NOBODY can spend much time investigating ghosts around Sunderland without coming across talk of the Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle. And so Ghosthunter came to the shattered ruins of this once-mighty fortress.
The castle was built in the early 1500s, just as stone castles were becoming redundant as fortresses, due to the emergence of gunpowder. Cannon could smash stone walls to pieces with ease, so traditional castles were being replaced by squat defences of sloping stone ramparts backed by rammed earth for strength.
Hylton Castle belongs to that late-type of "castle" built to impress the neighbours as much as for defence. These constructions did, however, serve to keep out robbers, outlaws and deterred any marauding band of Scots that had not brought a cannon with them.
This particular castle was unusual, in that it had a maze of internal defences, strong doors and twisting staircases. It seems that Sir William de Hylton, who built the castle, feared his servants as much as the Scots.
Be that as it may, the castle was surrounded by a collection of timber outbuildings, workshops and stables.
It was in one of these that the young servant Robert Skelton took to sleeping. The young lad felt the cold badly and liked to nestle into the straw and gain warmth from the many horses of the Hylton family.
Tragically for the boy, he did not only sleep at night but was prone to sneak off for a doze when he was supposed to be working. One day he was caught sleeping once too often. The furious Baron Robert Hylton lost his temper and beat the boy so severely that he died of internal injuries.
Although Skelton had no relatives to cause a fuss, the killing caused a local scandal. Baron Hylton was forced to go to London in 1609 to gain a pardon from King James I. Even then, the locals continued to look askance at the wicked baron.
Nor did the baron get any rest in his own home. The phantom of poor Robert Skelton was soon seen walking in the castle.
"I'm cauld," muttered the distraught phantom as he wandered the castle. "So cauld is the poor cauld lad of Hylton."
Visitor after visitor saw the cauld lad trying to warm himself at fireplaces. Some tried to help him, others left the castle with undue haste. Baron Hylton may have been pardoned by the king, but the cauld lad had not pardoned him. The spectre walked the castle, exacting his own form of revenge.
Nor was the cauld lad content with merely frightening off the baron's friends. Down in the kitchens and outhouses where he had worked when alive, the cauld lad was out to cause mischief.
Staff would find plates and dishes thrown around the kitchens, or tools would be piled up on the ground, out of order and muddled. Cooking ingredients would be poured into bowls and mixed to form the most unappetising and off-putting dishes. Stable doors would be unbolted and objects went missing, often for days on end, before suddenly popping up again where they should have been all along.
Bizarrely, however, the cauld lad was not all mischief. He would sometimes tidy up, rather than make a mess. If a knife, tool or bowl were left out on a work surface, it would mysteriously be put away in its rightful place. In itself, this could be annoying. A cook might get out all the tools he needed for his day's work, leave the room for a few minutes and return to find everything put away again.
After some years of this haunting, the staff at Hylton Castle decided they would try to get rid of the cauld lad and his tricks. They consulted a local wise woman, who listened to their tale with interest. She told them that the cauld lad was looking for warmth and for rest. The wise woman advised them to leave out some warm clothes for the distraught spirit.
That evening the staff set a a green cloak and hood of the warmest wool out beside the kitchen fire. Most hurried off to bed, but the butler and chief cook hid themselves in the kitchen to see what would happen.
A little after midnight the cauld lad appeared. He began moving dishes and tools around as usual, then saw the cloak. Snatching the garment up, he threw it around his shoulders and pulled the hood up over his head. He laughed.
"Here's a cloak and here's a hood. The Cauld Lad o' Hylton will do no more good," he declared.
Then he vanished, and has never been seen since.
Ghosthunter came to Hylton Castle on a day when a nippy wind was whipping up from the North Sea. The patch of land around the castle, and the nearby ruined chapel of St Catherine, was locked up and barred. The surrounding park, however, was open and gave good views of the towering ruins. Carved on the east face of the Castle are the coats of arms of various local families.
Ghosthunter recognised the quartered arms of the Percys, and the barred arms of Washington – said to be the inspiration behind the American flag which was designed when George Washington was president of the USA.
Of the cauld lad of Hylton, there was no sign. He had long ago taken his cloak and hood, but did any locals recall him? It was a windy day and few seemed inclined to brave the threatening rain. One man was out walking his boisterous retriever.
"The Cauld Lad? Oh aye. A right little nuisance he was," the man declared. He retold the old story, then added a detail new to Ghosthunter. "The cauld lad would play all sorts of tricks, you know. He even went down to the ferry over the Wear. There was a ferry there before they built the bridge, you see. The Cauld Lad would take passengers on board and ferry them out to midstream, before vanishing and
leaving the people stranded. Not a pleasant lad."
Ghosthunter was not in this area of Sunderland just for the Cauld Lad. He had heard talk of a very different ghost on the Town End Farm Estate. It seems that an elderly man who lived here in the 1960s was still around some years after his funeral.
"You'd best not give the actual address where he lived," advised the woman who told Ghosthunter about this particular phantom. "Some people don't like ghosts. Not that this old boy has done any harm, mind. Oh no, not at all. Just walks about, like."
It seems the haunting began just a few months after the elderly man died. The house where he had lived was let to new tenants, a young couple from the town centre. Soon after they moved in, they saw a man in the front garden walking up to the front door. Thinking one of their new neighbours was coming to call, the wife opened the door only to find the garden completely empty. They saw the old man in the back garden as well, and once in the kitchen.
Only then were they told that their neighbours had also been seeing the ghostly apparition of the former tenant out in the street and waiting at a nearby bus stop.
Ghosthunter promised not to reveal the actual address, but if you are interested in seeing the friendly old phantom pottering around the streets or waiting for a bus, then Baxter Road and Bexhill Road are the places to go. Look for an elderly man in a mac and flat cap. That might be him.
GhostHunter would like to thank all those who phoned or e-mailed him to give him the precise location of Hallgarth Square, mentioned in a previous article. It stood just south of St Peter's Church in Monkwearmouth, off what is now St Peter's Way, but was then part of Church Street.
The wall that divided the churchyard from the square was standing within living memory, when the square was lined by fairly large town houses. The area is now covered by commercial buildings and no ghostly activity has been reported for years.
If you know of any ghosts, or other strange events, please contact the
Sunderland Ghosthunter on firstname.lastname@example.org or call him on 01737 356197.