The Storyteller: Spending Halloween in Boscastle

Border Morris dancers outside the witchcraft museum

Border Morris dancers outside the witchcraft museum - Credit: David Phillips

Tales from the storyteller with David Phillips:

By the time you read this, Halloween will be but a distant memory, hopefully it was suitably spooky for you, with more treats than tricks!

For myself and my partner, it was great fun spending time with the witches of Boscastle! 

This is something we’ve done for several years now, mostly with friends, but this year, like the first time, just ourselves, staying the weekend prior to Halloween at the wonderful Wellington Hotel, and witnessing the amazing Dark Gathering in the square outside the infamous witchcraft museum.

The Dark Gathering would have been seven years old last year, apparently making it a tradition if an event takes place regularly that many times, but, like most events of 2020, Covid said no!

While this year the National Trust, who own the square, wouldn’t grant a licence to allow it to take place, forcing the event to become unofficial, it was still something special to witness, made even more so by the fact you were part of something more intimate. 

The Dark Gathering is ostensibly a dance display by various groups of Border Morris practitioners, and other traditional styles of dance, who come together, in both dance and song, to celebrate the festival of Samhain, marking the pagan end of summer.

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After the displays, comes the procession of the Mari Lwyds, figures similar to the Hobby Horses of Padstow that appear on May Day, heralding from Wales, and bringing with them good luck offerings for the coming winter months.

They are more macabre than the Cornish version, as their shrouds are topped off with horse skulls!

The Mari Lwyds process through the town, stopping at various hostelries along the way, ending up with a traditional ritual at the witchcraft museum.

A Mari Lwyd being teased outside the museum

A Mari Lwyd being teased outside the museum - Credit: David Phillips

The day’s events climax with the infamous Beltane Fire Dance, performed by the Beltane Morris troop from Dartmoor, complete with blacked-up faces - reduced to just masks to appease the PC crowd - and brandishing flaming torches.

It certainly is a sight to behold!

Following a break for dinner, the festivities resume in the bar of The Welly, where more singing and drinking continues into the night.

My friends think it is highly amusing to request a song called Ugly Dave to serenade me with... I can’t think why!

My love affair with Boscastle began many years ago, in the early days of TIP, when The Wellington Hotel featured in an article in one of my paranormal magazines, pointing it out as a place worthy of investigation.

So that Halloween, Dave, Adrian and myself paid the town a visit, spending the day there, and eating in both The Cobweb and The Welly.

We particularly liked The Welly, as it had a pool table and jukebox that allowed us to while away many an afternoon and evening in between investigations.

The Welly

The Welly - Credit: David Phillips

On that first visit, after dinner and before heading home, we walked up the steep hill that links The Wellington Hotel to The Napoleon pub at the top of town, weaving its way between houses and little cottages.

I was most taken by the way the majority were joining in the festivities by displaying pumpkins, ghosts and witches, and having bowls of sweets for passing trick or treaters - so much so that we decided to spend the night there the following year.

Sadly, that proved to be not so satisfying, as the only signs we came across that it was Halloween, was the phone box outside the hotel covered in eggs!

Undeterred, we continued to make the town our destination of choice, spending Dave’s stag weekend there, my 50th birthday celebrations - having a special photo session mounted in a shop in Tintagel, sadly long gone, where we all dressed up Arthurian style - as well as any excuse to take new members of TIP there for overnight investigations.

These visits have turned up a few occurrences worthy of paranormal note.

The main haunting consists of a housekeeper, checking up on her charges, as she moves from room to room during the night.

These rooms were in the oldest part of the hotel, and quite small, but we always chose them to stay in, so we could monitor them in the dark without disturbing other guests.

Two of those rooms have now been knocked into one, along with the connecting corridor, making it our favourite room to stay in, as we can entertain our friends during our visit.

This just leaves one small single room next to ours, and one year we were joined by a member of the group whose psychic gift was developing nicely.

She took that room not knowing its significance to the haunting, and, as we were being shown to our rooms, after she was taken to hers, she came dashing down the corridor crying: “Who is that old woman sitting in my room?”

Her room had been the housekeeper’s quarters. Needless to say, this experience totally unsettled her, so much so that she spent the weekend on the couch in our room next door, instead of her own bed!

The other incident of note was a premonition.

A group of us had stayed the weekend, up all night investigating, planning on paying a visit to various antiquities up on Bodmin Moor as we made our way home.

On the morning of our departure, at breakfast, an announcement came over the radio stating that all farmland, and open moorland, where livestock grazed, was out of bounds for the foreseeable future due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Now, one of our number had a small holding, where she kept a number of animals, and she became quite distressed at the news, to the extent that she insisted on leaving straightaway to go and check on them.

As she was settling the bill, she was standing over a grating in the reception area, under which passed the river that flowed down the hillside behind the hotel.

At that time, it was quite tame, but she claimed she could sense a torrent of water cascading through the lobby where she was standing.

We put that down to her agitated state of mind at the time, but, of course, years later, the infamous Boscastle flood occurred, devastating the lower levels of the hotel and a large part of the town.

Fortunately, nobody was killed or badly injured.

Nowadays, all the destruction has long since been repaired, and all the artefacts, that were washed out of the witchcraft museum, have been returned, having all been labelled previously, even some that washed up on beaches in Wales! 

We always make a point of visiting the museum during our stays, sometimes they hold special candlelit openings on the nights of the Dark Gathering, and there is always something new to see.

We are most grateful to the owners of the museum, and the ladies who organise the Gathering, for giving us an excellent excuse for visiting Boscastle every Halloween. Long may this tradition continue!