Cambridge is full of ghosts. What else could one expect of that enchanting city of chiming bells
and soaring spires, of echoing courts and oaken stairways. Cambridge will hold my heart for the
rest of my days, even as it captured it when young. It is the city of eternal youth, of grace and
beauty, dusty with age, bright beneath its East Anglian sky. It has a spirit and an atmosphere a
world away from this drab, standardized modern world of birdcage architecture, mediocrity and
You might expect, therefore, that its attitude towards ghosts is rather different. It was put,
blandly, by a College 'bedder' when I woke up one morning in a small room in the oldest part of
Corpus. As she put my cup of tea down by the bed I remarked cheerfully: 'There's a ghost on the
next staircase, isn't there-the old man who looks out of a window?'
'Lord! Bless you, sir,' she said cheerfully. 'There's a ghost next door all right, but there
ought to be one in that there very bed you're a-sleeping in! One of the gentlemen shot hisself in
that bed on'y a few years ago. Sech a nice gennleman, too. He left 5 to me and the other bedder
with his apologies for the mess he made a-shooting hisself.'
I have sat up in the ancient house of the Ghostly Squire and dozed in the room where a
White Nun walks. I have heard chains rattle in a cellar as midnight struck from all the bells of
I know the ghastly tale of The Man Who Changed Into a Cat and I know a room in Scrope
Terrace where extremely odd things happen. The most macabre of all the ghosts of Cambridge is
The Club of Dead Men. I heard it first on a bright May morning when I sat at the feet of the Sage
of English Literature.
'Spend a night in Cow lane if you want to write about ghosts,' said 'Q,' with an amused
twinkle. He pushed a Georgian decanter of Warre's '08 gently across the table. It reflected roses
in a silver bowl. The year was 1920, so the wine was in its prime. 'You'll see enough there to
keep you busy writing about them for a year,' he added, 'if you come out alive!'
Through the windows, the sun lit that oaken-floored, paneled room of his in Jesus and
made pools of light on the polished floor. The long refectory table bore, as always, its bright
picture of roses in silver, and port wine winking in cut glass.
The late Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, that master of English literature, did not, I fancy, ever
believe in ghosts, although in 1900 he wrote a book called Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts, when
this scribe was at the thoughtful age of one year. Then came Q's Mystery Stories in 1937.
Whether he believed in ghosts or not, he made them profitable. Perhaps not such money-spinners
as Troy Town, The Splendid Spur, The Golden Pomp, The Ship of Stars and those others with
shining titles. Nonetheless, ghosts to him were fun.
The man who held a Master of Arts degree at both Oxford and Cambridge and was a
Doctor of Literature of the Universities of Bristol, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, as well as Professor
of English Literature at Cambridge, and author of some fifty-three books and editor of the Oxford
Book of Prose, never quite grew up.
That fact and his love of lordly language, his devotion to the beauty of simple English and
his infinite wisdom, made him unforgettable. He had no peer. Such another will not soon arise.
I went off to look for Cow Lane. It is not, as you might suppose, a twisting alleyway of
cobblestones, such as might have led once to a cattle-market or a buttercup meadow among the
river willows, but a staircase. Neck-breakingly steep, it rises in headlong flight from the stone
floor in the angle of the cloister next to the Hall of Jesus College at Cambridge. You could pass it
by easily, without glance or thought. If you did glance it is unlikely that you would think of
climbing that steep and sudden flight of stairs, which, half-way up, is crossed by a great beam so
that you must duck your head or be brained.
Yet if you climb those stairs, as I did, rosy with port, ducking your head on the way, you
will come to a massive oaken door on the right of the landing on the top floor. When I climbed it
first, more than forty years ago, a great padlock on a chain closed the door like a prison. I stood,
Then came the footsteps climbing the steep stairs from below. A 'gyp,' swinging a key in
his hand, whistling gently between his teeth, ducked his head beneath that murderous beam and,
in a few steps, was on the landing and fitting the key into the padlock. He swung the door open.
'Ah!' I said. 'Just what I wanted! May I have a look in that room?'
'You may, sir,' he chirruped cheerfully, for he was a bird-like little man, with a striped
waistcoat which somehow made one think of a chaffinch. 'Not at there's much to see, sir, 'cept
jugs and basins, plates and bowels, cups and saucers-an' a few dozen domestic bedroom-ware-
them what the young gennleman likes to 'ang up of a dark night over the front door of the Senate
House, the day before Degree Day, or 'oist to the pinnacles of King's Chapel. We keep our
reserves of sich in 'ere.'
A gloomy room with, if I remember rightly, a great stone fireplace, a lot of old oak and a
window which was either walled up or heavily curtained. The bare oak floor was stacked with
glimmering, ghostly piles of crockery, chinaware and those bulbous unmentionables in which the
'gyp' seemed to take a personal pride.
'This 'ere is the Ghost Room,' he remarked brightly. 'It's where the Everlastin' Club
meets, once a year. They 'ave met 'ere for two 'undred years or more. 'Orrible goings on! When
them ghostly gennlemen gather in this room, they kick up such a 'ell of a row that you'd think
they was smashin' up all this 'ere china and cuttin' each other's throats. That's why it ain't used
any longer as gennleman's chambers but jest as storeroom.