As we approach Halloween, a time associated with witches, hobgoblins, fairies, demons and other evil spirits, we are reminded that Hestercombe has been no stranger to the paranormal in years gone by.
One of the earliest mentions of the unexplained on the estate is recorded in a 1924 poem, entitled 'The Hestercombe Warning' by Russell Markland ("R.M. Ingersley") which is based upon an unusual encounter in Hestercombe Park about 1665. One day Sir John Warre’s minister, who lived nearby, met a ‘strange old man with gleaming eyes, yet venerable’ on his way to visit the baronet and received a warning: ‘Prepare thyself, for such a day (which was about three days later) you shall die.’ The minister laughed off the prophecy and walked on, later joking with Sir John and Lady Warre over the matter. On the morning of the third day, Sir John called upon the Parson early to invite him to go hunting and ‘to chaff his neighbour once again upon the warning’. A maid went up to his room ‘where, shrouded in a heavy gloom, was found the Parson – dead!’ The old man had spoken truthfully.
Mary Butters (1910-2005), daughter of Charles Henry Butters, gamekeeper to E. W. B. Portman 1907-17, had an unnerving encounter with the supernatural when only a child. On the night of the annual servant’s ball (which was usually held around Christmas time), Mary’s babysitter, Mrs. Bess Porter of Buncumbe, near Kingston St Mary, was bringing Mary home in a pony and trap when ‘the horse shied at an apparition by the Rose Hill turn. Both saw the ghost and heard the rustling of her skirts’. Blimey!
In more recent times, it has been the ghost of Mrs. Portman who has raised the threshold of fear at Hestercombe (at least we think it is Mrs. Portman). Jacky Smith, who worked in Fire Brigade Control 1988-2003, first as a Control Operator and later as Senior Control Operator (Watch Commander) recounts her encounters with the poltergeist: ‘As part of our night duties in Control we were required to check the house was secure at 1am or later. It was pitch dark except for a feeble torch, and more than once I felt like someone was watching me . . . I never saw her, but you knew when she was around as the temperature would drop, doors would slam shut along the corridor, and your ‘sixth sense’ would kick in.’ It was said she didn’t like men, and several of the male control ops experienced the feeling of something pressing on their chests when nobody was near them.’
But the departed souls who wander the halls of Hestercombe House after dark have not always been unpleasant towards the living. The Revd. John Forbes, grandson of Osbert Vesey (1884-1957), Mrs. Portman’s middle son by her first husband, Captain the Hon. Eustace Vesey of the 9th Lancers, first visited Hestercombe with his mother in the 1970s. ‘The Chief Fire Officer showed us around and was very interested in what we could tell him about what Hestercombe was like when the Portman's lived there. My grandmother (Dorothy Vesey [Strachan]) said she was sometimes visited by a “friendly dwarf” in her bedroom. The dog wouldn’t stay in the room when he was there.’