Sker House – Where Fact & Fiction Collide by C.M. Saunders
My latest novel, Sker House, just came out in ebook format on Deadpixel Publications. It's an old-fashioned haunted house story, with a contemporary twist and a distinctly Welsh flavour. Though the characters are fictional, many of the events depicted in the book actually happened and Sker House itself is very much real. I visited the place with my parents many times as a child, and vividly remember falling under its macabre spell. This is how I remember it in my youth:
Situated in Kenfig (or Cynffig) on the rugged south coast near the town of Bridgend, Glamorgan, the aptly-named Sker House is a Grade 1 listed building, and widely regarded one of the most important (if lesser-known) historical sites in the country. The main structure, now radically altered from its original form, is a huge detached rectangular building fashioned from local limestone and constructed on a north/south axis overlooking the beach. The building is unique in many ways, one of its most peculiar features being that until comparatively recently it had no main entrance. Instead, the front of the house was fitted with two symmetrical towers through which visitors could gain access, making it reminiscent of other, more arcane structures elsewhere in Europe.
The history of Sker House dates back almost a thousand years to when it was first built as a monastic grange to support nearby Margam Abbey by monks of the Cistercian order. After the dissolution of the monasteries, ownership of the estate changed hands several times in quick succession whilst it remained a refuge for renegade monks. In 1597, then-owner Jenkin Turberville, a staunch Roman Catholic, was allegedly tortured to death after being accused of promoting the 'Old Religion' and in 1679, the missionary Saint Philip Evans was hung, drawn and quartered in Cardiff after being arrested at Sker House the previous year. Many other dignitaries and prominent historical figures have spent time there, and visitors once travelled from far and wide to marvel at its spectral beauty. Over the years, Sker House became a hive of paranormal activity. People have reported seeing ghost ships just off the coast and disembodied lights flickering along the beach, as well as hearing mysterious banshee-like wailing sounds in the grounds. Visitors often experience a crushing sense of doom when entering the premises, and there are also accounts of poltergeist activity and shadow people.
In Welsh mythology, many of these phenonema are considered portents of doom. The banshee-like wails could be attributed to an entity known as the cyhyraeth , traditionally prevalent along the Glamorganshire coast, which is said to be heard just before a shipwreck. Those even less fortunate than to hear the cyhyraeth would come face to face with it. The creature could be either male or female, and is described as having wild, dishevelled hair, black pointed teeth, and long, withered arms. Death was said to follow in its wake, though rarely for the witness himself. Usually, a close friend or acquaintance would be claimed instead.
Likewise, the disembodied lights often seen around Sker could be examples of the dreaded canwyll corph (corpse candle or corpse light) in action. Appearing as single lights or in clusters, their size and brightness relative to the age of the victim, these lights were also said to signal imminent death. If the doomed person was female, the light would have a bluish hue. If male, it would be red. Sometimes, grinning skulls or even the features of the victim, could be seen in their shimmering light. Again, the phenomenon i s especially popular in coastal areas, and often said to be experienced in conjunction with the awful wails of the cyhyraeth. When seen on open ground, the canwyll corph are said to follow the exact route of the victim's funeral procession, which intriguingly ties in neatly with yet another popular legend of Sker.
One night early in the 19 th century, a local man was returning home from work. His path took him along the beach. Glancing out at Sker Point, the submerged ranks of sharp rocks jutting up from the seabed just off the coast, he saw the shimmering wreck of a huge ship. As he watched, a small group of translucent figures waded out to the vessel and carried something ashore. The shocked man couldn't see what the object was, but guessed from its size and shape that it was a coffin. Fascinated, he followed the ghostly procession into town where, to his horror, it stopped outside his own house and vanished. A week later, a vessel was indeed wrecked off the coast of Sker and among the dead was the man's brother. When his body was recovered and taken back to the family home, the funeral procession took exactly the same route as the ghostly one he had witnessed.
Another supernatural phenomenon reported at Sker House are shadow people, which are different, yet no less fascinating proposition. Often glimpsed in one's peripheral vision, these entities, which resemble dark humanoid masses, are usually dismissed as mere products of the imagination or tricks of the light. However, an alarming modern trend has seen not only the volume of sightings increase exponentially, but also the length and intensity of sightings. In the technological age, the sheer weight of evidence being amassed to support what sceptics originally dismissed as wild claims is overwhelming. Type 'shadow people' into a search engine and you'll get over 9 million hits, with examples ranging from eye witness testimonies and snippets of grainy footage shot on mobile devices, to slick, professionally-produced documentaries and even a Hollywood movie. YouTube is awash with uploaded clips, and there are numerous resources devoted to collating and archiving first-person accounts.
Shadow people are often linked to sleep paralysis and, in turn, alien abduction, with some of the more outlandish theories suggesting they could be time travellers from our own future. Even more disturbing is the fact that witnesses claim the interactions are becoming ever more terrifying, with the mysterious entities becoming more aggressive and confrontational. Whereas once they lurked in the shadows and were only glimpsed peeking out from around corners or disappearing through walls as if to evade detection, they now appear to be actively seeking people out. This indicates intelligence at work, rather than some kind of residual manifestation. They are generally taken to be male, though lack any real gender-defining characteristics, and many witnesses report them as having red eyes, or somewhat bizarrely, wearing hats. Others are said to be hooded or cloaked, which has led some to suggest that there could be several distinctly different groups. It is sometimes argued that it is a misconception that all shadow people are evil. Some are considered fundamentally good, and are looked upon as some kind of cosmic guardians. This would fit in with yet another school of thought suggesting they are elemental beings. Certainly, it's possible they have always been with us. Only in recent years have they really come to prominence, and numerous re-examinations of historical hauntings contain references to what we now call shadow people.
As time marched relentlessly on, Sker House and its estate passed through numerous different owners. Although in a prime location surrounded by vast swathes of arable land, the property seemed forever blighted by misfortune. As much as each successive new owner tried, they simply couldn't make a success of things. In the 18 th century, it fell into the possession of its most famous landlord, Isaac Williams (1727-1766), whose daughter swiftly passed into legend as the original Maid of Sker. The young and beautiful Elizabeth fell madly in love with a local harpist and carpenter called Thomas Evans. However, Isaac, who by all accounts ruled both his estate and his family with an iron fist, sternly forbade the prospective match due to Evans not being a 'man of means' and imprisoned his daughter in the house until she reluctantly agreed to marry a wealthy local by the name of Thomas Kirkhouse instead. It was marriage of convenience, not unusual in Wales at the time, with both families standing to benefit financially from the union. However, even after her sham marriage, Elizabeth still pined for Thomas, so much so that she eventually fell ill and died in 1776 at a tragically young age and is buried in Llansamlet. Some versions of the story claim that she died of a broken heart, others that she starved herself to death. Whatever the circumstances of her untimely demise, it is said that Elizabeth's ghost could often be seen gazing forlornly out of an upstairs window at Sker House, still waiting in vain for her one true love. For a time, the sightings were so frequent that many locals refused to believe that Elizabeth was even dead.
For his part, the spurned Thomas Evans is credited with writing a folk song in her honour called Y Perch or Sker, which he performed until his own death many years later. The story was later immortalized in some fashion by the well-known Victorian novelist RD Blackmore (1825 - 1900) who spent much of his childhood in the nearby village of Nottage and later wrote a novel called The Maid of Sker. However, the story he wrote bares little resemblance to the popular romance.
Curiously, there is also an Australian connection to the legend. Records show a paddle steamer built in Brisbane was christened the Maid of Sker in 1885, either after the Blackmore novel, as was common practice at the time, or perhaps because workers involved in its construction had emigrated from Glamorgan and were keen to remind themselves of their homeland.
His role in the creation of the Maid of Sker legend wasn't the only contribution. Isaac Williams made to the long, tragic history of Sker House. During the Industrial Revolution, the Bristol Channel, the stretch of water it overlooked, was one of the busiest waterways in the world carrying a steady stream of vessels between Britain and the Continent. It was also one of the most perilous. As well as the strong currents and ever-shifting hidden sandbanks, Sker point (otherwise known as the Black Rocks) could literally tear ships to pieces. At that time, smuggling and looting were considered legitimate enterprises, and shipwrecks were so common in the area that they were seldom investigated in detail. Local landowners routinely claimed 'Right of the wreck', whereby they were legally free to salvage whatever 'lost' cargo washed up on their property. Some less scrupulous locals were said to engage in the sinister practice of wrecking – deliberately luring ships to their doom. This was done at night by tying lanterns to cattle or grazing sheep and leading them along the seafront. From a distance, especially to unfamiliar eyes in bad weather, the lights would look like those of ships lying safely at anchor. A cautionary tale often told is that of the Welsh wrecker who helped lure a passing ship onto rocks, killing everyone on board. While he busied himself looting the ship's cargo, the bodies of the unfortunate passengers and crew were brought ashore for burial. Only then did the wrecker see the body of his own son who was returning home unexpectedly after a long voyage.
A pivotal event not just in the history of Sker, but in the practice of wrecking as a whole, occurred on December 17 th 1753, when the French merchant ship Le Vainqueur was en route from Portugal when she struck Sker Point. It is generally held that Isaac Williams and his cohorts were responsible for the wrecking. No sooner had the ship hit the rocks, than impoverished locals and respected nobility alike descended on the wreck like vultures and plundered it for all it was worth, stealing her cargo of fruit, rifling the bodies of dead sailors, and even setting fire to what was left of the ship in order to recover the iron nails that had once held it together. The Orangery at nearby Margam Abbey was supposedly built to house orange trees recovered from the doomed ship.
Due to the delicate diplomatic relations between Britain and France at the time, the fate of Le Vainqueur was treated as a serious international incident. In the aftermath, no less than 17 people were arrested, including Isaac Williams, who was then an influential local magistrate. When questioned, he claimed to have stored goods from the wreck found in the cellar of Sker House for safekeeping. Remarkably, he never went to trial, but his reputation was tainted forever and he died a ruined man. Of those who did go to trial, one man wasn't so lucky and was hanged by the Crown to set an example to others. In the years since wrecking was abolished, countless witnesses claim to have seen ghostly ships off Sker. Also frequently spotted is a solitary light hovering over Sker Point. Locally, this is taken to be a prelude to bad weather, but is eerily reminiscent of the afore-mentioned Canwyll Corph.
Though the fate of the Le Vainqueur effectively put an end to the grisly practice of wrecking, the tragedies kept on coming. Perhaps the most famous incident of all is the Mumbles Lifeboat Disaster, which occurred on 23 rd April 1947, when the 7,200-tone US Liberty Ship Samtampa, constructed in Portland, Maine during WWII and carrying a cargo of crude oil, ran aground on Sker Point during a storm with the loss of all 39 passengers and crew. In the terrible conditions a lifeboat, Edward, Prince of Wales, was dispatched from nearby Mumbles, but the awful conditions made rescue impossible. Witnesses later said the sea around Sker Point was black like molten tar. The lifeboat was smashed against the rocks, killing all eight volunteers. The crews of both vessels were buried at nearby Nottage cemetery.
By this time, Sker House had been abandoned for many years and lay derelict. It was officially declared an unsafe building in the late 1970's. Twenty years later, an expansive refurbishment project was undertaken to restore the house to something approaching its former glory. It is still standing today, a living testament to its own macabre past. Since 2003 it has been privately owned, but its current owners rarely welcome curious visitors. However, much of the surrounding land remains public property, and a footpath runs alongside the house down to the dunes which line the beach. It is there that if you are very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the ghostly wrecker's lights, or even a passing ghost ship. Just pray you don't come face to face with a stray cyhyraeth.