A photographic ghost story

First published May 2020


Let me tell you about the time when I had a tussle with a ghost.

Yup that’s right, a real life ghost.

I have an ongoing project which, let’s be honest here, doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of being completed, but as an optimist, well, you know…?

The project is what I call ‘Pier Beneath’, mainly because it involves photographing piers from underneath. Clever huh?

They are wonderful things piers, the world’s first was built at Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1813, but the undersides are even more wonderous.

The way the structure link to the ocean, how the waves interact with these man made monoliths is fascinating, so, I thought, with this angle in mind, why not document them.

So let’s start with the ghost story and a visit to the seaside at Southsea, Portsmouth. There are two there. Southsea South Parade and Southsea Clarence. And it was at the latter that the event happened.

As piers go, Clarence is unique. Built in 1860, it runs along the length of the coastline rather than ‘into’ the sea. One end, the dark end, is blocked (I assume it’s dangerous beneath it) and at the other there are two things to deter anyone pier-ing beneath.

The first of these is the Southsea to Ryde hovercraft terminal. The second is the tiny gap between the bottom of the pier and the top of the beach’s shingle. A narrow opening just about big enough for a human to crawl through.

I had visions of myself dodging the rear rotors of an incoming hovercraft as I dashed for the gap, Steve McQueen Great Escape style and then diving and sliding into an underworld. But alas that was not necessary for the elderly lady at the terminal cash desk said blindly ‘help yourself’ when I asked her if I could amble over to the gap on the beach.

So using much less effort than Seve McQueen, I found the gap and slipped in.

To say this was a labyrinth was a little of an understatement.

All noise just stopped. All cars, screaming kids, amusement arcades just simply vanish and was replaced by the beautiful whoosh of waves hitting this quite, serene and surreal place.

It was light and airy, made of concrete it was calming with a wonderful flow of breeze washing over me. There was a small feeling of me being watched but hey, we photographers are tough cookies you know.

We’ll do anything to get the shot.

So here we are, setting up the photo, the photo you see here. And here also the ghost story both starts and finishes abruptly.

The camera is on a tripod, the exposure has been calculated, the flashes placed and balance, a test shot taken and corrections made. It’s a 20 second exposure that means you hold yourself still for that time for fear of disturbing the scene. 

So I set the timer and track backward towards an identical pillar to the one you see on the right of the photo.

I was there, leaning against the wall when it happened.

I felt, actually felt two hands violently shove my in the back, hard enough for me to know that someone was behind me. 

Hard enough for me to stumble forwards with the force, two big steps sliding in the pebbled beach. I spin with both fists clenched ready to counter, my adrenaline was pumping at what I’d find, but you guessed it. 

There was nothing, not a thing, just a sense of something untoward.

I searched up and down the long length of structure but dare not go up to the dark end.

I spent the next 10 minutes setting up another few shots with no mishap, I wasn’t going to frightened away by anything, I’d leave on my own terms, but yes, I was shaken, and was shaking.

And I did all the way home.


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