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Simon Parke: Ghosts of the past

25 August 2010

I DO NOT know when you last saw a ghost. But if you feel you’ve been missing out, then it’s time you took a trip to the south coast, to visit some haunted streets in Brighton.

The Lanes, as they are known, are the oldest part of Brighton — once the fishing village of Brighthelm­stone, before the patronage of the Prince Regent made the town fash­ionable in the 18th century. Today, the fishermen are gone and have been replaced by trendy shops — quirky, pink, and pricey. But perhaps more of the past remains there than we imagine.

Recently, I went on a Lanes ghost-walk. An actor has turned its murky past into a business. He arrives in black Victorian coat and hat, and, ringing a bell, leads his flock from site to gruesome site.

There is the Cricketer’s pub, for instance, where Graham Greene wrote much of Brighton Rock, in an upstairs room. But our interest here is because local people claim that it is haunted by the ghost of Robert Stephenson, a one-time patron. Stephenson, a former army surgeon, is, to my mind, the most likely candidate to be Jack the Ripper.

Then there is the unfortunate John Robinson, who gave a police­man a bit of a shock. Robinson was an 18th-century adventurer and soldier of fortune whose luck ran out in Persia; his eyes were burnt out with hot irons after supporting a failed rebellion. A sympathetic mer­chant helped Robinson return to England; and the adventurer finally made it back to his home town of Brighton, only to die there.

His phantom was seen lying in the road by a policeman, who was phys­ically sick after looking at his face. It was also seen by a woman, who was so appalled by the figure’s appear­­ance that she spent a night in hospital.

And we must not forget the Grey Nun of 14th-century Brighthelm­stone, who fell in love and tried to elope with a soldier guarding her monastery. They were captured by the order, and the soldier was hanged. The nun’s fate was worse, however. She was bricked up alive in the monastery walls, to die a linger­ing death, because, we are told, the Church did not want her blood on its hands. The Grey Nun still walks The Lanes, revisiting the site of her arrest.

The ghost walk is billed as “Frightening!”, but it is more sad than chilling. The actor does his best to thrill, playing always for the scream. But, really, as the stories unfold, there is little to do but cry and wonder as unresolved pain makes a nonsense of boundaried time and walks unbidden through the centuries’ walls in search of relief.

As the eras melt before our eyes, and past and present unite in strange union, we stand in the eternal now, present with those before us, and with those still to come. It is a haunting experience — if not the one I was expecting.


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