Warning: this one's genuinely a bit spooky. Adam Wakelin joins ghost investigators in a 'haunted' Leicester pub. And there's definitely something going on...
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We sit huddled together, as silent as church mice with laryngitis, three men alone in an otherwise empty bar. It is past midnight. The room is as dark as wet coal. All the doors are locked. No-one can get in and out except us.
So who, or what, is whistling out-of-tune in the alcove in front of us? My money says it's not Roger Whittaker.
This is a fright night in the public house of horror - or The Talbot in Thurcaston Road, Leicester, as you might know it. The story goes that condemned men came here for a final meal before going to the gallows. They returned as corpses to be dealt with in an outbuilding housing a mortuary.
So who IS that whistling?
"Don't worry, we're not here to hurt you," says ghost-buster Andy Wright as an electromagnetic gizmo designed to pick up a "presence" clicks into action. "Come forward," he whispers, peering through his night-vision video camera, using a hand to beckon whatever we are dealing with away from the alcove.
The monitoring equipment goes silent again. "Now go back," he says. It clicks loudly into action. Andy repeats this three or four times, all with the same result. "Could you please switch the ice machine on?" he says slowly. The ice cube maker instantly judders loudly. It's come on. Straight
away. As requested.
"Ooh-yer," mutters Andy's sidekick, Wayne Bee. "I reckon we've got summat." "I hope you're not scared," Andy announces into the blackness, "because we are not scared of you."
Speak for yourself, mate. Right at this precise moment, 1.47am, my worry-meter is stuck on 11.
The Talbot is groaning under the weight of its ghostly reputation. Over the years, locals and landlords have reported seeing the figure of a lady walking through a wall late at night, the disfigured face of a man peering through windows, shimmering spectres in the car park, a small boy from another age who sits swinging his legs from a stool and a man in an old-fashioned cape raincoat who goes to the bar, opens his purse, produces some coins, then disappears.
"The piano started playing by itself one night," says regular Betty Blackshaw when I arrive. "So many things have happened. A lot of the staff wouldn't go down the cellar, you know. I think it's definitely haunted."
Landlady Sharon Smith is more sceptical. She's been here nine months and the only spirits she's seen come out of optics. "I did think I heard footsteps in the flat upstairs once when I was here on my own," says Sharon. "It could just have been creaking timbers. I don't know whether it's haunted."
That's what Andy, president of paranormal investigation outfit SPECTA, and Wayne are here to try to find out.
For a long while, I suspect the strangest thing I am going to see all night is the man I passed on the way here who stood making a mobile phone call in the middle of Loughborough Road wearing nothing but a bath towel and baseball cap.
With his white trainers, badge-filled jeans and mullet, Andy looks more like a roadie for 80s stadium rockers Van Halen than a modern day Van Helsing. The laid-back, laugh-a-minute, university porter doesn't come across as the type of bloke who has spent the best part of his life probing the
more outlandish corners of human experience.
Not that he seems in any hurry to start sleuthing tonight. Not while there's free beer and a stream of spooky experiences to bring me up to speed on.
In a couple of hours he and Wayne run the gamut - from the Black Dog of Birstall (an evil spirit hound) to a foggy blue figure climbing non-existent stairs at Bradgate Park to mythical Cornish sea serpent Mogawr (like a giant newt) to a run-in with the self-styled "Wizard of the West Country''.
I begin to fear the job in hand may end up playing second fiddle to the greatest ghost stories ever slurred.
"Don't worry," says Andy, 46, unloading a silver briefcase full of hi-tech gadgets. "A couple of pints makes the spirits more receptive, heh, heh. No, really, the best way is to relax. I think they're more scared us of than we are of them. They can pick up on any tension."
Unwrapping a large wooden cross, he places it down on a carefully marked piece of paper. This is an "evocation" apparently, like bait. The hope is a ghost will be tempted to move it.
We check it before switching the lights out. It does seem to have shifted - only 5mm or so - but it's not where he left it. It's probably due to the vibration from a passing lorry - but I don't remember hearing one.
Thirty minutes later the floorshow begins and my scepticism begins to unravel. At one point, I'm convinced I can see something fuzzy floating above the pool table. Or can I?
Trying to stay rational, I don't tell Andy and Wayne. It can't be there, I tell myself. Sit staring at anything in the dark for a while and shapes will begin to appear. That must be it. Harder to explain is the whistling and the icebox rumbling into action on Andy's command. Weird.
Suddenly, the hairs on my neck stand on end. The air feels pre-breathed. A loud bang erupts somewhere in the room.
Now there's a mysterious rustling. It's not Andy or Wayne's doing. I'm sat right between them. It is like being on a waltzer spinning out of control. There's not enough time to take everything in, to try to look at things logically.
"I think ghosts are fragmentary remnants, " says Andy. "They are memories that are retained in old buildings like this one, particularly bad memories. They need us to keep them alive. I believe they feed off our energy. "God knows what the poor souls who came here were thinking about before they were strung up. They must have been going through hell."
Whatever it is we experience, it doesn't last long, five or 10 minutes maximum. Andy thinks we may have done something to frighten it off. Or, perhaps, it just tired itself out trying to make contact.
"I don't know about you," he says as we start to pack up an hour or so later, "but I wouldn't have wanted to be in here on my Jack Jones tonight. "I would have been out like a shot when it all started. I got a bit spooked. "I'm sympathetic to the case. There's definitely something going on...".
• Story by Adam Wakelin, taken from the Leicester Mercury, 12 August 2003.