Are these friends for life also friends in the after life?
They sleep quietly. Under a triangular monument in a quiet corner of a quiet churchyard.
Sarah and Eleanor.
The epitaph above their heads tells how they’d lived in the quiet valley of Llangollen by the River Dee together for more than half a century of uninterrupted friendship.
And now, nearly two hundreds years after they died, they sleep together, uninterrupted still.
Or do they?
Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler loved Llangollen, and lived there most of their lives. But they weren’t born there.
In 1778, when Eleanor was 39, she was still living at home in Kilkenny Castle, Ireland. Her father was an important Earl.
And for him, Eleanor was a problem.
She liked books, she was clever, she was witty. And she didn’t want to get married.
A big deal in those days.
Rather than let Eleanor grow old alone, her family planned to send her to a convent.
But Eleanor didn’t like that idea much, either.
So she wrote to her friend, Sarah Ponsonby.
Sarah, who was 23 at the time, lived in a mansion just three miles from Kilkenny Castle. She was from a family of aristocrats, too.
And she had her own problems.
Her family wanted her to marry a man twice her age. And like Eleanor, Sarah didn’t want to get married.
The friends decided to run away together. First, they went to England. Then, to Wales…
To a quiet country house called Plas Newydd in the quiet hills outside the quiet town of Llangollen.
There, they could be happy.
And they were.
Until Eleanor’s death in 1829 and Sarah’s two years later they lived their lives on their own terms.
They called each other ‘my B’ – short for ‘my beloved’, they wore men’s riding hats, slept in the same bed and had their plates and dishes engraved with both sets of their initials.
And they collected. Curiosities of every description.
Before long, the house at Plas Newydd was full of carvings and sculptures in wood, all leftovers from Medieval churches and houses.
There was a lock of hair from the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. And a font in the garden from the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey.
After the friends were laid to rest in the local churchyard, their home and the curiosities within it were bought by a rich general and, in 1932, became a museum.
By then, the hauntings had started.
One of the first sightings was by writer and academic, Mary Gordon. She saw the two women in the library at the turn of the century.
After that, many visitors to the museum claim to have seen figures flitting around the grounds, to have heard footsteps and bangs from empty rooms, to have felt sudden and extreme drops in temperature.
In 2008, the house was the subject of an investigation as part of the TV show, Most Haunted.
The crew reported voices and sudden chills.
And two years later, in 2010, paranormal investigation team Spirit Quest UK spent the night at the house.
The team reported being touched by unseen hands, they said they heard knocks in response to questions…
And they claimed they met Sarah and Eleanor.
The group set up a séance around a table.
‘Sarah made her presence known by gently rocking the table,’ the group spokesperson Howard Hughes said. ‘But when Eleanor made contact the table went crazy and was spinning round at lightening speed on one leg.’
It’s possible the two old friends were joking with the investigators, playing. Teasing them, perhaps.
But some guests to the house have reported dark shadows, a feeling of evil, of despair.
Are there more ghosts and spectres at Plas Newydd than the spirits of two benevolent old friends?
Is it possible the sense of threat, or malevolence, is coming from somewhere else?
Could there be negative energies caught in some of the curiosities collected by Sarah and Eleanor?
There’s the lock of hair taken from the head of Mary, Queen of Scots. A woman who knew the pain of lost love, the agony of a husband dying young, the shame of defeat and abdication and who was, ultimately, executed on the order of her cousin, Elizabeth I.
Then there’s the font from the Valle Crucis Abbey.
The abbey was built in 1201 and was originally the home of Cistercian monks. It was badly damaged in the Welsh War against English rule. And many monks died there as a result of the Black Death.
Or is that feeling of something sinister from something else altogether? Over the years, visitors to Plas Newydd have reported seeing the ghost of an old woman, and of a young boy.
Who are they? And are they, perhaps, behind the sudden cold spots, the invisible grabbing hands and echoing footsteps?
While they Eleanor and Sarah were alive, Plas Newydd was a place of love, friendship, acceptance.
It’s still that place today. A reminder of the importance of love and friendship in a world where those things are easily forgotten.
But it seems Plas Newydd is home to something else, too. Something unknown.
And something that won’t settle down to sleep.
Ghosts of the River Dee
Six miles along the River Dee from Llangollen is the 17th century mansion Pen-Y-Lan Hall, outside the village of Ruabon. It was built in 1690 by the founder of Lloyds Bank and is said to be home to many ghosts. One is said to be the ghost of a man who saved a child from drowning in the River Dee, but lost his own life doing so.