessed bleaker days than mine.

Apart from being a good area to grow mushrooms, and the only place in the house my mother would let me keep tadpoles and ultimately frogs, it was a breeding ground for wild imaginings if ever there was one.

Our house was built in Victorian times, the 1800s, when servants lived below ground in mildewed cellars such as ours. It smelled like something had died down there and was forever rotting. There was a small window with bars but I couldn’t see sky through it. Wet, brown leaves piled halfway to the top of the well outside, with spider webs and green slime taking up any spare space.

The cellar door was bolted for safety. When it creaked ajar, steep, narrow steps stretched into a black hole and it would have been easy to fall headlong if the door opened by mistake. It stood on a step to the right of another door into the main hallway. High on the wall next to the cellar was an old brown box containing numbers and bells for each room in the house, a device for summoning servants in the old days—long before my time, I hasten to add :-)

There was no handrail, so I would creep down those slippery steps, feeling my way with one hand, sliding it down slick stones, trying not to think about creatures of the dark. In my other hand, I usually carried a lighted candle. I believe there was a light bulb that sometimes worked, but more often did not.

About halfway down, there was a large hole carved into the stones. I guess servants used it for storing wine, but to me, waiting for my hand to hit the edge was like living my own nightmare. Who knew what else besides bottles once got stuffed in there? Children? Bats? Snakes? And what ghosts curled up to rest between hauntings?

Knutsford is renowned for ghosts (see (The Old Prison Site). I grew up on stories about the ghost of Edward “Highwayman” Higgins. He was a gentleman by day and thief by night. Around 1756, he lived next door to the author Elizabeth Gaskell (see King Canute and Elizabeth Gaskell). In his townhouse, on what is now called Gaskell Avenue, he entertained wealthy guests for many years. On being invited back to elite homes, he became familiar with the layout of each, and would return later to steal valuables. He also rode his horse at night between Knutsford and Chester, holding up carriages and robbing gentry.

On November 7th 1767, after getting caught breaking into the cellar of a home in Carmarthen, Wales, a long way from home, Higgins was hung from the gallows.

For me, at the tender age of ten, his ghost lingered around every corner of our cellar. Oh, the stories I imagined back then. Is it any wonder most of my dreams were nightmares?

Thanks for visiting my tales from the past. From now on, I'll be sharing blog posts with Cedar Fort writer Jodi Robinson, author of Women of Virtue. In other words, Jodi and I will each post one Saturday a month. I'll be back in a few weeks for more peeks into my British childhood. Cheerio for now!

Anne Bradshaw


Cindy Beck said...

Wow, your childhood home was ripe for ghost stories. You were a brave little girl, going down into that dark and damp place!

Thanks for a very enjoyable post.

Becky said...

This makes me homesick for England (where i served my mission). I look forward to reading more of your posts.

JoAnn Arnold said...

I shivered as I read your post. Loved it.