As I stand here, the whole Vale remains a strange and foreboding place; from the outside the entwined trees give little away to the eye about the woodland. Once inside the first thing is the quietness, the birds are hushed and the canopy of yew reduces the sunlight to a winter glow. Even at the height of summer, Kingley Vale feels a deathly cold place.
Why I had returned after all these years I could not answer. But memories are strange things, especially those that cast a shadow over a lifetime. The darker ones have an unconscious life of their own; a fleeting thought or an unusual smell may turn on their ignition, sending the memory roaring into action. I had passed the station for years but only today had the flames of memory urge me back to the Vale. More forceful was the desire to travel as I had done all those years ago; a carriage to the past. Gazing at the reflection in the window, I had watched my car drift away as I had watched my father wave me off from the same spot decades before. In that moment, the two images had become one and lurking behind them was a dreadful-looking tree.
Crack went the first branch, the second broke and tumbled to the ground, and out came the two boys emerging like new born chicks into the sunshine. They ruffled and shook their bodies, throwing off twigs and vines that had hitched a ride through the forest.
The Scouts had trained them well. Now the boys were full of confidence, enough to form a small group that had departed from the main camp almost an hour ago.
“I think we should carry on through the trees, follow this little path and head up to the top of the ridge. That way we can see our lot and gloat,” said Tom brashly, delighted that he was now on a real adventure.
“Yes, but we shouldn’t stay away long,” said Alex, feeling demoted to deputy. “We must keep our boys in sight; make sure that no one starts to look for us. Otherwise it’ll be curtains and we’ll end up shadowed for the entire trip.”
“All right,” agreed Tom, “let’s just get up onto the ridge; then we’ll circle the camp and head down the other side for a little surprise!” The boys shared a smile, pleased with their plan.
On they went, much deeper into the woods; but as the light began to fade, fewer and fewer words were exchanged between the pair. Both had become anxious about the darkening path ahead though neither had mentioned it.
The distant, echoed voices of the scout camp were now a faded memory. On they trudged, winding their way gradually through entwined roots and branches until, at last, they reached the brow of the hill, the thinning sunlight flickering through the tree-tops.
Four shadowed mounds stood before them like beasts in slumber; a small chalk path snaking between their gentle slopes. The boys wearily staggered to the mound nearest them, lifted off their heavy packs and dropped to the ground. There was a wild and remote feeling about the place, something that did not escape them.
“Stay the night?” said Tom sarcastically, hoping that Alex would disagree.
“Well the choice is either we stay or we head back down through that mess of a forest,” replied Alex. “But the light’s going and now we’re definitely going to be missed. The last thing we need is a search party; then we’ll be for it!”
The boys fell into a lengthy silence, staring thoughtfully out across the barrows, aware they were in an ancient place, resting amongst the dead. And with that thought, shivers pulsed through them.
“And there’s another reason I’m not so keen to stay here….,” said Alex, his voice trailing off with an uneasy quiver.
“O-h-h-h,” teased Tom, “you’re not talking about these grassy mounds are you? Those stories really got you going, didn’t they?”
Alex shifted his body, visibly agitated, extending a dig of the elbow in Tom’s direction.
The night before they had been entertained by their scout leader, an old wag who delighted in recounting ancient tales of terror. The ghastly deeds of ghosts and witches were made all the more chilling having been told by candlelight, the flickering of the flame highlighting the gnarled features of the surrounding yews.
One story in particular captivated them. It told of Danish invaders who came to Sussex over a thousand years ago. They had travelled great distances to conquer the Saxon communities of south Britain but the locals had fought back, slaying some of the invaders in skirmishes amongst the yew trees near Bow Hill. Legend says that the four large barrows upon the hill, known as The Devil’s Humps, are the graves of the dead Vikings. In late summer evenings, when the blood-red sap of the yews spills onto the chalk hill it is said that their ghosts roam the dark and silent wood, tormented by defeat.
“I don’t care about those stories,” retorted Alex sharply, “I just want to avoid a thrashing from my father!”
Though Tom laughed, his companion’s comment helped make up his mind.
“Fine, let’s head back down. I’ve got a good sense of direction and we shouldn’t be too far. Besides, we should be able spot the camp as they’ll be lighting the bonfire soon.”
The boys remained seated for a while longer, then reloaded their backpacks and headed back in the direction they had come.
Neither was aware of the events unfolding behind them. If at that moment they had turned, their gaze would have fallen on something creeping out of the darkness. The shadow of a tree was inching its way over the grass; it crawled into the folds of earth where the boys had rested, seeping into the soil, turning it a vicious blood red.
Over the brow of the hill and into the realms of darkness went the explorers, the shadow following close behind.
The path they took was a minefield of hooked roots and sharp boulders, tearing their ankles at every step. Only when the orange hue of distant flames sprung up against the blackness did the boys sense relief that they would make it back to camp.
The sight of the bonfire pushed the boys further, lifting their pace, until they came upon the ravelled limbs of a large yew tree, lying directly in their path. The companions stood for a while considering whether it had been toppled by natural means or by blade, but ultimately they could not say. So large was the tree that the distant light of the bonfire, the beacon guiding them along the torturous route, was out of sight; the edges of the wood etched only by the thin moonlight.
Tom tried to climb the first hurdle, a thick, densely knotted branch that protruded from the mass, but his clambering was swiftly halted by an encounter with something sitting on the bark, a sticky, foul-smelling substance.
“Yuck!” shouted Tom, his hands withdrawing from the sickly-sweet liquid. “This is disgusting!”
The putrid matter clung to his hands and sparkled under the moonlight. Only when he raised his hands up to the meagre light did he catch a glimpse of colour; a rich red glow throbbed within the dappled stickiness.
“Don’t come up here, it’s horrible, ” he shouted, warning Alex.
“I don’t think I need to,” responded Alex. “It seems to be everywhere,” and with that he tugged his foot, pulling hard against sinews of a jelly-like substance anchoring his foot to the ground.
“What the hell is this?” he cried. Tom tried to remove himself from the recumbent branch but was held firmly, the redness bubbling up around his wrists, cementing him to the wood.
The terrified boys screamed and shouted, frantically wriggling their bodies, squirming like two flies caught in a web.
And such a web it was, for what then appeared was a hideous shape of spider-like appearance; its armoured body flanked by pairs of limbs each armed with swords. The foul creature had crept from a hollow within the trunk, and was now moving its legs in horrible synchrony, like spindle-thin oars paddling up a river.
As the thing approached, Alex realised that what he had first taken to be a single piece of metal protruding from the centre of its body was, in fact, a horrible assortment of helmets and shields, all melded together. The more he studied the creature, the more horrified he became; for at the centre of this mass were heads – human heads – all moving, their eyes wide open; their mouths forming the shapes of unspoken words.
The boys recoiled in horror, screaming at the sky, pleading for help. But for every shriek, the creature edged further along the wood, closer and closer towards its powerless victims.
Finally, it came upon them. Alex and Tom could smell the stench of its body, its fetid breath, and worse still, the sight of a sea of eyes gazing down upon their quivering bodies. The creature stood still for a moment, watching them. Then two of its arms sprang forward, each clutching swords, lowering them down to a hair’s breadth of their throats.
The boys shut their eyes and waited for the blades to strike. But nothing came. Not daring to open them, they listened to the short, prying sniffs of the thing hovering above, sensing the movement of air as the swords withdrew from their throats, and the sound of a scuttling monster withdrawing back into its hole.
“Quick, run!” shouted Tom, aware that the red substance trapping them had returned to liquid and was flowing away down the sides of the tree. Each boy, now released, sprang from the dreadful nest and went running wildly into the woods. The shrieks made whilst they were imprisoned had sent a search party in their direction; and now the scout master, his deputy and a group of older boys were waiting only a short distance downhill.
Little was said on the way back – the party concentrating on navigating the dense arrangement of branch and foliage – but once they had reached the camp, the boys recounted their terrible tale. The party sat in gloomy, pensive silence and listened, reflecting on the screams they had heard, but ignorant of the horrors the pair had faced.
The following morning, the scout master led a small group to the area the boys described but they returned reporting seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
It was nearly fifty years before I was willing to return to the wood. Alex remained a close friend but there was nothing I could say to persuade him to accompany me.
As I stood in the centre of the wood I reflected on that terrible night. There had been little since to explain what had happened. But I knew that it had, though no one apart from Alex believed it so; and there were times when even I doubted that he had not convinced himself it was all a nightmarish dream. And there was the question of why the sinful creature had withdrawn its execution, something that has plagued me all these years. Had God’s goodness spared me, or was it something else? Many times I had pondered that the son of a Saxon would not have been so lucky.