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When the writer becomes the story!

Updated: Feb 12

Sabine Baring Gould (1834-1924) was a great collector of folklore and ghost stories. He travelled from country tavern to country tavern, to hear the colourful tales the rural men and women had to tell. In doing so, he saved priceless pieces of Devonshire heritage. Old stories, beliefs and superstitions would've been forgotten, had it not been for his efforts in recording them for posterity. Perhaps surprisingly, in today's modern age of science and technology, such folktales are more popular than ever.

The Ghost of Lew Trenchard Manor, Madam Margaret Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould's ancestral home was the picturesque Lew Trenchard Manor in Devon. Just a handful of miles from the border with Cornwall, its handsome stonework and pretty gardens nestle within the very shadow of Dartmoor's craggy western tors. Lew Trenchard was, by all accounts, in very poor condition when he inherited it in 1872. Sabine subsequently spent a great deal of money remodelling the place, until it resembled the Jacobean stately home he'd always dreamt of living in.

When the neighbouring church of St Peter's became vacant in 1881, he moved in and became both parson and squire. The old term for such a man was squarson. However, his new home wasn't quite as empty as the church, for it was haunted by a very active and energetic ghost. This was the spirit of his great great grandmother, the formidable 'Madam Margaret'.

That strong-minded woman died in her chair in 1795, having refused the doctors' advice to lie quietly in bed. Upon her moment of death, all Lew Trenchard's window shutters threw themselves open! One can only imagine a servant's surprise when, peering out of one such window an hour later, he saw his old mistress seemingly alive and well, standing in the garden beneath a fine walnut tree. The ghost of Madam Margaret had begun her career in hauntings.

She proved so prolific that in 1832 a carpenter was employed to open the vault in St Peter's church where she was buried. Presumably, the intention was for the sitting clergyman to then perform an exorcism of kinds and 'lay her ghost to rest'. Madam Margaret was having none of it. As the tomb was opened, her ghost appeared in the otherwise cold and empty church. She then chased the poor carpenter out of the building and from her estate.

Other notable hauntings include the time when an old family friend, returning from a trip to America, came to visit. The man's name was Symmonds.

Sabine Baring-Gould, who learnt told tales of Madam Margaret's restless ghost from his mother, recited the tale in one of his books.

“A young man, named Symmonds, living at Galford, a farm in the parish, left home for America during the old Madame’s lifetime. After some years he returned, and hiring a horse at Tavistock he rode home, a distance of twelve miles.

It was a clear moonlight night, and as he passed through the Lew Valley, with the white rime lying thick on the grass, he noticed a newly- ploughed field, in which the plough had been left. On this was seated a lady in white satin, with long brown hair floating down her shoulders. Her face was uplifted, and her eyes directed 
towards the moon, so that Mr. Symmonds had a full view of it.

He recognised her at once, and taking off his hat he called out, I wish you a very good night, Madame.’ She bowed in return, and waved her hand, the man noticing the sparkle of her diamond rings as she did so.

On reaching home, after the first greetings and congratulations, he said to his aged parents, ‘What do you think now? I have seen that strange Madame Gould sitting on a plough, this time o’ night, and with frost on the ground, looking at the moon.’

All who heard him started, and a blank expression passed over their countenances. The young man, seeing that he had surprised them more than he anticipated, asked what was the matter. The reply was, ‘Madame was 
buried three days ago in Lew church.’

Needless to say, Sabine himself saw and heard his ancestor's ghost too. He recalled seeing her standing on the gallery at Lew Trenchard Manor, a calm and peaceful presence that caused him no fear. Amusingly, he also wrote about hearing the crunch of unseen carriage wheels on the gravel drive outside his home, and the peals of mocking laughter that followed whenever he tried to uncover their source.

A Second Restless Woman

The story above is well-known. What mightn't be so well known is the story of Sabine's stepmother, Lavinia Baring-Gould, who his father Edward married in 1865. Lavinia entered the family two years after Sabine's mother, Sophia Charlotte, died in 1863.

Upon Edward passing away, Lavinia moved from Lew Trenchard to the estate's dower house, Ardoch Lodge. She lived there until her own death in April 1921.

Ardoch Lodge burnt down sometime around 1960 and was rebuilt as a modern dwelling. Only a couple of original features survived, one of which was an old stone wall. It was eventually bought by Geoffrey McIntyre Rowe, the Cornish comedian better known by his stage name Jethro. He then turned it into a comedy club, bar and restaurant on the then main road between London and Land's End.

Back in the summer of 2012, I worked as a brewery rep for a small real-ale brewer called Fry's. Driving along that road, I visited the Ardoch Lodge in the hope of selling some beer. I didn't recognise Jethro (which greatly amused the man) and he couldn't buy from me because he'd just closed his club. Only the Sunday Carvery remained open. I found Jethro friendly, hospitable and kind. Very generously, he gave me a tour of his place and shared stories from its heyday.

One stood out amongst the general reminiscing of days gone by. It was an unusual tale to say the least. Jethro told me that Lavinia had never quite left her old dower house.

A black and photograph of her and another man (presumably Edward?) hung on the original stone wall. If anyone ever dared move it, Jethro said in his warm Cornish accent, "The whole bloody place went 'aywire."

He also claimed things often vanished without explanation.

"Keys, your pipe, a cap. Things like that go missin' for three, six, twelve months at a time. Then, completely out of the blue, they reappear somewhere silly, like on top of the bar. Now, I don't know about it, and I never saw anything myself, but it's definitely 'er!

Sometimes I'm workin' 'ere late at night and I wonder about it. I've even called out to 'er, taskin' Lavinia to show 'erself. Not that she ever has, o' course. But it'd be nice to know for sure if she were real."

The Ardoch Lodge is now empty and awaiting redevelopment to be turned into housing. Jethro sadly passed away in December last year. I wonder whether Lavinia's spirit still haunts what's left of her old dower house, and whether anyone will try and remove her picture from the wall.

Meanwhile, Lewtrenchard Manor (as it's now known) is a fine hotel and well worth visiting, whether or not one wishes to see the ghost of the formidable Madam Margaret. You can learn more about it here

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Jan 14, 2023

What a great tale! Okay I’m definitely buying your book now!!

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