DRIVING along the A421 towards Buckingham, the streetlights stop and real darkness descends.
Behind me is a long convoy of cars, the lights of which form a glinting snake in my rear-view mirror.
I am leading a 20-strong team of ghost hunters. They have no idea where they are going or the night that awaits them.
We pull into the car park of the Swan Inn of Great Horwood. It is Saturday night and the pub is aglow with the inviting sights and sounds of a busy nightspot.
But our night is not about drinking or merriment. It is about proving the venue’s haunted history – one experienced as recently as the night before by the landlady Kate Rowledge.
She contacted Milton Keynes Citizen after reading the newspaper’s request for suggestions of haunted places in the area.
Her invite and information, however, is kept secret from the ghost-hunters. This prevents prior research into the venue, built in the late 1700s.
Having spent much of the afternoon researching the pub, I know even using the internet on mobile phones will yield little history of the place.
Kate has sectioned an area for the group to sit. I interview them – a mix of questioning cynics and convinced believers – about their thoughts on the night ahead.
Whatever their feelings on ghosts, everybody’s excitement is very tangible and it is not long before Kate switches the lights out.
Some staff have remained for our investigation, as have a number of punters.
We go to the larger bar at the rear to begin the night. Like most ghost-hunting teams, MK Ghostbusters begin their nights with a protective ritual held by a medium – tonight’s being Hayley Conway, a 29-year-old from Walnut Tree.
She has already told me she has had visions of a young boy called James in pale green breeches.
As we head to our first vigil – in the cellar – Hayley relays her intuitions about the place.
“I sense two males in the cellar, one male in the kitchen who isn’t nice, and a female by the big fire,” she says.
Hayley has trained with David Wells, a medium on the popular television show Most Haunted.
She leads a small group of us to the cellar where she describes what she believes to be a man standing by a door which had long been boarded up.
We use electromagnetic field readers to detect variations in electricity. Not surprisingly, the needle rises when the device is waved by a pump.
I am not scared, simply a little disorientated. And that I put down to tottering around an old unfamiliar building in the dark.
When, as we stand in silence with our eyes closed, a group member complains of feeling she is being pulled, I cannot help thinking such involuntary swaying is a natural reaction to standing still for some time.
Our next location is the front bar – probably the oldest part of the building.
This time a candle is lit and we begin a glass exercise – our fingers on an upturned tumbler supposedly allowing a spirit to channel our energy and move the glass.
Nothing happens. Members call out for spirits to show their presence by moving the glass, but still nothing happens.
On another, smoother table, the scenario is similar. Until a punter, possibly worse for wear, comes over to ask how we intend to get a reaction if there is no specific place for the glass to be moved to, like a ouija board.
His mocking tone irritates the group and those people who take it so seriously but I consider it all a bit of a surreal situation; that here we are, on a Saturday night, fingers atop a glass, debating the best way to illicit a reaction from a dead person.
But then something does happen to terrify me. I look up, and beyond the person opposite me is a milky white silhouette of a person. I shout, “who’s there” and nobody answers. So I stress the question again and the outline moves nearer.
I yell for the group to switch on the torches we are all clutching. And a woman steps forward with a sneaky grin on her face.
Her name is Jane, she is a punter returning to the pub to collect someone. She says, pointing at me in a provocative way: “Didn’t anyone see the man in a trench coat and trilby hat sitting where she is? He thinks this is all very amusing.”
In the dim light, with her face lit from below, she looks sinister. But she is very much alive. So my first chilling encounter has, unexpectedly, come from a living person and not a spirit.
Our next site is upstairs. The landlady Kate has generously allowed us access to all rooms except her son’s bedroom, where he is sleeping, and the upstairs bathroom, where the dog – who reacts to spirits – is sleeping. Notes stuck to the doors say ‘do not enter’, which prompts us to tip-toe past.
We go into Kate’s bedroom. She says she regularly experiences a female ghost sitting at the end of the bed. Standing, then sitting, in a circle we call out and the old door with a metal hanger on the back rattles.
We put it down to the group above us moving about and the resulting vibrations of the old house. But when all settles, the door still rattles.
After little activity we move up to the top floor office, where people start saying they are feeling cold. It is approaching 2am and I point out body temperatures drop in the night, particularly if food hasn’t been eaten for some time.
Tracy Henderson, a more vocal member of the group, says she hears footsteps coming up the stairs towards us and decides to sit on the top step to watch. She then shouts back to the room that she is seeing a shadow move across the landing as though something is moving in the brightly lit kitchen.
I join her but I see nothing. Perhaps my cynicism stops me from experiencing something. Or perhaps Tracy hasn’t seen anything and it is a trick of the light or dark. It is only when my colleague, Natalee Hazelwood, joins us at the top of the stairs that something truly unexplained happens.
Peering into the LCD screen of her night-vision camera, she sees two orbs float up the stairs. Such balls of light are, in ghost-hunting circles, often described as the initial manifestations of spirits. The orbs do indeed move in their own path, seemingly hopping from one stair to another.
But I can’t swallow it as evidence. So I suggest it is dust and Tracy, a self-confessed believer, jumps up and about on the stairs to see if she can dislodge dust. Nothing appears.
Our next odd encounter is as we make our way back downstairs to the ouija board. As we clamber down we hear the dog snarl from his room and then a smash, prompting those at the top of the stairs to bundle down.
Minor accident averted we reluctantly tip-toe back up to discover an empty milk-bottle has been thrown across the landing, smashed onto the door behind which the dog is sleeping, emptying water across the carpet.
Anita Watts, who hopes ghosts exist but has yet to be convinced, was at the top of the stairs. She had moments before suggested she join me, Natalee and another colleague, Susan McDonald, to hold a very small group vigil.
In her shock, she retracts the suggestion, and we all analyse the direction the bottle and water could have come from. There are empty milk bottles in the kitchen but Kate later tells us the milk bottle filled with water is one she leaves on a windowsill near her ironing board.
If it was indeed that bottle then however it was thrown it would have had to be moved some distance. But between the ledge and bottle is Kate’s son’s bedroom.
Kate is adamant her son would be ‘dead to the world’ but I can’t help wondering, despite his mother’s overwhelming hospitality, how so with a group of 30 people traipsing around the house.
Would we have disturbed him and he sneaked out to throw the bottle as our backs were turned? Or was it one of the spirits Kate described earlier in the night? The ones she says play tricks and get up to mischief – ones that in her early time at the pub prompted her to call the police because she thought the venue had been broken into...
Our last activity is a ouija board. I have seen it on television and participated in one at another ghost-hunting night. I am cynical, and as we start the same question arises in my weary mind: why do people need to have their fingers on the glass?
When we start the glass moves tentatively but there are people with fingers on the tumbler who I do not fully know. As such I ask if we can change the group so my two trusted colleagues are involved and nobody else.
As soon as we change, so it is Natalee, Susan and I with the glass, the movement stops. Colin Jefkins, one of the founders of MK Ghostbusters, quickly points out it ‘needs more energy’ and puts his finger down. The glass resumes its slow movement and we begin our questions.
A first name of ‘Stephen’ is spelled out and I ask the so-called spirit if he finds our activities amusing. A very definite ‘Y’ for yes is seen. I agree with the apparent ghost. It is nearly 3.30am, I am talking to an empty glass, my eyes are sore, my stomach is growling and at this point I would very much prefer to be in bed.
Colin has moved off from the glass and others join. The ‘spirit’ choses more random letters in response to our questions before the ‘feel’ of the glass changes – which some round the table attribute to a new entity taking over.
We ask the spirit to move the glass to a person it has a message for, and it moves towards me. And my face apparently fills with terror. But Colin is standing directly behind me. I ask Colin to move to the other side of the table and repeat the question. This time the glass moves to Colin.
We ask the ‘ghost’ to spell its name and m-u-m is slowly indicated, at which point Colin begins to sob and is ushered out the room by fellow MK Ghostbusters founder John Worster.
It seems the right point to stop and I seize the opportunity to announce the three of us need to go. I thank Kate. She says without any complaint she has to get up, to begin the normal pub routines including the Sunday roast, at 7.30am.
She says, diplomatically, the night has been ‘interesting’. I confide that the psychics among the group did little to confirm the results of my earlier research about the venue, and many seminal events in the pub’s history went totally unmentioned.
Seeing how calm and undaunted Kate is, and having spoken to her staff, I am convinced her experiences are very real.
I am not convinced however, any of it proves the existence of life after death and of so-called ghosts. But I would happily repeat such an investigation, if only to observe group psychology, meet unfamiliar people, and reaffirm my belief that living human beings are infinitely more bizarre than the things that go bump in the night.