Imagine strolling down a busy city street and suddenly finding yourself transported to the past… Reports of ghostly visions like this are countless, but are they real or simply tricks of the eye – or the imagination? Flic Everett investigates
My partner Andy is the most logical man you’ll ever meet – but something strange happened to him more than 40 years ago that he struggles to explain.
‘In 1977, when I was five and my sister was seven, we were staying with my great aunt in an old Norfolk house – it dated back to the 1600s,’ he remembers. ‘We woke very early and went to the living room where we saw the fire lit and an old woman in a long dress and cap using a spinning wheel. She looked up, but didn’t say anything.’
Thinking she would make their breakfast, the children walked into the kitchen, but it was dark. When they went back to ask her, she had vanished. ‘The fireplace was cold,’ he says. ‘And when we told the adults later, they said the home help hadn’t arrived yet.’
Despite his lack of belief in ‘supernatural nonsense’, the experience of feeling like the past and present collided has stayed with him. Now he accepts he may have lived through a ‘time slip’ – a paranormal occurrence where it’s suddenly possible to see the same spot but from many years ago.
Ever since Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889, popular culture has revelled in the idea of time slips, from Alison Uttley’s novel A Traveller in Time to Marty McFly’s temporal troubles in Back to the Future and the recent time-mangling Netflix series Dark. And while intentional time travel is seemingly impossible, there are countless reports of ordinary people who have suddenly experienced a ‘slip’.
In the 1980s, Caroline Anders, now 57, moved to Devon to work for the NHS. One weekend, a colleague drove her to Plymouth for a party. As they skirted a roundabout on the approach to the city, she remembers seeing a beautiful church. ‘The windows were full of colour from the light streaming through the stained glass and, as we passed the front doors, I saw a large congregation,’ she says. While Caroline can clearly recall the sight, no one else in the car saw it. The real shock was to come a few weeks later, when her boyfriend Phil suggested a Saturday out on the Plymouth Hoe. ‘As we drove past the roundabout, I literally cried out because the church was in ruins,’ says Caroline. ‘I said, “Oh my God, what’s happened? Did you know it had been damaged?’
It was then that Phil told her that the church – Charles Church, one of the oldest in the area – had been bombed in the Second World War. What Caroline had seen was impossible; the church had been left in ruins as a memorial for the dead. Yet she remains convinced of what she saw. ‘My friends believe me, because I’m not given to flights of fancy.’
Like Andy and Caroline, Matt Davies, 50, from Stourbridge in the West Midlands, was baffled by a strange occurrence last November. ‘Nothing like it has happened to me before,’ he insists. ‘I was cycling down a canal, about 9.30am, when I saw a young guy sitting on the lock gate in what looked like Victorian working-class clothes. He was smoking a pipe and staring into the water – he didn’t look up as I went past.’
Somewhat confused, Matt began his research, pinpointing the exact spot via his cycling data and Google Earth. He eventually discovered that the canal cottages opposite were the scene of an unsolved murder in the early 20th century. ‘It could just be a fella who does historical re-creations,’ says Matt. ‘But he looked a bit young for it, and there was nowhere open then in lockdown.’
Some paranormal investigators speculate that time slips tend to happen in more ancient areas where intense events have occurred. In 2011, relationships counsellor Rhian Kivits, 46 (rhiankivits.com), visited the Temple of Karnak in Luxor. ‘Because of social unrest in Egypt, the temples were totally empty,’ she remembers. She made her way to the goddess statue she wanted to see when suddenly she felt disorientated. ‘Somehow, the statue looked shiny and new and I heard noise, like a crowd shouting outside,’ she adds. ‘I recall my partner speaking to me but his voice was muffled.’
In the UK, many anecdotes of time slips emerge from the historic counties of Devon, Cornwall and Kent, something that Rhian can also attest to. At Compton Castle in Devon, she remembers seeing a knight in armour walk past her. ‘It was as clear and real as everyday life.’ While at Leeds Castle in Kent, Alice Pollock reported a room suddenly changed in appearance and she saw a tall woman in white, pacing. She later discovered that Queen Joan of Navarre had been accused of witchcraft and imprisoned there in the 15th century.
But the most famous British time slip spot isn’t a site of battles or trauma – more like shopping and coffee. Liverpool’s Bold Street is so well known for time slips that there’s a Reddit forum dedicated to discussing it, along with YouTube documentaries and Facebook pages. One of the popular tales on these platforms tells of Frank, a policeman not given to wild imaginings, who in 1996 was heading to a bookstore. He recalled ‘an unusual quietness’ and looked up to see the street cobbled and passers-by dressed in clothes from the 1950s. The bookshop was now named Cripps and selling women’s clothes. He later discovered that Cripps had indeed been on the site. In 2005, music student John Moonan reported seeing horses and carts carrying passengers in Victorian dress past old-fashioned stores. He assumed a production was filming, but when he looked back, they’d disappeared and the shops appeared modern again.
Paranormal investigators have speculated that the slips may be due to the subway. They say that it runs in concentric circles beneath Bold Street and can – apparently – create a portal through time. But Rodney Davies, a paranormal researcher and author of Time-Slips: Journeys into the Past and Future, has spent years gathering material on the phenomenon and admits he still struggles to explain it. When a time slip occurs, he suggests, it may simply be that our ‘limited’ mind is briefly able to perceive the simultaneous past or future in that spot. ‘One theory states that past, present and future are all one,’ he says. ‘But our limited consciousness can only experience time by being in what we know as “the present”.’
While most experiences of time slips appear to be a glimpse of a scene, Davies has also gathered stories of others who have spoken to people from the past, bought goods in shops and stayed for lengthy periods. Astonishingly, he adds, ‘It’s possible some people have slipped to the past and ended up stuck – thousands of people go missing every year.’ Surely, though, if that were the case, we’d find modern clothes preserved in peat bogs, or mobile phones fossilised in rock? ‘Well, there have been some very odd discoveries,’ he insists. ‘I researched stories of strange machinery found by 18th-century labourers and jewellery discovered in seams of coal.’
Although his book came out in 2019, many of the time slips Davies recounts happened pre-1990s, which suggests the modern world doesn’t lend itself to mystical experiences. ‘I think our lives are too busy with TV and social media, Zoom and smartphones – we don’t have sufficient time to be still.’
But as much as we all might long to whirl through a wormhole and visit the days of Downton, surely such occurrences would all be dismissed as nonsense?
‘If we accept that this happens to people,’ says Rob Hickling, a doctor of astrophysics and former particle physicist, ‘there are two explanations. One lies within the physical properties of the universe and space-time continuum – the ability to time travel – but despite many experiments, there hasn’t been any recorded instances of any object or person travelling back in time. Einstein’s general theory of relativity suggests that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you will travel back in time, but this would require an infinite amount of energy, which is physically impossible.’
The other explanation ‘lies with the human brain’s ability to interpret signals’ – that our human memory is very fallible. ‘We tend to fill in gaps to complete a narrative’, he explains, which is the reason people hallucinate when taking drugs. ‘The drugs cause strange signals to be sent to the brain, then the brain interprets them, fills in the gaps and produces full images for the person to see.’ Basically, ‘humans are proven to be unreliable, whereas scientific measuring equipment has a much higher degree of accuracy’.
So clearly, if time slips do exist, it’s surely only a matter of, er, time, before someone
is discovered holding an iPhone in a photograph from Victorian times. ‘Of course, that is possible,’ says Rodney Davies. ‘But if they were stuck in Victorian times, it’s unlikely they’d be carrying it around with them. It wouldn’t work, for one thing.’