It is said that the ruins of this very old castle are among the most haunted in England... |
It was built in the late 15th century by the Pomeroy family who first came to England during the times of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and settled in Devon. In times of prosperity the Pomeroys were a very influential family with high social status and close friends with Royalty. They were also a family of Knights, Barons and Sheriffs of Devon. In troubled times they also rebelled against Royalty, were in debt for generations and narrowly avoided being hanged!
In 1547 the castle and mansion house were bought by the Seymour family who also settled in England after the Norman conquest. They too were a family of great wealth and social standing. Henry VIII, King of England married Jane Seymour. Also the boy Prince Edward VI was guarded by his uncle Edward Seymour until he came of age and inherited the throne.
After taking over the castle the Seymours embarked on a huge building project to transform it into one of the finest mansions in the south west of England. The entire mansion, uncompleted, was abandoned between 1688 and 1701 when the Seymours made their estate in Wiltshire their main home. After this time the castle and fine buildings were used by local folk who reclaimed building materials and by 1800 the entire site became a place where passers-by marvelled at the ruins and folklore stories abounded.
The castle and mansions that were built on the site were places of great activity and the lives of those families who resided there were varied indeed. The castle saw 19 generations of Pomeroys and 6 generations of Seymours... is it any wonder that the colourful lives of those who lived there were imprinted on the castle both physically, in legend and also in the spiritual realm?
Growing up in Devon, I knew of this place since my childhood. Its atmosphere always fascinated me and so I have decided to devote a part of my web site to ponder on its
history and the mysteries surrounding it. This is by no means a full documentation of the site but a collection of our own findings, thoughts, poetry and ghostly encounters. I hope you enjoy reading.
My first encounter with the Castle of Berry Pomeroy was on a school visit when I was about 8 years old. I do not remember much at all about the activities of that day but what remained in my memory for years to come was a powerful image which many people who visit will also never forget. Travelling down the wooded hillside track from the lodge the trees suddenly part to reveal a bright peaceful green lawn which runs right up to the front walls of the castle. There in the warm sunshine the old grey walls stood in strong splendour... the castle gatehouse entrance with towers and a long castle wall. Just beyond this sight and within the ruins rose the remains of a splendid mansion house, its tall windows contrasted and complemented the older castle structures in a way quite unlike any other place I had ever seen.
Any other castle I had ever seen always felt so formidable and to sit in front of the main entrance and picnic would have seemed quite absurd and yet this place had a warm inviting feel about its frontage. To assume that its owners once enjoyed recreational time on the grass here outside the entrance might seem perfectly reasonable, however, this was probably not the case. This was a place of many generations who enjoyed times of luxury as well as times of severe hardship and ruin. Their lives and activities mainly lay within the castle walls and it is within these walls that the atmosphere of this place feels busy.
To the far right of the main castle frontage I saw a rounded tower, partly in sun and partly shadowed by the old trees that grow near its walls. Its position marked an important corner of the castle but its part-hiddenness now seemed to speak of secrets that would rather be left alone. This was the tower of St. Margaret I was told, the haunted dungeon where she was kept until she died by a jealous sister. I was also told that anyone seeing the ghost of Margaret would die but this made the story even more interesting to me. On my first visit that day this part of the castle became my favourite because it spoke to me on a more human level than the other ruined walls did. Something had happened here that was deeply rooted in the atmosphere of this place.
At that time, in the early 1970s, the castle was still very much in ruin although parts of the gatehouse and older towers were looked after. The rest of the castle walls and the remains of the old mansion house were still encrusted with dirty rubble and overgrown with nettles and ivy.
During the next 25 years of my life I drove past the castle on occasions but never went in there. I sometimes used the narrow lanes on my way to and from my place of work when the main roads were busy with holiday traffic. Knowing the small back lanes in Devon is useful at times like this but also enjoyable to drive because of the atmosphere they have.
During these years the castle was under the care of archaeologists and English Heritage who carefully excavated the ruins and meticulously recorded the details of its past.
Fortunately many written records of the families that lived there still survive and many of the ruins revealed and confirmed the written information.
In the valley a narrow track leads off the wider road at the base of the hill below the castle and leads peacefully down to the old mill house (see picture). Here a stream once partly masked in places by the trees and undergrowth meanders its way down the valley bottom and has in recent years been revitalised into ponds which are sited on what was once the original Mill pond itself.
Travelling down this very old track one is captured by the pleasant sound of the trickling water, the wooded scenery and then suddenly the trees give way to the open sky and a meadow.
Then without any warning the hillside rises up to a wooded cliff face and there above watching you with all its splendour and ghostly eyes is the Castle. Its dark walls look down on you and the
whole atmosphere changes to one of awe. From this valley bottom, on a number of visits over the years, I saw the scaffolding where archaeologists were restoring the ruins. The platforms
looked almost like tree houses jutting out from among the towers they surrounded.
I met Natalie in 1997 and she moved to Devon to be with me. I shared with her my love of Devon and the atmosphere of the hill tops and the valleys and those mysterious, haunted places. Natalie has always been a magical kind of person and sensible with it. One evening in the summer night I drove our car along a steep narrow lane near to the castle and told her about the haunted castle in the woods. Natalie pointed in its very direction saying she could feel magical vibes coming from over there.
Another two years passed by and Natalie became disabled because of her health problems. During a visit to our local library I spotted a book on the shelf which covers the history of the Castle, the families that lived there and their activities as well as folklore and hauntings. After reading this book I decided to plan a day visit were we could enjoy the castle in all its aspects.
Our Visit to Berry Pomeroy Castle, 2001
The day was warm and sunny and we planned to drive first to the valley below the castle which would give the most impressive view of the castle walls high on the cliff edge.
The whole atmosphere of this valley is said to be haunted and feels it too. I had recently been reading up on the ruins and folklore and about the ghosts and did not allow
Natalie any knowledge of this beforehand because we wanted to see what she would be able to discern using only her skills of mediumship and witchcraft.
On this day I pushed Natalie in her wheelchair down the old track which follows the stream down into the meadow valley to the old Mill House. With us was Felicia, a friend visiting us who is a professional photographer and who had been doing an important project on Natalie's health recently.
As the track passes over the stream where the old mill pond began the atmopshere felt friendly, warm and mysteriously old. It is said that the ghost of an old woman sometimes appears here on the bridge over the stream who is friendly, but this day we saw or felt nothing of her.
Moving further down the valley Natalie could sense strong spirits which made her arms go all goose pimpled even though it was a very hot day. She said that the castle above us had strong vibes and spirits who wanted to tap into her energy but she would not let them do this.
I watched Felicia as she was very pre-occupied with the scenery that she did not notice the castle at all high above us and I was able to savour the moment watching her reaction when we stood still in the track and she wondered what was wrong. Then she turned and saw the castle and was struck with amazement. It seemed too obvious to miss and yet many are thrilled with this view when they see it.
Travelling to the end of this track we found the old Mill House which again is very haunted. They say that on occasions time has changed here and the onlooker has seen the mill as it was centuries ago. Old breeds of English chicken forage in the meadow there and there's thatch on the roof of the mill. A young woman sits against the wall there, she wears a hooded sack cloak, a rope tied around her waist, and her eyes stare in horror at your presence as if you are not meant to be there!
Natalie had only been told that the castle was haunted but she could sense that the Mill House was too and described a young, dark-haired female spirit there. After a while I removed the library book from my bag and began to read out the ghostly tales mentioned in its chapter on hauntings.
We made our way back up to the car at the entrance to the track pleased and inspired with our visit so far and were soon travelling south towards the lodge entrance and long drive down to the castle car park. Once there we were greeted by the warm frontage of the castle, just as I remembered it from my childhood days. On the way down the drive you might see a man dressed as a cavalier but when you go to speak to him he's not there.
We parked and immediately went to the kiosk to get our entrance tickets. On sale there was a book by the Archaeological team (listed below) showing the building in all its character and displaying the finds. I bought this and also a smaller visitors booklet which has many good pictures and diagrams as well as an overview of all aspects of the castle including hauntings.
Thankfully the site is wheelchair accessible and it was not too much trouble getting the chair over the small steps through the gatehouse entrance. This was Natalie's first time inside the castle and already she was picking up the spiritual atmosphere of the place. She explained how the gatehouse (point A on the map) felt unsettled as she passed through and then the very busy spiritual atmosphere of the courtyard and buildings around it. It was as though there were layer upon layer of activity here and it was quite noisy in that realm even though in our physical realm it was a peaceful warm day with as few as 4 visitors around us.
We made our way over to point B (on the map) and sat there for a while next to the old seats built into the wall. This was the newer part of the castle to be built by the Seymour family. It was a grand mansion with huge halls and was intended to wrap around the entire site but was abandoned in the early 18th century when the family moved to their other estate in Wiltshire.
From here Natalie felt certain spiritual activites in Area C, although we were not able to get access to it. It seemed to have a strong feeling about it in the large area of wall which no longer stands to the right of the kitchen area. Natalie also sensed animals here too. It seemed that she could sense parts of the original building there which were now missing but could describe their vague form. Here also she felt a spirit of a woman with a dead baby tapping magical energy from her. She allowed it because the spirit seemed only to want to express something of her anxiety and then faded away.
Within these walls many children were born but they say that a mother here smothered her child soon after birth because it was her own father who conceived it.
Moving on from here we found another place (point D on map) where there is a breathtaking view over the whole valley below the castle. Here Natalie felt an atmosphere of great achievement and satisfaction. This was an area of the castle which was the first main part of the newer 1600 period mansion to be built.
We then explored the older period mansion where the Pomeroy family lived. The shell of this building still remains with its impressive tall windows and many rooms. This part of the castle is full of character and had several floors with many rooms that were adapted over the centuries to suit the family and servants who lived there. We made our way into the far north corner (point E) where St. Margaret's tower stands. It was here that I hoped Natalie might pick up something interesting because I knew this was known to be a very haunted place.
Margaret had an older sister called Eleanor who owned the castle. She became jealous because they both fell in love with the same man. Margaret was locked in the tower by her sister and starved to death there. She is said to be one of England's most known ghosts and is also known as the White Lady.
Natalie knew only that Margaret had been imprisoned there by a sister and left to die but nothing else. She did not know the location of the tower in the castle because she had never
been there and we approached it from side of the mansion rather than from the more obvious route along the rampart walk.
It was awkward here because I had to lift the wheelchair over a number of stone steps and Natalie is unable to walk more than a few yards. We placed the chair by the entrance to the tower and she began to step into the ruins here. Suddenly she said she could feel strong forces almost repelling her, trying to resist her. She said she did not feel comfortable going any further and I was quite taken back by this because this was quite unlike her usual strong inquisitive magical character. We paused here for a moment while she pondered and then decided that she had to know more.
The way on was to go down the flight of old narrow steep twisted stairs into the basement of the tower. Natalie did not realise this but was determined to do this despite being very
disabled and so down we went.
As I led her down the steps she seemed in pain, normally so because of her weak legs, but she said it was magical pain rather than physical. The spiritual force there was strong indeed. We arrived in the tower basement, a small circular stone room with shafts of golden light penetrating the slot windows. There were bars across them and in this dark cold dungeon the atmosphere seemed still and peaceful.
Many people come only to gawk and pry, but Natalie always approaches the spirits of the dead with caring and respect, and maybe Margaret could see this in Natalie as she opened up to the spirit. The force that had initially repelled her calmed down, and Natalie sat in the window there communicating with Margaret's spirit.
She had died there of starvation and spent many days longing and thinking of a better time that had passed away. She just wants to be left alone in peace but still the visitors come and disturb her part of the castle.
Many cameras (even those of a BBC film crew) have gone wrong or films have turned out odd around and in the castle. Here is a place where such things happen. We
enjoyed the atmosphere in this corner and finally we left the tower and Natalie was in great pain as I helped her back up the steps to her chair. Her legs almost gave out and when
seated again she rested for over 20 minutes, drained physically and spiritually.
From here we travelled along the walkway behind the main castle rampart wall and went into the restored gatehouse. The main chamber here is thought to have been used as a chapel and the faint remains of a painting on the wall there have been carefully restored. The timber roof has been rebuilt with fine beams and off the chamber lead passages inside the thick walls which lead to gatehouse dungeons and roof-top walk. Finally we returned to the grass lawn before the castle where a small wooden cafe sells traditional Devon cream teas and other nice edibles.
Before leaving the castle I wanted to investigate one of the folklore tales of a wishing tree which stood on the rocky cliff edge close to St. Margaret's Tower. I wandered down the path next to the tower and soon found what appeared to be its remains. The stump of this one giant beech tree remains there with attractive fungi growing on it and the initials of many wishers carved all over it. Whether this was the original tree or another tree nearby that was used after the old one was rotted away I do not know but it was convincing enough. On a later visit what was left of that tree was gone.
It is said that if you walk blindfolded backwards around the tree in the direction of the sun your wish would come true but only if you keep it a secret. I was not able to do this because of the undergrowth around the base of the tree and its location right on the edge of the rocky outcrop but I am sure many have done so in past days.
Also in the vicinity a place on old maps is marked Pomeroy's Leap where brothers who were knights of the Pomeroy family, rather than have their castle seized with them alive, mounted in all their armour and blindfolded their horses. Then they leaped to their certain death over the precipice!
The Voice of Berry Pomeroy
Descriptive Writing by Heather Coleman - June 2000
It's the dawn of another summer again,
In the deep old wooded valley bottom I walk in silence and take in the sound of the stream.
Its waters whisper and chatter like the timeless clatter of distant horse-hooves meandering.
Their journey has been long but will they find peace or turmoil here upon your ground?
You are being watched and you may not know it until it is too late!
For the shadowy eye of the castle high above has spotted you before you IT!
I see the torn and twisted ruins like wild windswept haunted trees that surround me,
your ancient walls pushed tight to the edge of the wooded cliff.
Will my journey here be weary and my heart here be grieved?
Will my spirit be lifted in awe?
Will I feel the spears of death that glare at me through the black eyes in your tower walls?
Will I find the warm comfort and rest within the splendour of your home within your stronghold?
As I walk the valley path I am on guard and I am watched constantly from above,
until I reach the peace of the Mill and view the mellow summer flowers that adorn the walls there.
Now the wooded slope I climb, past the wishing tree and the wants of time,
and as I approach your gates I see visiting folk who banquet there,
reclining on a soft carpet of green grass taking in the sun.
This seems so right today but in past times your walls would not have welcomed them there.
I see the magestic stone window frames that reach up high,
once lit with candles like lanterns in the sky,
but even stronger I see in my mind the mourning candles in the Tower of death,
They speak of pain and of secrets rather kept silent.
Down the spiral stair I go and find a place to rest and know...
here she wept and wasted away longing for those happier days.
Facts, Ghosts, Folklore
The ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle have for centuries inspired many to visit. The images and atmosphere have stirred the hearts and spirits of many and this is certainly one place that is very deserving of local folklore and legends. One of the important things to remember about Berry Pomeroy is that the written records that survive do actually confirm many of the mysteries and stories surrounding it. It is almost certain that knights in armour passed through the gatehouse. Many of the Pomeroys were Knights and one fought and died in the Crusades in the Middle East in the 13th century. Whether or not you believe in ghosts there have been reliable people who have visited have experienced various phenomena. It is certainly true to say that ones visit to the remains will be enriched with the stories and facts that are imprinted there. A few of the ghostly encounters are highlighted in "bold italics" above but here are many others surrounding the castle. A book by Deryck Seymour & Jack Hazzard covers them in detail.
Magic is unique to each individual as much as character is... Not everyone will see ghosts or feel the spiritual realm, but we all have the ability to see and feel the romantic magic in life around us. You can never expect to see, feel, and hear what others do but you can discover your own magical journey through life.
For more information on the castle I would recommend the following:
Assistant Treasurer, Devon Archaeological Society, c/o RAM Museum, Queen St. Exeter EX4 3RX.