Birdsong still fills the air around Berry Pomeroy

Tudor mansion within walls of an earlier castle maintains a ghostly presence in Devon

Bovey and Berry Pomeroy: One day, two castles

It’s mid-morning at Bovey Castle on Dartmoor. We have played with the hotel’s resident ferrets, fed the chickens and confirmed our reservation for tea in the afternoon. Before leaving to visit Berry Pomeroy Castle, we check our directions with the staff. “Never been,” says one. “That’s the haunted one?” says another.

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Indeed, Pomeroy is said to be England’s most haunted castle. Infants, children and despondent mothers are believed to be among the sad spirits of Berry Pomeroy.

As fine as Bovey Castle is, in fact, it is for Berry Pomeroy that we have come this far into Devon. I am a Pomeroy on my mother’s side. The castle is part of the family lore passed down to her when she was a child growing up in Victoria, British Columbia. My mother never visited the castle, never even saw a colour photograph of its “best side” the gunports and gatehouse, never listened for a ghostly cry coming up from the dungeons or the valley below.

There are castles and then there are castles. Castles built as fortifications and castles designed as luxury homes. Berry Pomeroy is the former, Bovey the latter. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, lands were divided and distributed to those who led and fought courageously in battle for William the Conqueror. Among the brave to be so rewarded was Ralph de Pomeroy.

The lands were purchased from the Pomeroy family by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset in 1547 and it was Seymour descendants who built an Elizabethan mansion within the castle walls. 

Heading out of Dartmoor (which has its own haunted history, said to be source material for Sir Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles), we brush past the hedgerows and turn on ribbon after ribbon of road for over an hour (our drive extends a good 40 minutes to allow for much pulling over to check directions and wrong turns off roundabouts). The last stretch is so narrow we must reverse back and around a bend to let a road-wide tractor pass. Finally we come to a gate across a dirt path.

A locked gate.

Because of course, the level of difficulty in finding a destination is often matched by the likelihood that it will be closed when you arrive. The castle grounds of Berry Pomeroy don’t open to visitors until April. Never mind, Devon is walking country. Husband puts his tripod over his shoulder and we make the rest of the way on foot.

Through a break in the forest, the craggy tops of the castle ruin appear. At the gatehouse, I call into one of the gun ports. The echo inside is startlingly loud.

Abandoned in the 1700s by the Seymours, the property is still a home of sorts. Birdsong fills the damp air. Ferns and moss grow through cracks in the stones; pale yellow anemone bloom; there are ducks and geese in the lower pond; rabbits dart across the grass.

I can imagine the voice of a delusional Realtor: “Now, with a little imagination…”

Bovey
Bovey Castle was built in 1907 as a country retreat for the Hambleden family. - Supplied, Dave Nunuk

There are no ghosts known to the staff of Bovey Castle. Built in 1907 as a country retreat for the Hambleden family, the manor house served as a convalescent home for returning officers during the First World War and a military hospital in the second. It was sold to the Great Western Railway in 1928 and converted to a golfing hotel in the 1930s. Renamed Bovey Castle in 2003, the hotel achieved five-star status a year later. All the upkeep, comforts and refurbishments are a far cry from the grand ruin that is Berry Pomeroy.

Our afternoon tea is served in the Cathedral Room – a wood-panelled lounge with lofted ceilings and tall, leaded glass windows facing the south gardens and golf course. “Taken” at three in the afternoon, it is our only meal of the day. We finish off the last of the scones and Devonshire cream in our room later before turning in for the night. Berry Pomeroy Castle is an intriguing place to visit. Beguiling even. But I wouldn’t want to sleep there.

If you go:

Stay: BoveyCastle on Dartmoor National Park boveycastle.com.

Eat: The apple, pork and stilton pie at North Bovey’s Ring of Bells Inn’s ringofbells.net/menus.

See: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/berry-pomeroy-castle/things-to-do.

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