Ghost-hunter who survived a scary brush with cancer as a teenager
Richard Felix has put Derbyshire on the map thanks to his love of history, fascination with ghosts and a passion for life born out of personal trauma. Amanda Volley tells his remarkable story.
BY rights, the home of Derby paranormal historian Richard Felix should be a little creepy.
While there may not be bats around the belfry, you at least expect Richard to live in a Sleepy Hollow-style gothic mansion with human skulls on the gateposts and swirls of mist surrounding a gravestone or two on the front lawn.
In reality, Richard Felix's Derbyshire home may sound haunted (the 17th-century Sharrow Hall Farm should have a ghostly milk maid or two) but it is as warm and relaxed as the man himself.
The imposing electric gates which swing open on your arrival only serve to let out three friendly hounds, Charlie, Brock and Bingham, and they're not scary in the slightest – though they may just lick you to death.
As for Richard, the self- appointed master of all that is macabre and spooky, he's also on hand with an effusive welcome. The Richard Felix you meet at home is not the fright-a-minute showman who founded the Derby ghost tours.
A quick hug is followed by an offer to meet the family's menagerie of animals. In addition to the three dogs and the two cats, Custer and Crockett, there are some rare breed sheep, a pig called Polly and a fine alpaca nicknamed Sadler Gate Sid.
"Those of us who love Derby are always thinking of ways to publicise it," Richard says, casting an appraising eye at the impassive Sid as he munches away on his breakfast. "My plan is to put a harness on Sid and get him to do a coffee delivery service up and down Sadler Gate. The kids will love it – what do you think?"
In truth, I think it's all very typical of the man I have known for more than 30 years (our respective dads had stalls on Derby Market). While most residents of Derby are content to just inhabit the place, Richard has always been passionate about promoting its merits – earth-bound and other-worldly – to tourists, locals, politicians and anyone else who will listen.
Richard's campaign to make our humble city one of the country's top tourist destinations has taken up 20 or more years of his life but his enthusiasm remains undiminished.
As he takes me on a whistlestop tour of his house, stuffed to the beams with collectibles, antiques and historical curios, I cannot help but wonder where he finds his energy.
"I was very ill as a boy, you could say it changed my perspective on life forever. I don't like to waste a moment," Richard, 63, explains.
"At the age of 18, I felt some lumps on my neck but the doctor thought it was glandular fever. The lumps didn't go away and I had a biopsy.
"I'll always remember sitting in the doctor's consulting rooms and being told I had cancer. Up until that stage, I hadn't been at all worried. I'd even made my dad wait in the car outside.
"When my doctor said my life expectancy was poor, my immediate feeling was one of shock which soon turned to horror when I realised the impact it would have on mum and dad. I begged my doctor not to tell them."
Richard was treated by Dr Ian Churchill-Davidson at St Thomas's Hospital, in London.
"He was an incredible man who cared for Richard Dimbleby during his battle with cancer," Richard says.
"I had Hodgkin's disease, which is a cancer which affects the lymphatic system. It affected my neck and chest but it hadn't spread into my spleen or liver. I can remember having to travel by train to London every day for five weeks for radiotherapy treatment. On my 19th birthday I was in hospital undergoing a scan. The doctors injected my body with a dye in order to look for rogue cells. Fortunately, I was clear, but my pee was green for three weeks."
Then he smiles: "As Dr Johnson once said 'When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.' I live by the motto that we only have one life. None of us know what's round the corner, so we must live for the day."
Amazingly, the cancer diagnosis in his teens was not Richard's first brush with his own mortality. He recalls his schooldays as largely unhappy. For years he was ill with an undiagnosed stomach problems and was also a target for bullies.
"The problems with my stomach started when I was 11," he says. "I went to Stanley School on Duffield Road. I'd always been sporty – I loved boxing, I was in the school cricket team and I was a good athlete and then everything just stopped.
"I couldn't do PE, I couldn't play football at lunch-time. Instead, the headmaster insisted I take his Newfoundland dog for a walk around the grounds. You can imagine what the other boys thought about that. Because the problem was thought to be 'nerves' I was a target for jokes from the pupils and some of the staff."
Richard recalls his parents – his dad Peter ran a record stall on Derby market – taking him for test after test. He recalls having 36 x-rays, but nothing was discovered until he underwent exploratory surgery.
"I've got a nine-inch scar where they opened me up," he says.
"By all accounts, my intestine was about to burst, it was so blocked. I'd left school early at 15 because of my illness and had an operation on my bowel a year later. I thought 'whoopee! I can be a proper teenager'. At 17, I passed my driving test and got a Mini Cooper, I started taking karate lessons and I went to work on the market stall and, in those days, it seemed like the whole of Derby would stop by to browse and buy records, including Derby County players like Steve Powell."
Anyone around with a crystal ball in those days may have predicted, after such a traumatic early life, that Richard's ambition would be to keep his head down. He had taken over the family business and was enjoying married life with Julia, the pretty sixth-former he had met at a college disco.
But, as Richard says, things took an unexpected turn when "I got into this tourism thing.
"I'm going back about 23 years. I was vice-chairman of the chamber of trade and it was a miserable time for local businesses. I suppose Derby had started to go down a bit and I assumed it would be the same all over the country. Then I went to York. I was struck by how similar it was in size to Derby and yet it was heaving. It was full of tourists spending a lot of money."
Naturally, Richard was interested when he heard that Derby City Council was about to launch its own tourism association and asked the council leader if he could be involved.
"I ended up as chairman for six years and, in 1992, I became so fascinated by local history, Julia and I opened Derby Heritage Centre in a Tudor building on St Peter's Churchyard."
Richard soon realised that, in order to excite people, he needed to attach the city to a famous historical figure.
"I think someone up there was listening as 1995 just happened to be the 250th anniversary of when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his invading army were turned back at Derby. We decided to mark the occasion with a big parade and we raised money for the statue on Full Street in Derby."
Not everyone was as passionate about the Bonnie Prince – who marched as far as Derby in 1745 with the aim of ousting King George II – becoming Derby's key historical figure-head.
"Someone said at the time that we might as well have Hitler. Charles Edward Stuart is still seen as an invader but I believe he has been the target of some very bad press," Richard concedes.
While his efforts to promote Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Derby connections may not have excited the public's imagination, Richard's other contention – that Derby is the ghost capital of England – attracted national attention.
"My interest in ghosts also started in York. York claimed to be the most haunted city in the country with 500 ghosts. I met a local writer and ghost expert Wayne Anthony. Through Wayne, I discovered that Derby has more ghosts than York. It's been estimated that there have been a thousand paranormal sightings."
Richard became fascinated with the history of crime and punishment in the city.
"I bought Derby Gaol on Agard Street in 1997," Richard says. "Over the years, it had been converted for a lot of uses including offices and even a bar/nightclub. It took a lot of work to strip it back but the basic structures – the cells and the condemned cell – were still in place."
These days, Derby Gaol is used as a venue for ghost vigils and history tours. Richard is convinced the location is haunted.
"It's the only place I've seen a ghost," he says. "It was at 3.20pm in the afternoon. I was on the phone at the time and a grey shadow of a person passed in front of me. It's a little known fact that I've been scared of ghosts all my life, but when I finally saw one I wasn't frightened at all."
It is almost impossible to do justice to the scale of Richard's endeavours over the years. From the original ghost tours around Derby – scaring people witless with grisly tales associated with local tunnels, coaching inns and mill buildings – Richard started to explore the rest of the country. In addition to his books, Richard produced more than DVDs of his travels.
"It's hard to believe I was a shy and reserved lad," he laughs. "My worst fear, as a boy, would have been someone pointing a camera at me."
Richard certainly was not shy when the production crew of Most Haunted, a Living TV documentary series, contacted him about doing an overnight vigil at the Derby Gaol in 2002.
When the team visited the gaol, Richard gave them so much information it was impossible to edit him down to a two-minute segment.
In the second series, he joined the team as the regular paranormal historian.
Richard was with Most Haunted for four-and-a-half years and, during that time, gained national fame as a bit of paranormal eye-candy. He even had his own fan club. Then, in 2006, Richard disappeared from our screens in circumstances as mysterious as those explored by the show.
"As the show went on I think we strayed further and further away from exploring the reality of ghosts and more into what I call the scare factor – the team screaming and running from noises. Everyone loves to be scared but I think they were taking the Scooby Doo stuff too far. I thought the team were heading in the wrong direction and told them so. Three weeks later, I got a call to say I'd been sacked."
Now Richard's focus has returned to his home city, with his idea for Derby Tourism Network.
"It's time local businesses got together to pull in visitors. I see hotels, restaurants and even transport services getting involved. A lot of people pass through the city. What we need to do is get them to stop and realise how wonderful Derby is."
*This article appears in full in the March issue of The Derbyshire Magazine, out now priced £3.