A Christmas Ghost Story

“If you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise…” Nursery rhyme.

Charles Dickens, master storyteller, didn’t confine himself to just A Christmas Carol as a tale with a supernatural theme, he wrote several others as short stories intended for newspaper or magazine circulation. He had competition with other writers, such as Lovecraft and Collins and, later, the master teller of sinister tales Montague Rhodes James.

The reading of such stories at wintertime was part of the long held tradition. Many of the tales had a forest theme where the woods, plants and timber were foundations for such tales, using the activities of personages who had allowed themselves to become involved in matters ‘best left alone’. M.R. James, puts it thus: ‘… there are questions that should not be asked, doors that should be forever closed, manuscripts that should not be read, experiments that should not be performed lest the inquisitive conjure up something that may be difficult to lay to rest’.

Here we are, nearly at the winter solstice of late December where it was the thing to gather around the fire of a late afternoon, mugs of Smoking Bishop to hand, tea cakes and crumpets being toasted before the fire, the scene all the better if the wind howled outside and tree branches stretched and scratched at the windows as if seeking a way to come in, and listen to stories of ‘disturbing events’, dark happenings that actually occurred and, with the passage of time, have taken on the mantle of tales of horror.

Let me tell you such a tale, based on reports of the time and also more recently, where such activities resulted in a legacy of fear and superstition that remain to this day. This is not an invented story; the events are written and cover a long period. I was born and raised in eastern mid-England, on the edge of once mighty Sherwood Forest, a hugely old, pre-historic place. Today’s forest is all that remains of the great broad-leaf woodland that covered the northern counties of England. Traditionally these forests are the repository of ancient spirits whose activities still occasionally intrude into the affairs of man.

But the guardians of the forests were no match for man who proceeded to destroy the woodlands. Occasionally the guardians struck back and did so with awful vengeance. The spirits were fearful beings, providing cautionary tales for all not to stray into places they did not belong. East Midland parents did not admonish their children lightly; they threatened the wrath of ‘the Green Man’ or the ‘Jack in the Green’ if childish behaviour became difficult.

Even now there is something about old woodland that I find disturbing, bringing out primordial fears that lie deep within us all. Here at the end of the year as the light fades and the shadows draw in, the vast and ancient trees seem to take on a living presence and I would prefer to avoid a lone winter walk in the dark forest.

The story I present concerns the small Sherwood village, then called Fareham, now called something else. Best that we leave its current name unmentioned. Unlike its companions, Fareham never grew. It is still as small a village now as it was in Roman times. Fareham was surrounded by some of the great and ancient oak trees including the Parliament oak, the Spread oak, the Old Church oak and the Major oak, all trees that were ancient before the Norman Conquest of 1066.

We start with the happenings during the winter of 1685. The story concerns the activities of one Dr. S (I won’t mention his name; I’m not that brave), who was an evil man who, as written in reports of the time, ‘…practiced in the black arts, wizardry, alchemy, sorcery’. He meddled in things he should have left well alone. He had access to old documents, studied spells, herbs and potions. Ultimately folk thereabouts would go miles out of their way to avoid contact with him and would not, under any circumstances, go past his house lest he might see them and ‘work some activity or other to their disadvantage’.

He had a wife who ultimately came to a bad end, being found dead some distance from the village, her body being ‘terribly damaged’ according to reports. Dr. S was accused of her murder even though he was, according to witnesses, seen to be in his own house at the time of her death. The prosecution stated that Dr. S had acquired the ‘mysterious and evil art of striking from a distance those foolhardy enough to cross him’.

Ultimately Dr. S found himself in the Nottingham assizes accused of murder by means of ‘procuring another to carry out the act’. The assizes judge at that time was the notorious “hanging judge” Lord Chief Justice Robert Jeffries. Dr. S was found guilty and sentenced to hang, the hanging to be carried out near to the site where the murder took place, as was traditional at the time. In the court report of the trial, it was stated that: “…the prisoner seemed more uneasy than is common at such a time, looking as if some person or thing might be at his ear. It was also noticeable at the trial how quiet the people were, unwilling to look at the accused, and what darkness and obscurity there was in the courtroom, needing lights to be brought in no later than 2.00 in the afternoon and there being no fog in the town.”

Dr. S’s body was left to hang in the gibbet, as was the custom. After a period the body was removed for burial but the sexton refused to dig his grave and no priest could be found willing to carry out the funeral service. His body was interred in a distant plot in unconsecrated ground, at the edge of Hangar Hill Wood. Not long after his burial, rumours began to be heard of the appearance of Dr. S at the window of his house, that which overlooked a section of Budby Wood. This was the place that the apparition of Dr. S was watching; whatever terrifying thing he had conjured was here.

Reports at the time suggested that whatever Dr. S had conjured out of the wood had not been laid to rest at the time of his execution and had, over the years, tried to find its way to its former master’s house, perhaps for further instruction. In the village it could be heard making a rustling sound, shuffling along rattling the doors and windows, ‘crying like the wind’.

We come to more recent times with the report of the finding of another body near to Budby Wood, the victim being an archaeologist investigating a Roman site where the skeletal remains of a Roman soldier were discovered. The soldier’s remains were in such a state that the archaeologists could only come to the opinion that he had somehow been crushed, and his remains hastily buried seemingly without ceremony and the Roman post station abandoned. The archaeologists, much concerned by what they had discovered, left the Roman remains and the site alone, untouched, re-covered with earth and turf feeling that what they had found was best not disturbed.

The body of the archaeologist was found under a pile of forest debris and although no opinion was given as to the significance of this, it was held that the victim had perhaps found and taken some artefact or other from the Roman soldier’s grave and had later gone back to the forest to try to return what he had foolishly taken. There was a witness who, when questioned, spoke of how he saw the archaeologist running from the wood being seemingly followed by a wind-driven mound of forest detritus that had momentarily taken on a ‘monstrous shape and form, a figure which had something awful about it, sort of deformed as if made out of the decaying rubbish of the forest’.

When questioned again, he would make no further comment as to what he saw standing over the body, neither would anyone else talk about what was reported to have been seen standing over the grave on the night of the archaeologist’s funeral. But, the very next day, several barrow loads of forest debris needed to be removed and disposed of, rubbish that periodically returned to the grave and, perhaps, still does…

Let me end with a ‘warning to the curious’ from M.R. James: “Should you be wandering in the forest and come across some artefact or, perhaps, a small bag containing nail clippings and some hair. Do not bring it with you into your home; it may not be alone…”