The Spirits Of Wycoller
Sceptics scoff at the old man's stories of paranormal activity in an abandoned village and its ruined manor house. But when a group of young professionals decide to spend a night within the walls of the old house, the ghost hunters become the hunted. If anybody needs a reminder that it is always unwise to mess with the dark side they'll find it here.
The area around my home is particularly rich in legends of paranormal activity, perhaps because it was one of the remote places where the old pagan beliefs survived alongside Christianity right up to the protestant reformation, and then the witch hunts only forced 'the old faith' underground.
Also I think the bleak grandeur of the Pennine Moors and the unchanged nature of countryside in the many remote valleys adds to the effect. And of course the notorious Pendle Hill, a strange spiritual dichotomy in that while Pendle was home to Old Mother Demdike and her coven of witches, it was also the hill climbed by George Fox and from its summit he saw his vision of a better world which led to the founding of the Quaker movement.
No learned essays on Fox or Quaker philosophy here although we are staying near Pendle with a story of Wycoller, a village abandoned in the nineteenth century but now restored as a history park. Wycoller Hall in which the main action takes place has literary associations and we are not far from Wuthering Heights (or Top Withins as is is known in real life). Though the places are real, and the Cunliffes were Lords Of The Manor here, other than a few scraps taken from local folklore, this is entirely a work of fiction.
The Witches Brew
Even now, in an age of secular reason and scientific scepticism,when superstition and belief in the paranormal are condemned as 'magical thinking' bordering on heresy, there are places that have the power to fill the minds of logical, enlightened people with dread and foreboding. Only the fool hardy ignore such primal instincts, they are an evolutionary reminder of a time we were closer to all aspects of nature, even those we now try to shout out of our consciousness.
Myself and five companions were such foolhardy people when we ignored the warning and the old wives tales and decided to spend a night camping in the ruins of Wycoller Hall. And to make things worse, as I know now, to compound our hubris, we decided to hold our sleep out on October 31.
The adventure started in the pub as do many acts of gross stupidity masquerading as bravado. I, the name is Jason Smethurst by the way - Jaz to my friends, along with Tony Denton and Pete Hollins, an engineer, chemist and computer programmer, all relative newcomers to the area known as The Forest Of Trawden having moved from cities to take up jobs, were winding up old Tom Hartley, an elderly local who believed in all the folk tales of boggarts and bogles, ghosts and witches.
We were all familiar with the local legends, Old Mother Demdike and the Witches of Pendle, The headless horseman of Cliviger, a bargeist or demon dog that was said to roam the wild fells beyond Clitheroe and of course the ghosts of Wycoller, an abandoned village clustered around the ruined hall that is said to have been the model Charlotte Brontë had in mind when she wrote of Mr. Rochester's dark and gloomy house in Jane Eyre. Though Wycoller is now a restored history park with three ancient bridges and a load of restored weavers' cottages, it is so far off the beaten track that until the mid twentieth century it was a decaying ruin, having been abandoned almost a hundred years before as the residents moved to be closer to work. And inevitably the old place, which is quite spooky even on bright, summer days had its share of ghost and witchcraft legends. You're never far from a witch legend in that part of Lancashire.
Such nonsense was dismissed by intelligent people such as us, but we were surprised at how many people like ourselves, who seemed perfectly level headed and not prone to fantasies but who had lived in the area longer claimed to have experienced encounters with the paranormal in the vicinity of nearby Pendle. In spite of that we were determined to wind up old Tom and a gang of us ended up accepting a challenge from the Landlord of The Witches Brew to camp out in either the ruin at Wycoller or the half collapsed shell of Malkin Tower in the shadow of Pendle Hill, not the grand place the name suggested but a peasant's hut which according to local legends had been the home of Mother Demdike and her family and the meeting place of a coven of witches.
The Witches Brew, once less fancifully named before it had a makeover to become a theme pub that exploited the local legends to attract trade from visitors to the picturesque area, stood at the point where Demdike Way, a walking route which followed the old drovers' road to from Burnley to Lancaster travelled by the witches and their guards on their way to trial in the Castle, crossed the path said to have been used by Druids on their way to and from the stone circle at Cliviger.
We ignored all these portents of course, why simply tempt fate when you can seduce it? We were all atheist or agnostic and believers in Darwinian evolution and all that. The arguments about evolution explaining the origin of the species, rather than the origin of life or how humans made the leap from ape like knuckle draggers to … well whatever we have become did not impress any of us. As far as were were concerned life was just a chemical and Dawkins was right about people being biological computers running programmes encoded in our DNA.
At the appointed hour one group of jolly ghost - hunters, laden with tents, sleeping bags and copious hampers filled with wine, beer and snacks, piled into two cars and set off on the ten minute drive to the village of Barley, under Pendle Hill. The remainder of us waved then on their way with sarcastic comments, shouts of “May the force be with you”, and warning so Andy Carter the prodigious farter not to frighten the spooks by letting rip too loudly. We did not know it but they were doomed, all doomed (hat tip Private Frazer in Dad's Army).
Once the other half of our paranormal investigation squad were gone, the rest of us, me, Tony and Pete, Tony's partner Sue, a teacher and civil engineer Harry Conroy with his inamorata Donna Benson, a social worker, set off on the short walk from the small mill town, Trawden to Wycoller, and our rendezvous with The Dark Side.
As we made that half hour walk to the abandoned village we compared the various stories of the downfall of House Cunliffe who had been lords of The Manor and how the once magnificent hall had been deserted and allowed to fall into decay. An odd thing about ghost stories is that many of them seem to involve the religious festivals, particularly those Christianity shares with the old pagan beliefs. I told myself we have more than our share of nutters around Lancashire who are still determined to believe that sort of rubbish despite everything science and reason have taught us, but somehow the thoughts seemed hollow and the jokes and sneers of my companions started to sound like people whistling in the dark as we neared our destination.
Wycoller is old, the bridge that carries Demdike Way over the beck is known to be a thousand years old and the Clapper Bridge is a relic of the Bronze Age according to archaeologists. As we crossed the Pack House bridge I felt someone grip my arm. It was Sue Meacher, Tony's other half. I looked around but Tony was engrossed in a conversation up ahead. People often remarked that there was a certain chemistry between sue and I. We were both aware of it of course but things had never gone further than a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas.
“If everything goes mad we must run for this bridge Jaz,” she said, “Remember the witch in Tam O'Shanter, she can't cross running water.” The giggle that followed her words was definitely filled with nervous trepidation. I did not voice my repose which was that the witch she mentioned was named Cutty Sark, one of the most famous ships in history. So much for not being able to cross water
Some stories told of brutal murders, others said there had really been a madwoman in the attic who started a fire and destroyed the house, killing all the residents. According to other folklore there had been duels, love affairs and the legendary curse of the Cunliffes.
During a violent argument in which the insanely jealous and recently married John Cunliffe had accused his wife Matilda (neé Hartley) of having an affair and beaten her mercilessly, she had called upon the spirit of Mother Demdike to bring down a curse on the Cunliffe's and foretold that the family would die out. Her infuriated husband beat her again and cast her out into the cold night. Matilda was never seen again, not was her body found. She may still lie in some deep combe on the bleak and wuthering heights of Withins Moor, that looms darkly over the village. That story was recorded by a local diarist in 1746
We shall never know if that story is true, but John Cunliffe went completely mad. There was a family tradition of open house over the twelve days of Christmas, a board laden with food would be put out and people from the estate and surrounding villages could visit and eat their fill. As Lord Cunliffe's behaviour grew more bizarre (he had taken to appearing dressed as his absent wife, jumping naked onto tables and singing bawdy songs, and allegedly once when the hall was crowded with visitors, rode his horse up and down the stairs.
Madness became a congenital disorder in the Cunliffe family and the last descendant died in 1819. Due to the legend of the curse nobody was ever willing to buy the house and it fell into decay. Matilda's curse was fulfilled. Bizarrely though there was no history of madness in the Cunliffe family, only drunken high spirits, and mad John Cunliffe never married again after the incident with Matilda, his madness seemed to infect the rest of the family.
Naturally we sceptical fools were eager to laugh off such fanciful tales and our little gathering had taken on a party atmosphere. had brought along a guitar and began to strum the chords of well known tunes. Soon the woods around Wycoller echoed with the voices of out semi drunken choir. It was well past midnight when we settled down to sleep and nobody had seen or heard anything that hinted at the presence of other worldly creatures. Even so both Sue and I, when we could managed a short, private conversation, sense the jolly mood felt forced and brittle, we both had a bad feeling about what we were doing.
There is a theory that is based on sound quantum physics which proposes that the past is recorded somehow in the atoms of material things, that everything an atom encounters is somehow remembered. Thus old houses are like history books written in a language we cannot read. Its sounds as crazy as homeopathy until you realize that the stone and clay houses are basically made from are inorganic materials, they have no carbon atom in the molecule, and computer memory relies on inorganic material for its memory chips. I had asked Pete about it once but he just said he just wrote code and left the technical stuff to to eggheads.
Thinking of such things now, I realise how little we understand of the world around us and the worlds beyond what we can see and feel
Ghost Hunters Hunted
I don't know how long I had slept before being wakened by a finger poking my shoulder, but the darkness seemed more enshrouding than ever.
“Jason wake up, I'm scared. I think there's someone out there.” Sue Meacher the science teacher (she hated being called that), the one who in daylight or a strongly lit room and in company was always the most scathing in her mockery of superstition and magic was scared and close to panic.
“Wha'? Sue?” Wits scattered by drink, sleep and a few tokes of herbal mixture, I needed several seconds to get my head together, remember where we were, why and understand the significance of what had been said.
“Sue, what are you doing, are you mad. Tony is only a few feet away.” Sue had moved her sleeping bag next to mine. Sure, thoughts of what might happen between us has crossed my mind, and even settled in for long visits at times, but tonight, surrounded by people we knew?
“Jason, you must wake up, I'm not joking and I'm not looking for a shag OK. There is someone else in this ruin and they're not friendly.” She took hold of my hair and pulled to turn my head towards the direction in which she was looking. Sure enough there was someone there, or something. Not one person in fact but a small crowd, pale creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes, some were cowering back from a couple at the centre of the tableau, a gentleman was raging noiselessly as he beat a young woman with the blunt end of a dog whip. The woman screamed back at him but again nothing could be heard, while the others pleaded with the man to show some restraint.
The scene faded to be replaced by another, the same room crowded with people most quite poorly dressed. Again they were uniformly pale grey in colour but not quite as transparent as the previous ones. And this time there was sound, the buzz of a chattering crowd and then the clopping of a horses hooves on a hard surface. I looked towards the sound and saw the man who had been beating his wife, now riding a spectral horse up a staircase that had not existed for over a hundred years but clearly craze. The horse was a phantom but its fear was clearly visible as the rider turned it at the top of the stair and descended again. Once on a level surface the horse began to rear and kick.
Sue was clinging tightly to my arm, half behind me. “For God's sake Jason, tell me you are not seeing this, tell me I'm hallucinating.”
The others were awake now and staring transfixed, obviously all seeing what we were seeing. All except for Tony who as usual had drink the most and smoked most dope. The images changed several times, eventually Sue sniffed.
“Do you smell fire?” she demanded.
“Yeah but ...”
“But nothing Jason, my belief in logic and reason has just been shattered, look.” My eyes followed her pointing finger and I saw flames spreading rapidly, all around us. Three of our companions were now standing with us, Tony remained comatose. We had tried but nobody could budge him.
The flames rose but there was no heat. It struck me we were seeing the events in the downfall of the Cunliffe family in fast forward.
“I can't carry Tony, he's a big bloke, and the others don't look like they will be much help” I told Sue. Harry was holding his girlfriend who was screaming hysterically and the other single guy, Pete, chose that moment to run, heading first for the Pack Horse bridge before turning to head upstream towards Withins Moor. Shaking Harry roughly I indicated it was time to go, then with Sue and I holding hands we ran.
About fifteen yards from the bridge I saw why Pete had gone the other way. Another figure blocked our path, a woman in a hooded black cloak. Where her face should have been was a void but she emitted a bloodcurdling scream without breaks for breath. Harry, half carrying his girlfriend Donna took the ford which is only inches deep in summer but now was a fast flowing stream of about two feet. I thought about it and then saw the spectral horseman in the middle of the stream.
Looking at Sue who was shaking like a skyscraper in an earthquake but somehow holding herself together, I yelled, “What doesn't exist can't hurt us right? Go.”
Pulling her by the arm I charged towards the figure on the narrow, ancient bridge. The spectre seemed to grow, to tower over is and then …...
I was in a brightly lit room, shiny surfaces, bleeping sounds and figures dressed in blue and white all around me. I had sensors and wires linking parts of my body to some sort of medical machine, something attached to my arm and
“Hello Jason,” said a person whose identification badge told me was Doctor Bhatti; he spoke with a northern English accent, “That must have been quite a party up at Wycoller Hall, the state you and your friends were in when you arrived.”
“Sue? Is she OK?”
“Um, she's alive and will stay that way, which is more than can be said for Harry Conroy. You wouldn't think two feet of water was dangerous but it seems the current bashed his head against the central pier of the Pack Horse bridge. Strange, the wound looked like the imprint of a horses' hoof. His girlfriend is OK though not talking yet but on the mend. As for you and Sue, there are no external injuries and no evidence of internal damage. While you have been out you've had body scans, brain scans, tox screens found nothing but a bit of cannabis in your blood. There was nothing physically wrong but the two of you were barely alive when you were brought in, it was as if you had both been drained of energy. What the blazes happened.”
I flinched visibly at the word 'blazes' and the doctor raised his eyebrows slightly.
“How did we get here?” I asked.
“The police told us some kids who came up here for a dare heard you and your friends screaming then some of you came running out of the old ruined house. They ran down to The Witches Brew because they'd already seen some weird things going on and were crapping themselves. They told the people in the pub there was some sort of trouble up there and a fellow named Tom Hartley and some locals set off to see what was going on. Its seems you had some unexpected encounters with other dimensions.”
“I suppose you think we are all insane.”
“I'm from India,” I must have looked surprised because he explained, “My family moved here before I could speak so I was brought up in the Indian tradition but absorbed western cultures and the local dialect from infancy too. We are a modern family but still have a lot of respect for traditional beliefs and the spirit world.”
“And you will never shock a hospital worker with talk of the supernatural, a nurse broke in, we see all sorts of weird things around the dead and dying.”
“Quite right,” the doctor agreed. “So don't feel embarrassed about talking of you experiences. Now if you feel up to it, the police want to talk to you, ”
“About Tony? Or Harry?”
“Apparently there was another group of people set out to spend a night on Pendle Hill, some sort of challenge I gather.”
“Yeah, a kind of grown up dare. Did they run into trouble too?”
“I think you should wait until the police get here and talk to them.”
That sounded ominous but the doctor was not going to yield any more information. I enquired about Tony instead but he had no good news for me there either. It had seemed that he was out of it, sleeping through the whole thing, but while the horrors the rest of us witnessed had been in our minds they were somewhat cushioned by consciousness. With Tony's consciousness being elsewhere, what had hit us affected the most fundamental levels of his being. While we screamed and ran, he had gazed into the abyss.
It was only after the doctor had left I remembered Pete.
The police officers, a Detective Sergeant who seemed rather brusque but turned out to be quite approachable and a female constable who was obviously fascinated with the whole thing questioned me about what happened, skilfully deflecting my questions about the Pendle Hill camp. At last when they were sure I'd told them all I could and in answer to my enquiry told me Pete had been found by a farmer safe, well and smelly but in a state of shock, having taken refuge in a cow shed, they talked about Pendle.
“This is why it was important to talk to you as soon as possible. Sue and Donna aren't ready to be interviewed yet, Pete isn't making any sense and Tony is just huddled up with his blankets wrapped round him.”
The constable picked it up, “We know from people in The Witches Brew that six people set out to spend the night on Pendle, we found two cars in the car park at Barley, the equipment was where they set up camp in the ruined cottage but we only found one person and she has not been able to answer questions coherently.
“The young lady, Joanne, keeps talking about creatures rising from the earth and appearing out of the stone walls,” the Sergeant said. “Do you know if they were using hallucinatory drugs such as LSD, Magic Mushrooms.”
“Bit of dope same as us, I can't see any of them using anything harder. But five people can't disappear on Pendle, its not that big an area and its only a couple of miles from a big town.”
“We usually find that the weirdest things happen in the biggest towns Jason,” the Sergeant said, “now obviously you can't help us know what happened up there but anything you can tell us about your friends will be useful.
That Halloween dare was certainly a life changing experience, I'm a Church of England clergyman now and trained to perform exorcisms. My understanding that there are things in this world reason and logic cannot explain guided my choice and I feel people need help and guidance to avoid the kind of trouble I any my friends had blundered into. Sue and I are together, she has retrained as a counsellor and helps people who fear they are under psychic attack. She and Tony were never formally married so there was no obstacle to us marrying. Not that we have forgotten Tony, we see him every week. He never shows any sign of recognizing us or even of being aware that somebody is there.
As soon as Pete was released from hospital he packed his bags and returned to London. He does not return out calls. Donna returned to her old life after convalescing for a few weeks. And Joanne joined a Buddhist meditative order after a spell in a psychiatric hospital.
Tom Hartley became a local celebrity and the landlord of The Witches Brew made a fortune from his pub's notoriety.
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