RECENTLY we encouraged people to visit the Manor House at Skeeby as its gardens, for one day only, were open to the public.

Some lucky visitor, we suggested, might find the entrance to the secret tunnel which connected the manor with Easby Abbey nearly two miles away – the manor house was said to have its origins in the 12th Century as a guesthouse for the abbey.

This piqued the interest of Geoff Gregg, of Tursdale, who in his childhood was told of another manor house which had a secret tunnel. It was a manor house which had a mystical inscription on the garden wall which his mother could recite by heart yet which has now been weathered almost to illegibility by the passing of time.

It is Ferryhill Manor House, now a hotel, which has a quaint connection with Buckingham Palace.

It is also, if you believe in such things, one of the most terrifyingly haunted houses in the universe.

A thousand years ago, Ferryhill was owned by the Prior of Durham and farmed by monks. With nothing better to do with their time, these monks are said to have excavated a tunnel eight miles long so they could reach the cathedral in times of rain without getting their habits wet.

It seems unlikely, but that is the story.

The priory let its Ferryhill estate go at the end of the 14th Century, and the manor house grew up soon after as the centre of the private tenants’ farm. The current building dates from the early 17th Century, and at the start of the 19th Century it was the chief mansion in the village, described as “a spacious, gavel-ended house with a pleasant garden”.

On Church Lane, there is an old back gate into that garden. It is a Grade II listed building in its own right. Above the gate is an upside down sundial – apparently reused from elsewhere – on which you could once read the words “ad hoc memento”, which means “to remember”.

Above the old sundial is another weathered stone on which Geoff’s late mother, Agnes, used to remember the Latin motto and the English poem:


How happily seated those lares are

Who feed on Prospect and Fresh Air

Dine moderately every Day

And Work their Suppertime away.

What does it all mean?

The Latin appears to be misspelled, as when in 1703, the Duke of Buckingham built Buckingham House on top of an old mulberry garden on the edge of St James’ Park in London, he had the motto “sic siti laetantur lares” carved in giant letters on the front of the house just beneath the roof. It meant: “The Household Gods delight in such a situation.” The word “lares” is Latin for “household gods” – the spirits that protectively look over a house.

In 1762, George III liked the situation so much that he bought Buckingham House and turned it into a palace, rebuilding it so much that the motto got lost.

However, someone in Ferryhill Manor House liked the wording enough to carve it above their gateway and, inspired by the gods, they penned a little ditty about how happy those spirits were to live amid the fresh air of Ferryhill’s lofty hilltop.

But how happy are those spirits in the Manor House?

Because the first floor is said to be haunted by more ghosts than you can fit into Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine. Most of them are said to be children crying for their lost mothers, although there may also have been the ghost of a mother searching for her lost child. The spirits are said to date back to a brief spell around the time of the First World War when the Manor House was used as an orphanage or nursery.

So haunted was the Manor House that in 2004 the TV series Britain’s Most Haunted devoted a 45-minute episode to it, following a report that a seven-year-old boy sleeping in room six had been half-strangled by a ghost which had left red fingermarks on the boy’s neck.

It is a truly frightening episode, with all manner of creaks and lights being heard and seen. A medium became physically possessed by an evil child killer, which caused him to speak in a most peculiar voice, and presenter Yvette Fielding, formerly of Blue Peter, had a very funny turn when an unseen ghost whispered “bleugh” in her ear.

The TV crew pronounced it one of the most haunted houses they’d ever investigated, but, fortunately, before they left, they performed an exorcism which caused the ghosts to scarper.

Sadly, though, their spooky skills were unable to locate the whereabouts of Geoff’s secret tunnel.