Walsingham – “England’s Nazareth” – became a centre of pilgrimage after Richeldis de Faverches experienced three visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1061, and remained so until the suppression of the monasteries in 1538. It became one again only in the twentieth century when the Shrine was revived. The Martyrs’ House is a Grade II* listed building situated in the High Street; its Georgian facade fronts an older building. It takes its name from the fate of Nicholas Mileham, the last sub-prior of Walsingham, and Thomas Guisborough or Gysborough, a layman. They were imprisoned in the cellar the night before they were taken to what became known as Martyrs’ Field close by and executed for their part in the 1537 Walsingham Conspiracy, a plan to defend the monasteries against dissolution which was betrayed before it could be implemented. In 2004 an ecumenical “Chapel of Reparation” was set up in the cellar.
In January 1996 the Anglia Paranormal Research Group, of which I was a member, approached what was then the ‘Sue Ryder Foundation Retreat House’, which occupied the Martyrs’ House. We had heard of strange phenomena at the premises and wanted to find out what substance, if any, there might be to them. The reply we received from the manager stated that while there was nobody living or working there with first-hand experience of anything untoward, guests had in the past reported strange events. One part of the house was more susceptible than any other, and one room in particular. As a consequence I visited on 28 March 1996 and interviewed two members of staff. Below are my notes from the time, with the names of interviewees removed. We did not take the case any further as there seemed to be no current activity, and the accounts I received had little evidential value.
After owning the building for some thirty years, Sue Ryder Care (to which the Foundation had changed its name) took the decision to sell the building as it was making a loss (something that does not surprise me, given that in March 1996 the place was entirely empty of guests). They closed it on 23 December 2005, making the staff redundant. A charitable trust was set up to try to raise the £800,000 required to buy the building and retain it as accommodation for pilgrims, but Sue Ryder set a deadline of the end of January 2006. The fundraising effort was unsuccessful and the Martyrs’ House complex was converted (if that is an appropriate expression) into private dwellings. One wonders if any strange occurrences were reported afterwards.
The Sue Ryder Retreat House – the Martyrs’ House – is opposite the old entrance to St Mary’s Priory, Walsingham, Norfolk. It is a large, sprawling establishment comprising a gift and coffee shop and book and bric-a-brac shops at the front, with the Retreat House at the back. There is accommodation for up to 46 people. Mrs G___ [Deputy in charge of the Retreat House] described the service provided as B&B, but due to the preponderance of religious imagery throughout the building, it is likely that the bulk of guests would be in Walsingham for spiritual purposes; there were no guests during my visit. There is a chapel at the back of the complex for residents’ use. Mrs G___ did not know how long the premises had been owned by Sue Ryder, except that it was at least 15 years. The building shows evidence of much alteration over time, making dating of individual parts difficult. During renovations upstairs, wattle and daub walls were uncovered, and part of one is on show. The tea shop extension at the front had previously been a newsagent, and the gift shop had been a bookshop. The annex at the back was converted cottages.
Mrs G___ is in her sixth year at the House and has not experienced anything paranormal. Her boss, Mrs P___ [the Manager of the Retreat House], has been working there even longer, and neither has she. Anything Mrs G___ told me was second hand.
A presence had been felt in some of the rooms and in one of the bedrooms above the chapel. Rumours particularly attached to room 17, which is at the front, overlooking the high street and Priory walls. This room is different to the others in that it is at the top of the building and has a small oval window and severely sloping roof, the heavy oak beams making it seem dark and oppressive. The other rooms in contrast are small but airy and light. There is just a roof space above, but no attic. A Spiritualist medium had visited the room at some point and felt a presence there. She had blessed the room and pronounced the entity “happier”. Mrs G___ could not say that she had noticed any change in the atmosphere. Another guest, a local writer again known to Mrs G___, had felt a presence in room 17 which he thought to be a terrified monk from the time of the Restoration (or possibly Reformation?).
In room 5 a guest claimed to have seen a light around the door, although there was no light on outside the room, and in any case the door was tight fitting. (Despite the claim that there was no light on, presumably there would have been a light on in the passage all night). Some people then walked through the room and disappeared through the wall. This was before Mrs G___’s time and she had no more details.
Room 4 is directly below room 17. One night a visitor was in bed and felt a presence sit on the foot of the bed.
A visitor had seen a nun going up the stairs who had then disappeared, but Mrs G___ felt that this witness was not reliable and the story might not be true.
Things had frequently gone missing, especially building tools and kitchen implements, but they had always turned up. This could be due to the numbers of people involved. Building work is carried out by volunteers who do short stints, so that there is a high turnover. Although tools are supposed to be kept in a central place, they could easily be mislaid. Similarly there are a large number of kitchen users, so that it would be easy for somebody to put an item in a different place.
On the other hand, it is surprising how many things had gone wrong in the building that were connected with water. For example, pipes leaked, tanks burst, loos did not work, overflows had become blocked. These sorts of things happened more frequently than one would expect. No unusual smells had been reported.
The cellar was reputed to have been used to imprison men overnight prior to their execution at Martyrs’ Field next morning. It is now a store room, tiled floor, low ceiling, recesses in walls. It is not much used, so there would not be much opportunity to ascertain whether any activity had occurred there.
The ecumenical chapel had been a barn [so I was told; the leaflet produced by the Sue Ryder Foundation said that it was a derelict cottage] which had been doubled in size and converted only last year. It had not had an ecclesiastical use prior to this. It is a functional, not very attractive room. Above it are two guest rooms, and in one of these a visitor claimed to have seen monks walking across the room, but only visible from the waist up, their lower halves being below the level of the floor (presumably therefore visible in the chapel below?). It is possible that the ceiling level had been raised during the conversion, but if so, there is no visible evidence. Mrs G___ did not know which of the rooms it had happened in – room 1 overlooks a small garden and courtyard, room 2 overlooks the annex roof. The lady concerned lived locally and was known to Mrs G___, who would endeavour to see if she would consent to an interview. The only other building at the back is a house occupied by a nun who has been resident there for many years, but had never reported any strange occurrences.
The regular cook in the tea shop, J___, was also interviewed. She said that Walsingham is full of ghost stories. She was in her fifth year at the shop, but had experienced nothing, although she had heard the rumours. She did report that she had had a ghost at home, which she had never seen, but had heard clomping up the stairs before disappearing at the end of the passage. In addition it was always cold upstairs. However, after some rearrangement of the interior, the phenomena had stopped. She also said that there was supposed to have been the ghost of a hanged man seen by the Abbey gates opposite. On the other hand, she had been at Martyrs’ Field in the early hours of the morning, up until 3am, but had never experienced anything.
Update 22 October 2018
On 2 October 2018 I received an email from Mrs Susan Hart concerning the Martyrs’ House which provides some information about the building prior to its occupation by the Sue Ryder Foundation, and a subsequent email on 7 October with more details. She has given permission for me to use her account here, for which I am grateful, though frustratingly the details of what the paranormal activity, if any, might have consisted of are elusive.
As a teenager during the 1960s, Mrs Hart’s late husband used to stay at the Martyrs’ House each year, and frequently after that. He loved the house to the extent that in 1976 he purchased it from Lady Pigott, a long-term resident of Little Walsingham. He only owned it for two years before selling it to the Sue Ryder Foundation in 1978 for £29,000. Mrs Hart was present when Sue Ryder first came to view the house and says she loved it and wanted to purchase it immediately (as Sue Ryder was a Roman Catholic convert the Walsingham location would have been a draw).
During his time there, Mr Hart was aware of paranormal stories circulating about the house and said that often B&B guests would leave early because of frightening experiences, though Mrs Hart was not able to say what these experiences were. She characterises her husband as a very strong, outgoing character who was a scientist, and not someone who was gullible or easily deceived.
Mrs Hart mentioned that on the first floor landing when she knew the property there were framed photographs showing close-ups of a man’s and a woman’s faces, and she believes their piercing eyes and looks had an influence on guests, who found them unsettling. When she began staying at the house with him, Mr Hart told her of an extremely frightening experience he had had, so horrible he would not say what it was; it remained a secret, but he continued to maintain it had occurred.
On another occasion, a young student visiting during Mr Hart’s period of ownership was so scared one night that he refused to return to his room, and slept on Mr Hart’s floor during the rest of his stay. Mrs Hart emphasised that while she cannot provide details of any of these experiences, she is convinced they were genuinely frightening. I would like to thank Mrs Hart for taking the trouble to get in touch, and I would be glad to hear from anyone who can elaborate on the paranormal history of the Martyrs’ House.