Some familiar haunts – and a first visit to a real phantom village

PAUL Screeton’s new book drops, substantially, onto the doormat. It’s his 11th or 12th. Most might broadly be said to concern the paranormal; this one’s about ghosts.

We meet – usual haunt – at the Brit in Darlington. A bit of a catchup and then paranormal service resumed as soon as possible.

Stats show, apparently, that 12 times more people are interested in ghosts than 25 years ago.

Specifically, these are the ghosts of Hartlepool and East Durham though by their nature – wraith rovers, as it were – they get about a bit.

Paul’s ghosts tend not to walk, incidentally. They perambulate.

In some ways, at least, we’re kindred spirits. He’s 68, a retired journalist, likes a drink, a read and the railways.

By train from Seaton Carew to Darlington he’s been thumbing Railway Heritage magazine.

“Duchess suffers hotbox at Ferryhill,” said a headline. It sounds rather uncomfortable.

Paul spent most of his career on the Hartlepool Mail, researched the book for a year, seems apart from anything else to have unearthed – it may not be the term – about 50 shades of Grey Lady.

Many are said to walk Old Hartlepool, including the church and the former hospital, though even the Red Lion at Trimdon Village is said similarly to be spooked.

Back in the former West Hartlepool, things may a little more colourful. The ghost at one of the best known pubs is said not just to be a former working girl – a grey lady of the night – but a Diana Dors lookalike.

“A randy wraith,” writes Paul though, happily, there is no talk of laying the ghost.

Every wet-eared reporter, and every dried-up landlord, knows that pubs are often quite keen to have a ghost story. Paul devotes a lengthy chapter to them, from the priest said to haunt the netty at the Stranton at Hartlepool to the former landlady of the Fir Tree at Wingate who fell into conversation with a nocturnal visitor. “We all come here,” said the ghost.

It’s another example of his journalistic discipline that the chapter’s called Pub Spirits. A century of sub-editors has written headlines about inn spectres, and tried to make them fit.

Much of the book, he confesses, was written in an alcove of the Ward Jackson – a Wetherspoons pub in Hartlepool – that he also believes to be haunted.

The publisher, inexplicably, excised the tale of the Hartlepoolbased Page 3 girl who, customary curvature notwithstanding, really did look like she’d seen a ghost.

There are stories of ghosts on the Heugh, where fell the first servicemen to die on British soil in the First World War, of a poltergeist called Peter – even ghosts have to be alliterative – of things that really do go bump in the night (and have a pretty fearful aftermath.) “Guaranteed to make your blood run cold,” it says on the back cover.

“I’m a sympathetic sceptic,” says Paul.

There’s even a story – “if not a ghost train then a haunted loco” – of a class 37 diesel, prosaically named Thornaby Motive Power Depot, said to be visited by the ghost of a driver killed in a footplate accident. It’s still in a reserve fleet, somewhere, though probably not one of those apocryphally waiting beneath nearly every hill in the land to answer a national emergency.

Paul, almost coincidentally, is also chairman of the Friends of Seaton Carew railway station close to which he once underwent a sudden experience of total, unexplained, fear. “I’ve never been robbed at knife-point, but without exaggeration I’ve never been so frightened in my life,” he says. He escaped on his bike.

Physically and spiritually, the book’s entertaining. He supposes it may be his last. “There’s no money in books any more, not unless you’re Phillippa Gregory, and even if you make a little bit the taxman wants it.”

Whether there’s nothing to be scared of, readers must decide for themselves.

  • Haunted Hartlepool and East Durham by Paul Screeton is published by The History Press (£9 99).

FROM ghost books to ghost villages: we have been to Warrenby. Who knows what hovers over there?

Warrenby was an ironworks village less than a mile from Redcar, perhaps best remembered by those not on Teesside as a humble, wooden-platformed halt on the Darlington to Saltburn railway line.

When it closed in 1978, memory suggests, it was the North-East’s last gas-lit railway station.

The village was built in the 1870s, almost literally in the shadow of Dorman Long (as the iron company became) and originally named Warrentown. John Butterfield in Guisborough, who starts this particular rabbit away, insists that it was because of the thousands of bugged bunnies evicted from the vicinity.

Most of the streets took their names from birds that populated the nearby marshes – Wild Duck, Plover, Snipe – though there was a Coney Street, a nod to the village’s browtins up, and there was a Decoy Street, too.

Over that way they still insist that Decoy Street was so called because it was a cul de sac, a perhaps unique example of municipal Victorian humour.

Soon there were corner shops, a pub – the Warrenby Hotel – church, chapel and a football team called Warrenby White Mice, for no more pusillanimous reason than that White was the name of the chap who ran it.

There were Sunday School trips, too. Every other Sunday School trip in 40 miles went to Redcar: no offence to the dear old watering hole, but it’s to be hoped that Warrenby got a bit further along salvation’s road.

Most importantly there was a community, a spirit only strengthened after 11 men died in a boiler blast on the night of June 14, 1895. The whole village rushed to the scene, it’s said.

By the 1960s, however, Warrenby’s 700 residents were under threat and, rabbits in a cornfield, declining. It wasn’t Redcar Council’s housing committee which wanted to clear the village it was, significantly, the health committee.

Inevitably there would be comparisons with once-doomed Witton Park, near Bishop Auckland, another village built in the Dorman Long term.

The Echo stuck to Warrenby’s tail.

A 1963 report compared the streets (unkindly) to the opening shot in Coronation Street, a slightly cryptic 1966 headline stated: “Village death sentence deferred – bail; refused.”

Execution was nonetheless inevitable. Most were moved in the 1970s, many to the Lakes Estate in Redcar where, drowning, they begged to return.

The last family left in 1983 and before turning off the light was interviewed by the Echo. The old man had been a prisoner of war. “I always thought about my village back home,” he recalled. “It’s not your country you think about, it’s your community, and now all that has gone.”

Original purpose long abandoned, school and chapel remain. Brief encounter, Warrenby Halt was taken away and became Newtondale Halt, on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

It’s a strange and surreal place now, a strangled and surrogate community almost illegitimately bearing the name of a fondly remembered forebear. There are a few motors businesses, a shellfish processing place, an improbable café which wishes customers bon appetit. No one lives in Warrenby; no one dies there, no one stands in the street gossiping or wondering where the Sunday School trip might be going.

The village died 40 years ago yet no one seems properly to have written its obituary. If ever there were a story truly to make the blood run cold, it would be the account of what frightened the life out of Warrenby.