Not to scare you or anything, but if you happen to be renovating, have you given any thought to what is lurking behind those old walls or under your prized parquet? Of course, there might be nothing more that the odd creepy crawly or lost marble, but we’ve been left feeling rather unnerved by some of the findings of the HBR team….Our advice? Draw the curtains, grab a blanket and read on for some seasonal spookiness.
In the past, our ancestors loved a good ritual, convinced that by sealing up possessions and potions within the walls of their houses, they could ward off evil or bad luck.
What this means, is that it is more common than you might think to find oddities lurking around old houses when renovating a house, some of which can be pretty spine tingling. And then there are the more modern finds which can equally distressing (particularly the large pair of old Y-fronts HBR's Brand Editor Claire Lloyd discovered behind an old hot water cylinder during her last renovation).
While today we lock our doors and fit high-tech security systems in order to feel safe within our homes, our ancestors took a very different approach — after all, what good were locks when it came to keeping out the supernatural forces they believed were out to get them?
Instead, between the 15th and 18th centuries, people tucked objects they thought could deter evil spirits into the areas of their homes that they considered to be most vulnerable to attack — namely the walls near doors to outside, in their chimneys and under floorboards.
So, just what kind of things were these superstitious householders concealing within their homes? Here’s what to be prepared for if you have taken on an old house to modernise.
1. Scribbles, scrawls and drawings
When we moved into our house, we found the writings of the son of the previous owners behind the wallpaper. It wasn't particularly sinister, unless you find ‘Jon woz ere, 1960’ horrifying for its grammatical inaccuracy.
Assistant Editor Amy Reeves found a quite frankly terrifying collection of hand-painted, sinister Disneyesque images hiding behind the wallpaper in her last renovation, complete with a fanged rabbit.
However, what you really need to be on the lookout for are ‘witch markings.’ Also known as ‘apotropaic markings’, keep your eyes peeled for patterns made up of pentangles, floral designs, the letters ‘V’ and ‘M’ (representing the Virgin Mary) linked together and lines in a tangle, thought to confuse spirits. They were carved or burned into walls near doorways, windows and fireplaces.
2. Mysterious cats
Mummified cats were pretty commonplace, thanks to the belief that our feline friends had all kinds of special capabilities, from psychic abilities to bringing good luck. That said, others thought that cats were the idols of witches and we all know how much of a problem those pesky witches were for our ancestors during the 1600s, and right up to the early 1700s in some more remote areas.
For this reason, the practice of ‘walling up a cat’ (sometimes while they were still alive) was often carried out by those aiming to protect their house against evil spirits. You've been warned.
3. Well-worn shoes
Don’t be surprised if you find the odd shoe lurking within the walls of your renovation project — this is a surprisingly common find. In fact, Northampton Museum holds a 'Concealed Shoe Index' which contains a list of 2,000 locations around the world where shoes have been unearthed.
The top locations for finding these now ownerless shoes are within chimneys, under floorboards and staircases, above ceilings and even, as one homeowner in Devon discovered, within the plasterwork of the walls themselves. So, if your weekend involves opening up a fireplace or similar, be prepared.
There are several theories surrounding this one. Some historians believe it was once thought that after wearing shoes for some time, a person's character would become forever imprinted in them and by hiding the shoes in the house it could offer protection from evil. Others think that they were thought to help with fertility or good luck.
It tends to be more common to find children’s shoes, leading some people to conclude that they were a memorial ritual after the loss of a child.
4. Weird potions
This is where things start to get really strange (as if dried up cats and creepy children’s footwear wasn’t odd enough).
Be on the lookout for bottles filled with all manner of gruesome goods, toenails and hair included.
A good example is the Holywell Witch Bottle. Found in 2008 beneath a London residence, the ceramic bottle contained copper alloy pins, rusty nails and a piece of material that was thought to be wood or bone.
Apparently, witch bottles commonly contained nail clippings, thorns, pins, hair and iron nails, all designed to work in unison in order to protect the home from witches. Urine also features highly when it comes to these bottle’s contents — apparently it was irresistible to witches, drawing them into the bottle where they would become trapped on the thorns or pins.
Word of extra caution should you be unlucky enough to find one of these in your home, it was widely believed that these bottles would break upon the death of the evil presence they were offering protection from, so if you find one still intact then you could still be in for a world of trouble.
5. Not-so-funny bones
And, finally, that macabre discovery that no-one wants to unearth when renovating — human or animal remains.
Homebuilding & Renovating's News Editor, Jack Woodfield, was alarmed to find a complete bird skeleton in the chimney of the fireplace in his guest bedroom, but regular HBR contributor, builder and broadcaster Andy Stevens found something rather more unsettling when digging out the soakaway for his own extension.
"The labourer working on the project first found a small bone, then started to uncover more and more until, finally, he pulled out a femur!" he recalls. "The weirdest thing was, there was a seam where it had been sawn in two at some point. We dug a bit more, then found a jaw. Thankfully it turned out to belong to a dog." Not so good for the dog, obviously.
Pretty chilling for sure, but not quite as intriguing as one of his other finds.
"We were working on a big detached Victorian house on the Thames (complete with huge pampas grass in the front garden) and had to take down the old lathe and plaster ceiling," recalls Andy. "Something big fell out and hit me on the head. When I looked, it was a sealed up plastic bag. Inside was a 1972 copy of the Karma Sutra in mint condition.
"It mysteriously disappeared from site — one of the labourers ran off with it."
So, there we have it. While you might well be dreaming of unearthing an original fireplace or flagstone floor, you could be in for a spooky surprise instead. Don't say we didn't warn you.
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Natasha is Homebuilding & Renovating’s Associate Content Editor and has been a member of the team for over two decades. An experienced journalist and renovation expert, she has written for a number of homes titles. Over the years Natasha has renovated and carried out a side extension to a Victorian terrace. She is currently living in the rural Edwardian cottage she renovated and extended on a largely DIY basis, living on site for the duration of the project. She is now looking for her next project — something which is proving far harder than she thought it would be.