MINSDEN CHAPEL, now just a secluded ruin on the summit of a wooded hill 3 miles south of Hitchin in Hertfordshire has long laid claim to a solitary ghost; that of a 15thcentury monk that reputedly appears around Halloween, the sound of a ‘phantom bell’ often accompanying his lonely appearances. The figure has also been seen ascending a flight of invisible steps which were presumably a part of the Chapel’s interior before it fell into serious decline in the latter part of the 17th century.
Little more is known about the Chapel’s ghostly visitant, although another story has it that the monks at Minsden once nursed victims of the Black Death in 1665, and that the monk himself (who may have become an eventual fatality) returns to offer solace for the souls of those long since departed.
Whatever the truth behind this story, it is a fact that on one occasion an appearance of this ghostly figure was almost certainly faked by an over-zealous photographer who is down on local record as one T.W. Latchmore. In 1907, he claimed to have actually photographed the figure; although it is likely that he used a ‘double exposure’ to gain his illustration of the spectre-legend. In fact, this photograph is still in evidence and appears in volume two of an old book by Reginald Hine titled The History of Hitchin.
Of course, the use of one trick photograph does not necessarily invalidate the entire Minsden haunting; to the contrary, this episode could itself be taken as proof that as far back as 1907, the story about the ghostly monk was in existence – notwithstanding the means employed by someone out to ‘prove’ its authenticity.
But Reginald Hine himself could certainly not be accused of such wanton sentimentality. A dedicated historian, he leased Minsden Chapel from the Clergy at Hitchin at the beginning of the century and it became one of his favourite his favourite spots; so much so, that at his request his ashes were scattered around the Chapel ruins and he vowed that after his death he would endeavour “in all ghostly means” to return to Minsden Chapel and protect its hallowed walls.
There have been no reports of his ghost but his memorial stone, at least, is still in evidence in the Chapel ruins.
There are certain events that have occurred at Minsden in more recent years, however, which might not be entirely compatible with stories about the ghostly monk; indeed, which would suggest that Minsden Chapel has been visited by very ‘earthly entities’ with some clandestine purpose in mind…
In the summer of 1983, the distinct aftermath of some occult ceremony was discovered in the ruins; the charred remains of a fire surrounded by stones marked with occult symbols and burnt down candles, indicating that some occult rite had taken place there. (The author witnessed the remains of this ceremony in late August 1983 whilst on a visit to Minsden Chapel by day.)
Of course, the remains of some obscure occult rite does not necessarily suggest the existence of ‘witches’ or ‘Satanists’ practising at Minsden Chapel. The culprits may well have been youngsters ‘out for kicks’, but if this was the case, it is worth noting that sometimes occult activity – even if attempted by amateurs – can sometimes activate certain forms of psychic energy which, in turn, can aid the manifestation of ghostly phenomena.
There is no way of telling if such activity had any bearing on the frequency of the ghostly monk’s appearances, although it would not be the first time that the actions of ‘occult dabblers’ at potentially haunted sites, has led to an escalation in psychic activity.
Be that as it may, Peter Rosewarne from nearby Baldock – himself having no interest in things occult, or even taking seriously the existence of ghosts as such – is quite convinced that some uncanny presence exists at Minsden Chapel. He recalls a visit to the Chapel in the summer of 1959 accompanied by a lady friend and a small fox terrier …
It was a warm summers afternoon around 4 p.m. and a bright cloudless day. We left the motor car at the bottom of the footpath and entered the Chapel and looked around. The dog wandered off while we were looking at the Hine memorial stone and we noticed this was cracked in half. Eventually the dog returned and seemed afraid. All at once, the atmosphere seemed to go cold and the dog whined and lay down, cringing on the ground. We then noticed that although the sun was out and the day cloudless, it had gone dark in the Chapel. It was a strange experience as neither of us had any experience of anything occult and no interest in things psychic.
Another intriguing account (totally unrelated) appearing to give further credence to the Minsden haunting, comes from Mrs Mary Prowse from Hitchin who recounts a similar experience when she was visiting Minsden Chapel with her husband and young son in the summer of 1975.
It was a hot summer’s day, but Mary Prowse distinctly recalled the cold, gloomy atmosphere inside the ruins, despite the fact that the Chapel had no roof and there was nothing to obstruct the sunlight. Shortly afterwards, Mrs Prowse took some family snapshots just outside the ruins and, when later developed, two of these showed what appeared to be the vague shape of a ‘cowled figure’ standing in the background under an archway at the entrance to the Chapel.
I examined these photographs and there was indeed an inexplicable ‘shape’ appearing to resemble a vague human figure standing under the archway but unfortunately, whilst willing to cooperate as best she could, Mrs Prowse had long since mislaid the negatives to these photographs (which were in colour) and the quality of the prints themselves was not sufficient in texture to provide any positive identification of paranormal activity.
Mrs Prowse concluded her account by saying …
There’s something not quite right there. It was an eerie feeling and even though it was a sunny day it was really cold up there. We couldn’t get away quick enough.
Other sightings of a ghostly monk in the vicinity (perhaps the same phenomenon) have been reported in the grounds of St. Mary’s Church in Hitchin which itself, was reputedly built upon the site of an old monastery. The grounds of St Mary’s now contain Warner Almshouses, built as residences for the poor in 1893 but now modernised into private residences. Interestingly enough, a secret tunnel is said to run beneath the grounds of St. Mary’s which leads to Biggin Almshouses (one of the oldest buildings in Hitchin dating back to 1391) and Hitchin Priory – the latter also reputed to be haunted by a ghostly monk.
Mrs E. Richards, who lives in Warner House, is another witness to what may have been the ghostly monk.
It was a wet and windy Sunday afternoon in 1974, and Mrs Richards was alone in the house tidying up after a visit from her great-grandchild. Suddenly, through the window, she saw a tall figure dressed in black, its head covered by a cowl, crossing the back yard.
Fully expecting somebody to knock, she went to the door but there was no-one there, and no exit by which this ‘person’ could have left.
Realising her ‘visitor’ could have been of ghostly origin, Mrs Richards later recalled her experience to some regular workmen who were under contract to maintain the building; mainly to enquire if anybody else had seen such a figure. This request was partially successful for, although one of the men ‘laughed his head off’, another took her account more seriously saying he had heard similar accounts from other residents.
But Mrs Richards was undeterred about any frivolous reactions to her sighting
I don’t care what anybody thinks. I know what I saw, and that is the truth.
Ghostly monk or no, it is a fact that an atmosphere of intense gloom and despair indeed envelops the tiny ruins of Minsden Chapel, and the notable absence of any birds, despite thick woodland all around, would suggest that some psychic force or ‘presence’ is operative there. Animals, at least, are known to be susceptible to certain ‘influences’ often undetected by the human senses, and will avoid spots where these may be especially potent.
Minsden’s ghostly monk, like many other cases of reputed psychic phenomena, may well remain a mystery without material proof to substantiate – even refute – its authenticity. But in conclusion, it is interesting to note that Minsden Chapel itself falls upon a ley line, and to remind ourselves that under conditions, these lines may be instrumental in conducting and ‘replaying’ certain forms of psychic energy along their course, resulting in the appearance of many so-called ‘ghosts’ or ‘spirits’.
Paradoxically, whilst sometimes appearing as visible forms, such entities may posses no more intelligence than that of an out-dated television picture.
But truth often proves to be stranger than fiction, and perhaps the very appearance of these ‘ethereal pictures – as and when these are seen to appear – could provide an important clue to the real origins of many ghostly phenomena. END
(c) David Farrant
The above case was first published in David Farrant’s book : ‘Dark Journey – True cases of ghostly phenomena from the files of the British Psychic and Occult Society’