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.