|The Coach House, at Greta Bridge|
An American woman visited by the ghostly countenance of Charles Dickens while staying at a B&B near Barnard Castle has returned to attend an international conference about the author’s trip to the area.
Lynda Johnson, of Spokane, Washington DC, was on a family visit to The Coach House, at Greta Bridge, in 2004 while researching details of her grandmother, Agnes Robinson, who was born in nearby Barningham.
In separate incidents, she and her nephew, Robert, saw different ghostly apparitions – in Robert’s case the shadowy figure of a young girl in a long dress and bonnet, suspended in mid-air.
But despite the fright, Lynda has paid subsequent visits to The Coach House, most recently flying over for the Dickens in Teesdale conference and the publication of her host Peter Gilbertson’s book, Two Days in Teesdale.
The book, which began life as a small article intended for the Teesdale Mercury, just “growed and growed like Topsy”, said Peter.
Packaged with an accompanying CD, it was launched at the conference, following a dinner at The Bowes Museum to mark the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth as well as his time in the area.
It outlines, in fictional form, the 48 hours Dickens spent in the dale researching material for his novel Nicholas Nickleby, which exposed the horrors of the Yorkshire Schools, intertwined with his obsession with his wife’s sister, Mary, who had died aged 17 the previous year.
It also incorporates Lynda and Robert’s accounts of their ghostly sightings, including the fact that Lynda discovered much later that the face she is convinced she saw hovering over her bed at The Coach House was that of Charles Dickens.
In 1838, travelling by stagecoach with his illustrator, Hablot Browne, Dickens stayed at coaching inns, including the George and New Inn at Greta Bridge. This hostelry later became Thorpe Grange, part of the estate bought by Peter’s grandfather and the place of Peter’s birth in 1941.
The Coach House B&B, which Peter runs with his wife, Mary, is just across the road from the former George and New Inn, and attracts guests from all over the world.
Peter revealed that Lynda and Robert are not the only visitors to have seen ghostly figures. Others, including members of the Gilbertson family, have heard doorknobs being rattled and experienced a sense of being watched.
“When Dickens exposed the terrible conditions of the Yorkshire Schools, many of them were forced to close, creating a knock-on effect on the local economy,” said Peter.
“But once Nicholas Nickleby was published it reversed the effect, starting a tourism boost to Teesdale and the founding of better schools.”
The fascination with Dickens remains to this day, with the author as popular as ever 200 years after his birth.
This is borne out by celebrated biographer Claire Tomalin, who was a guest speaker at the conference along with Malcolm Andrews, editor of The Dickensian magazine.
Tomalin’s latest work, Charles Dickens: A Life, on which she spoke at the event held at Sedbury Hall, has been acclaimed by the critics and was shortlisted for the Costa book awards 2012.
Tomalin, who also stayed at The Coach House during the conference, was not disturbed by any nocturnal wanderings by the subject of her biography.
Did she believe in such things or was it all the stuff of dreams and a vivid imagination? Drawing on a line from Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, she smiled and said: “It was the salmon.”