Bracknell: A Ghost Town

A few years ago, Bracknell was a ghost town. Things have changed, but it’s still haunted.

Image from Bracknell Forest Council website

When the Bracknell town centre regeneration started in 2013, the city became a ghost town. Shops shut and streets emptied, all in the name of modernising. It wasn’t a surprise, with the renovations having been planned since 2008, but it was significant because of Bracknell’s status as a New Town. New Towns are those that were expanded and built up after the Second World War to account for the vast numbers of people displaced due to bombings, with Bracknell’s population more than doubling from 1949 to the late 1960s. The link between the regeneration and New Town’s may not be obvious at first, but Bracknell is the first New Town to have undergone such a major renovation, making the whole procedure a significant landmark in Bracknell’s history. Even without the regeneration, however, Bracknell was and remains a ghost town. Or, more accurately, a haunted one. Tales of spooky spirits and things that go bump in the night can be found in every city across the country, and Bracknell is no exception. Perhaps it’s the city’s origins as part of the famously haunted grounds of Windsor, or perhaps it’s the presence of the ancient standing stone, the Quelm Stone. Either way, the fact remains that reports of paranormal activity are common.

One of the most widely known haunted sites in Bracknell is South Hill Park. This mansion, originally built in 1760 by William Watts upon his retirement from the East India Trading Company and later remodelled towards the end of the 1800s, now functions as an art centre and theatre, with large grounds and two lakes. By all accounts, it’s an idyllic place. Unfortunately, it is also plagued by ghost stories. Most old houses have some report of paranormal activity, and SHP is no exception, with theatre doors slamming shut and lights turning on by themselves, but what makes this place so special is how specific some of these ghosts are. Most famously, there is the ghost of Major Rickman, a former owner of the house who tragically shot himself in the Gun Room when his debts became too much to bear. Many visitors have reported seeing a figure wearing a red coat and smoking a pipe in the window or striding through the hallways. The Major isn’t alone, after a fire broke out in the nursery at the end of the 19th Century, there were reports of two children haunting the house, along with a middle-aged man hesitating on the stairs. A common theory is that he was a servant trying to rescue the children who unfortunately ended up perishing with them. Yet another explanation for the supernatural phenomena in the house is the restless spirit of a laundry maid who died in a kitchen accident with boiling water.

Image from South Hill Park website

There are also multiple pubs in Bracknell that are supposedly haunted. The Old Manor, now a Wetherspoons in the town centre, was one of the original buildings from the Tudor period and has survived the expansion of Bracknell into a New Town and the more recent town centre regeneration. It was supposedly a favoured watering hole of Dick Turpin thanks to the secret passages leading out to the Hinds Head Inn, an establishment notoriously patronised by highwaymen and other unruly characters. When it was first built, it was owned by a Catholic family who hid priests in the secret priest-hole, now visible in the bar, as they fled religious persecution. One of these priests, affectionately nicknamed Old Fred, apparently didn’t make it to freedom, as his ghostly figure has been spotted several times around the pub. Not all ghosts haunt the location of a traumatic death, however. In the 1970s, Old Fred was joined by Bert, a regular patron and deep lover of the bar whose handlebar moustache and red face made him easily recognisable when he started appearing at tables shortly after his death. Another benevolent ghost story takes place at the Horse and Groom, now a Harvester. In the 1960s, footsteps came from upstairs, and the ghost of an elderly woman was often seen, cleaning and doing minor household chores. It seems that this ghost does have her vices, however; the spirit cabinet frequently unlocked itself even after the original lock was changed. Hard work deserves a reward, after all!

Image from Pubwiki.co.uk

So, why so many ghost stories in a mostly modern town? The city has changed and grown so much over the years, especially with the recent regeneration, and although traces of its history exist, most of Bracknell is new buildings, new streets, new atmosphere. Not at all a traditional haunting ground. Then again, perhaps all the changes are the reason. As the first New Town to be regenerated, Bracknell is an example of progression and modernity, but still, it clings to its heritage. An old manor house, a Tudor pub from the original town, these landmarks of history represent what Bracknell was, and how it has changed into what it is now. When Bracknellians think of the city’s past, these ghosts are signs of the people and way of life that came before. At South Hill Park, there will forever be a reminder of one man’s bravery, how he was willing to lose his life for a chance of saving two children. At the Old Manor, a friend lives on in his favourite place, laughing and drinking. At the Horse and Groom, a devoted woman continues to keep her pride and joy clean, tidy and organised. Perhaps these ghosts are the true spirit of Bracknell, the ordinary people who represent a great city. The darker ghosts, too, are reminders of the past, of how things have changed for the better and how Bracknell has grown stronger for it. Major Rickman is forever a part of the house he feared to lose, and Old Fred reminds us all just how fortunate we are to live in a time where we are free to practise our own religion. Bracknell may not be a ghost town any longer, but it’s still haunted, and that’s a beautiful thing.

References:

Berkshirehistory.com. n.d. Berkshire History: ‘B’ Ghosts. [online] Available at: <http://www.berkshirehistory.com/legends/ghosts_b.html> [Accessed 23 November 2021].

Field, M., 2016. Secret Bracknell. Amberley Publishing Limited.

Fort, H., 2016. The ghosts of Bracknell: Meet Old Bert and the Binfield centaur. [online] BerkshireLive. Available at: <https://www.getreading.co.uk/news/reading-berkshire-news/bracknell-ghosts-meet-old-bert-11075876> [Accessed 23 November 2021].

Mendelsohn, H., 2021. Listening to Ghost Stories Could Make You a Better Version of Yourself. [online] House Beautiful. Available at: <https://www.housebeautiful.com/lifestyle/a37271823/why-do-people-believe-in-ghosts/> [Accessed 23 November 2021].

Wise, H., n.d. Ghosts of South Hill Park. [ebook] Available at: <https://www.southhillpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Ghosts-of-SHP-Feb-2011-4PRINT.pdf> [Accessed 23 November 2021].

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