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Time to get into the Christmas spirit

Peterhouse College buidings. Picture: Keith Heppell
Peterhouse College buidings. Picture: Keith Heppell

It has been a long-held tradition to tell ghost stories at Christmas time, especially in Cambridge.

The city has its own unique collection of ghostly apparitions, which have appeared throughout the years, especially at the many colleges.

The Signalman by Charles Dickens is always a favourite around the festive period, along with many excellent stories from the master of the ghostly genre, M R James.

So, with that in mind, sit back, have a mince pie and a glass of your favourite tipple, and learn about some of the ghosts alleged to inhabit the various learning establishments in the city.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the last recorded appearance of Francis Dawes, who was employed as a bursar at Peterhouse.

He decided to hang himself after an election scandal and took his life close to the Combination Room.

His ghost is said to have been seen on numerous occasions leading up to 1997 and staff are said to have refused to enter the Combination Room as others had seen a ghostly apparition moving slowly across the floor and disappearing close to the spot where the unfortunate Mr Dawes was found.

Mr Dawes, who is buried in the neighbouring churchyard of Little St Mary’s, committed suicide after taking the blame for the controversial election of Francis Barnes as Master of Peterhouse.

The election, overseen by the bursar, was marked by skullduggery and resulted in a highly unpopular winner.

Sidney Sussex College is, of course, the home of the skull of Oliver Cromwell – although its exact whereabouts are known only to a select few and all of those “in the know” have vowed to take their secret to the grave.

His skull was buried in a special ceremony in the early 1960s and since then, it has been said that his spectral floating head has been seen on many occasions.

The Gibbs Building in King’s College is also renowned for some ghostly goings-on. The college was the residence of celebrated ghost story writer M R James.

Built in 1723, the Gibbs Building is renowned as one of the most haunted places in the city.

It faces the River Cam and is an imposing three-storey building which stands in the shadow of King’s College Chapel.

It is said to be haunted by a former fellow, known as Barrett.

He was something of an oddball as he kept a coffin in his rooms and was often noted to be both frightening and erratic in manner.

He apparently lost all his money through bad luck which always seemed to conspire against him and then, one night, screams were heard in his lodgings. He was found dead in his coffin the next day.

Even now, on the anniversary of his death, it is said a ghostly cry can be heard resonating along his old staircase in the Gibbs Building.

Not surprisingly, the main architect of this story is none other than M R James himself.

James arrived at Cambridge at the end of the 19th century and stayed close to Barrett’s old lodgings.

He wrote many of his ghost stories while at Cambridge and read them to students on Christmas Eve.

He maintains that he never heard the cry but he knew of other academics who had done so. Spooky stuff, eh?

Remember though, most ghostly events can be rationally explained... but then there is always one that baffles even the most sceptical.

Have a spookily great Christmas!

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