HARPERLEY is the most haunted corner of County Durham. It is a lonely part of the world, just off the A68 near Crook as the land drops down to the River Wear.

In Memories 359, we told of how even a local policeman, PC Don Smith, had become convinced in the 1970s that he had seen a spectral woman leading a haunted horse away from the railway line – an encounter that ties in with the local legend of a Victorian lady being thrown beneath the wheels of a steam train when her horse was startled by its whistle.

Such stories – and there are plenty – explained to Eileen Burley, of Darlington, “an unnerving experience” she had in the area about 50 years ago.

“I’m not a person given to this kind of thing,” she said. “I’ve often talked about it in the years since because it was so scary.”

Back then, Eileen, who later with her husband Ken used to run the Kay Bee fleet of taxis in Darlington, was a policewoman and she attended a residential training course at Harperley Hall.

The hall was built on an ancient estate in 1790. It was the home of George Hutton Wilkinson, the first chairman of the Weardale Railway who had a private station at the bottom of his parkland – it was at the station that his lady guest was said to have been tossed beneath the engine’s wheels.

In 1947, the hall became a Durham Police training centre, and Eileen attended a course, sleeping in a bedroom in the old building with a female colleague.

“During the night, for some unknown reason, I was woken up and it was utterly freezing,” she said. “It was cold to the point where I was quite frightened – in fact, I went rigid with fear.

“All of a sudden, all the bedclothes slid off the bed onto the floor – these were the days when people had sheets and blankets.

“Then, it went warm again, quite suddenly.

“Next morning, I asked my colleague but she had seen nothing.

“I mentioned I’d had an unnerving experience to one of the caretakers and he said: ‘Did you have a visit during the night? Don’t worry, it’ll not do you any harm.’

“Then he explained that years ago, the family that lived in the hall had two children. They were playing hide and seek one day and one of them hid in the big wooden chest that stood just inside the entrance hall. The lid locked down, she couldn’t get out, and she died in there.

“And then he said that the room I’d been sleeping in had been the nursery where the children had played and slept.”

JOHN ALDERSON from Fir Tree – just along the A68 from Harperley – also got in touch. “The story we youngsters in the 1960s were told was that there was a white or grey lady who walked along a rhododendron-lined gravel path that lead from the rear of the hall up to what is now the roundabout where the A68 meets the A689.

“The White (or Grey) Lady was always accompanied by her wolfhound, or greyhound, dog.

“She was the daughter of George Hutton Wilkinson, and she and her dog were run over and killed by her coach on that track.

“Rumour had it that the dog had three heads, and the dare was to walk that path at night.

“I did, and I never saw anything.”

However, however, however…

John continues: “During the early 1980s, work was done on the hall, and in the attic was found a matching pair of French duelling pistols, a six shot pepper pot pistol, a single flintlock pistol, and an engraved solid silver dog collar – I know because I was asked to mount them for display.

“The really odd part was that the dog collar had three neck rings, all linked by a small chain and clasp.”

Harperley Hall is now owned by the College of Policing. Memories has asked if the whereabouts of the items is known, although it was very difficult asking a rational policeman if he had any evidence of the existence of a haunted three-headed dog collar. Watch this space…

IN the last fortnight, our Facebook followers have reported ghostly goings-on near the Harperley roundabout, as the A689 drops down into Weardale and Wolsingham.

One said: “I was approaching the roundabout from Wolsingham and I saw a black figure, bent over like the silhouette of an old person, crossing from the roundabout to the verge. I went round the roundabout again just to see if there was someone there, but it had gone.

“Every time I approach that roundabout, it gives me the creeps!”

Another correspondent, Carl White, reported: “I saw a ghost about 15 years ago just past the roundabout. It was a young lady dressed in what looked like an old wedding dress. I was a passenger in a car with two other people and we all saw her. I'll never forget what I saw that night.”

Mr White finishes by saying that the sight caused him to have a spontaneous, involuntary and unfortunate episode of incontinence.

And a third person wrote: “I was driving on the A689 between Harperley and Wolsingham with my daughter when she said: 'You've just driven through some horses'!

“She’d seen horses rearing up as if they'd been spooked. She has never mentioned it to anyone but when she read this article it gave her shivers down her spine – she knew nothing about the ghostly history of the area.”

Even more spookily, back in 2012 Memories told how for at least the last 100 years, this stretch of road has regularly yielded sightings of a ghostly black coach pulled by a pair of black thoroughbreds. The horses were streaming with sweat and their eyes stared out of their heads with nostrils distended and very red.

The driver was a little man with a very white wizened face who was dressed completely in black. He had four passengers in his carriage, and they, too, were dressed in funereal garb.

HARPERLEY really is a fascinating place. The estate is centred around an ancient farmhouse, Low Harperley Farm, which was the original manor house – it, too, may have its own ghost has a carriage is said to drive straight through its walls.

It has a secret subterranean passage that leads down to the river, and a mysterious message carved on a bedroom pane of glass: “J Hutchinson left 1809 Remember Me.”

More sensibly, Joan Potts, of Howden-le-Wear Local History Society, sends us details of how the Harperley estate was acquired in the early 17th Century by Dr John Cradock, the vicar of Gainford who somehow built up a huge portfolio of lucrative interests across the North-East: he was also the vicar of Heighington, Northallerton and Woodhorn, in Northumberland, and he was the Archdeacon of Northumberland and Chancellor to the Bishop of Durham.

Some in Durham said that there was something fishy about the vicar. In fact, they rhymingly said that Dr Cradock stunk worse than old haddock. On May 28, 1621, he was accused in the House of Commons of extorting money and ransacking his congregation’s houses.

The accusations grew more pointed over the years, and Dr Cradock tried violence to stem them, until on January 19, 1627, he was processing down the aisle of Durham Cathedral in the middle of the service and surrounded by other clerics when his principal accuser, John Richardson, jumped out of the pews with a posse of legal advisors and arrested him on the spot.

Before he could come to trial, though, the vicar died suddenly on December 28, 1627, at Woodhorn, near Ashington. It was said that he had been poisoned by his wife, Margaret, from Wensleydale, who wanted to stop his mouth. She was arrested, tried but acquitted of his murder.

The Harperley estate was inherited by one of their sons, Sir Joseph Cradock, who had married the daughter of the Reverend Anthony Maxton, rector of Wolsingham, prebend of Durham Cathedral and chaplain to Charles I.

In the lawless days of the 1640s, as England slid into civil war and the king lost his head, Mr Maxton feared that the cathedral’s most precious items would just disappear. As he believed the cathedral owed him some money, he took some cathedral silver and some richly bound books.

According to a letter written in 1650, “he had it buried in a garden at Harperley where Jos Craddock, who married his daughter, now lives. He pretends the plate was due to him because the dean and prebends owed him more than its worth.”

It is said that the silver still lies buried somewhere on the estate. Perhaps, therefore, Harperley is stuck in an episode of Scooby Doo – the ghosts are searching for the silver and are scaring away anyone they fear is going to beat them to it. We just need some meddling kids to sort it all out…