In the woods, we come face to face with our primal fears. On a bright summers’ day, alone among the trees we may feel watched, stalked by something that means to do us harm.
Even on this island, shorn of its once great forests, there are still wooded places that harbour things to hunt us. No more wolves or bears, but stranger things. Spirits of the wild.
Shuckleigh, of course, has its own haunted wood. Behind the derelict shoe factory there is a large area of woodland called Sleetswood after the family who own both the long defunct shoe factory and the wood.
Although there is no prohibition on walking in these woods, very few people ever go there. So close to town, it would appear to be the perfect location for a picnic or a day communing with nature, but there are many stories associated with the woods and local people know them and cannot help at least half-believing them.
From the outside the wood looks impenetrable. The remains of a fence lie against the edge nearest the road, but a fence is unnecessary in the face of the dense thorny barrier of hawthorn, sloe, and bramble that borders the larger trees. Foragers do collect the fruits of this vegetable barrier, paying for their bounty in blood, as every bush and vine is armed with miniature daggers.
One person has given us his account of going further into the dark woodland. Here it is, in his own words.
‘My Grandma used to tell me all the old Shuckleigh stories, you know, the Black Dog and all that, and she told me all about Sleetswood and the things that were supposed to live in it. I loved those stories, the way I loved Hammer Horror films.
‘This was the 1960s, I was 14, and some of us, all boys, thought it would be clever to spend Hallowe’en in Sleetswood. There was me, Alan, Bill, Francis and Davy. We all told our parents we were staying with Francis, and he said he was staying with me. Hallowe’en wasn’t a big fun thing in those days. In Shuckleigh, everyone kept their doors closed and stayed home, just in case.
‘Everyone brought some food, a blanket and a torch, and we planned to have a campfire. It was a big dare really.
‘We got fairly cut up on the way in, but we made it and eventually found a bit of a clearing. Alan started to set up the fire. He was a boy scout and he got it going really well, which was great because it was pitch black in there. You couldn’t see the sky, and there was a big moon that night, but none of the light made it down through the trees.
‘We sat around that fire with our backs to the darkness, telling spooky stories and pretending not to be afraid. I don’t know about the others, but I was scared and cold and I would’ve liked to go home. I stayed because I didn’t want to be laughed at, and I wouldn’t have been able to find my way out by myself. Nothing had happened, but I felt the woods, the trees, something, leaning in, pressing down on me. I just kept looking at the flames, as if the light would keep me safe.
‘Alan was sitting next to me, sometimes feeding the fire with sticks. Bill had just finished telling a ghost story about the woods we were sitting in, the one about the old lady. We were all laughing louder than usual, but maybe loud enough to push the night away from us. Suddenly Alan grabbed my arm.
‘”What’s that?” he whispered, pointing across the fire into the darkness.
‘I couldn’t see anything, because of looking into the bright fire, and I thought he was trying to wind me up.
‘”Nothing,” I said and gave him a shove. Then the fire went out, like someone had poured a bucket of water on it, and it was a good fire, not just a couple of twigs burning.
‘”Hey,” I shouted, jumping to my feet, ready for a fight. “Who did that?” I was angry and fed up with being frightened.
‘I couldn’t see a thing, so I got my torch out of my pocket and turned it on.
‘There was no-one there. I thought they were ganging up on me because they knew I was scared, but the more I looked, I knew it was all wrong. This wasn’t the same place. There was no clearing, no sign of a fire, no blankets, chocolate wrappers, crisp packets or anything. Just trees. All around and close by, crowding around me.
‘Then my torch went out and I couldn’t get it to come back on again.
‘Something touched my back. I screamed and jumped away, banging into a tree that I swear hadn’t been so close a moment before.
‘Turning around, I threw out my hands to keep away whatever was coming up on me, and touched only rough bark. There was a creak and the tree leaned towards me, pushing me back against the trunk of the other.
‘I know that I screamed. Twisting and wriggling, I got free, pushing my way through, crashing into tree after tree. Hands like twigs, or twigs like hands, grabbed and clawed at me and every tree put itself in my way.
‘Running in the dark, what I imagined and what was real, I don’t know. I fell and landed in wet rotting leaves, smelling of earth and decay. More and more leaves started piling down, like someone was shovelling them over me. I struggled, drowning, trying to fight my way out, but sinking deep down instead, damp leaves in my mouth and my eyes. I must have fainted.
‘Bright light in my eyes. Someone spoke my name. It was Bill, filthy, with wide scared eyes in his dirty face. I must have looked the same. We were lying at the edge of the wood, as if it had thrown us out. The others were there too, except for Alan.
‘We got in big trouble from our parents. We had to tell them, because of Alan. It took a day of searching to find him, in the little clearing, sitting by the ashes of the fire, smiling like a crazy person and talking to someone who wasn’t there.
‘After that he never spoke to real people again, and he was always going back to the wood. Someone told me he’d gone into the wood one day and never come back out again. I don’t know if that’s true.’