Ghosts and Giants

An article for the Wyke Register, December 2012:-

The final book of The Portland Chronicles, a series of time travelling stories for children, takes place during the autumn, a season of mists and long dark nights that lends itself to ghosts and supernatural encounters. In The Portland Giant, Isabel’s best friend points out, ‘You’re a witchy family. Your mum’s got red hair. Your sister’s a pumpkin.’ The reluctant young witch encounters several ghosts during the adventure, whilst also trying to evade an angry local giant. For this story, I delve into the midnight world of Dorset ghosts and explore the fascinating local links to giants.

Isabel’s most challenging ghostly encounter in The Portland Giant is a headless horseman, inspired by a headless rider who is sometimes seen galloping along the ramparts of the Verne at dusk, a dark, fleeting figure. Headless horsemen are ‘rural ghosts’, phantoms who make an appearance riding across the ancient countryside of Dorset. In fact, England’s oldest ghost is the Bronze Age horseman at Sixpenny Handley, who has been seen riding a small horse and wearing a long flowing cloak, and brandishing a sword. This horseman was spotted by an archaeologist working on a site nearby, who was able to suggest the probable era of the ghost. For my story, I link the archetypal phantom rider to the underworld of dark island caves, where he lurks until he is summoned from the depths by a mermaid.

Another intriguing rural ghost and source of inspiration is the ‘White Lady’. This white-gowned phantom makes nocturnal appearances around Dorset, appearing near old gates, bridges or crossroads. A drifting headless Lady in a long white gown has been seen several times over the years at Corfe Castle. For my story, I imagine a White Lady appearing from a rock pool, swathed in a watery gown, to warn Isabel that the island giant is looking for her.

Portland Castle is a great place for ghost hunting. The Tudor castle is apparently haunted by a sweetly scented Lavender Lady and a troop of Civil War soldiers. Other impatient ghosts have been reported pushing past visitors to run up and down the winding stairwells. A ghostly black dog has been seen running across the gardens and is an interesting addition to the human ghosts. Phantom hounds are sometimes associated with Dorset graveyards and crossroads. On Portland, there is the legendary Roy Dog, who haunts Cave Hole at the Bill, and the Row Dog who runs along island paths and has even been seen recently near Chesil Beach. Enchantment of the Black Dog (Book 2 in the series) draws on my research into this spooky hound.

A ghostly cavalier and highwayman in The Portland Giant are drawn from local ghost stories. A phantom 18th century highwayman in a black cloak and tricorn hat visits the Crown Hotel in Blandford, once a coaching inn. He was shot in the courtyard while attempting to rob the Hotel.  A cavalier ghost was seen at Corfe Castle by a local fisherman, who was collecting worms for bait late at night. He saw a tall figure in a long cloak with a high collar and a floppy-brimmed cavalier hat. Other villagers have reported hearing a nearby gate open and close when no one is there.

For ghostly Romans soldiers, I looked for inspiration to the stories from Lulworth Cove of a legion of phantom soldiers seen marching nearby, and at the ghostly Roman soldiers that appear at Ridgeway Hill near Upwey. In The Portland Giant, I locate Roman ghosts at the Verne, a place occupied by Romans after General Vespasian conquered Dorset two millennia ago.

Like ghosts, giants are an intriguing part of Dorset folklore. For my giant research, I set out first to the ‘Giant’s Head’ in the east cliffs below the Grove. A sombre rocky face with deep-set eyes and heavy brows stares from the cliffs across the sea, like a statue of an ancient Pharaoh. There is some debate over whether this face is an accident of nature or was deliberately carved into the rock many years ago. I also walked across the Verne, thinking about the mysterious, tall stone-slinging people who once lived there and kept invaders away from the island with their stone-throwing prowess. A little further afield, the Cerne Abbas giant is our most famous Dorset giant. According to legend, he was a Viking giant who fell asleep on the hill, exhausted after killing several villagers. After slaying the giant, locals dug a chalk outline around him as a warning to fend off any further giant attacks.

During my giant research, I also walked around King Barrow Quarry on Portland. Left to regenerate for a hundred years, the quarry is full of wild flowers and butterflies, a great setting for a giant in a story, and I found myself wondering about the identity of the ‘King’ buried in the Barrow… Could he too have been a giant?

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