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Time Slips, Retrocognition and Phantom Scenery

The Doctor walked out of the house, and to his bewilderment saw that the surroundings had completely changed. His car had vanished, so had the hedge and the roadway. Instead, there was a muddy track, along which plodded a man in old-fashioned dress. Somehow, the doctor was seeing the landscape as it had been 100 years earlier. Other people have had the same unnerving experience… wandering in ghostly gardens, exploring houses that didn’t exist and surveying views that suddenly vanished.

Time Slips, Retrocognition and Phantom ScenereyDr. E. G. Moon was in a thoughtful mood when he left Cleve Court, the country home of Lord Carson in a secluded part of Minster, Kent, England, one day in 1930. His famous patient, who had been a noted advocate– it was his merciless cross examination of Oscar Wilde which had sent the playwright to prison– was now a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and, at the age of 76, his health was not as good as it had been.

As he stood at the front door he looked down while he considered whether he should have prescribed a stronger tonic for the invalid. This problem unresolved, Dr. Moon looked up again and started to move toward his car, which he had left in the small drive before the house– and then stopped in astonishment.

His car had vanished, as had the thick hedge which ran between the two sets of gateposts. Indeed, no other aspects of a familiar scene were visible.

It was as though he had stepped back in time, Dr. Moon realized. Instead of the lane down which he had driven earlier that day from his surgery in nearby Broadstairs there was now a muddy cart track, and coming toward him was a man who was wearing a coat with many capes, a short top hat, and gaiters at which he flicked noiselessly with a hunting crop.

Phantom Scenery

The man stared at him and Dr. Moon stared back. The house, he knew, was reputed to be haunted by the figure of a lady in gray, but a ghost was one thing and totally transformed scenery was something infinitely more perplexing.

Unable to believe the evidence of his eyes, Dr. Moon decided to retreat into the house to ponder on his staggering experience, but as he did so he took one last look from the doorway. The scenery of the past had disappeared and with it the figure of the man who had stared at him so intently, and back in place was his car and the present day landscape.

Dr. Moon had experienced retrocognition, a term applied to ‘seeing’ a person or landscape belonging to the past. There are countless stories of ghosts seen in the dress of a bygone age, but phantom scenery, as it is known to psychical researchers, is a puzzling and rare phenomenon when it concerns true retrocognition.

There are not many well-authenticated examples of it, though there are a number of accounts of houses which never existed being ‘seen’ in visionary landscapes.

The most famous case of phantom scenery involving retrocognition is described by two friends, Miss C. A. E. Moberly and Miss F. F. Jourdain, in their book An Adventure, published in 1911. It concerns a visit they paid to the Petit Trianon at Versailles in August 1901, when they saw figures in the costume of a vanished age and features of the house and grounds which they were unable to locate on later visits. It has been argued by some critics that the two ladies had wandered by mistake into another garden, were confused about what they saw, so, as a result, their narrative need not be taken seriously.

However, Guy Lambert, a distinguished former President of The Society for Psychical Research, detailed eight features of the park, described by the two Englishwomen, which were simply not there in 1901 but had been there in the early 1770s, and has pointed out in the society’s Journal that: “If mislocation had been the solution, one would have expected to find that on their first visit the two observers went astray and by mistake entered some other garden; and that on their next visit they entered the Trianon garden, where they naturally failed to find what they had seen on their first visit. But there is no other garden into which they could have strayed, and as at the end of their first walk they arrived at the house, and went into it, they were obviously in its garden. The proof of mislocation, in the topographical sense, is sadly wanting.”

Demolished Structure

Sometimes an experience of retrocognition concerns a familiar building which had once stood on a certain site. Sir John Herschel, the famous astronomer, tells in his Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1867) that:

“I had been witnessing the demolition of a structure familiar to me from childhood and with which many interesting associations were connected; a demolition not unattended with danger to the workmen, about whom I had felt very uncomfortable. It happened to me at the approach of  evening, while, however, there was yet good light, to pass the place where the day before it had stood; the path I had to follow leading beside it. Great was my amazement to see it as if still standing– projected against the dull sky. Being perfectly aware that it was a mere nervous impression, I walked on keeping my eyes directed to it, and the perspective of the form and disposition of the parts appeared to change with the change in the point of view as they would have done if real. I ought to add that nothing of the kind has ever occurred to me before or has occurred since.”

However, in other cases people have seen buildings which apparently never existed, and why this should be so is most mysterious. Take, for example, the strange story told to Sir Ernest Bennett, author of Apparitions and Haunted Houses, by Miss Ruth Wynne, a governess, of Rougham Rectory, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England.

One dull, damp afternoon in October 1926 Miss Wynne and her pupil, a girl of 14, set off from Rougham, four miles from Bury St. Edmunds, on a walk through the fields to look at the church of the neighboring Bradfield St. George.

“In order to reach the church, which we could see plainly ahead of us to the right, we had to pass through a farmyard, whence we came out on to a road. We had never previously taken this particular walk, nor did we know anything about the topography of the hamlet of Bradfield St. George. Exactly opposite us on the farther side of the road and flanking it we saw a high wall of greenish-yellow bricks. They ran past us for a few yards, and then curved away from us to the left. We walked along the road, following the brick wall around the bend, where we came upon tall, wrought-iron gates set in the wall. I think the gates were shut, or one side may have been open. The wall continued on from the gates and disappeared around the curve of the road.

Behind the wall and towering above it was a cluster of tall trees. From the gates, a drive led away among these trees to what was evidently a large house. We could just see a corner of the roof above a stucco front in which I remember noticing some windows of Georgian design. The rest of the house was hidden by the branches of the trees.

We stood by the gates for a moment, speculating as to who lived in this large house, and I was rather surprised that I had not already heard of the owner among the many people who had called on the family since our arrival in the district. This house was one of the nearest to our own, and it seemed odd that the occupants had not called.

However, we turned off the road along a footpath leading away to the right to the church which was perhaps a hundred yards off. On leaving the church, we cut down through the churchyard into the fields and home, without returning to the road or to the farmyard. It was then drizzling rain. On arriving home, we discussed the big house and its possible occupants and then thought no more of it.”

Miss Wynne and her pupil Miss Allington, who confirmed the story, did not take the same walk again until the following spring.

Miss Wynne said,

“It was, as far as I can remember, a dull afternoon with good visibility in February or March. We walked up through the farmyard as before, and out on to the road, where, suddenly, we both stopped dead of one accord and gasped. ‘Where’s the wall?’ we queried simultaneously. It was not there. The road was flanked by nothing but a ditch, and beyond the ditch lay a wilderness of tumbled earth, weeds, mounds, all overgrown with the trees which we had seen on our first visit.

We followed the road on around the bend, but there were no gates, no drive, no corner of a house to be seen. We were both very puzzled. At first we thought that our house and wall had been pulled down since our last visit. But closer inspection showed a pond and other small pools among the mounds where the house had been visible. It was obvious that they had been there a long time.

Yet, we were both independently certain that we had seen house and wall on our previous visit, and recollections coincided exactly. I should mention that my pupil was neither imaginative nor suggestible, and that we were sufficiently good friends to permit her to disagree with me firmly had she wished to do so.”

Miss Wynne often visited the site where she had ‘seen’ the wall and the house behind it, but without success. Later, she made tentative inquiries of some villagers who lived nearby, “But they had never heard of a house existing at that spot, and obviously thought my question a foolish one, so I let the matter drop.”

Was there ever such a house as the one described by miss Wynne and her pupil? As investigators from the Society for Psychical Research had twice been successful in tracing houses originally reported as examples of phantom scenery, Mr. A. D. Cornell, a council member of the society, set out in 1963 to retrace the steps of Miss Wynne where she and her pupil walked from Rougham to Bradford St George in 1926.

He also explored a neighboring path on foot, and roads in the area by car. Nowhere could he find a wall, or house of Georgian design, answering to the description given by Miss Wynne, or any trace of such having existed. The only large house in the area near where the walkers joined the road was West Lodge, but Cornell considered it was difficult to see how this could have been approached on the first walk and then missed or not recognized later.

So the experience of Miss Wynne and her pupil remains a baffling mystery.

The Georgian House

Miss Wynne and her pupil were walking in an area unfamiliar to them when they had their strange experience, but something equally surprising happened to Miss Grace MacMahon and her brother, Bruce James MacMahon, at Hadleigh, Essex, England, in 1946. This time it was in an area which they both knew very well.

Miss MacMahon said,

“One morning my brother and I went for a walk from Leigh-on-Sea, where we lived, to a creek near Hadleigh, mooring place for a couple of dozen houseboats. Our walk led us along the edge of a wood. This wood we had explored many times before. Halfway along the path we were astonished to see a clearing in the wood and a gravel drive leading up to an imposing Georgian house with an impressive drive. Hurrying down the drive toward us was a young girl with an Alsatian dog. The girl was dressed in contemporary clothes. They crossed our path and vanished over the hill quite normally. We could not recall ever having seen a house in the wood before but made little comment at the time.

When we arrived at our friend’s houseboat we told them of the house in the wood. They assured us that no such house existed. My brother and I were so positive that there was a house in the wood, we all tramped back to have a look at it. We traveled from one end of the path to the other. House, drive had gone. Over and over we repeated that we had seen a house in the wood, but at last we gave up looking for it.”

After spending many hours since then searching those woods, and looking up old books and records in the libraries, going over maps, and questioning many local people, we can find no evidence that there has ever been a house in the wood. But there was a house because my brother and I saw it.”

Extremely Skeptical

Miss MacMahon was interviewed by Mrs Rosalind Heywood, a well known writer on psychical research, and told her that her brother, an engineer, was ‘extremely skeptical’ about such matters, but he added his signature to a statement that they had seen the house.

The search for the ‘imposing Georgian house’ was taken up again in 1963, this time by Mr. R. G. H. Andrews, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and his wife, who lived in the neighborhood.

They examined old maps, made many inquiries (“Nobody we spoke to in the Borough Engineer’s office or the Central Library had ever heard of any house in the locality fitting Miss MacMahon’s description and no house was shown on any of the maps we studied”), and made two prolonged visits to the area in question.

Their conclusion was that “We explored the area very thoroughly and saw no evidence at all of anything resembling ‘a gravel drive’ or ‘an imposing Georgian house’ as described by the MacMahons.”

Yet Miss MacMahon and her brother had not only ‘seen’ an imposing Georgian house but a young girl dressed in contemporary clothes with an Alsatian dog. They had not the least doubt about their experience, which remained as baffling to them as to the investigators who tried in vain to locate the house.

Another strange story of a phantom house was told by Mrs Joyce Bulmer, who lived in Blackheath, a suburb of southeast London. During World War Two her home was in Hertfordshire, and when her husband was on leave from the Royal Air Force she used to enjoy spending a few hours with him in a rowboat on a stretch of the River Lea between locks.

One afternoon they set off in the boat, but after about a quarter of an hour it began to thunder and then a storm set in, so they decided to tie the boat to a tree and shelter there. It was then that they had an extraordinary experience.

“After scrambling up the bank we discovered a large house surrounded by railings and a very wild overgrown garden,” said Mrs Bulmer. “The house appeared to be empty and my husband though it would be a good idea to look around, but for some reason I felt afraid and would not go near it, preferring to stay under the trees. However, my husband came back and said not only was the house completely empty but also unlocked. The rain having stopped, we collected the boat and went home. It was not until later that evening we realized how strange it was for a house to be empty during the war, especially in a country area, when there were such a lot of evacuees to be housed.

We decided to have another look the next weekend, but we never found the house again, only a meadow and no sign of there ever having been a house. We rowed up and down the stretch of river in case we had made a mistake, but it definitely was no longer there!”

As Mrs Bulmer and her husband had been rowing for only a quarter of an hour before the storm broke they could not have gone far, and as their search for the house was confined to such a comparatively small area it is unlikely that their experience could be explained away as an example of ‘mislocation’. The fact that Mrs Bulmer felt afraid when she ‘saw’ the house suggests that it was not physically there, although tangible enough for her husband to examine it and establish that it was empty.

A Choking Odor

An American example of retrocognition is given by D. Scott Rogo in his book Phantoms. He tells how Mrs Coleen Baterbaugh, of Lincoln, Nebraska, underwent a phantasmal experience at, of all places, Nebraska Wesleyan University, where she did secretarial work for Dean Sam Dahl. On October 3rd, 1963, she was asked to run an errand which necessitated her walking over to a nearby building. Passing through the noisy building she was suddenly stopped in her tracks by an intense musty odor as she entered one of the rooms.

“As I entered the room everything was quite normal. About four steps into the room was when the strong odor hit me. When I say strong odor, I mean the kind that simply stops you in your tracks and almost chokes you. I was looking down at the floor, as one often does when walking, and as soon as that odor stopped me I felt there was someone in the room with me. It was then that I was aware that there were no noises out in the hall. Everything was deathly quiet.

I looked up and something drew my eyes to the cabinet along the wall in the next room. I looked up and there she was. She had her back to me, reaching up into one of the shelves of the cabinet with her right hand, and standing perfectly still. She was not transparent and yet I knew she wasn’t real. While I was looking at her she just faded away– not parts of her body one at a time, but her whole body all at once.

Up until the time she faded away I was not aware of anyone else being in the suite of rooms, but just about the time of her fading out I felt as though I was not alone. To my left was a desk and I had a feeling there was a man sitting at that desk. I turned around and saw no one, but I still felt his presence. When that feeling of his presence left I have no idea, because it was then, when I looked out of the window behind the desk, that I got frightened and left the room.

I am not sure whether I ran or walked out of that room… When I looked out that window there wasn’t one modern thing out there. The street (Madison Street) which is less than a half block away from the building wasn’t even there and neither was the new Willard House. That was when I realized that there people were not in my time, but that I was back in their time…

Mrs Baterbaugh fled to the hall where she was once more greeted by the familiar and welcome sounds of the students talking and much students arduously practicing. She reported her experience to Dean Dahl and the story was passed around the staff. Someone suggested that the figure by the cabinet may have represented a former music teacher at the school. Clarissa U. Mills had died in 1936 in a room in the same building that had so affected Mrs Baterbaugh.

Another example of a step into the past, this time in Australia, is given by Celia Green and Charles McCreery in their book Apparitions. One of their correspondents said:

“I, together with my family, had gone on a short vacation to Daylesford to drink the famous spa waters, and there we rented a cottage on the Hepburn road about a mile from the town. Whilst there, I walked alone out of the house and decided to explore the gully sloping steeply down from the back of it. As I walked I became conscious of a thudding sound, as of machinery, and between the trees there came into view a collection of iron gray buildings and pipes and the sound of water gushing forth. In the foreground was a pool of stagnant green water.

I stopped and gazed for a few moments (there was no sign of life) and then returned to the house where I told my father what I had seen. Some time later he remarked to me that he, also, had gone down into the gully but had seen nothing– just a dry, rocky gully. Some four or five years later, a local resident informed my mother that there had been such an installation as I described, back in the old mining days.”

Another correspondent told the two authors “I have had an experience of seeing, quite clearly in detail, when passing through my old home town, a shop that I used long ago. As the whole of the town center had been redeveloped, I was delighted to see it, and parked the car opposite. As I turned to cross the road is just wasn’t there. I cannot exactly say that I saw it go, it just was not there, although I had seen it clearly.”

In the 1930s Mrs Edna Hedges, then a young girl, was cycling to visit a friend along Ermine Street, a Roman road just outside Swindon, Wiltshire, England. A storm began to break, and then she saw a thatched cottage down a small lane off the road, with smoke wafting from its chimney, she decided to ask for shelter.

Seen and not Heard

A tall and sturdy old man, gray-bearded and wearing  a green vest, answered the door; he beckoned her in. Later she described the dark, low-ceilinged rooms and the bright fire, and recollected that she heard no noise at all inside the cottage, even when the storm was at its height. The old man never spoke, but just stood and smiled.

Then, ‘all at once’, Mrs. Hedges found herself back on the road continuing her journey. She had no memory whatsoever of leaving the cottage. At her friend’s house there were some people who had driven up the same road through the storm. They remarked that she must have cycled through the rain, yet she was perfectly dry. On relating her curious story, Mrs Hedges was told that there was no such cottage on that stretch except a derelict one, unoccupied for at least fifty years.

Some years later, Mrs Hedges went to see for herself, retracing her journey, and found the property dilapidated and the garden a jungle. She said she could not explain it, but insisted that it was real and did happen, according to Kathleen Wiltshire, who included this strange story in her book Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside (1973), gleaned from the Women’s Institutes of that county.

Laura Jean Daniels told the columnist Joyce Hagelthorn (Dearborn Press, Michigan, Mar 10, 1973) that after working late one night she was walking home through deserted streets and looked up at the moon. When she lowered her gaze the urban surroundings had vanished.

“Even the pavement on the sidewalk was gone, and I was walking on a brick path. There were no houses on either side of me, but several hundred feet before me was a thatched roof and cottage… there was a heavy scent of roses and honeysuckle in the air.

As I walked up the brick path and drew closer to the cottage I could see that there were two people sitting in the garden, a man and a woman, in very old-fashioned clothes. They were obviously in love, they were embracing, and I could see the expression on the girl’s face.”

As she was wondering how to signal her intrusion, a small dog ran toward her, barking.

“He was quivering all over. The man looked up and called to the dog to stop barking. I somehow realized that he couldn’t see me, and yet I could smell the flowers and feel the gate beneath my hand. While I was trying to make up my mind what to do, I turned to look back the way I had just come, and there was my street! But I could still feel the gate… I turned once again to see the cottage, it was gone and I was standing right in the middle of my own block, just a few doors from home. The cottage, the lovers, and the wee dog were gone.”

Powers of the Mind

In her 1951 book, The River Dart, Ruth Manning Saunders tells a strange story of an inexplicable incident on Dartmoor, a wild area of England’s west country. Three girls and their father were on a shooting expedition on the moor at Hayford, near Buckfastleigh. They were strangers to the area, and the girls became separated from their father and wandered in the darkness until they were quite lost.

Suddenly, to their joy, they saw a light ahead, hurried toward it, and found a roadside cottage. Bright firelight danced out from an uncurtained window, warming the night with a friendly glow. The three girls, looking through the window, saw an old man and woman sitting crouched over the fire. “We never moved from where we stood,” declared the girls afterward. But, in a sudden moment, the fire, the old man and woman, and the entire cottage vanished, and night, like a black fog, fell over the place.

It may be argued that a distinction should be made between examples of retrocognition– that is, when what was once a building of brick, stone or wood but had been demolished, is recognized in visionary form, as by Sir John Herschel in the last century– and visions of scenes and houses which had never existed, but both experiences are extraordinary manifestations of the mysterious powers of the mind which are, as yet, little understood.


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