In 2005, when my wife Sharon and I saw the Skirrid Inn in Monmouthshire was looking for new owners, we didn’t think twice. We had been running a pub in Hertfordshire and looking for an opportunity to return to our Welsh roots; the Skirrid offered that. With its reputation for paranormal activity, it couldn’t have been more different from the beautiful thatched pub we were leaving; but I love places full of history and intrigue. I enjoy horror films, too.
Walk in and it’s like entering a castle, with stone-flagged floors everywhere. It’s said there was a building here as early as 1110 and, though it’s impossible to verify, we do claim to be the oldest pub in Wales – most of the main bar dates from the Tudor period, and upstairs, where our guests stay, was a courtroom until Cromwell’s time. Many of the alleged ghosts are connected to that room. Local legend has it that George Jeffreys, the notorious 17th-century “hanging judge”, may have heard cases here, and that 182 people have been executed in the building. We keep a noose on the staircase, hanging from the beam that was supposedly used; it has score marks on it said to have been caused by the weight of hanging bodies.
Though I’m sceptical about these stories, during the 14 years we’ve been here, I’ve experienced my fair share of unexplained phenomena. On our first night at the inn, before we’d even taken over, we were sleeping in a big four-poster bed when Sharon complained of something tugging on her leg. It happened several times during the night and we had to keep turning the lights on. Of course, there was nothing there, but we barely slept. Later, we learned that relatives of people who were slow to die during a hanging would yank on their loved ones’ legs to end their suffering. I was quite shaken by that.
Not long after that, my young grandson went to the toilet and came back complaining, “The man in the long dress won’t let me in!” There was no one else in the place at the time – even Sharon was out. Brave man that I am, I made him hang on until she came back.
I’ve only once seen a full figure – a coachman-like character in a tricorn hat, standing in the porch in broad daylight. He caught my eye for a second or two, then was gone. That was about eight years ago and since then I’ve sometimes thought, “Did I really see that?” Obviously it would be great for business if I kept coming out with these stories, but I do question everything.
The pub attracts a lot of psychics, paranormal investigators and TV crews. I’ve seen a few dodgy spiritualists over the years, but the ones who genuinely seem to believe in what they’re doing and don’t take themselves too seriously are always welcome. Our bar regulars get on well with the visitors – they love showing them around and telling their own uncanny stories. Most of the staff have had strange encounters, too – we’ve had glasses and customers’ change flying off the bar, unexplained cold spots in rooms, and one young woman who said an unseen presence whispered, then roared in her ear.
Our best-known former resident is an 18th-century barmaid called Fanny Price, who died of consumption and is buried in the local churchyard. She has been spotted frequently and people often say they can smell lavender just before she appears. There have been more troubling manifestations – on half a dozen occasions, guests have shown me strange marks that have appeared around their necks – but there’s only been one instance of outright malevolence that I’m aware of. A woman came running down from one of the bedrooms, hair wet and dressed only in a coat, saying, “She tried to kill me!” Apparently she’d been in the bath and something had held her down under the water. I thought it was interesting that she said “she” rather than “he” or “it”, but she didn’t stick around to explain and I’ve been unable to contact her since.
Sceptical as I am, I don’t take any chances and I do maintain the local tradition of every night putting out the Pwcca Cup, a special tankard filled with ale to appease the devil. On a windy night this time of year, when I go outside and the pub sign is swinging and the wind’s howling, I do look over my shoulder. One day I’m going to turn round and something’s going to be there. I think it will be the end of me. Especially if it’s a clown. They scare me to death.
• As told to Chris Broughton
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