Passports 9: Guests and Ghosts in an English Hotel

We chose to be guests at the George & Pilgrim Hotel in Glastonbury, England.  What we did not choose was that a few other guests were quite dead.  Yes, there were a fair number of living travelers that night but occupying the same space and the same time, were the resident ghosts.

What else would you expect from a hotel that was many centuries old?  A hotel that was probably once a wayside inn for pilgrims, wanderers, holy men and holy women.

Thirty years ago, I lived in England for a year as an exchange teacher.  On my frequent weekend wanderings, I tried to see as many interesting places that were within a reasonable drive from my temporary home in south Dorset.  Glastonbury was an obvious choice.  It was a short drive and it had a long and storied history.  Here was Glastonbury Abbey.  I first laid eyes on the Abbey when I would leaf through the Britain volume of Stoddard’s “Lectures,” a now out-of-print series of books written by John L. Stoddard, a traveler/lecturer, that was published in 1897.  The photographs of the Abbey captured my imagination like few other things did when I was a young teen (except girls).  I knew then, in 1961, that I simply had to see this Abbey.  There was something about the stark remnants of this once beautiful church that spoke to me.  It spoke to me and called my name and told me that I had to come and see these stones for myself.  I had to put my hands on the polished limestone, already rubbed smooth by reverent hands centuries ago.  I had to sit on the stone seat along the wall of the nave, and rest my back against the wall…like many a weary monk.

So, there I was, in 1984, paying a few pounds to visit the grounds of the Abbey.  There, were the stone walls…just like I had seen in the books.  As I rounded the corner of what once was the front entrance, I came upon a scene that had slipped my mind somehow.  There in the nave (now a grassy lawn) was the site of King Arthur’s Tomb…and that of his great love, Guinevere.  The bones were discovered by a monk centuries ago and removed to another site.  Since then, the cross and bones have disappeared.  History does not tell us much about Arthur, but here, at my feet, was the traditional resting place of his mortal remains.

This all hinges on whether or not one believes he is really dead.

Which brings us to another important site in Glastonbury…the Tor.  Long revered as a pilgrim’s destination, it is also thought by some to be where Arthur and Guinevere are asleep…inside the Tor…with his warriors.  Legends say that when England is in peril, Arthur will return and lead his warriors and knights to save the country.

It’s all pretty heady stuff if you’re into Arthurian Legends and mystic folklore.  What I have just written is just a tiny fraction of why Glastonbury is vital to a vast spectrum of spiritual people.

I climbed the Tor at night, alone, in 1984 and sat, waiting for an appearance of a guardian or spirit guide.  Instead, I watched the moon bathe Somerset in a soft glow of pale light that would have put me into a trance…had I not decided to head back into town before the last call at the pub in the George & Pilgrim hotel, where I was staying.

At the bar, I picked up a leaflet issued by the Town Council tourist agency.  It mentioned the hotel.  It also said that “maybe you’ll find yourself in Room 1, the ‘Monk’s Cell’, said to be haunted by a monk who hanged himself several hundred years ago.”  I read it with amusement…how interesting, I thought…then I realized that several hours ago I had put my overnight bag…into Room 1.  I was sleeping that night in the Monk’s Cell.

I spent some of the night half hoping I would be allowed to talk things over with the long-dead monk, and half not wanting to see the spirit of a suicide.  The life of someone who takes their own life must, by definition, be unbearably painful.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what such a soul would look like 600 years after death.  I watched the dark corners of the room for shadows that moved.  I took in deep breaths hoping to catch a whisper of incense.  Nothing.

I also spent some of the night asleep.  So if he was at my bedside, I snored my way through his visit.  This made me feel bad in a way, after all, I wasn’t awake to help him find the peace he may be seeking.

Which brings us to last Thursday night.  My wife and I did not have Room 1, we were given Room 10.  Another floor and around the corner from my monk.  In the course of talking with the young woman at the registration desk as well as the bartender, I discovered that the hotel was allegedly haunted by several cats, a dog or two, a child, a man and a woman…and, of course, the monk.  The woman who registered us said she was in Room 1 cleaning when a screw was thrown at her.  She had no explanation.  The cook said she saw the form of a short person along the wall of another room.  She was later told that a child haunted that room.  It’s only at night, she said, was she fearful of some of the shadowy corners and dark hallways.

Before my wife and I went downstairs to have dinner, I stopped on the first floor and looked at the door of the Monk’s Cell.  The room I occupied thirty years ago.  I turned around and saw that the room just across the narrow hall was called the Nun’s Cell.  Monk’s Cell…Nun’s Cell???  It got me thinking, if you catch my drift.

Alas, we did not see an apparition during our one night stay.  I am of many minds about ghosts.  I want to believe, I really do.  But something, the rational side of me, thinks that if there is indeed life after death (I have so many doubts about so many things as I grow older), the souls would probably have better things to do, or more spiritual existences to occupy them.

But, I do love a good ghost story.  I hope someday to write and publish a great ghost story, one that has all the elements a tale of the dead should have.

I do know one thing for sure.  It has been said that one should write about what one knows.

That’s why I want to meet a ghost and have some quality time with him or her.

I want to meet a ghost someday…or, better yet…some night.

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The George & Pilgrim Hotel.

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The stairway from the second floor.

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The hallway with the Monk’s Cell on the left.

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Room 1–The Monk’s Cell

 

An American in Dorset (an excerpt)

Preface

As I understand it, I am not allowed to donate blood.  I have the British Government to partly thank for this dilemma.  It so happens that I resided in Great Britain during the years when Mad Cow Disease was in its very early stages.  I say, “partly thank” because even though MCD began to develop in their herds on their watch, no one forced me to eat a Steak and Kidney Pie every other night in the corner of a cozy pub, over the course of a year.

That part was my uninformed choice.

The incubation period of Mad Cow Disease seems to be measured in decades, so if I had contracted it in the mid-1980s, any aberrant behavior on my part would have manifested itself by now. (There goes something else I can’t blame for my odd personality disorders of late.)

Anyway, I can’t give blood.

~~~~

I didn’t go to England on a dare.  I didn’t go on a whim, or to escape a vengeful husband or boyfriend, to evade charges of mail fraud in Utah, to finish my thesis on John Keats or to search for that mythical British bar-wench who still remembered what a low cut serving blouse was for (although I admit I was somewhat curious about that last one).

I went because it was the only way, I thought at the time, to keep my sanity from slipping away from me and allowing me to fall into a dark place.  The root causes that led me to England happened years earlier.

~~~~

I had been teaching in public schools for seven years followed by another three at a private school in New England.

During my time in the public school, I often felt humiliated, oppressed and undervalued on an almost daily basis.  To be sure, this is and was an old complaint among educators.

My story does not begin when I entered a classroom for the first time.  If it were only that simple, I would have little to tell.  My tale begins this way:

I was on my way to class one afternoon. The late bell had already sounded.  I was tardy for my own class because I had felt the need to slip down to the “teachers lounge” for a cup of tea.  This “lounge” was actually a section in the basement of the boiler room of a building erected in 1908.  The few times I had sat at the faculty worktable to have a tea, I could hear the flush of every toilet in the building as the water gushed through the pipes over my head.  This building, I should mention, was designated for the ninth grade only.  Just outside my classroom window was a new $10,000,000 facility for grades ten through twelve.  I climbed the five flights of stairs to get to my room.  On the way, just outside my door I ran into a student who belonged at his desk in my class.  He already had several clashes with the law and his dislike of me was palpable.  I touched his elbow and said, “let’s go”.

At that point he jumped me and began swinging.  I crashed against the lockers and kept my head turned away as he swung at me to avoid having my glasses smashed into my eyes.  We banged against one wall of lockers and he swung me across the hall.  We both collided against another set of metal doors.  A guidance counselor leapt from his hallway desk (we were short on offices) and pulled him off me.  Ten seconds later I was standing in front of my class; they were clueless as to what had happened, and I tried to appear “normal”.  I leaned against my file cabinet and looked down at my hands shake like one stricken with palsy.

I decided to file charges for assault.  I felt strongly that teachers needed protections and it was up to me to send a strong message.  This was the only way I could do it.

The Principal declined to support me.  The teachers union turned their back on me.  In the end I went to the Magistrate alone.  I recall sitting in my car in the parking area of the courthouse listening to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and agonizing over what I was about to do.  This kid was already neck deep in trouble with the school.  Was I saving and serving my profession or was I burying this boy further into adolescent hell?

I settled out of court.

On another occasion, I was sitting on the stage of the school theater.  I was in charge of a study hall that contained about eighty-five students, mostly ninth and tenth graders.  I glanced out at the group and noticed a male student with his back turned to me and leaning toward the floor.  About five minutes before the bell rang to end the class, another boy came up to me and whispered, “He has it in his sock.”

I headed the offending student off at the door.

“Would you come with me for a moment?” I asked.

I led him to the Vice Principals office located down the hall.  We stood before his desk and I explained what happened.

“Well let’s see what’s in your sock,” the Administrator said.

Out came several items of drug paraphernalia, a pipe, some papers and a baggie of what I suspected was weed.

My job being done, I returned to my classroom.  I had a free period.  As soon as I sat down, I heard the yelling and running.

“Get him!” screamed the Vice Principal.

I stepped out of my room only to catch a glimpse of the student running past me and toward the stairwell. He descended two stairs at a time.  He reached the ground floor porch before I did, but I was in time to see him throw several items into the field near the school.

It was over in a minute.  The student was led away and I spent the rest of my free period poking through the brush.  I found the pipe and bag of “weed”.

My class schedule went something like this: I had five classes of ninth grade Earth and Space Science.  Each class had about thirty students.  Consequently I would find myself teaching the same topics, repeatedly, to about one hundred and fifty kids. There were no lab facilities at all.  I had to meet my classes in different locations for a few years.  In some of these old and creaky rooms I would hear my own voice bounce back at me from the rear wall.  I did not like the echo I heard.  I bored myself and could not help but wonder what these kids thought of me.  I should say in all fairness that the school district was recovering from a devastating flood in 1972 and class sessions had to be arranged according to what buildings were repaired and which ones were destined to be leveled.

What I had come to feel as a growing irrelevancy of my professional life hit me hard one fine day.  To earn a few extra bucks I signed on to do “homebound” teaching a state mandated system set up to instruct students who couldn’t be physically in the classroom for one reason or another.  One afternoon, I was at the home of a sixteen-year-old girl.  Her mother was puttering in the kitchen.  I sat at the girl’s desk in her bedroom and was in the process of teaching her about the formation of clouds as a function of condensation.

This girl was about five months pregnant.  She probably would not be finishing school.

She sat and listened quietly.  She was a nice girl, very polite and attentive.  I stopped midway through my fascinating description of cloud formation and drank some water.  During this short break, I asked myself about the quality of this girl’s future and, more to the point, what the hell clouds had to do with anything relevant at this point in her young life.

She earned an “A” for simply not putting a carving knife into my chest.

So, that is where I found my emotional self in the late 1970’s.

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I drove an orange MG Midget at the time.  My mind and hair should have been blowing free and easy to the disco rhymes of ABBA pulsating from an 8-Track player bolted securely below my dashboard.   As the useless sense of my life grew within me, I began to dread the long drive to the school from the farmhouse where I lived.  I needed to leave the house about 6 AM.  The number of the mornings began increasing when I stopped listening to the radio.  Instead I would pull off to the side of the road at 7 AM to weep hot and painful tears.  The fear in me was growing and spreading like a tumor of the soul.

I wasn’t afraid of the kids.  Most of them liked me.  That’s not what made me cry at dawn.  Instead, I was terrified by a life that seemed to trail off somewhere into future time ending on a hill near a tree in a pasture, or an empty seat at a honky-tonk bar at 4 PM, or later against a rusty concrete bridge abutment.

What took me from that place, wiping away my tears in an orange MG Midget to a teacher’s desk in Dorset, England several years later?  That’s the story I wish to tell.Image

 

 

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