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By Neil Arnold
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Neil Arnold
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Phantoms of Fort Amherst
I had always thought that ghostly apparitions and similar strange occurrences always seemed to be experienced at several removes, by someone who had known someone who had heard it from someone they knew!
Susan Hill – The Woman in Black
Fort Amherst – situated on Dock Road and within a few hundred yards of Chatham's Dockyard – is Britain's largest Napoleonic fortress. When the Dutch ran riot along the River Medway in 1667, Chatham Dockyard was raided due to a lack of defence. Work began on a fort in 1755: some forty-seven years after the original plans were laid out. The site on which the fortress was constructed harboured several caves and over time these were lengthened and strengthened to form the impressive labyrinth of tunnels one can see today. According to the Fort Amherst website:
To ensure the protection of the Dockyard, three defendable gateways were constructed to control and defend access into the area protected by the Chatham Lines. One of these gateways, the Upper Barrier Guardhouse, can be found within the lower portion of Fort Amherst. The guardhouse housed a small garrison to defend the route from Chatham town by the use of a drawbridge, loop-holed walls and a set of three heavy gates. The barrack rooms within this building have been restored for your enjoyment.
The fort, despite existing as a formidable defence system, was never put into use during battle. The website adds that: 'In 1820 the defences were declared obsolete due to better artillery equipment with a greater firing range.' Even so, during the Victorian period thousands flocked to the fort to watch training exercises, and during the Second World War the winding tunnels were used by the Anti-Invasion Planning Unit and Civil Defence. It wasn't until the 1970s that the fort was restored. Volunteers, with the permission of the Ministry of Defence, clearly felt that the fort had a lot to offer as a tourist attraction, and in 1980 Fort Amherst was purchased from the MOD by the Fort Amherst & Lines Trust. Parts of the fort are now open to the public and the regular ghost tours are among the most popular attractions.
On 30 October 1990 the Chatham Standard reported, 'Ghostie tour a sell-out', stating:
Spine-chilling scenes with hideous apparitions and ghouls confronted people brave enough to book places on the Halloween tours of Fort Amherst, which got off to an early start this weekend. Around 2,700 people will have been daring enough to set foot in the creepy caves below the Napoleonic fort after the last tour tomorrow (Wednesday) night ... The fort custodian, Mr John Loudwell, said the interest in the Halloween tunnel tours was increasing year by year and this year's were a sell out before the weekend. Volunteers guide the reckless visitors around the fort's subterranean chambers for the half-hour tour – if their nerves can stand it long enough. And even the bravest no doubt cast a wary eye over one shoulder for the little drummer boy who is said to haunt the fort.
Fort Amherst, along with Pluckley in Ashford (see my Haunted Ashford book), is recognised as one of the most haunted places in Kent. Each year thousands of people flock to the area. In 2008 staff of local radio station KMFM decided to test their nerves with a vigil at the fort; their story was covered by the Medway Messenger on 7 November under the headline: 'Spooky night in tunnels tests our fear of ghosts.'
Thousands of people were left spooked after tuning in to KMFM for Medway's Halloween broadcast on Friday night. But spare a thought for presenters Oli Kemp, Vanessa Elms and Rob Wills – the chosen trio – who spent the night looking for other restless souls deep within the haunted tunnels of Fort Amherst ...
Presenter Oli Kemp recorded his nightly investigation for the newspaper, writing:
When I first mentioned to my colleagues Vanessa and Rob that we should do a live ghost hunt for Halloween, you should have seen the look of terror on their faces. But when I promised them they wouldn't be alone they slowly came around to the idea. Alongside two mediums, a historian and a group of ghost experts, the three of us made our way to haunted Fort Amherst in Chatham. Were we sceptical about the event we lovingly called Frightday Night? I think it's fair to say we all were, but the thought of seeing paranormal activity certainly got the adrenaline pumping. The dark spooky tunnels, built to defend the Royal Dockyard from attack by Napoleon's forces, were enough to send chills down your spine on their own, so imagine what it was like when medium Richard Ware made contact with a dark and evil spirit called Vincent in the Guard House.
Nice, quiet Richard was suddenly shouting and egging Vincent on, which was slightly unnerving. While I wanted Vincent to 'show his face', as it were, at the same time I was kind of hoping he wouldn't. He didn't sound like a man to be messed with. Vincent did eventually reveal his presence by dropping something on the floor and making everyone jump. Richard also mentioned the presence of a woman called Margaret and a man called Frank. The names didn't mean anything to Vanessa and I, but it suddenly dawned on Rob that they were the names of his dead aunt and uncle. Was it a coincidence, or were Rob's dead relatives really trying to get through to him? I guess we'll never know.
The newspaper article concluded with the mention of motion sensors and other gadgets that were being employed to monitor the atmosphere. Although different temperatures were recorded, and EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) equipment was used, it seems that like many a ghost hunt, it was minds, rather than ghosts, that were running wild.
In many ghost hunts, especially those involving a medium, it seems as though whilst some alleged spirits are contacted, or known to make their presence felt, these are often completely unconnected with the actual location. These reputed ghosts could well be connected to any member of the audience, or indeed the medium in question, and whilst strange noises, fleeting shadows and fluctuating temperatures seem unusual, they are clearly not concrete evidence of paranormal activity.
A number of ghostly investigations have been conducted at Fort Amherst. The Ghost Connections team visited the fort a few years ago; this resulted in, according to their website, one investigator, named Dave, seeing a dark figure. The sound of footfalls and the feeling of something pressing were also recorded, as well as whispering voices, the sight of a dark mass and a sudden drop in temperature. In today's climate, this type of activity seems relatively common, and with such places harbouring so much energy, one would almost expect such occurrences. On another occasion the fort was visited by Ghost Search UK, who reported sightings of what are known as orbs. These are dubious round forms of possible energy that are often picked up on digital cameras, but they are rarely seen by the naked eye. Sceptics argue that such forms have only existed since the dawn of the digital camera, suggesting that the recording equipment is sensitive to particles of dust, moisture and the like. Many ghost hunters and spiritualists believe that orbs are in fact early spirit form, but this is never likely to be proven.
Fort Amherst, like Chatham Dockyard and the rural village of Pluckley, harbours so many ghost stories that people keep coming back to find them. Although the ghost tours are provided for pure entertainment – I paid a visit there in my teenage years and enjoyed the zombies (which leapt out from crevices) and atmosphere – people do claim to experience strange things at the fort.
I'd always heard, as a child, that the stuffy tunnels of the fort were home to the spirits of Napoleonic soldiers. In fact, the remains of such prisoners of war were unearthed from St Mary's Island, once nicknamed Deadman's Island, just a short way down Dock Road. The find was reported in the 20 November 1990 edition of the Chatham Standard under the heading: 'Gruesome finds at toxic site.' The newspaper reported that whilst digging for the present housing estate on the island, hundreds of French soldiers were unearthed and that tight security regulations were imposed to seal off the area. The remains were found at a 300sq.ft site and a mobile mortuary was installed to temporarily house the bodies. The remains, according to a pathologist and the coroner's office, were said to be more than 100 years old and had the potential to support deadly diseases which lived on in the soil. Originally, more than 2,000 bodies were interred at the island in 1869. These had been prisoners who perished due to the appalling conditions on the hulks of the Medway.
Reports dating back several decades alleged that moaning ghosts of war could be heard in the fort, and some visitors reported the sounds of footsteps echoing through the cold passageways. Maybe the ghosts are those of Jutish settlers, whose remains were unearthed during a dig for the foundations of an extension to the fort back in 1779. Legend has it that around thirty years ago a man fainted at the fort after seeing a figure walk through one of the walls. Another rumour doing the rounds many years ago claimed that an electrician, doing some rewiring at the fort, had been pushed over by an invisible presence. Fort Amherst is littered with legends – claims have been made by a naive public that many years ago the pitch-black, damp tunnels were used for Devil worship. Then there are the tales of whispering voices, usually in the ear of unsuspecting victims; the photographs of 'orbs'; the numerous ghost hunts resulting, allegedly, in various mediums contacting all manner of souls; and those mysterious, if non-specific, voices recorded on tape. Fort Amherst is the sort of place one would expect to see a ghost, or at least feel some type of presence. So, in the autumn of 2011, I decided to contact the fort for a personal guided tour to find out more about the ghostly tales.
On a bright September morning I met up with Shane Nichols, one of the volunteers at the fort, and he kindly agreed to show me around. Once inside the gloomy tunnels I was impressed by the almost film set-like design of the imposing walls, and as temperatures fluctuated from room to room – some were as stuffy as hell, others chilled the bone – Shane recounted several eerie tales. We began at a tunnel which led us to what is known as the Plotting Room. One could imagine how busy this room would have been in the past, as employees received phone calls from the connecting Communications Room, in order to plot where the enemy bombs were going to drop. According to Shane there are a few ghost stories attached to the Plotting Room. In the past, paranormal investigators recorded sudden extreme drops in temperature, and on one occasion a group of researchers were spooked by a mist which appeared to come from the door leading to the Communications Room. A figure appeared, dressed in Victorian attire – a long, dark coat and a black top hat – and walked straight through the team of investigators and out through the closed door of the room into the tunnels. The most alarming feature about this spectre was that it was bereft of a face!
As I've already briefly mentioned, there is also a legend concerning an electrician who was allegedly pushed by a spirit some time back; Shane elaborated on the story:
The electrician was working on a ladder when a fire bucket fell off the wall. The electrician thought nothing of it until the bucket moved of its own accord. The man immediately thought that someone was playing a trick and so took a peek into the tunnels but could find no one present. With that, the bucket flew across the room!
Another bout of paranormal activity took place during a tour of the fort. As a guide was leading a group of visitors out of the Communications Room and into the Plotting Room, he noticed that someone was missing. He went back into the Communications Room – where there are several desks and old phones – and noticed one of the tourists chatting on one of the phones. When the woman had finished talking she said that the phone had rung, and that when she had picked it up a female voice on the other end was telling her that a bomb had dropped on her house. The tour guide knew that this room had been the hub, many years ago, for dealing with such calls from worried residents, but the bizarre thing about the call, as the guide pointed out to the visitor, was the fact that the old phone wasn't connected. It seems that the woman had taken a phantom phone call.
After we came out of the sweat box that was the Communications Room, Shane and I slipped into the chilly area of the well. In this gloomy passageway Shane told me that on several tours, young women have reported having their skirts tugged by an unseen presence. On one occasion, during one of the first ever Fort Amherst ghost tours, a teenage visitor had to leave the tunnel after claiming that some unseen assailant was pestering her. Some believe the ghost is that of a young boy, and a mischievous one at that, who, on occasion, likes to pull the hair of women and slap their buttocks. In the same area there is also vague mention of the sound of drumming and the sporadic sightings of a young boy.
Further into the belly of the fort, Shane spoke of the legend of the 'angel stone'. Many years ago it was believed that Napoleonic soldiers dug out the tunnels we see today, but Shane believes this to be untrue and that Cornish and Welsh miners may well have given a helping hand in extending the maze of winding tunnels. The 'angel stone', a stone which juts out of the white wall on the right as you walk through the tunnels, was often touched by miners as a talisman of good luck. The stone has an obscure carving on it, which some believe resembles an angel. Elsewhere in the area there are other scratches of graffiti alongside slightly more morbid inscriptions, which suggest that some of the initials signify people who died and were possibly buried in the tunnels. During the eighteenth century there was said to have been a huge cave-in and many people perished in those cold tunnels, so it's no real surprise that people often claim to see eerie mists. In one area, known as the Lightning Shaft, a female phantom is said to loiter. To the tour operators the ghost is known as 'Lily of the Valley', and she is said to emerge from the white door on the right of the passage. Bizarrely, the woman, dressed in Georgian attire, is said to appear as a beautiful woman to male visitors, whilst any females on the tour who see the lady describe her as ugly!
Before the fort was restored, many years ago, local vandals would break in to cause damage to the tunnels, by lighting fires and scribbling graffiti. Legend has it that one dark night a group of local youths broke into the fort, and once inside they split up in order to carry out their acts of vandalism. Most of the teenagers became spooked by the whispering voices echoing through the passageways, whilst others heard footsteps and so decided to leave the fort. But, according to Shane, the leader of the group wasn't so easily dissuaded and so decided to clamber back into the darkness to continue his graffiti. However, the youth soon became lost in the labyrinth – every door he tried seemed to lead him further into the pitch-black fort – and after walking around in a daze for several minutes he gave up trying to find his way out and decided, bravely, to stay the night. However, when the teenager was discovered the next day by a volunteer, he was said to be so shaken that he refused to speak of what had happened the previous night.
On the Lower Gun Floor, Shane pointed out that weddings used to take place in the area. Apparently, during a ceremony one afternoon, something very peculiar happened. As the registrar was finalising the ceremony, a soldier in a red jacket emerged from nowhere and walked straight through the bride, groom and the rest of the congregation. The best man chased the figure as it strolled out of the tunnel, but when he met some of the re-enactment staff outside and enquired about the soldier in the red jacket, the staff replied that there was no one in a red jacket – all the staff were wearing blue jackets.
The incident was disturbing in a few ways. It's bad enough having a stranger interrupt the middle of your wedding, but it's even worse when you realise that the person was possibly a ghost. Worse still, it seems that the incident may have been a bad omen, as the couple, according to Shane, split up three months later!
As is the case in most reputedly haunted buildings, there is the usual slamming of doors and ghostly footsteps reported throughout the fort, but the Upper Gun Floor has one of the strangest ghost stories. Shane told me that during the Second World War a floor had been put in, quite high up in the room. When the trustees restored the fort, several people were standing on the new floor when it suddenly vanished from under them. Seemingly, they were standing on an invisible platform. One of the witnesses claimed that when he looked down he could see several artillery men, as if he'd stepped back in time. The floor then flickered back into view. Since this incident, the floor has been demolished.
Excerpted from Haunted Chatham by Neil Arnold. Copyright © 2012 Neil Arnold. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
one Phantoms of Fort Amherst,
two Chills at Chatham Dockyard,
three The Theatre Royal – Things that go Hump(hrey) in the Night,
four Haunted Houses and Pubs,
five More Chatham Ghosts,
About the Author,