Berrima NSW, Australia
In early 2004, my girlfriend Jeanette and I decided to take a short break and visit a cluster of quaint villages a couple of hours drive south of Sydney. We decided we would spend about three days just wandering around the little towns, visiting local shops, cafés, museums and markets, and generally soaking up some village atmosphere.
We both really like that whole southern New South Wales region, with its rolling green hills and cooler climate (neither of us are very tolerant of heat and humidity). We had been planning for years to buy a house down there somewhere to settle but we eventually found our dream home in the Blue Mountains, where we now live.
Anyway before our trip, I had done a bit of searching online for some accommodation. I managed to reserve two nights in a large historical sandstone building called The Magistrate’s House. Judging by the name, it was once owned by some kinda uh… magistrate, I guess. The following brief history was taken directly from their website:
The house was built c.1840 by a prosperous trader, Mr. J. J. Higgins who lived there with 10 children for some 10 years.
Originally known as the Higgins House, the property subsequently became known as Hampton Court, Carthona, Ballynahinch and the Magistrate’s House.
Magistrates were in residence in the 1880s but subsequently the house was used as a school c.1900. In 1925 the house was restored by the Brown sisters, one of whom was a draughtswoman. Several outbuildings to the rear were demolished and the gardens established. These were open for exhibition in the 1930s and the money raised was donated to the Red Cross.
So after an unhurried and scenic 4 hour trip we pulled into the narrow driveway of the property. A couple of days beforehand we’d received, by email, the front door combination code. As we entered the wide hallway, we saw that it stretched all the way to the back of the house, where an empty keyhole glowed in a dark wooden door.
Magistrate's House - Lounge 1
A huge living room came into view on the left. It contained bookshelves full of old books, there were large rugs on the floor with rocking chairs, coffee tables, tall lamps and an old-style radio built into a cabinet. Despite being early afternoon, it was mostly dark before I pulled open the heavy curtains.
The ceilings throughout the house were nice and high (as you can see in the image). Every room in the house was punctuated with dark wood; the furnishings, the floors, the window and door frames were a few shades short of black.
The day outside was very windy, so the roof and windows creaked constantly. At times, it sounded like there were people in other rooms so the first feelings of unease began scurrying up our spines like little spiders.
At the back of the house were the kitchen, dining, bathroom and laundry. You could walk through the kitchen and into the dining room, into an adjoining reading room lined with bookshelves and comfortable seats, which in turn led back into the living room at the front of the house.
In terms of bad feelings, by far the worst room was the laundry, which was nothing more than a damp, cold extension of the wide hallway. The floor and laundry tub were concrete and a dirty white washing machine stood sulking in the corner with its mouth open.
On the opposite side of the hall were the first and second bedrooms. The first bedroom was at the front of the house and was dominated by a king-sized canopy bed, which made the room feel much smaller and more oppressive than it really was.
Between the door and the bed was a large pipe organ (wow!), on which I played a few chords. The heavy sound really was quite creepy, like the wheezing of an old dying man. It echoed down the hall and through the other rooms so that when I stopped playing, the house seemed full of dark music for a few seconds, before the chords melted into the confusion of the wind outside.
Beyond the bed was a huge dark wardrobe, almost as high as the ceiling and almost covering the opposite wall. It was so ugly that neither of us wanted to open it.. and we didn’t.
The next room down the hall was the second bedroom. It was somehow much brighter than the front room, because the curtains were thinner and less foliage over the window outside. However there remained a certain uneasiness in here because there was a locked door right at the foot of the bed.
At the bottom of the door was an unusually large gap, big enough for my fist to go under. Peering under the door, we got a rat’s-eye view of the room and we saw something that I wish we hadn’t seen. It was an old-style rocking cradle with a lace canopy. The little locked room was brightly lit, so we could clearly see all the contents. There were stuffed animals, a wicker box with a lid, and just at the edge of my view I could see a single bed.
Despite how weird the little room seemed, I really wanted to open that door just to satisfy my curiosity and settle this creeping feeling that a tiny skeleton lay in that crib. But the very fact that it was locked made the whole house seem wrong.
We decided that even with the locked door, the least creepy bedroom was the second. It also had an electric bar-heater and a small television on a low table, so we put our stuff in there and we went out for the day.
The First Night
We had spent the day doing what we’d planned: browsing antique shops, drinking coffee, walking along the river and coveting the real estate. In the evening we spent hours in a restaurant going steadily through all the courses.
Returning home with a bottle of red, we got a great fire going in the living room’s fireplace. To my relief the house seemed much friendlier at night, but then it could have been the wine. With a guitar that I found in the corner, I tuned it, then proved to Jeanette that I can’t play while I’m drunk.
“pling plang plang”, went my fingers on the strings. Then we both got sick of hearing it and I propped it in the corner where I’d found it. As I did so, a spider ran out of it. I’m sure he was thinking “I can play better than that” and he would have been right.
As the fire died down the house seemed a bit weird again. There’s something I find oddly disturbing about the thought of a dark room with no people in it, and suddenly I found myself thinking of the other rooms, now dark and cold with nobody in them.
I’ve often wondered; if it was possible to visit a dark empty room without physically being there, what would you see? Would it truly be empty? Or would it be full of ghosts and memories wafting to and fro like smoke or mist perhaps? When a person walks into the room, does the residue of the ethereal presence take some time to dissipate, giving the visitor a feeling of unease?
So as these thoughts began crowding in, we went to bed. The wind outside continued to brush the roof, walls and windows with branches, but it was around 2am and soon we were both asleep without a thought for the locked door at the foot of the bed.
The Second Night
The next day was clear and bright and the wind was gone. With the sound of Jeanette cooking breakfast for us both, it felt like somebody lived here and there was no sign of the previous day’s unease.
The morning shower was a bit strange because the bathroom was large and spacious. I always feel weird standing wet and naked in a large room. On top of this, the soap was flecked with the pubes of past visitors, and the floor and mirrors were dirty.
After breakfast we went out for more walks through the village and along the river. When we returned to the house a few hours later it was early afternoon, so we spent time reading, listening to music and drinking coffee. I collected some wood for the evening fire and just before dark, we walked out into the village to another restaurant.
The back "yard" and the river - possibly where someone drowned
Later that night, once again full of food and drink, we returned to the house which was as cold and dark as a grave. I lit the fire and Jeanette switched on the old television. The wood was burning quickly and the living room wasn’t heating up very well, so we decided to put on the heater in the bedroom and watch TV from the bed.
Some hours later I walked across the cold wooden floor to turn off the light. I got back into the warm bed and we talked until our sentences became vague, just like on a school camp.
The house seemed dead with the silence. No wind outside, no television, no drunk guitar playing, no fire.
CLATTER! A noise from the living room exploded through the silence and echoed through the house. It sounded as it somebody had dropped a metal tray of cutlery onto the floor. Jeanette and I, now wide awake, stared at each other in the dim starlight from the window.
Suddenly the house seemed to come alive with little creaks and clicks, from the ceilings, the windows, the walls and floors. Because the night was so deathly still, each tiny noise came to us cloaked in echoes of itself.
There were creaky floorboards all throughout the house and I dreaded that we would hear something or someone walking through the rooms toward us. I could hear Jeanette’s heart beating. The sound of my own heartbeat became extremely frustrating, as I strained to hear if anything was coming down the hallway.
On my side of the bed, I was further from the door, so I swapped with Jeanette so I could be closer to it, should anything come through it. I lay there watching that dark section of empty hallway for a couple of hours, trying not to blink too often.
My imagination got the better of me several times and my heartbeat pounded loudly from the terrible visualisations that came alive in my mind. Once, I saw, heard and felt the terror as the locked door at the foot of the bed creaked open slowly. Another time, heavy-booted feet came slowly up the hallway and a tall dark man stood in the doorway looking at us.
I wanted the night to end and these horrible thoughts did nothing to help me drift off to sleep. But in time, as I heard Jeanette’s breathing deepen in sleep, my eyes grew tired and eventually closed. With any little sound, they flicked open again, but inevitably sleep took over.
Surprisingly, neither of us had any bad dreams that night. We woke the next morning to another bright, clear day. However the house continued to feel strange through the morning as we had breakfast and packed our gear into the car.
We had both expected to see something fallen in the living room; a tray of cutlery perhaps, or any kind of fallen metallic object. But nothing was out of place. Everything exactly as we had left it when we’d gone to bed the evening before. We checked the other rooms too.. nothing.
A wave of goosebumps rippled over me each time I walked through that wooden laundry room, as I carried our bags out to the car. We were both quite relieved as I locked the laundry door behind me and we drove back up the narrow driveway to the street.
The laundry door and rear entrance to the house.
I don’t want to discourage you from staying at the Magistrate’s House if you visit Berrima, NSW. This story is merely an account of our weekend there and because of the strange things that we felt and heard, I have long planned to tell the story here.
At the time, accommodation at The Magistrate’s House was priced to suit two or three couples, so I’m sure the atmosphere would have been very different when occupied by more people. For us though, two smallish people inhabiting one room in a very large, old, dark house was just a little harrowing.
If you have stayed at the Magistrate’s House and can back me up with a similar experience, please drop me a line!
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If you are the former owner* of the Magistrate’s House, I have one question and one suggestion for you. By locking that small room in the second bedroom, what were you thinking? It was really bloody creepy! For the new owners* if you plan on renting it to holiday makers, I suggest unlocking the room and clearing the stuff out of there for avoid creeping out future guests.
* On Dec 10, 2011, the Magistrate’s House sold for an undisclosed price. The website for the house is gone now.