Ah, Christmas 2023; finally a year when I was actually prepared to try to enjoy this few days of enforced 'fun', for the first year EVER away from my childhood home. And, another first, because it was to be with my Dad, just the two of us here in Ilchester. He's got several cancers and I'm terrified of seeing him ageing, but that's life. So getting him away from his dishevilled and dilapidated house and away for a few days, was what he needed - and life is short. He can be grumpy, but he's my Dad and I love him to bits. And there were no ties this year - Dad's three moggies Chloe, Toto and very recently good old Spud, passed beyond the veil. Poor Chloe we suspect, was disposed of by a new neighbour of Dad's, and boy, was revenge big on the menu. But I put a stop to that.
I'm not a Christmas lover. I used to be when I was 6, but weren't we all? These days it seems (and to be honest, as do most things) utterly devoid of atmosphere. So I quite surprised myself when both Dad and I began to look forward to three days of being nice to each other and eating 2 meals a day. Who'd have thought!
However, shortly before the festive period (I mean the actual one, not the fake commercially-driven one that begins in the UK in September) came the announcement that I had been dreading since falling head over heels in love with HMP Shepton Mallet in 2017; she was closing. For good this time.
How many times had we fought the developers before? At least three I recall! And, armed with petitions, barbed letters of passion and accusation (and even my letter to the Queen) between us, the army of devotees, we quashed it again and again.
This time the picture was clear, or so we were told. The site lease-hodler was being unceremoniously kicked off the premises pretty much with immediate effect, by the bad boys, the developers City and Country, who own the prison and lease it to the CEO of The Cove Group. We'll call the lease-holder 'D'. The staff were given no warning that their jobs in this magnificent place were about to be erased, and just like that, the happy team and bonhomie of the prison and her niche family (in which I include myself and my strange friends) were devestated.
Now this is where it gets interesting...
The announcement made by D was done not in person but by a Teams video link session. The staff had been made aware that they were to 'attend' a meeting online at 10am. However, some might say that it was a bit presumptive and indeed clairvouyant of the BBC to already be on site and in place, ready for the meeting's bombshell to drop. It was almost as if they had been, I don't know, tipped off?!
So began the meeting, and the staff were unceremoniously told that they had until January 2nd to close up shop and get out - possibly even prior to this date, it all depended on the leniancy of the devils in power, City and Country. No apology given, the news just broke.
I knew about this because I have friends 'on the inside', and the second the news dropped, I ditched what I was doing and fled to the prison. More suspicious details emerged, in that a friend of current staff who, the day before The Announcement, was told that she'd heard that the prison was closing. So just who had been spreading the manure, I wonder?
BBC Radio Somerset were on site in the yard, I think they'd just finished interviewing Charlie, the site manager. The staff in reception were tearful, the atmosphere just abysmal, as you'd expect. Customers were still flooding in, and the girls on the desk had to maintain a calm and smily image which I could tell, was just not really happening. As the news flooded the locality, people were ringing in asking for refunds for events booked months ago, people getting irate asking why their money had been taken when obviously, the staff knew of the forthcoming closure... Except they didn't. They didn't have a Scooby Doo, as they say.
I walked the entire site in shock. I had dreaded this day, but never thought it would happen like this; I was sniffing and crying a bit as I walked and walked, until it was dark and closing time. As I left, the staff told me that the interview with City and Country, Charlie, and 'D' would be airing in the morning at 10am.
The gist of the interview was that C&C and D had been at each other's throats over this and that, and that C&C had had enough and demanded that D remove his business fortwith. This was odd, because the first that C&C new of all this was on the news! Yes, the bombshell of D's departure truly a surprise to most involved. We began, as they say, to smell a rat.
I kicked off in an email to C&C at that time in D's defence and I laid it out there just how much the place means to so many, blah blah blah, how could they, how could they not care? Consequently, I was violently surprised to receive a phone call an hour or so later after sending the email. The poor man at the end of the phone was unsurprisingly an angry mess; he told me the full story...
Apparently there'd been a lot of 'toys being thrown out of the pram' by a particular game-player here, and not the side we'd been led to believe. The very same day that D announced the closure to the media (and staff), he also let drop that his other prison at Shrewsbury would partially become an hotel! He also purchased a rugby club. So you see, it's nothing to do with finances I don't think. We (us Shepton lot ) have always felt that we were the underdog in D's three-prison empire. Shewsbury being the golden child, Gloucester the second in command (now just open for paranormal hire) and then us. The prison is shabby, full of mould, damp, and needs a heck of a lot of love! Even the posters on the walls are misspelled and falling down. Shrewsbury on the other hand, glows with a preservation that an historic building deserves.
Personally I just think that our prison had become a massive ball and chain, and D wanted out, and you know what, that's fair enough. It is a MASSSIVE undertaking, but there's ways and means of doing something, and it's not how it was done. Either that, or the perfect timing, a bit Scrooge-esque, just before Christmas and blaming C&C, might have been a massive gamble, a game to get public opinion on side and against C&C. Because let's not forget, that C&C were as naieve about these proceedings as the staff at Shepton were! Oh there were games being played alright.
The gentleman who phoned me was brilliant, and disclosed things that by rights I probably shouldn't have known, being just a member of the public, albeit ex staff. He did say that the argument between them and D was nothing to do with development - which would still happen some time in the future sadly, but that they want/ed a heritage business still operating at the prison to 'keep the bed warm' for them to come in and do their unsavoury deeds later, probably in around 2026. So, although this news upset me still, at least the plan at that time wasn't to immediately kick out the staff and shut the place down!
For days I felt sick, angry, numb with disbelief; how do I say goodbye to such an important part of my life?
Anyway, long story short; we, the devotees, staff, member of the public, kicked off BIG TIME. And it worked.
The news that the prison was to stay open going 'into 2024' (note not FOR 2024, the wording still bothers me, and I know there's all manner of battles going on in the background at this very moment so who knows) was a triumph, and how our little group celebrated! Our core group is comprised of myself obviously, Michele, Chris & his kids, Dave, Luke, Phil, and Emma. Each of us had campaigned for this probably very temporary victory, but it was a victory nonetheless. The fact that yearly passes are again being sold, and that bookings are being taken for the infamous Night Behind Bars events in the summer, all points to good things. But I'm taking nothing for granted. I'm focusing right now on putting together a short film detailing just WHY developing such a stalwart of history, dark and nasty history, is so wrong. Like it needs saying! Sad, because apparently it does. The aim is to find a buyer, not a new leaser, to get it off the market once and for all. After all, a certain Mr Depp lives nearby. It'd be right up is quirky street. By sending it to ITV South West and BBC Points West, who knows - it might get the attention of someone who can help. For now, I will tentatively detract my somewhat barbed comments about D, and thank him hopefully, for coming to the right decision.
I drove to Kent, picked up my Dad, and we began Christmas, and you know what, it was lovely. The prison was safe, I had my Dad to myself, we ate well and drank too much wine.
Then on Boxing Day morning I awoke to about twenty messages telling me that our friend, Emma Blake, had died. Died of a heart attack at the age of 45, just one month after her father had passed away.
Emma had worked at the prison when it was a functional place of punishment and rehabilitation, and then for Jailhouse Tours. I think a total of 23 years in the place! It was Emma and Paul Toole who first welcomed myself and Jack on May 18th 2017, and we remained friends from then on.
Emma's passion for the prison was instense, and even after she left in 2019, she would come back in at weekends and meet with us, the weirdos, as she gradually immersed herself in the strange doings of us paranormallers. She recorded her first EVP in the upper gate lodge, and was over the moon. She snapped a photo of herself up there on that very day, and had it as her Facebook profile picture - it's still there today. I don't know how long her profile will stay up, so I've saved the photo as a memory.
To say that we, her friends, were devastated, is an understatement. Our thoughts and emotions rolled, and the wrongness of it just seeped into our days, inducing sudden bouts of tears and sighs of, "Oh Emma..."
Memories of having her and the prison gang over for dinner in 2018, Emma having indulged a little too much in the red wine and Metaxa, had to be carried to the minibus at the end of the night by my Jack. He didn't struggle - she weighed as much as a sparrow.
A hilarious memory of the Mendip Business awards, is probably my favourite recollection. I'd been invited to fill a spare ticket, even though I didn't work for the prison at that time. They were up for three awards, and it was to be held at the Bath and West showground in a huge fancy marquee with carpet and twinkly lights. There was a three course meal and booze, and it was all quite exciting. There were I think nine of us that night, and I sat between Felicity and Emma.
As the night went on it became increasingly obvious that we weren't going to win anything, and we became rambunctious. Well, several members of the table did, the rest of us cringed and laughed, hiding our faces behind our hands as we struggled to conceal our mirth. We were the naughty table and some! When we lost out to some cafe in the award for the Longest Running Attraction or something, Paul stood up suddenly and yelled in full military manner, eyes closed, arms by his side, "SHEPTON MALLET PRISON, 1610!!!" and promptly dropped to his seat once more. A shocked hush settled briefly in the audience as they turned to stare at the strange and possibly rather drunk yet passionate man at the naughty table, and then the trophy handing-out continued. We laughed until we cried.
The final straw was losing out in a category that seemingly had been designed for us; something along the lines of Dark Tourism Facility Award. Again we were last, and we all began getting up before the winners had started their speech so disgusted were we. Even D. He was nearly crying with laughter too, and there was a brief lull in the buzz of the place. Emma was scrabbling in her bag for her ciggies, and Paul was filming a 'live' reveal to the prison's Facebook page, letting the troops down gently I believe. The announcer congratulated the winners, and in the brief moment of quiet, Emma yelled, "OH F*** THEM!" and nearly slid off her chair.
That was it, we legged it out of the marquee and went outside into the warm summer night to lick our wounds, some heading off to the various beer tents erected for the county show that was in progress during the day, and the rest went home reflecting on the embarrassment that we were! I have never had such a good time! The video of the moment of Emma's expletive echoing around the place was online for a while, then at her own request, was removed. Oh how I wish I could still see it...
Emma's funeral is this coming Friday, and I'll be attending with a good handful of staff and her friends from the prison. It's going to be a tough one, no doubt.
However, I have reason to believe that she's okay - I took a bunch of flowers to the gate lodge for her and left them on a metal girder up high, so that visitors wouldn't necessarily see it. I snapped a few photos 'just because', and went away. When I looked back at them, I was stunned to see what looks to be a plume of white emerging from the flowers and extending in a definite form upward. In the top part of the plume is what I call the 'Pringle' because it resembles the famous shape of the crisp; and it's glowing. It's not my breath, it's not lens flare, it's not cobweb. It only showed on one photo.
Several nights later, I dropped into the prison to see my colleague Kate just before she welcomed Haunted Happenings and their guests for the night. As I left, I called back to Will (Emma's friend and ex colleague) who was leading the team that night, to "Say hi to Emma for me..because she's definitely here!" and he just sort of nodded and walked off.
However that night, well, at 1am, I received an excited voice-note from Kate's phone - from Will. A group who didn't know Emma had gone up with Will to the gate lodge, and used an SB7 ghost box. What came through shocked Will, but in a good way. A voice said three things; EMMA. AT PEACE. THANKS FOR THE FLOWERS.
So, that's it for now, I need to go and sort my dress for the funeral.
Rest in peace lovely lady, and remember, keep talking. Because I will always be listening. XXXXXX