Narrator (William Woollard): This is a series about the unexplained. About things that are seen and yet not seen. About events that our common sense tells us can’t possibly have occurred and yet they have occurred, burned into people’s memories never to be forgotten. Our stories come from all over the country. They involve people who didn’t have the slightest belief in the paranormal until it forced its way into their lives. In this series we tell their stories and we grapple with the uncomfortable questions which arise – what is happening, what do these stories mean for our understanding of the way the world works, and what does science have to say about it all? There are far too many of these happenings for them simply to be brushed aside. They have now to be confronted.
This is one of a maze of tunnels under the old Treasurer’s House in the ancient city of York. It runs down into the cellars. It also happens to lie right in the centre of the old Roman fort which occupied this site 2000 years ago. It was here one chill February morning that Harry Martindale, plumber, was sent to run in a new set of water pipes.
Harry, plumber: My job was to knock a hole where this pipe is here, through the ceiling. I came down and spent a whole day knocking the hole through the ceiling. I had no idea then it was several feet thick, and I came down here the second day and continued to knock the hole through the ceiling. I had a short ladder in the centre of the floor here. And in the centre of the floor was the original Roman road, and it’d been laid out in sections. And I knew whatever it was, was old, but I had no interest in it. In fact I put the base of the ladder on the Roman road. Just before lunchtime, I started to hear the sound of a musical note. There was no tune, just a blaring of a note, and I thought someone had a wireless on in another part of the building. And the sound got louder and louder, and I realised that that the same time that the sound was actually coming from the wall here. And when I realised this I just glanced down (in line with my waist on the right had side here) and I saw that a figure had come out the wall, and what I was looking at was the top of a helmet with the plumes on.
Now I knew whatever it was, shouldn’t have been here in the cellar with me, and through the shock and the terror of seeing this I just stepped back off the ladder, landed on my backside, and then scrambled into the corner of the cellar there. When I looked for the figure it was almost the complete figure of a Roman solder. It came out the wall, walked at a slight angle to the wall opposite, and as soon as he cleared the wall, then a horse came out of the wall behind him with a Roman soldier sat astride. Now once the horse had cleared the wall and was going through the wall opposite, then Roman soldiers came out in twos - now I was in no fit state to count them as if they were going into the ark, but there were at least 20 of these Roman soldiers appeared here.
Narrator: This extraordinary apparition took place in what must have been one of the busiest parts of the Roman fort, on their north east gate running towards the main barracks. The treasurer’s house, where Harry was in the cellar, lies on the edge of that road.
Dr Patrick Ottaway, archaeologist: We’re standing now on Chapterhouse Street, which is close to the line of the Roman ‘Via Decumana’ - that is, the main Roman road which led from the north-east gate of the fortress (away in that direction), to the headquarters building of the fortress (which is away to my left). And York minster now stands on the site of the Roman building, and some twelve feet below the great medieval cathedral, you can still see remains of the Roman walls, as they were excavated in the late 60s. Immediately to my left here is the cellar, and this is where the surface of the Roman road was found when the cellar for was taken up, and this is where Harry Martindale saw the solders.
Harry: Now ‘terror’ is a difficult word - I think what I felt in here was worse than terror. And I can assure you your hair does stand on end, you can actually feel it! Because what I was looking at, although I only had the one single light in here, what I were looking at were the same as you and I, but the difference between them and me, was … they were coming out of the wall, the wall didn’t exist as far as they were concerned. The only other Roman soldier I’d seen prior to this, is what we call, or I call, the Charlton Heston type - riding a beautiful horse, very smart. These were the complete opposite. The first thing that struck me was how small they were, they were very small indeed. Another remarkable thing when they first came out of the wall - I couldn’t see them from the knees down, until they came to where the Roman road had been excavated - then I could see them from their sandals up. So much so, that when the horse came through the wall, and when it was going across where the Roman road had been excavated, I could see that the fetlocks of the horse were real bushy.
Narrator: It’s this kind of strange detail that lends credence to Harry’s story. These ghostly soldiers ..walking on the old Roman road surface, so only where the cellar had been excavated back to that level, could he see them at full length.
PO: Over the Roman period the road has been remade and resurfaced, and the ground level has risen. So I presume Harry has seen soldiers of the late first century, that is, soldiers of the Ninth Legion, that were here in York at that time.
Narrator: This man who knew nothing about Roman history or Roman military equipment was able to give a detailed description of the soldiers’ appearance, right down to their weariness and the stubble on their chins.
HM: I wouldn’t say they were all that smart, although they did all had the same uniform on. The metal helmet came right under the chin here, and from where I was sat with the single light on, I could see there was growth of hair here on the face. They had the coloured plumes coming out the top of the helmet, and as they were going past I could see they were going down the side of the back of the head here. They all wore the same thing. On the top on the material were strands of leather all the way round, and the only thing I can say they had on .. was a green coloured skirt. All of them carried a short sword on the right had side, the side nearest to me, and it was a short sword like an oversized dagger.
Narrator: Harry’s description, given very shortly after his experience, was examined in great detail by historians. It proved to be accurate in just about every detail.
PO: The armour that the legionaries wore was called “lorica segmentata,” which is thin strips of steel which were attached to a leather base, and they are a very distinctive feature of the legionary armour. And would have provided on one hand very good protection for the upper body, but at the same time flexibility. The Roman soldiers’ protection below the waist - for mobility, all they had below the waist was a sporran-like affair, which was thick strips of leather with metal plates on it. Then they had the tunic underneath their armour.
Narrator: But in one crucial detail Harry’s description seemed to be totally wrong. His written testimony described the soldiers as carrying rounded boss shields. Quite unlike the traditional Roman rectangular shields. But in fact this single detail only served to underline the veracity of Harry’s experience.
HM: One was carrying a long, like a lance affair, and one of the soliders I saw walking out the wall carried a shield. Now in the centre of the shield it was like a raised bulb.
PO: Now Harry refers to round shields, and we don’t normally associate these with legionnaires. But the Roman army also included auxiliary troops, and these included soldiers who were recruited in frontier areas, and from subject peoples and so forth - and their eqpt was really rather different. And we know, for example, that they did have round or oval shields. So it may well be, that what Harry has seen was a detachment of auxiliary troops, who were attached to the fortress in York for some particular function. We know that at Cawthorn, to the north-east of York, there are a number of fortifications there, which include a couple of what we think are practice camps. So in order to keep their hand in (so to speak), the soldiers were sent out to where to train by building practice fortifications, rather in the way soldiers are kept busy today. The last thing the roman authorities wanted, was soldiers sitting around with time on their hands.
HM: The terror I felt was because I could see them exactly as I can see anyone else now, so I thought naturally all they had to do was glance to their right to see me in the corner - and obviously the terror was in cast they’d do me any harm. But they didn’t, they just looked ahead of them and went into the wall opposite. When the last one had cleared the cellar and gone through the wall, and I couldn’t hear or see anything else, then I made my escape out of here.
Narrator: When Harry described his remarkable experience to the curator of the Museum at York, it turns out he was by no means alone in having seen the legionnaires: mud bespattered, weary, returning perhaps from a training exercise or a cross-country forced march. In a sense, it could be said that the Roman camp in York is still active, and that seems to be true of many other Roman sites around the country. The Roman legionnaires are still with us.
Narrator: The Romans occupied this country for over 400 years, but they had over 25,000 men stationed here, and they imprinted themselves very firmly on the British landscape. They brought with them their architecture and technology; they built cities and forts, and farms and villas, linked by a network of arrow-straight military roads to move their legions quickly to any trouble spot. They made wine here, raised families, grew up and died here: thousands of Romans lie buried on British soil. For a long time, Colchester, out on the East Anglian marshes, was the Roman capital of the country. One of the roads leading out of the city ran east to West Mersea Island, and a modern road follows the old Roman causeway. West Mersea Island was well developed: it had farms and villas and a Roman princess. Legend has it she was married to a centurion from Colchester, and she is buried in a large burial mound quite close to the road. Some local people would claim that the romans are still active on West Mersea Island. Jill Smeaton, for example, who lives very close to the burial mound, has heard them.
Jill Smeaton: Well, in 1987 I’d been living here about 10 years, and I’d always been a little bit frightened perhaps, when I’d been out to do the late night feeds, because we keep horses here. But after 9 or 10 years of seeing and hearing absolutely nothing I’d forgotten all about it, to be honest with you. Then it was the night of the autumn equinox, 1987 (September the 23rd) – very, very black night, there was no moon whatsoever. The tide was over the strood, so we were actually cut off at that time, and it was around 3 or 4 in the morning. I’m a very heavy sleeper and I don’t wake up for anything, normally. Suddenly I just sat bolt upright in bed, because going past my bedroom window (we live in a bungalow) was the sound - the very clear, definite sound - of two horses, unshod, walking along as they were going through reeds or long grass. Which was extraordinary, as I’d cut the grass that very day - it had been long but it was completely short. But it was a swishing, wooshing noise. And coming behind these two horses was the sound of a very very heavy wooden cart, the wheels just rumbling along. Not going very fast, as you might imagine a chariot - just rumbling along. Whether it was a funeral procession..? Perhaps it could even have been that. But it was such a heavy wagon or whatever tey would or cart they were dragging that the walls of the bungalow were actually reverberating, it was like being in the middle of a w movie, just the noise of the horses and cart going past. And my friend in the room next door heard exactly the same thing. And although she’s a much lighter sleeper than I am (I normally sleep through anything), we both rushed out into the hallway. And funnily enough, her husband didn’t hear anything - nothing at all - and yet the two of us heard the most tremendous rumbling going past. We thought our horses were out, looked out the window in a panic, and we were going to have to rush out and herd them up. But they were just going past too slowly for that. You couldn’t see anything, and our own horses a few hundred yards away were completely silent.
So we then heard it move away. We looked through the windows and couldn’t see a thing. Again it was completely black, and it seemed to move across the road, away from the strood, and go up in the region of Dawes Lane.
Narrator: Many other people have heard similar sounds of carts and chariots moving across the island. Others claim to have seen the centurion husband, perhaps on his way to visit his wife’s tomb.
Alfred, local resident: One .. night my friend and I came back from Colchester. We’d been to one of the pubs there, and had a few drinks and saw some of our girlfriends and that. We came back onto Mersea Island over the strood, on the East Mersea road. And we turned into Dawes Lane about 400 yards up the road, where there was a pond and haystacks. Misty night… in the headlights this figure came out between the pond and the haystacks. Walking towards the mound. And he looked like a Roman centurion. He had a helmet on with an eagle on the front, he had a shield, a sword… umm, he had a uniform on, and he sort of had a red skirt, but you couldn’t see his legs. And we stopped the car and my friend said “We’ll have him tonight!” and he jumped out of the car and I followed. We got about 400 yards in the road where theres a mound - roman mound with an opening in it. And, um, he sort of looked at us and then he disappeared.
Valerie, local resident: We were coming, coming along Mersea strood one evening, about 12 o’clock. It was high tide and the full moon. And as we were going along the strood, I was happened to look across the opposite side of the road. And there was somebody walking along, and I looked, and it was the Roman ghost. And I said to my husband, “oh look - there’s the Roman ghost!” and my husband said “Don’t be so silly, what on earth are you on about?” W turned around and came back, and we came along slowly, and I wound my window down on my side (because I was on the near side), and had a look. And there was this Roman - and my husband saw him as well. He was all dressed up, and holding his two spears. And he was had all the leather sort of skirt on, and he was sort of very upright and straight. And he was quite a large man. And he was just looking straight ahead. He was looking - all his face was all, a rounded face, and his eyes was just looking straight ahead. And we were further up, and turned round, then when we turned round and came back, he’d just completely disappeared. And the water was at high tide - it was level with the pavement. And there was no boats, no cars, not a bicycle, nothing, and he just completely gone.
Narrator: Sounds of course terribly inexplicable, but what can possibly be happening in these kinds of experience? How can Roman soldiers still be marching across the country nearly 2000 years after they left these shores? What do the scientists have to say about it all?
David Fontana, Professor of psychology: Well that’s a major question. When the Society for Psychical Research was set up a century ago, by a group of very distinguished academics from Cambridge University, they thought that they would very quickly, by scientific methods, they would find out the reality or otherwise of phenomena of this kind. Well, a hundred years later we’re still searching, we’re still looking. And the society, over that century, has had many of the most brilliant scientists in the country as members. All they been able to do is be relatively convinced that these phenomena have happened. Far from an explanation, it ends up in the end as a matter of belief
Narrator: One explanatory theory that has some currency, is that in some way building and rocks and the earth itself absorbs energy from the living beings who inhabit them. And that later on, under certain conditions, that energy - that signal - can be replayed rather like a cd or a tape. Indeed, it’s called the stone tape theory.
Archie Roy, Professor of astronomy: You have to postulate that in the case of a typical haunt some very emotion-laden scene or some very important scene from the point of view of the humans that took part in it, has in some way become registered on the environment. Not necessarily in a house, maybe even outside. And that it looks like, it’s almost like, a sort of psychic video that has been created. And someone who comes along who’s sensitive enough to act as a “psychic video player” will actually play that tape and see the figures, or perhaps even hear voices or hear sounds. And it is nothing - it is nothing to do with the people who were originally there, who are no longer there. It is simply a record.
Jim Lyons, Research physicist: If you imagine some sort of environment, say some individual undergoes some drastic experience like decapitation or something like that, then the energy liberated at that point in time is in fact transmitted - expelled - into the surrounding material and stored in that material. The subtle energies, a series of vibrational frequencies, can in fact then be read out at some later time - very much like a video recording. So a sequence of rather drastic events can in fact be recorded in living matter.
Narrator: At the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, one eminent physicist, Brian Josephson explains an even more outlandish possibility. That inanimate matter could actually have consciousness. In its present state of knowledge science couldn’t deny such a proposition.
Professor Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate in Physics: the idea that a piece of matter could hold impressions of the past is a surprising observation that would be very hard to explain. And the only way I could understand it, would be if the stone or whatever it was had some kind of consciousness, and could remember on that account. Um. Now whether it could have consciousness or not, we don’t know. Consciousness is assumed to be always connected with brains, but we don’t really have any kind of theory of consciousness in science which would tell us that is should be associated entirely with brains. So if science were ever to have a proper explanation of consciousness, or proper theory of it, it’s always possible it might allow a wider collection of objects than just brains to express it.
DF: My hope is that science will be able to demonstrate these things in a reliable way in the future, and be able to provide a scientific explanation in the future. Which is in no sense saying that they would not be spiritual or religious or in orientation, because the two things need not be separate in that sense.
Narrator: But clearly science is still struggling for an explanation for things and events that it’s not really equipped to explore. Meanwhile, there is no doubting the validity of Harry Martindale’s extreme experience, and it is burned into his memory as vividly now, as on the day he experienced it.
HM: One of the churches here in York, they, er… put pressure… pressure on me as a Christian. They didn’t think it was right that I should mention my ghost story. And I went along with this for a while, but then I think – “No! Why? Why shouldn’t I mention it?” I‘m not trying to convince you that what I saw in here happened. I know it happened to me. Whether you believe this or not, it doesn’t bother me whatsoever. No one has ever turned round to me and says “You’re a liar.”