Cowering under the deep shadow of St Michael’s church lies the little village of Chirbury, its population rarely venturing beyond the crooked line of buttresses that maintain its walls. Equal in number are those that will not pass through its cemetery; for here, the tendrils of time have reached across the ages to bind brick and soil to an ungodly power, a power diffused into the village conscience. Step into its realm and one feels touched by a sense of suffering, a gateway to the past.
A bolt is thrust aside and one half of a stable door swings back. The sound of a sharp kick announces the peeling back of the second. A bulk of a man steps through carrying a thick meshed bundle of sticks and logs searching for a suitable spot to dump the damp load; his nose is held aloft, at a distance, enduring the sickly-sweet aroma of the mildewed bark. His face fidgets nervously until the wood is set down on a sheet of newspaper, neatly dragged into position by his foot. The dispatching of the load relieves his body, but his expression still retains the weary slump it entered with.
It is almost time for Manning to leave, a suitable moment to consider the sweet restorative powers of a few days by the coast. And with this thought, he finds his spirits lifting. It has been several years since he last visited Leet and walked its impressive shores; he has missed the place. No longer resisting, he succumbs to the pleasantness teasing his lips.
Perhaps you know Leet? It is a south facing sandy beach next to the entrance of the Beaulieu River in Hampshire, a landscape rich in character, with great stretches of open and unspoilt countryside.
But it is the agents of erosion that have defined this sea-place. The shore is littered with corpses: trees that have finally, but grudgingly, relinquished their fragile grip on the sandy soil, just a few metres above. Tendrils of seeping rainwater and the gnawing effect of the wind have gradually removed the earth, exposing roots to the mercy of encroaching elements. It is a natural decay, but not one that removes all evidence of existence; for old trunks lie entombed in wispy layers of sand, creating fragile barrows on the shore. In the early hours of a wintry morning, the landscape transforms into a surprisingly gloomy affair; the dead bodies of trees are thrust into the greyness, and any living thing roaming amongst the decay looks quite lost, as lost as a child. Continue reading
I had returned to Balcombe out of instinct, not for pleasure. Though the train had refreshed my memory of its seductive beauty I had a less romantic place for those thoughts to reside. The landscape view of sun-drenched streams and sparkling lakes played like a cinematic trailer, catching the attention of the couple opposite me who immediately sprang into a congratulatory embrace. This only served to heighten my unease with the place.
A sudden lurch of the train announced our arrival, propelling the occupants into a flurry of activity. All around me, day tripping couples leapt from their seats and set about passing bags as elegantly as possible from carriage to platform. With this I allowed myself a wry smile; briefly charmed by the obvious enthusiasm of the new arrivals.
Alighting on the platform I turned and looked down the length of the train, beyond the carriages, towards the track curving away into the distance. Though not visible from this point I knew the rest of the line well; not to mention the shadows that dwelt within its tunnels and archways.
On reflection, it occurred to me that this was an entirely perfect setting for what had happened. With so many trains passing over the structure on the Brighton Main Line, the spirits of men that toiled here could never be far away from the living.
But it is the ghosts of more recent times, just as numerous as those of their Victorian counterparts that I am here to consider. For now his words are clearer to me than at any time over the decades that have passed since they were uttered. This is his tale; one told to me almost forty years ago, when I was a young man living in Balcombe, working on the London to Brighton line. Continue reading
Follow the north coast of Norfolk in early summer and you’ll come across a landscape of cornfields bathed in the rich red glow of poppies. Tucked away from the coastal road, a couple of miles inland from the seaside town of Cromer, you will come to a village that hides a painful secret.
Here you’ll find Hungry Hill, ready to devour the spirit of any traveller wishing to scale its deceptive height.
Half-way up the hill lies an unremarkable lane; travel its lonely path and you’ll come to a deep hole in the ground surrounded by grey-green willows.
The trees guard the pit with sinister outstretched branches entwined in a mesh of green and brown. Battle through the curtains of foliage and you’ll find yourself standing at the edge of a gloomy willow-hung hollow known as The Shrieking Pit.
Even in spring or summer, it’s a far from inviting place; for here, dismal shades bathe a stagnant pool and mournful shapes bow to it. The air is lifeless and leaden, suppressed by the paucity of hope.
Visit the spiritless hollow if you must; but if you do, ensure that it is not February 24th when the air is damp and the light so dim that you are barely able to see the edges of the pit. For on this day, you may hear something that quickens your heart and prickles your skin: a wailing voice, centuries old, carried forth on icy air through the creeping branches; the voice of Esmerelda, once so young and fair, back from her grave! Continue reading