Wight Life

The Marine Tap Ghost

By Louie Williams

WHAT WOULD YOU DO with an artificial hand, covered with a natty leather glove, if you came across it in your cellar?

You might make an exhibit of it if you were just opening the Curiosity Shop in Cowes, which twelve years ago was the 'Marine Tap'.

The 'tap room' was something like the public bar of todays pub.

Originally built in the eighteenth century, it was to serve the coachmen and male servants of the well-to-do visitors who stayed at the Marine Hotel on the front.

It had been closed for many years when Mew, Langton, the Island brewers who served the Queen at Osborne with beer for her retainers, offered it as a lock-up shop.

It didn't look terribly attractive then; the windows were of frosted glass, the interior of the three downstairs rooms that became the shop were dismal, and the cellars had to be seen to be believed!

They were entered by means of a rickety set of steps, minus a handrail, which ran down from behind a stout wooden door in the shop. Every step one took aroused the creaks and groans of ancient timber that echoed around the emptiness of the caverns below. These steps were thick with old candlegrease, which made a descent even more hazardous.

Damp reminders of a past age, the only light that permeated the gloom came from some bottle green glass, an inch thick, which was let into the outside steps where a door must once have been, probably to allow the barrels to be rolled down into the cellars.

No electricity had ever been put down there, though there were some ancient gas fitments, long corroded past being used, flaunting long streamers of black cobweb.

LThe artificial hand was found down there, along with a few other items, not quite so macabre, but making one wonder what breed of men made their servants work in such conditions.

Did the little pot-boys, washing the pewter mugs in here ever get a glimpse of the Queen through that little grating, on a level with their eyes?

There was plenty of evidence that people had worked, and even lived in these cellars. Rusty iron bedsteads lurched against the crumbling plaster walls. A stone 'copper' stood in one corner, the ashes of the last fire that had ever heated water in it still underneath. A huge kitchen range took up part of one wall, choked with the soot from chimneys that had been cold for a lifetime. A store of old ginger beer and lemonade bottles in one corner had turned into grey skittles. How could the boys who left them there know that they would turn into collectors' pieces, and be worth two pounds each?

Even when electricity was put down there, the highest wattage bulb seemed to do no more than cast long shadows, and the lamps gave up the ghost so often that it was advisable to take a new one down with you on every visit. You soon learned the folly of leaving matches down there. They would be too damp to strike by the next day.

Picture of The Marine Tap

The Marine Tap now attracts a different clientele

The present owner could never understand why she hated that cellar so much. It wasn't just the rush of cold dank air that came up as the door was opened; it was something much more than that. Then she noticed the inside of the door. It was covered with round indentations, marks that could only have been made by hitting it very hard with the round end of a hammer. She had the mental image of someone who had been locked in that horrible place, standing on those stairs in the dark, hammering and hammering to be let out.

She's been down there very. seldom since then, and always gets this feeling of something ghastly. Quite ridiculous, of course, she laughs, so long as she's upstairs, with the sun shining through the windows.

Perhaps the cellars were kept murky and inaccessible on purpose, for there is no doubt that many a barrel of French brandy had found its way there, maybe not as long ago as one might imagine, either. The Excise man lived just down the road, but he'd have to have been quick to beat the old salts of Cowes, who could have made it to the 'Marine Tap' in just about a minute from where they had tied up their boat.

One old Cowes resident tells me that the 'Tap' was once run by a character called George Bull. He could neither read nor write, but would keep tally of his orders for bottled beer by putting strokes on a slate. 'So many for me, so many for Jack, for Fred, Tom...' He didn't welcome strangers; it put out his book-keeping.

Another malicious tale was that he kept only one barrel of beer, out of sight under the counter, and that orders for 'mild' 'bitter', 'special', and 'extra special' all came from the same source, at different prices, of course!

There may have been other reasons for 'keeping themselves to themselves' too, for we have heard that the place was once the haunt not only of smugglers but men who were 'wanted', and deserters. I should think it was a great deal more cheerful in gaol than in that underground den.

However, the 'Tap' has turned out to be a good place for a shop that has sold everything from a pewter bedroom candlestick to massive wrought iron candelabra that now live in Arreton Manor.

Their best buy? Perhaps the time when, at an auction sale, they bought six engravings for five shillings. One of them was by Durer, and went to Sothebys.

Their funniest sale? Without doubt the battered plaster bust of Gladstone, with a large chip on his nose. It had sat for years on top,of a cupboard, getting dustier and looking sadder every week. Many times they had meant to climb up there, get him down and give him a decent burial.

Then, one Cowes Week, a larger than life sized American lady came in and caught sight of him.

'That's never Mr Gladstone?' she said, overcome. On being reassured it was — after all wasn't his name plainly embossed on his plinth? — she hugged him to her more than ample bosom, refused to be parted from him, even for long enough to wipe him down with a duster, and pressing a five pound note into the bemused owner's hand, departed, cooing into Gladstone's stony face.

A strange fact is that during Cowes Week, when people come from all over the world to see and compete in the races, and the Parade is so crowded that its almost impossible to walk, the owners of the Curiosity Shop have hardly time to glance out of the window where they have an excellent view of the Parade.

They accept cheques and money from almost every country in the world, and have never been cheated yet. The only time they didn't get paid was when a very be-diamoned lady saw a child's chair in the shop. 'Oh!', she said , 'how sweet, I simply must have it for the cottage. I'll I take it with me. I haven't any money. I'll come round in the morning.' They didn't see her again.

A glass case in the shop contains a signed portrait of Queen Victoria. We wonder whether she would be amused at the summer visitors who, ice-cream in hand, press their noses against the windows, exclaiming.. 'Eh! Our Vera., look at that! Gran had one of them, and we threw it out'.

Perhaps one day an enterprising business man will fill the cellars with coloured lights, and gifts made in Birmingham, forcing the ghosts to live elsewhere. But in the meanwhile, if you should come face to face, on Cowes front on some dark stormy night, with a man waving an empty sleeve in your face, demanding his hand back..don't say I didn't warn you!