It’s not often I research a small town and find there are very few ghost stories associated with the place. Hay on Wye, pretty much on the border of England and Wales, does seem to be a pretty spook-free zone though. It’s unusual! There are a couple of weird tales, which are kind of lacking in substance, which we’ll come to later, nonetheless. While Hay lacks supernatural stories, I did find the place does still have a rather strange atmosphere. Coupled with this feeling, there were some experiences with the living, totally un-paranormal, that made me wonder – is this place a bit odd?!
Now, I don’t want to cause ruffles here. It’s a lovely town. If you don’t know of it yet, I should mention it is known as the ‘Town of Books’ and also hosts the annual Hay Literary Festival, a mecca for writers and book lovers. It was somewhere Owen, my pal from Time Between Times, suggested we meet up at. I’ve always wanted to go so I jumped at the chance. And, with Lady Luck on my side, my partner and I managed to wrangle an extra day up there minus children and animals. The main aim was to meet with Owen, talk about podcasts and writing projects and weird stuff for a day and then stay on to explore.
It’s always good to meet up with Owen to hang out. As part of this meet we visited a spot which is the site of a big cat sighting a few years back. Owen, you may remember, was a policeman for many years. He was called out one evening in 2003 to the road around the corner from The Three Cocks Hotel, a lovely 15th-century pub in the village of Three Cocks, near Glasbury in Powys. He was called to deal with a lady who was adamant a large black cat, a panther, had popped out of the hedgerow on the road in front of her, crossing to the other side and heading off up into the fields.
Owen explains more.
This call has always stuck in my mind for a couple of reasons, the first being the demeanour of the witness. Here was no attention seeker or time waster, this woman was absolutely and genuinely terrified and held my arm throughout our meeting and was physically shaking as we spoke. The second thing was the deathly quiet of the area and the foreboding atmosphere that permeated the air whilst we were there. There was a thick silence and a place that should have been teeming with wildlife seemed to have lost its very soul even if it was just for a few moments. Something had been there and recently. I had no doubt about that.
Big cat sightings were certainly not uncommon following the licensing of keeping wild animals as pets in 1976. Many exotic animals, kept as fashion accessories, were released into the countryside. I guess most of the original animals, set free after 1976 to survive, are probably long gone now, although I’m sure there are still the odd escapees from somewhere or another. They may survive a few years in some of the remoter parts of our island and some people believe there are still a few out there today. Owen was in fact on Weird in the Wade with Natalie to talk about this very experience and her story of the Big Cat of Biggleswade, which actually is far more of a story than it initially seems! You can listen to it here.
In 2009 there was a sighting of a large black cat like animal in New Town Cross, Hereford. 30 miles or so from Hay but that’s not a great distance for a fit and healthy panther to travel in search of prey. Could they have been the same big cat?
Following our visit to see where the big cat was sighted and after a really tasty lunch and a bit of book browsing, we headed to Hay Castle. This is the first place with a ghost story attached to it.
Firstly built as a medieval fortification in the late 11th or 12th century, it was later built rebuilt by the powerful Norman Lord, William de Braose, and his wife Matilda de Braose. By all accounts she was quite the ‘formidable woman’. She defended the castle against Welsh forces while her husband was away and was even said to have ridden into the Welsh Marches in full armour to fight with her men.
This was a lawless and brutal time in the borderlands of Wales and England and you had to be tough to survive, even as the Lord’s wife. Folklore tells the tale of Matilda, said to be a giantess. She made a deal with the Devil and demanded her castle be built in one night. Another account says she built it herself, carrying stones in her apron over the course of one day and one night. She dropped a stone on her toe and in a rage threw it across the River Wye!
The reality is, whilst she was involved in the building, it was unlikely to have been constructed in one night. It would not have been possible. Unless the Devil was involved of course and then anything could be possible!
The family eventually fell apart after a huge falling out with King John over money. They tried to flee the country and William managed to escape to France. Matilda and one of her sons, William the junior, were captured and sentenced to be starved to death either in Corfe Castle in Dorset or in Windsor. However, it is here at Hay Castle that Matilda’s ghost is said to roam.
I found several mentions of Matilda but very little on her ghost. There are no witness accounts, not even any hearsay or old stories. I’m sure there are some out there. I’m yet to come across them though.
It’s so very quiet
At first, I didn’t really notice the weird ‘atmosphere’. Not until later in the day. And, it wasn’t a bad atmosphere, but it was just so very, very quiet. There was not a puff of wind. Not a drop of rain. Just low-lying grey clouds, hanging heavily in the brooding late September sky. And the town itself, whilst open, seemed really very hushed. We were staying in a flat above one of the shops (and very nice it was too!) but even inside the flat there was total silence. The odd voice of a person on the street would go by. Maybe a car. And there were people out and about. They just seemed to be gliding- no footsteps!
Sitting down by the river in the fading light, sharing a beer and watching the water flow, we chatted about the history of the river and it seems it has been used for transportation since Roman times. Think of all the kinds of boats that have floated down the river over the centuries. It was sad to read that is actually very polluted by intensive farming methods further up the valley and is slowing dying, which means the wildlife it supports will die along with it. Sorry to be a Debbie Downer. However, it’s important to acknowledge the implications of our modern way of life on the natural world and damage we are doing to our most beautiful of places.
Open Mic Night
Our first night and we needed beer followed by food. We spotted a sign for a local open mic night! And it was in the ‘The Globe at Hay’, a local arts and music centre, which is actually a converted church and a restaurant serving drinks and burgers. Should you be a burger fan and find yourself in Hay on Wye I highly recommend you eat there. I would say *drum roll please* it was probably the best veggie burger I have EVER HAD! And the chips were soooo good too. Well, anyway, you aren’t here to read about epic burgers I’m sure, so I’ll leave it at that and just recommend you head to The Globe for a burger if you ever get the chance.
Following our dinner, I took a Welsh Dark and Stormy (a new drink I have discovered and ‘it’s lush’ as they say in Wales) into the music hall bit and we sat and waited. 8 pm- open mic! 8.30pm- a few people around. More silence. Some real local characters shuffle in. Old hippy types with long grey hair, and stiped cotton trousers and moth-eaten old jumpers. Possibly having rolled straight off the Welsh hillsides. No sign of music. 8.45pm – we’re wondering if sometimes they just have no one turn up! 9pm – someone pottles onto the stage and the first act begins.
Three lovely folk songs, played well by the host of the night, Christopher. Act two resumes. Another of the old Welsh hippy group. Before he begins his set, he tells us he is responsible for the roadkill on the main road. He gestures into the distance and tells us he picks up all the dead animals through Hay and up the hill and beyond. He tells us all about his job. ‘Squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, rats, things like that’ he drawls in a thick Welsh accent, ‘I throw them in the hedgerow. But this week, and it doesn’t happen often mind, this week, I buried a big old dog fox in my garden. Just dug a hole and put him in.’ My partner and I looked at each other. Where was this going?! The roadkill chat lasted a few minutes more. It was enlightening, if kind of weird. I didn’t know you could work as a roadkill operative.
In the end he dedicated his first song to roadkill and proceeded to actually sing a song about that very subject. It was appropriately titled ‘Roadkill’. This man was a great musician and obviously a real country character, but his song and subsequent telling of a story I believe he wrote (it was hard to understand what was going on) was just a little bit, erm, strange. I literally could not make heads not tails of his story! We headed off shortly after that interesting set (it’s hard to top a song about roadkill) and walked back through the silence of the night.
Weird Autumn Walks and Grave Digging
After a peaceful night of sleep, we decided to head off along the River Wye. A couple of miles along we came to a fork in the path. Upwards to the open and into the fields or straight on into the undergrowth. I made a flash decision. Take the narrow, overgrown path in the woodland on the riverside that my partner was pretty sure looked like a total waste of time. And that’s when we passed someone doing something I am now quite unsure about.
Just off the path, under the boughs of a chestnut tree, a man, again with long grey hair and slightly unkempt in appearance, was bent over a large shovel. He was digging a big hole under the tree. I didn’t look much but he had a pile of something. Were they bags? I didn’t see them properly. He looked up and gave us a nod and went back to digging his very big hole. I looked at my partner. ‘What was he doing?’ We weren’t sure but nothing sinister sprung to mind until we hit the end of the path and had to double back, past the digging man.
This time he didn’t look up, his back to us. He continued his digging. I scurried by and something occurred to me. Have we just witnessed someone burying a body? Had we stumbled across a very sinister situation indeed? You never know with these things! He could have been doing anything I suppose but I am conditioned by my own, very overactive imagination. Just in case, I have logged his details in my mind, along with the date. Just in case…
There were no more strange little interactions on this trip but we did see something in the churchyard that we both commented on ‘being a bit aggro!’ It was on a monument dated 1827 so the writing was eroded and tricky to read even as you stood in front of it. Whilst I have taken several photos it is hard to show you what it said. We did spend time reading it though and inscribed was a rather bitter little rhyme which basically said, ‘You are reading this now, thinking how sad it is we have died. But don’t forget your time is just around the corner and you’ll be dead and buried in the ground before you know it. So there!’
On the Saturday and Sunday, the town was busier. But still, there was a funny feeling in the air. I don’t know if it’s just me. Maybe it’s something to do with where it sits, on the borders of England and Wales, a place with a very turbulent history and so many bloodthirsty and violent events. The borderlands always seem to have a liminal feel, something held in the very land on which the town lays.
It was a lovely place to stay though, and we both had a thoroughly nice time. Before we leave Hay on Wye, let me tell you one ghostly tale I found about the Old Black Lion on Trip Advisor from 2017. The final story. I’m sure there must be other ghost stories yet to be recorded. Or maybe they haven’t been re-told on purpose? One thing I know is, there are secrets in this town. Secrets that prefer to stay hidden.
I stayed here in July for a night. I had booked a single room but was upgraded to a front facing double. The pub is very old and quirky and has sloping floors but is tastefully decorated with old furniture. The bathroom was clean and modern. I ate there in the evening and had a very good vegetarian meal.
At about 2.30am I was woken by some loud banging and it seemed as if someone was moving about in another room (It was very windy out, but it did seem to be coming from indoors). These noises continued intermittently for about an hour and then I fell back to sleep.
In the morning there was only one place set for breakfast and it transpired I was the only guest. I was told no staff had been there at that time…. I asked if it was the ‘ghost’ and was told it may have been. But it was a friendly ghost.
I’m telling you, it’s always a bit weird in the borderlands…
If you want to hear more of the folklore of Wales head on over to Time Between Times. Owen’s podcasts are the perfect way to spend an October evening, sat by the fire or curled up under a blanket, with whatever tipple it is that takes your fancy. I’ll make a cuppa and have a couple of choccie digestives!
Don’t forget, I’m always on the look out for spooky and weird stories from Wiltshire and beyond. If you have a tale you would like to share I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Twitter (or X as we are supposed to call it now) or here.
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Stay spooky everyone!