It’s not every day you get to meet a real-life ghost hunter, especially one with a career as distinguished as Wesley H. Downes. In fact, given that Wesley’s investigations span seventy years and include cases as infamous as Borley Rectory and the Enfield Poltergeist, you are more likely to encounter an actual ghost.
Behind an unassuming suburb of Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, lies Wesley’s HQ. Despite being 91 years old, the author keeps himself busy collecting and collating strange reports from all four corners of the land. Before I visited him on a rainy July afternoon, Wesley had discovered no fewer than twenty stories from Staffordshire. Apprehensive about meeting a man with so much knowledge and experience of the murky world of the supernatural, I was surprised to discover a kindly gentleman with a beaming smile, robust chuckle and a glint in his eye that suggests few regrets. With uncanny prediction, Wesley immediately caught me off guard by passing me a piece he had written on The Phantom Werewolf of Derbyshire; a story from my own turf, the facts of which have eluded me for a while.
How It All Started
Like many people, Wesley’s fascination with the paranormal began with a personal experience he found difficult to explain. After the second world war In 1946, when he was just 22 years old, Wesley had been demobbed from serving in the Royal Air Force. Returning home to the Essex village of Ardleigh to live with his parents who ran a general store, Wesley would unwittingly discover his first phantom:
At breakfast one morning, my mother said that she needed some items for the shop from the wholesaler’s. I immediately offered to go and get them and getting my bicycle out of the shed, I set off. When I arrived at the warehouse they were preparing to close at mid-day for the weekend but nevertheless they got my order together and put it into four paper carrier bags. There were no such things as plastic bags in those days. I hung the bags on each side of the handlebars and steadily headed for home.
I had gone about two miles along the A604 Harwich Road as far as Parsons Heath and was just approaching the bridge over the railway when I suddenly spotted a figure briskly walking on the opposite side of the road in my direction. As the figure got closer, I recognised it as being one of my old school chums who I thought had been killed in the war. I called out to him but he took no notice and continued on his way. I turned around in the road and came up behind him and again called out his name; again no response. So I pulled up beside him and went to slap him on the shoulder with my left hand – to my surprise it went straight through him and he disappeared before my very eyes. I was so shocked that I fell off my bike, splitting some of the carrier bags and scattering the goods over the road.
Some minutes later, recovering from the shock, I picked up the spilled groceries and put them into the bags as best as I could and slowly made my way home. With some difficulty, I explained to my mother what had happened and she was of the opinion that my school friend had been killed early in the war and suggested that I should have my dinner and then go into the village and have a word with his mother.
Arriving at her house, I went to the front door and knocked, after a couple of minutes the door opened and she stood there staring at me. Suddenly she said “Wesley, after all these years, come in, what brings you here?” Slowly I told her and she burst into tears and told me that her son had been killed in 1944 during the D Day landings in France and that day; June 6th was the anniversary of his death. I could plainly see how upset she was, so I made an excuse to leave rather than upset her any further and rode off home.
I thought that was the end of the story but a couple of weeks later I was in the back garden when my mother called out to me that there were two men in the shop who would like a word with me. They introduced themselves as reporters from the local newspaper and said that they had heard of my experience and related what they knew. Their story was basically correct and asked if I could take them to the spot where it all happened.
The following weekend a full report was published in the local newspaper giving Wesley full credit and not long after that, he was invited to talk at the Ghost Club where his story was given a standing ovation. His life had changed forever. Wesley has remained a lifelong member of the world-wide organisation, embarking on countless investigations and recounting them like the seasoned storyteller that he is, unhurried and eloquent.
What It Takes to be a Ghost Hunter
From Borley Rectory on the border of Essex and Suffolk to Chingle Hall in Lancashire, Wesley investigates famous haunted houses by spending a night there. Where most of us would hurry across the shadow of a spooky mansion, Wesley is inside, hitting the hay. I asked him if he was ever frightened and he just laughed. I mentioned the BBC’s recent dramatisation of the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, where an innocent family were terrorised by a malevolent spirit in a North London Council House. I was astonished when Wesley told me that he had spent the night there. Only a week before his visit, one of the children been thrown out of bed by the entity, propelling the story into the Daily Mail. Wesley hastened to add that he didn’t actually experience anything but admitted that the house had a very bad feeling about it.
One of Wesley’s most disturbing encounters was when he stayed in the infamous room 11 at Old Hall Hotel in Sandbach, Cheshire. Known as the honeymoon suite, guests have reported furniture being moved in the middle of the night and the apparition of an elderly woman sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. Wesley’s stopover makes the tale no less unsettling. At 2am, whilst reading a book, Wesley noticed the rocking chair in the room had started to rock slightly. There was the pungent aroma of cigar smoke in which Wesley, being a non-smoker noticed straight away. The next morning whilst taking a bath, he endured the feeling of being pushed down, learning afterwards that a woman had been drowned in there. Personally, I think the rocking chair would have been enough for me. Television programme Most Haunted went on to do an episode at Old Hall and used Wesley as an advisor. “Derek Acorah! Brilliant medium but one hell of a showman!” he chuckles.
The Nature of Things that go Bump in the Night
After swapping a few more tales, I asked the seasoned ghost hunter the inevitable question; what is a ghost? Despite his wealth of experience, Wesley has no catch-all answer. There are many theories but not one that explains all the thousands of incidents reported around the world. If ghosts are lingering spirits of the deceased, why are there phantom cars, trains and aeroplanes?
My favourite hypothesis has always been the “stone tape” theory; that ghosts are recordings, incidents somehow trapped in time and replayed when conditions are right. Of course, Wesley is familiar with this explanation but asked me “then how come some ghosts interact with you?” A good point.
There is also a school of thought that suggests certain locations can make people hallucinate, perhaps due to a powerful magnetic field or some other environmental state that science is yet to clarify. It seems odd to me that most reports of ghosts also include descriptions of feeling cold or the temperature dropping. Wesley conceded that certain individuals seem to be more receptive to sightings than others and cited an occasion at Borley Rectory when one of his companions could see a monk crossing the road but another could not. Could it be that a ghost is not a mystery of the afterlife but one of the human mind?
Ghost stories date back hundreds of years and it may be hundreds more before we have a better understanding of what is actually happening. Wesley seems content with just being able to tell a good yarn.
The Downes Archive
Wesley is not a lone crusader against the creatures of the night, his son Barry also takes a keen interest. In a curious turn of fate, Barry also experienced an event that he could not explain during his formative years. Initially content to leave the ghost-hunting to his dad to concentrate on a serious career in law, Barry found himself bewildered after a private sitting with famous medium Nora Blackwood. During what Barry describes as a “stream of information” the medium told him details about himself and predicted his future with unnerving accuracy. After that, Barry became less sure of the world around him and, like Wesley, has adopted an open mind.
Barry contributed his own theory to the discussion of the nature of things that go bump in the night; that of alternative universes or dimensions. He finds it curious how some entities seem to be attached to a certain place, perhaps a location where the walls between worlds have become thin. Although it sounds like a crackpot theory, the existence of parallel universes is something that is being taken seriously in modern physics. The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider experiment in Switzerland is to learn more about the physical laws of space. Consider that most ghosts are reported as having a vague shape or as being intangible. Could it be that a ghost is not a vision of the past but one of the future or an event taking place in a world adjacent to our own?
Barry is heir to Wesley’s archive of reports from across the country. From haunted police stations to headless horsemen, the impressive collection of miscellany is filed neatly by county. Whilst most of us are concerned with the commonplace and the everyday, Wesley and Barry tread paths others fear to tread. To me, the Downes archive is testimony to their efforts and reflects the rich and eccentric folklore of Great Britain.