The beautiful ruins of Lilleshall Abbey sit lonely and unheralded at the end of a farm track, tucked away in an unexpected, sleepy corner of the Shropshire countryside. The decaying walls of the Abbey are shielded from the nearby road by a line of trees and feel distinctly isolated and sheltered from the outside world.
Stand at the centre of this imposing structure and breathe in the atmosphere; touch the cold, lichen-covered walls and journey through time to a darker, less enlightened age.
It was a miserable day to arrive at Lilleshall: the sky was a thick mass of angry cloud; the wind had whipped up and driven channels through the grassway; and the rain was beating heavily, spreading fierce torrents across the ancient grey stone. I had parked the car in a neighbouring lay-by, just in case the approach proved too small and busy; why I don’t know – anyone else would have turned back in this weather. But rain or shine I had made the commitment to visit Lilleshall several days earlier; and as anyone who knows me will testify, once entered into my notebook only death or disaster would see me change my plans.
I walked up and stopped central to one of the walls; my eyes were immediately drawn to the beautiful arches that soared across the distinctive red sandstone wall, rising and falling above huge glassless windows. But it wasn’t enough for me to only see; the desire to run my hands across the centuries was too strong. I clasped the sodden stone, letting the rivulets form rippling pools around my fingers; my breathing quickened and all at once I was overcome by an intense emotion; an indescribable connection; a peculiar and uneasy sense of oneness with the ancient edifice.
The feeling took me aback. I had put the abbey at the very top of my list of places to visit in Shropshire and had high expectations, but nothing like this. Yes, you could say that most of my visits to ancient monuments resulted in something akin to spiritual – no, not spiritual, it was much more subtle than that; more a bridge across time connecting me to the past; a palpable sense of the religious fervour that must have accompanied the build. You see, I had always placed importance on leaving a place with more than a set of photographs and notes. I wanted something which could not entirely be expressed in words.
I must have pressed the walls with considerable force for my fingers had become numb. But it wasn’t a typical ‘pins and needles’ numb, more a disembodied sensation; it was almost as if my fingers were no longer my own. I placed my hands in the pockets of my coat and rubbed them back and forth against the fleecy lining attempting to warm them.
Moving gently away from the wall something caught my attention. Amongst the tiny towers of rock trailing away to my left – foundation stones long since lost and discarded – I was aware of a presence, a body breaking up the light that streamed through the archway. Turning gradually, but remaining on the spot, I could see a motionless shape outlined on the lit patch of grass. A tightening sensation engulfed my throat and my palate dried. Not a sound could be heard, apart from the splashing of rain against the abbey stone. Yet I was quite certain a figure was hovering close by, still and silent, listening.
I glared at the shadow with a motionless gaze for what seemed an age, enough time to conclude that it was unmistakeably the outline of a cloaked figure. But why did it hover so? The skin across my arms and shoulders tightened and prickled; my breathing slowed to a painful draw. And then, suddenly, a flood of light obliterated the opaque shape and it was gone; the grass unmasked and returned to green. Again, no sound could be detected but I was certain that the hooded entity was on the move, a short distance behind the wall.
Trembling, I sped to the end and clasped the jutting stone. It was an effort to steady my nerves, but I did so, enough to venture further, to see around to the back of the wall. There, against the dim light I could see a figure clad in brown cloth, hooded, crossing the grass and littered stone, disappearing through a darkened archway. My immediate thought was to leave well alone and exit the grounds – I pictured myself running to the car, slamming the doors and speeding away. But despite the intensity of this desire to leave, my curiosity was piqued – I invented something earthly and rational to comfort me as I headed to the archway a short distance ahead.
The entrance was shrouded in filmy sheets of rain; little could be seen beyond the soaring arch, just a faint glimmer at the centre of the hollow. I inched into the darkness and waited for my eyes to adjust, questioning my motives for pursuing the figure. A chill enveloped my frame; this was fear in its purest form, restricting my steps along the passage to a slothful and leaden pace. With arms outstretched I slid my palms against the opposing walls and stepped further, shuffling along the passage to the half-light streaking the far end.
The corridor led me out into a large open space, sprinkled with stony mounds and overgrown tufts of grass. The rough rectangle was bordered by fragments of decaying walls, the fabric I’d become accustomed to; but there was more to this sensation of familiarity – there was something opening at the back of my mind, a lid lifting, a memory oozing forth. I quickly ushered it away assuming it was something conjured from the images I had studied before journeying to Lilleshall but still, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling there was something dreadful lurking here. I crossed the expanse and all at once it came to me: the place I am standing in is the Abbot’s Hall; I know this place; it is but a single room away from his chamber.
And at that precise moment, the terror began: a violent shifting of the rock beneath my feet; a huge thunderous applause from deep within the earth, followed by sudden silence; a quietening unearthly in nature. My head throbbed and a wave of nausea overcame me. Then it happened for a second time, as angry as the first. The third came; I lurched forward and ran with urgent stride to the doorway west of the Hall. It was here, in this ghastly chamber that I saw the figure once more.
Candles illuminated its hunched frame, nestled at the lowest step of the altar. From this distance I could make out a small movement in the cowled shadow. The shoulders were moving to and fro and with each lunge forward a hideous cracking sound could be heard. I pushed my weakened torso forward towards the altar and there the full horror was revealed. The robed figure held another, binding him tightly with a dreadful, feverish grasp, squeezing and constricting the victim’s sinewy neck; his tightening throat delivering pathetic yelps as the head bent backwards, eventually released to strike with a sickening thud against the grey granite stone. The force of the strike opened an artery sending blood spurting forth, raining over the murderer. The abhorrent embrace of the two shades could be seen on the walls of the chamber, projected as an ugly flickering shadow.
Without thinking I threw my weight at the kneeling assassin, throwing him off balance, crushing his frame into the ground. The cloaked figure twitched and spasmed, tossing his head to one side. With the hood now slipped I could see the creature’s face; a tight grey needle-thin skin stretched over bruised bone, slipping into darkness.
Was this death? I could not be certain. Yet, in all this confusion, I was aware of the absence of his fellow revenant; the thing had vanished without a trace.
I left the scene and stumbled through the many arches and passageways, back to the car, knowing that what I had seen was something of the past; a ripple of evil reaching forth through time. In some way it felt like my past, but beyond that suspicion I did not understand.
My story is told, and ends with this: A week after the abomination, I returned to the book that had started this journey. I probed further and there in the final chapter was my epiphany: it was details of a decade old excavation, under the chamber where I had witnessed the duelling apparitions; a large stone slab was raised and beneath it was an unmarked grave. It was a set of old bones laid in a shallow hole close to where the Abbot’s private altar would have been. All attempts to identify the victim had failed, as too the cause of his demise. Was it the Abbot? Only one expert had offered a suggestion, but asphyxiation was never confirmed. And there was an aspect of the find that had the experts troubled: a fragment of cloth between the bones of the fingers that appeared strangely out of sorts, almost out of time. The book slipped out of my hand as I dashed upstairs.