13th September 1998
Room 16 in a famous old English hotel is usually booked over a year ahead by guests wanting to stay in it on the night of October 29. They are keen to witness a ghostly swordfight reputed to take place there then between two phantom duellists dressed in old-fashioned doublet and hose.
A previous owner of the Mermaid Inn in the picturesque little town of Rye in East Sussex, a Mrs May Aldington, claimed to have been awakened in its Room 16 on that night some years ago to find the duel between the two ghostly young men going on around her.
She maintained that the victor disposed of his opponent's body by throwing it down a secret shaft in the corner of the room before suddenly disappearing himself into thin air. When she checked next morning, sure enough, she did indeed find a secret shaft there behind a wooden panel.
"It's still there to this day," says Judith Blincow, joint owner of the Mermaid. "I've experienced nothing myself, but guests love the room's strange atmosphere and October 29 is the most popular date for staying in it.
"Various other rooms among the 30 in the hotel are particularly popular" too though. Like Dr Syn's Room which has a secret passage leading from it to a room downstairs. It may be that such passages were a quick exit for smugglers years ago when Customs Officers raided the Mermaid.
"Our rooms furnished with four-poster beds are much in demand too, especially with honeymooners. In fact, before I became joint-owner here I spent my own honeymoon in one of the Mermaid's four-poster bedrooms.
"It was very romantic." There's no doubt that it is the inn's authentic Olde Worlde atmosphere which makes it so attractive to the thousands of tourists who visit it every year.
After all, it can claim to have been re-built as long ago as 1420.
It has cellars dating back 900 years to Norman times and the original building was probably burned down by French invaders in 1377 when most of Rye suffered a similar fate.
Its connections with old-time Romney Marsh smugglers abound. The infamous Hawkhurst Gang used it as their headquarters between 1650 and 1750. They were so much in control of the area and arrogant that a contemporary writer recorded them "sitting at the windows of the inn carousing and smoking their pipes, with their pistols lying on the table before them. No magistrate daring to interfere with them." It's reckoned they could summon 600 men within the hour to assist them in a fight. At the time the Militia and Customs Officers for the whole of Sussex totalled only 100.
Eventually though, local people who were normally sympathetic towards the smugglers turned against them. They had become unscrupulous and cruel.
Without public support, their days were numbered and many were executed in the middle 1700s. Three of their leaders Kingsmill, Fairall and Perrin were hanged in 1749. There is a macabre story told of the event. Apparently, the night before the executions, the three men were informed that Perrin was considered a lesser offender and would be buried in the normal way.
The bodies of the other two would be left for days hanging in chains on public display.
Kingsmill and Fairall, hardened criminals to the last, were not perturbed by this. They told their companion: "Why should we worry? When you are rotting in the ground, we shall be hanging in the sweet air."
"Some interesting relics have been found here," says Judith Blincow. "For instance, it seems a previous owner used to mint his own money! A few coin-like tokens bearing the outline of a mermaid have been found under the floorboards that were issued by Michael Cadman when he was landlord here in 1688.
"He paid them to people in return for goods and work and they used them in turn to buy food and refreshments off him."
The huge 16-feet-long inglenook fireplace in the inn is the second largest in Britain and the place is full of intriguing antiques.
"Many guests ask if they can buy some of the antiques, but of course none is for sale," says Judith. "In particular, they often ask about a strange ball hanging in the lounge. It's a very old so-called 'witch's ball' reputed to be able to reflect back to a witch any evil spell she casts through the window. "We'll certainly never get rid of that!"
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