All aboard The Spooky Ship

Dorothy Collins as Emily Lancaster, The Spooky Ship 2017. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ss Great Britain, moored at Great Western Dockyard in Bristol, is a wonderfully intriguing vessel. Populated with impressively realistic models of people and animals, it also has a hint of the uncanny about it.

Each year in collaboration with Bristol Old Vic Theatre, these characters are brought to life in an eerie succession of immersive performances that share stories inspired by real lives lost and lingering, drawn from the depths of the ship’s history…This year The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked focuses on the night in 1846 when the ss Great Britain ran aground.

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship - 2016 - Photos by Jon Rowley

Scott Bayliss as a Crimean soldier aboard The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Previously, I had the chance to go along, bringing a friend with me to hide behind if necessary. We were expecting something along the lines of a haunted house, but what we got was so much more, as our guide led us through the impressive architecture of the ship to witness vignettes from a pitiful bride, a broken soldier from the Crimean war (Scott Bayliss), a vengeful nun (Kirsty Asher) and a ship’s butcher (Hal Kelly) who happened to enjoy his work just a little too much.

The ship's butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

The ship’s butcher played by Hal Kelly, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

We paused in the first class dining saloon where a 19th couple (Julia Head and Matt Landau) were feasting and gossiping – all good and fine until one confessed to chowing down on a plague-ridden rat and the other commented on the deliciousness of the ship’s pudding-faced cat, then turned their eyes hungrily on us.

The atmosphere was heightened by overhearing fragments from early set scenes – while Sister Benedict talked of the fallen women she despised, shrieks from the distressed soldier rose through the floor. Our guide fed us titbits of the histories that gave the performances their foundations, while cabins fitted out as they would have been in previous centuries, complete with realistic figures in the midst of their own frozen adventures, added to the creepiness.

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Sister Benedict played by Kirsty Asher, The Spooky Ship 2016. Photo by Jon Rowley

Many of the tales pulled at the heart strings, such as that of Mrs Gray (played by Stephanie Kempson), who arrived at docks to welcome her husband Captain John Gray home only to discover he’d mysteriously disappeared a month earlier when the ship was still at sea. Her wailing grief sent shivers through the crowd.

The story of Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins – shown top of post) was particularly disturbing. Crouching on a flight of steps beneath the dry dock, she told us how she’d succumbed to the pox and been flung overboard before she was dead. Her anger and sorrow was palpable, enhanced by the wonderful setting.

The mix of frights, facts, horrors, dark humour and laments, all staged in and around the ship, made this a fabulously immersive Halloween voyage.

The Spooky Ship: Shipwrecked is on from 31 October until 2nd November 2019.

All photo by Jon Rowley. Find out more and book tickets at https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/spooky-ship-shipwrecked.

Writing prompt – spooky settings

ss Great Britain by Judy DarleyWith Halloween almost upon us, it’s got me thinking about ghost stories and what makes them work. In my opinion, a large part of this is the setting you choose, whether that’s a cemetery, a cave, a toyshop (a la Angela Carter), a ship… There are so many options, each of which can be mined for their own particular creepiness.

Last night I read a scary tale at Redcliffe Caves, as part of Bristol Festival of Literature’s Writers in the Caves event. My ghost story is set in the caves themselves. I read it surrounded by flickering by candlelight, in the darkness of the man-made caverns.

And then on Saturday, I’m excited to be heading to Brunel’s ss Great Britain, a beautiful ship built more than 170 years ago, and now set in a dry dock on Bristol’s harbourside. In association with Bristol Old Vic, actors will brings the ship’s history to life (or, rather, underneath), in the manner of a haunted house. Eeeps!

This week, I urge you to consider an intriguing or unsettling location and use that as the starting point of an eerie tale.

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

Ghostly getaways

Lumley Castle Hotel, County DurhamI love a spine-chilling, skin-tingling old fashioned ghost story, especially with Halloween almost upon us. If you’re seeking an inspirational spot to retreat to this All Hallows’ Eve, it seems Britain is rife with unsettling options. Just think of the inspiration you could glean for your next eerie tale!

Hoping for a heart-rending haunting? Head to Lumley Castle Hotel in County Durham (pictured above). Legend has it that in the 14th century the lady of the manor, Lily Lumley, was chucked down a well, and continues to trawl the castle grounds and corridors after nightfall.

Abbey Combe Hotel

Abbey Combe Hotel

Over at Coombe Abbey Hotel in Warwickshire, a 12th Century Cistercian Abbey, the tranquility is disrupted by an unearthly Hooded Monk, said to be the ghost of Abbott Geoffrey who was brutally murdered in 1345. His cloaked figure has been seen wandering the formal gardens designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and causing mayhem with poltergeist activity in the kitchens.

Abbey Combe Hotel gardens

Abbey Combe Hotel gardens

If the monk doesn’t make your heart lodge in your throat, look out for a green-eyed girl known as Matilda, rumoured to be the spirit of a stablehand taken advantage of by the master of the house. When he refused to accept responsibility for her pregnancy, Matilda cursed the house, and still storms through the rooms, slamming each door she passes through.

The Langham in London boasts the capital’s most haunted hotel room – room 333. Since it opened in 1865, it’s said to have been as popular with the dead as the living. Look out for a silver haired gentleman wearing a cravat – the ghost of a Victorian who murdered his wife and then killed himself while on their honeymoon at the hotel. Charming.

Redworth Hotel-exterior

Redworth Hotel

Then there’s Redworth Hall Hotel, Darlington, a Georgian manor house standing in 150 acres of woodland. If you book a night here, you could encounter the ghost of a jilted lover and hear the sound of ghostly children crying throughout the building.

Just the thing to ensure a night of sweet dreams.

Happy Halloween!

Find full details of all these hotels at www.laterooms.com.