Discovering Guildford's Ghosts with Philip Hutchinson

By , Columnist

The Ghost Tour of Guildford

Ghosts have an affinity for old buildings, it seems. Whether this is because the aging structures have had longer than their younger counterparts to gather spirits to them, or because books, films, and television shows have simply taught us to expect historic buildings to be haunted is almost beside the point.

The fact is that where you find old buildings you tend to find tales of the supernatural. It is little surprise, therefore, that Guildford has plenty of ghostly lore.

This attractive English town is the administrative centre for the county of Surrey, and it lies approximately 25 miles to the southwest of London. Ambling along its streets will take you past buildings that have seen centuries of history and that are themselves watched over by Guildford Castle, believed to have been first built shortly after William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066.

There is so much history here that to make the most of Guildford’s ghost stories requires a good guide. Fortunately the town can boast the best.

Philip Hutchinson has been interested in ghosts and hauntings his entire life and is the author of (among other titles) Haunted Guildford (The History Press, 2006). For the past 12 years he has been a member of the Ghost Club, the oldest psychical research organisation in the world, and he has sat on that august body’s Council since 2001. In that same year he started The Ghost Tour of Guildford.

Hi Philip, right from its beginning back in 2001, The Ghost Tour of Guildford has been a hugely popular attraction. What do you put its enduring appeal down to?

Guildford is a large borough and, having a University, it has a sector of its populace which is transient. It’s unlike most ghost tours because the style of delivery ranges from the abusive to the surreal! People have come along as much for the oddity of the event as the history.

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I believe the tour covers around 20 different locations, which would suggest a rather rich tradition of supernatural tales here. Would you describe Guildford as an especially haunted town?

It doesn't cover 20 sites anymore. I think it did when I first started but, as the years progress and people give me additions to some of the sites, I've added these on, necessitating those tales with less duration or foundation to be quietly put to bed. Suitably, I now cover 13 sites.

Would I describe Guildford as an especially haunted town? Well, if you'd opened a book on ghosts prior to 2000, you would only have found possibly two tales. Now, with the tour being well established, most books will reel off a whole host of them.

I’ve always maintained there are as many ghosts in a town as there are people to talk about them. Look at Farnham — when [famous ghost hunter and author] Peter Underwood lived just outside that town it gained a reputation as the most haunted town in England. Now he's moved away, it's not somewhere you'd think of.

I have now been told ghost stories linked to almost every other building in the High Street but, foolishly, I very rarely make note of them. Guildford is an old town. Most of the buildings are of great age. I would say that would give us a head start.

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Has anybody ever experienced something strange during one of your tours?

Yes. Three times now, and all of them on a short stretch of Quarry Street.

In 2002, one man saw an umbrella dancing about on a CCTV screen he could view through a window.

Later that year, a woman had her leg shoved out of the way by a small hand (felt, not seen) on a set of haunted steps.

And in 2006, two people twice saw a small dog run down the road towards them and then vanish in front of them.

How about you? Have you ever seen or heard anything mysterious in Guildford (or indeed elsewhere)?

This is a question I loathe, because I get it all the time and have to go into automatic mode!

I have only once seen an apparition, at Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire in 2002.

I have twice woken from dreams to ‘see’ ghosts in the room, which I am sure was my brain backfiring (which makes it no less fascinating).

I have seen ghost lights (as opposed to natural photographic orbs) travelling up a wall in a house in Lincolnshire with a haunted reputation.

I've also seen poltergeist activity at a haunted pub in London when a pint glass at an unoccupied table flew across it and into the middle of the room, observed by several of us.

In Guildford, my only experiences have been during an investigation at Waterstone’s bookshop in 2004. All that personally happened to me were alarms going off by themselves and the sound of a lift rattling when it wasn't in use.

You must have some stories that you particularly enjoy telling on the tour; what are your personal favourites?

Ironically, the story I used to enjoy telling the most is now the one I enjoy least of all — the haunting of the old Waterstone’s bookshop in the High Street. I was directly involved in this case but the story is now twice as long as when I started the tour and I can't wait to get it over.

I wouldn't say there's any tale I enjoy more than another, but I certainly look forward to the jokes, of which there are a lot. If they're a reticent group, then I use the jokes to spite them!

The Ghost Tour operates every week for most of the year but I understand you’ve already given the last of your regular public tours for 2011. These will be starting again next April but for those of us eager to discover more about Guildford’s paranormal side, is it possible to book a private tour before then?

I do private tours for groups at any time, provided I'm free when the booking's made. I do still have a couple of bookings in the run-up to Christmas — a birthday party and an outing for the Surrey Police (during which I hope I get some abuse from troublemakers so we can class it as a 'sting'!).

When I began, I ran the tours every Friday night all year round. After three years I found my attendee levels from December to February were piteously low, so I stopped from December to February. The last two years, attendee levels have halved and halved again, probably due to the lack of post-Recession free publicity. As of 2012, I'll be starting on Good Friday rather than the start of March. It just happens that in 2012, that'll be the first Friday in April.

Thanks very much, Philip.

Take the Ghost Tour of Guildford:

Are you ready to discover why Holy Trinity Church is cursed? Do you want to know the identity of the mysterious lady in grey? Would you like a good excuse to visit the King’s Head pub, said to be Guildford’s most haunted building?

The Ghost Tour of Guildford will run every Friday night from April to November 2012 in Guildford town centre but you don’t have to wait until then.

Private tours can be arranged for any time, as long as Philip is available. To arrange a tour contact him via the Ghost Tour website or email him directly.

Facebook users can find the Ghost Tour of Guildford’s page here.

Images used with permission of The Ghost Tour of Guildford. Credits: 1 Simon Drake; 2, 3 Justine Cornforth; 4, 5 Ant Davey.

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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