I wrote this tale following a small coincidence: as the Florida sinkhole tragedy played out on our TV screens, I happened to be reading the strange story of Reverend Byles and his discovery of a phantom sinkhole in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s Church in 1947. I visited the village of Yealmpton in Devon over the weekend and learned more about this bizarre (and possibly supernatural) incident. The Diary of Reverend Byles was bourne out of this visit.
Below are extracts from the diary of Reverend Byles, vicar at St. Bartholomew’s Church in the small village of Yealmpton in Devon, 1946 – 1950:
March 2nd 1947
It is not yet six months since I left my home county of heather-clad hills and mist to take the appointment of vicar at St. Bartholomew’s Church. I must admit I had arrived largely ignorant of the history of the village but was fortunate in that it immediately presented as a charming and welcoming place; its few hundred population undoubtedly drawn to this rather remote location in the south west corner of Devon for its remedial qualities. As for the church itself, it has bestowed upon it some fine words: ‘The most amazing Victorian church in Devon’ remarked Sir John Betjeman but a decade before. I am not ashamed to admit that its architectural splendour and the genuine fondness it is regarded with here in this corner of South Hams were quite the ‘icing on the cake’ for my tenure.
My reason for writing rather more than I ordinarily would is to make a record of a most strange occurrence that my wife and I were witness to. I would hope that if any reader were to peruse this diary they would be reassured by the lack of ‘sensational’ entries and assume I am not one to muse and speculate over trivial matters. However, in this particular circumstance, events have been far from ordinary.
It was yesterday, early evening, when I left the church by the doorway in the south side of the chancel; I prefer it to the main door as it provides a significantly better view of the peaceful churchyard and its lovely arrangements; and yes, the old village stocks are on this side too!
My wife had just finished arranging the flowers on the altar and had hurried to join me outside. We locked the main gate and set upon the narrow path leading southwards to join the main path that runs around the church. (Forgive me for my specifics here as I feel it most important to detail the path for reasons that will shortly become clear.)
The light had begun to fail and the path ahead was grey and covered in lengthening shadow. If it were not for my foot pressing hard against the thin leather of the sole beneath I would not have sensed an absence in the sensation of the ground below. Immediately, I swept my left arm back to prevent my wife from falling in what appeared to be a hole in the path before us. The hollow was of irregular shape, about a yard in width. At first, I considered it to be a small subsidence – and not particularly deep – but on closer inspection, I thought it to be much larger. We both stared into the darkness but it was impossible to establish its depth under the meagre light. At this point, I suggested lowering myself into it but my wife thought better of this and handed me a stone proposing that I drop it down the hole. I held it aloft, stretching towards what I could only guess to be the centre of the hollow and then I released it. It disappeared into the darkness and immediately we heard it bump against stonework. Dropping to our knees, we peered into the chamber and were able to make out what looked to be part of a wall.
My primary concern was to prevent an accident to anyone using the path. I therefore went away to gather some wood, knowing there to be some discarded in one corner of the churchyard. My wife helped me to gather some old bits of timber which we duly took back up to the hole.
There we were met by a sight that confused us immensely. The hole appeared to be very much larger, almost three yards across; too great a width to be covered by the wood we had collected. I posited that in this short time the structure beneath had weakened further resulting in greater subsidence. Strong planks were required, and we went away to fetch some. In the village street I met Mr Knight, the local builder and undertaker, and asked him to come to the church to see the hole.
But to the amazement of my wife and I, when we arrived we found no sign of a hole. I looked around, along the path, to each side of the grass verge, but they were all exactly as before, with no hint of disturbance. I stared in utter disbelief at the ground, even dropping my knees to examine the path, pressing my flattened palms against the gravel. My wife took a position behind me, as if waiting for the hole to reappear and swallow me; but no, the spot remained stubbornly and unfathomably intact.
To make matters more perplexing, Mr Knight appeared rather less puzzled than I would have expected; his only comment a peppy “That’s all right, sir” or words to that effect. For a moment, I considered that his tone conveyed something of blithe indifference, as if he had chanced upon something familiar to him.
March 2nd 1950
…and in two weeks, we leave Yealmpton for London.
As no one has excavated the spot, it is likely the telling of the tale will fade into obscurity; at most (at worst!), a footnote in the observations and musings of the incumbents of St Bartholomew’s. Though at the time I did reveal a little of my experience to our warden who suggested that the undermining was likely the result of the collapse of some forgotten crypt; however, for its appearance and subsequent disappearance he could offer no explanation.
I, David Harbin, a pupil at Beaminster school, hereby testify that I am a true and honest witness to the events of the 22nd of June, 1728.
I am one of twenty boys benefiting from the charity of our much missed benefactor, the late Mrs Tucker, whose will has provided for us to the sum of £20 a year, derived from the income of her farm at South Mapperton. A portion of the fund provides for a schoolmaster, one who has been most effective in teaching me to read and write — not to mention, taking care to develop my manners; though his tendency to catechise me in a most peculiar manner is certainly unprecedented, but one that I have no wish to make complaint of.
We are schooled in the upper room of an annex attached to the southwest corner of St. Mary’s Church, which is the location of the events I hereby describe.
For those unaware of the long-held customs and traditions of our school, the closure of the schoolroom follows a rather tiresome procedure: every Saturday, the key of the room is delivered to the clerk of the parish by one or the other of the schoolboys. In recent months, that duty has fallen upon myself.
On the Saturday in question, I had handed the key over as usual, then followed my master to dismiss the boys. However, having overseen their passage from the church one half hour earlier, I noticed, with some embarrassment, that eight of the boys remained, loitering within the churchyard where they were involved in a game of ball. It was just about noon. I questioned the boys regarding their reasons for staying — the lads appeared somewhat nervous — and I was soon informed that they were waiting for four of their number who had re-entered the school in search of old pens.
With this, I felt it important to ascertain if there was any impropriety in the aforementioned activity. Walking towards the church, I was startled to hear much commotion; the four boys having emerged from the church appearing shaken and drawn. After recovering their breaths — they had obviously been running at quite a speed — they revealed the source of their distress: they had each been frightened by a sharp, metallic sound emanating from the chancel, something they described as resembling the repeated striking of a brass pan. The four immediately ran to their friends in the churchyard and told them of it.
After much searching for rationality, they came to the conclusion that someone, quite probably a fellow pupil, had secreted himself inside the church in order to frighten them; and deciding upon this, I joined their number in returning to the school to discover the boy’s identity; but our search was in vain, for there was not a soul hiding within.
As the boys returned to their sport (and I to my studies) via the worn steps that ran rigidly into the churchyard, we all heard a second burst of discordance, undoubtedly louder than the first for it had broken through the walls of the church. Terrified at this, we ran round the church, and when at the west door, we heard what seemed to be the sound of someone preaching, soon followed by another sound, that of a congregation singing psalms. Both of these noises lasted but a short time.
With the impetuosity of youth, unencumbered by self-doubt, the lads soon resumed their sport, whilst I remained close to the church. After a short time, one of them went into the school to retrieve his book; but seconds after the boy’s entrance, we heard a most appalling shriek, followed by a moment of whimpering. What this boy revealed, after he had returned to the churchyard as distraught as those who had gone in search of pens, was a most chilling experience: passing through the nave, he had seen a coffin lying on one of the benches, only about six feet away. Astonishing as there had not be a funeral that morning; nor would there be one tomorrow.
Alarmed by such a solemn statement, I took to the door of the church, whereupon a throng of twelve surrounded me, and as God is my witness I saw with my own eyes the scene previously described to me; a coffin sat upon a distant bench, with its lid open, and there, worse still, the apparition of John Daniel, who had been dead more than seven weeks, sitting at some distance from the coffin, near to the chancel. I am now aware that only six of us were witness to the said phantom, and it is my conjecture that all did not see the apparition because the door was so narrow that we could not all approach it together. The first who knew it to be the spectre of our deceased schoolfellow was Daniel’s half-brother, and he, on seeing it, cried out, ” There sits our John, with just such a coat on as I have ” — (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike), — “with a pen in his hand, and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I’ll throw a stone at him.” The other boys attempted to stop him, but he threw the stone, as he did so saying, ” Take it ! ” upon which the phantom immediately disappeared.
The immense furore this created in the place may only be imagined. Despite our tender ages, ranging between eight and twelve, we were all magisterially examined by Colonel Broadrep, and all agreed in what we had seen, even to the hinges of the coffin ; whilst our descriptions of the coffin tallied exactly with that the deceased boy had been buried in. One of the lads, Samuel Coombe who saw the apparition was not quite twelve years of age, and was a quiet dispassionate lad for his age ; he enrolled in the school after the deceased boy had left it and had never seen Daniel in his life-time. The boy, on examination, gave such a vivid account of the deceased, and took especial notice of one thing about the spectre which the other boys had not mentioned, and that was, the body had a white cloth bound round one of its hands. The woman who had tended the corpse of John Daniel for interment declared on oath that she took such a white cloth from its hand, it having been placed around the boy’s hand as a bandage about four days or so before his death.
It is only now that the full details of John Daniel’s death have been revealed to me. His body had been found in such aberrant circumstances: lying in a field, a few hundred feet from his mother’s house; and thereupon had been buried without an inquest, in event of his mother alleging that the lad had been prone to fits. After the appearance of the spectre, the body was disinterred, a coroner’s inquest held, and a verdict returned to the effect that the boy had been “strangled.” This verdict appears to have been mainly arrived at in consequence of the declarations of two apparently upright and trustworthy women that two days after the corpse was found they had paid their respects only to discover a black strip of cotton or other material round its neck ; and likewise of the joiner who put the body into the coffin, who had seen dramatic marking of the neck, as if some sort of tourniquet had been applied. A surgeon who gave evidence could not or would not positively affirm to the jury that there was any dislocation of the neck.
This is all I have to say on the matter for as far as I have learnt, no steps have been taken to bring anyone to justice on account of the suggested death by violence of John Daniel.