Marc Tuckey: walking with ghosts

Few people get the chance to design their own perfect job, but that’s exactly what Marc Tuckey managed to do.  Combining his love of history with a talent for amateur dramatics, he set himself up as a ghost tour guide – and is still surprised, even 25 years later, at how successful that quirky career move turned out to be.  Jackie McCarrick spoke to the larger-than-life character behind the Isle of Wight Ghost Experience.

He has spent the past quarter of a century guiding groups of walkers around some of the Island’s spookiest locations, theatrically dressed in a top hat and long overcoat and with his voice going from a boom to a whisper as he regales his audience with tales of murder, madness and mystery.

It’s a job that no careers teacher would ever have suggested to him – and one that he would certainly never have got into, had his family had their way.

“Packed off to boarding school” at Wrekin College in Shropshire at an early age, Warwickshire-born Marc describes himself as an awkward child who never felt close to his parents.

Despite that, he dutifully did what was expected of him and returned home to work in his father’s printing company.

“It was pretty much pre-determined for me” he says matter-of-factly.

But 10 years later, and with the print industry going through lean times, Marc decided to make his bid for freedom by moving with his then-wife and children to Oxfordshire, and setting up as an antiques dealer.

It was perhaps the first step towards indulging his passion for history, as he got into the routine of attending sales and auctions, and learning the ropes from more experienced dealers.

“It was a great time to be in the trade” he recalls.  “If you were humble and showed yourself willing to learn, the other dealers were more than happy to teach you what they knew”.

Marc set up a showroom in a barn at the bottom of his garden and jumped on the 1980s pine-stripping wave, removing the paint from endless pine chests, dressers  and washstands and selling them on to eager buyers.

Island gamble

It was in the late 80s that his former in-laws decided to retire to the Isle of Wight – prompting a spontaneous decision by Marc and his wife to follow them with their two school-age children, despite the small matter of having no job to go to.

“We’d had holidays on the Island and loved it, and were probably just ripe for a change at that point, so we sold up and moved down with the two kids” he recalls.

The pressure to find a job led him back into his old industry, and he joined the old West Island Printers as an estimator and sales manager.

He spent over a decade working there with Jim Morris and Mark Medland, and as much as he enjoyed the business and the camaraderie, there was clearly a different kind of Marc itching to get front of stage.  And, as often happens, it was a random encounter that led him on to his ultimate path.

A writer by the name of Gay Baldwin – who will now need no introduction to most Islanders – popped into the office to ask about publishing a Newport ghost walk.  Cue spooky music…

“I was immediately intrigued” says Marc. “Since childhood I’d always loved a good ghost story, and was fascinated, and maybe a bit scared of ghosts”.

At the end of the meeting, Gay happened to mention that she was looking for someone to lead the ghost walk – and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I’d done a fair bit of am-dram both in Oxfordshire and on the Isle of Wight so I instantly felt the ghost walk was something I’d really enjoy.”

That was in 1994, and Marc never looked back.  He says he finds it hard to believe that next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the fateful meeting that led him in a whole new direction.

Chasing ghosts

When the walks first started they were once a week on a Wednesday, and for Marc, leading them was just an enjoyable hobby.

But as the popularity of the walks grew, he was approached by a businessman who was interested in creating an all-weather ghost experience at Holliers Farm.

An enthusiastic Marc left his job with the printing company to concentrate on planning for the new venture, but he hadn’t bargained for it being turned down by the local Planning Department – not just once but twice, and much to the disappointment of the local tourist industry.

Suddenly finding himself without a job once again, he had to act fast:  “I thought ‘what can I do?’, and the ghost walk was the thing staring me in the face”.

And so it was that he hastily started expanding, adding other walks to the programme and taking on local youngsters to help with the acting.

“Over the years a great number of people have been involved – at the last count, over 60”, he says.

Expanding the business in order to give himself a living meant devising more and more walks, and coming up with other offerings for the winter months, such as talks, after-dinner speaking and private walks.

People’s fascination with ‘the other side’ of life meant that, at its peak, the Isle of Wight Ghost Experience was running walks six nights a week, with between 20 and 50 people on each.  At Hallowe’en, that would typically jump to 100 – and for his biggest-ever walk, a new launch, there were 300 pairs of feet following along.

“I had to shout all the way round for that one!”

The ghost hunter

Once he was immersed in the world of ghosts, Marc ventured down various side-roads, including ghost investigations, which he undertakes along with two local mediums Sarah and Toby.  He researches sites with reported hauntings, details of which he keeps to himself, and says that the mediums often pick up uncannily accurate information about characters and incidents from the past.

Marc says that these encounters can often be unsettling, and picks out one in particular, at the bleak Bodmin Jail on Bodmin Moor.

“Two weeks before we were due to go, Sarah said she felt ‘something was waiting for her’ there and she had to be careful.  I must admit, I felt quite alarmed.

“Whatever ‘it’ was, was in one of the 360 cells, which over the centuries had held all kinds of people. Sarah dealt with the incident and we all had to stand back.  She stated the name of the person and the curator of the jail was very impressed with how much information she got right”.

Of course there will always be people who disapprove of such activity, but Marc regards it as “a privilege” to be involved with investigating properties where there is what he describes as ‘disturbance’.

“We do get people who don’t like what we’re doing” he says, “but I regard myself as Christian and religious in my own way, and I am simply trying to understand something that appears to be very real to many people.

“We still  don’t understand what it’s all about and I feel quite sorry for people who say it’s rubbish”.

History buff

Ultimately, though, the ghost investigations are only ever a minor part of what Marc does, and he says “the real backbone of the business is the wonderful history of the Isle of Wight”.

He still reckons that the Island’s history, with its unique links to Royals including Charles I and Queen Victoria, is hugely underrated.

“I find the whole thing fascinating” he says.  “You’re always trying to find your personal strength, and mine is in the relating of these stories of Island history.  I love telling them, and never seem to get bored with it, even after all these years.

“I guess it’s because I keep finding new ones, especially about shipwrecks and smuggling… did you know we have our own ghost ship that people keep reporting having seen around the Island..?”

Suddenly he’s off on  a colourful re-telling of HMS Eurydice, which went down in Sandown Bay in 1878.

Apparently  a very young Winston Churchill – who was on holiday in Ventnor that year with his nanny – witnessed the ship going down and saw bodies being pulled out: a sight that was said to have remained with him for the rest of his life.

Being able to captivate an audience with a story clearly comes down to his own fascination and passion for his subject – but it also owes a lot to the actor in him.

“My parents thought actors were dotty people and drama wasn’t exactly encouraged” he says, “so I was well into my 30s before I discovered I could act and have a stage presence”.

Treading the boards

That came about while he was living in Oxfordshire, during his antique dealer days, and signed up with the local am-dram group just to help paint scenery.  He was presented with the script for a Northern farce, read the male lead and was told he was doing it.

“The director obviously saw something in me that I hadn’t seen myself at that point, but when I did it in front of an audience and got that first laugh, it was like an adrenaline”.

Here on the Island, he’s continued appearing in amateur productions and in various pantos with Taylor Hall Productions.

He’s been cast numerous times as the Dame, and one of his favourite roles was as Toad in a production of Wind in the Willows – despite ending up “green for a week”.

Combining drama and history as a way of earning a living has been a a delightful outcome for someone who was never encouraged to do anything more adventurous than joining the family firm.

“I could easily have worked in  printing for my entire life and would probably have been quite comfortable, but I’m so glad to have made that big change in my late 40s” he says.

With such a fulfilling job, he doesn’t even contemplate retirement, though he does employ guides to lead some of the walks these days, and the Isle of Wight Ghost Experience continues to go from strength to strength.

“I put it around that the Isle of Wight is the most haunted island in the world” he confides.

“Ooooh – is it?” 

“Well, nobody can disprove it, can they..?” he replies, with a storyteller’s flourish.