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Discover Cambridge’s creepiest ghost tales

It’s the middle of the day but being guided around Cambridge by a walking skeleton is still bringing the creepiest corners of the city alive for me.

I meet Barbara Oxley, of Haunted Cambridge, outside the Guildhall on a sweltering lunchtime, which has not deterred her from dressing in costume, complete with a thick black cape, so that I can enjoy the full theatrical experience of her tour.

The trained actor, who is a Green Badge tour guide, appears to have a story for every street as we set off together and our first stop is somewhere she used to work - the Old Library and former tourist information office on Wheeler Street that is now the Giggling Squid restaurant.

Cambridge Ghost Tours, Barbara Oxley. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Ghost Tours, Barbara Oxley. Picture: Keith Heppell

“When the original central library opened, the first librarian here was one Mr Pink,” she says.

“He was the librarian here until 1905. Some say we never actually left the library. Now, I have actually experienced this haunting because in the late 60s early 70s, I worked in this library, and the caretaker we called Wally would often say when we arrived the next morning, that Mr Pink was here last night peering around the corner of the bookshelves. In 1975, the Old Library moved to different premises, and this building became the Tourist Information Centre. However, Mr Pink remained in his old library, anxious not to lose it and often the next morning, when workers would arrive, they would find things had moved, a pen would have been moved somewhere else. But worse than that, in the evening, no one ever wanted to be the last to leave in case Mr Pink came and suddenly strange things would happen. A pen might rise up or papers would flutter through the air. That was Mr Pink, still there, anxious at losing his old life. Later on, it became a restaurant as it still is and, sadly, Mr Pink is no longer there.”

As this is Cambridge, no one turns to look as we take off towards St Bene’t’s churchyard where Barbara likes to tell her next tale. “There is a well-known Cambridge ghost story here,” she explains.

“It’s about the unhappy ghost of Elizabeth Spence. St Bene’t’s Church at one time was the chapel for Corpus Christi College and Elizabeth was the daughter of a very strict master here called Dr Spence, who was at the college in the 1600s,” says Barbara.

We are standing in the churchyard surrounded by graves, one of which is hers. The story unfolds about a pair of lovers, Elizabeth and James, who meet together in secret while her father is out at dinner.

On Dr Spence’s unexpected return, James hid in a cupboard in the college and Elizabeth had to leave with her father.

“Her father kept her talking for a really long time, but eventually she managed to persuade him to move away so that James could escape. And then she was told that she had to leave with the family to go away on vacation during the summer,” says Barbara.

Cambridge Ghost Tours, Barbara Oxley. Picture: Keith Heppell
Cambridge Ghost Tours, Barbara Oxley. Picture: Keith Heppell

But James didn’t escape. “When Elizabeth returned to the college, the first person she thought about was James. She went straight to the room. He wasn’t there. She wandered around, went to his room in college. She couldn’t ask anyone of course, because it had to be kept secret. And eventually, she went back to the original room again. And for some reason, she decided to open the cupboard, and you probably guessed it, out fell his dead body. James had suffocated, being unable to open the door from the inside. Elizabeth was so distraught that she died not long afterwards of a broken heart, and she is buried in the graveyard here and sometimes at night the sounds of two voices can be heard reverberating around the college, that of Elizabeth and James as they search for each other in the afterlife.”

We look for the grave but can’t immediately spot it. However, there is also another ghost story attached to Corpus Christi College, this time about a former master called Dr Butts who became so depressed during the plague that he took his own life.

“About 200 years later, there were students staying in Dr Butts’ room and strange things happened to many of the students,” says Barbara.

“There would be loud knockings and bangings, a bed would turn upside down, and students who had rooms nearby would often hear screams in the middle of the night,” she says.

“But then one evening, a student who was on the other side of the court was looking out towards this window here (she points upwards). And he saw something rather strange. It appeared to be a head with long white hair and a long white beard - but no body - resting on the windowsill. He was curious. So he wandered around the court and went into the room of student who lived nearby. But when he looked out of the window, the head had disappeared. Later on, he spoke to members of the college and they realised that the description fitted that of Dr Butts.

“Thereafter many strange things happened in the college. Down in the kitchen, some of the cooks there would experience bindings and knockings and the vague outline of a body would appear: a body with a head that had long white beard and long white hair. Many students had experienced this, particularly those who had spent time in Dr Butts’ old room. But later on, in the 1900s, there was an exorcism when some students decided enough had taken place. They’d heard too many bangs and knockings and the sound of screams. So they exorcised his spirit it as far as we know there are no longer any hauntings by Dr Butts.”

I’m interested to know how she learned these stories, but Barbara assures me they are well documented in books about Cambridge. All of the ghost stories she tells are historic, she says, although she has experienced a very strange happening in a flat she once rented in the city.

“I haven’t seen a ghost. But I have had an absolutely terrifying experience in which I walked into a room and saw myself there,” she says.

“I honestly did. It was horrible - really frightening. I’d come back home to the basement flat in Cambridge where I was living and I had to go through a porch with two doorways. I came through the first door and I had a really strange feeling. When I opened the second door, I turned towards the sitting room and I saw myself sitting in a chair.”

“Did you catch her eye?” I ask.

“No, it was just so frightening,” says Barbara. “It just disappeared after a while. I thought I can’t go into that room because I’m already there. It was terrifying. There was also an odd feeling on the staircase to the flat as if something might have happened some years ago.”

Now thoroughly chilled, I’m glad our tour is taking place in broad daylight.

“I don’t tell that story on the tour,” she says. “And although there are some notable haunted houses in Cambridge we tend not to point them out - especially on Little St Mary’s Lane - because people live there and they need their privacy. But we go down the lane because the churchyard is haunted by a woman who walks between the graves.”

Our final stop is outside King’s College, which was the home of the famous ghost story writer M R James.

“Montague Rhodes James was very keen on telling ghost stories to his friends,” says Barbara.

“He used to invite them to his room, and when they arrived, he would have candles all around him. And he would blow out the candles one by one, leaving just one shining on his face, and then he would tell a ghost story.

“Later on, Mr James became a fellow and he was shown into a room in the Gibbs building, which is in the grounds of the college, and the person who showed him into the room told him about a previous occupant of that room. His name was Dr Barrett and Dr Barrett was a very strange person. He was very keen on predicting the deaths of various members of college, including his own. He was also known to keep a coffin in college. No one quite knew whether the coffin was intended for one of those whose deaths he predicted, or whether it was intended for himself. But she was a very strange man and people would avoid him as much as possible.

“Every so often they heard screams coming from his room in the Gibbs building. Now, one evening, there was a meeting of all the fellows and Dr Barrett failed to turn up. To be perfectly honest, nobody really wanted him to be there. However, it was important that he should come. They realised that no one had seen him for about a week and one of the other fellows went to his room. He failed to gain access. The door was locked, so they decided to break down the door. There in the corner of the room was the coffin which they all knew about. For some reason, one of them decided to open the lid of the coffin, but he sprang back suddenly because inside was the dead body of Dr Barrett. Obviously the lid was slammed down straight away.

“Now about a day later, they realised or one of them realised that he had heard Dr Barrett predict his death approximately a week ago. And the body was found to have been in the coffin for one week. But what they didn’t know was whether someone had murdered him and placed his body in the coffin, or had he killed himself after climbing into the coffin. However, on the anniversary of Dr Barrett’s death is often heard the sounds of screams reverberating round a staircase where the room was, and this course was an ideal room for a writer of ghost stories to occupy.”

The Haunted Cambridge ghost tours run at 7.30pm through the summer, 6.30pm in winter, and start at the front of Great St Mary’s Church. Visit haunted-cambridge.co.uk.

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