Dockacre House is an Elizabethan mansion that was built on Dockacre road, the old road into Launceston, and was deliberately surrounded by trees (and now a thick hedge). In 1714, local gentleman Nicholas Herle moved in with his wife, Elizabeth – but by the end of that year she was dead and buried in St. Mary Magdalene’s church. Immediately rumours rose about whether she had been done-in by her husband, and even her memorial in the church says she was killed by “starvation or other unlawful means”. Nicholas became the mayor of Launceston, then the High Sherriff of Cornwall, before moving to London where he died 14 years later – and to add further mystery, his obituary stated that he “had the misfortune accidentally to shoot his lady”. So how had poor Elizabeth met her end, and why?
It was only after his death that the spooky happenings began. An apparition of Nicholas was said to frequently appear in the house, playing a wooden flute – but even more strangely, the tune was a recognisable Elizabethan madrigal, the lyrics of which are as follows:
"Since that I saw your face I resolved
To honour and renown you.
If I be now disdained I wish
My heart had never known you."
Could it be that in the afterlife, Nicholas was finally showing remorse for a crime never proven? And yet this is not the end of the story. Each successive owner of the house has added their walking-stick to a sack of 13 that has remained in the house. It is said that the sticks have to be kept in a certain order, or they rattle at night. Even more mysteriously, the one that was added by Nicholas Merle was found to have begun its life as a wooden flute that at some point had been blocked up and turned into a walking stick. Could it be that Elizabeth had become sick of Nicholas’ playing and had ruined his beloved instrument? Had he taken the ultimate revenge? No one will ever know for certain, but one thing is for certain – Dockacre House has retained a long history of spooky stories.
The parish of Poundstock, just outside Bude, has the dubious honour of being haunted by two members of the same family. The earliest ghost is that of William Penfound who was the curate of St. Winwaloe’s church, Poundstock, in 1356. This was the time of the Lollard movement – a group of people who wanted the bible to be published in English, and who saw the clergy as corrupt and greedy. At the end of mass, once the congregation had left the church, a group of armed men broke in and found William in the chancel. They ‘cut him down’ swiftly, and in a macabre twist they smeared his blood around the church alter and ornaments. Two men were later apprehended, but pardoned, and no one was ever convicted. William’s ghost is said to still haunt the church and churchyard.
Around 300 years later, the Penfound family were in the midst of the English Civil War. Fervent Royalists, they were instrumental in the local victories against Cromwell’s forces. As was often the case, neighbours fought against neighbours, and their long-standing friends, the Trebarfoot family, were on the side of the Parliamentarians. In a tale to rival Shakespeare, John Trebarfoot had fallen in love with Kate Penfound, despite both sets of parents expressly forbidding their relationship. Overwhelmed by their love, they had resolved to elope on April 26. John tied his horse outside Penfound manor and waited for the stroke of midnight. As fate would have it, Kate’s father had not slept, and was still downstairs drinking grog when he saw his daughter Kate sneak her way to the front door. In a fury, he rushed outside with his sword and found John Trebarfoot. Kate desperately tried to calm her father to no avail, and when he lunged at John she threw herself between them. The tragic result was that Kate and John were both killed. Kate’s ghost has been seen many times in Penfound manor, both in the upper bedroom, and descending the stairs.
The final ghost story is one of the best documented tales in the entire country and was recorded by Reverend John Ruddle (pictured), Headmaster of the Grammar School at Launceston and Vicar of Altarnun and St. Mary's, Launceston. It was later adapted into various ghost stories under the title ‘The Botathen Ghost’.
In the mid-1600s, Rev. Ruddle visited a couple who told him that their young son Sam was claiming he regularly saw a ghost and was very distressed. Ruddle, being relatively cynical like the parents , agreed to speak to him. To his alarm, Sam recounted a very convincing tale; that a ghostly lady appeared daily on the field that he crossed to get to school (outside South Petherwin). The spectre would follow him, or suddenly appear and meet him several times within the same field. Gradually, the lad had become terrified, and even tried a different route to school whereupon the apparition still appeared to him. He was tremendously upset by the experience, and had become preoccupied.
Believing the boy, Ruddle agreed to go with him into the field and recorded the following: “We went into the field, and had not gone a third part before the spectrum, in the shape of a woman, with all the circumstances he had described the day before, so far as the suddenness of its appearance and transition would permit me to discover, passed by. I was a little surprised at it, and though I had taken up a firm resolution to speak to it, I had not the power, nor durst I look back; yet I took care not to show any fear to my pupil and guide.”
He returned to the boy’s family to explain what he had seen, and took them in turn to the field where they not only saw the ghost, but confirmed that it was Dorothy Dingley, a neighbour’s girl who they had seen buried 8 years before after a suspicious death. Furthermore, the girl in question apparently had been in a relationship with Sam’s older brother who had since disappeared in London. Convinced that the ghost was truly a disturbed spirit, Ruddle agreed to carry out an exorcism of the field and recorded a famously detailed and articulate account including the following:
“Soon after five I stepped over the stile into the haunted field, and had not gone above thirty or forty paces before the ghost appeared at the further stile. I spoke to it in some short sentences with a loud voice; whereupon it approached me, but slowly, and when I came near it moved not. I spoke again, and it answered in a voice neither audible nor very intelligible. I was not in the least terrified, and therefore persisted until it spoke again and gave me satisfaction; but the work could not be finished at this time. Whereupon the same evening, an hour after sunset, it met me again near the same place, and after a few words on each side it quietly vanished, and neither doth appear now, nor hath appeared since, nor ever will more to any man's disturbance….
These things are true and I know them to be so, with as much certainty as eyes and ears can give me."
Ghost stories are plentiful in the area, but one like this with so many witnesses, and such a detailed account from a well-respected member of the community makes you wonder!