One of the tales told of Sleetswood is that of the Old Lady. She must always be addressed as a lady, or she might take offence.
It is said that she lives in a house made of the bones of every animal that has ever died in the woods, and that includes people. It is also said that if you find her house then it will not be long before your whitened bones are added to its walls.
There are several explanations of who she is. One is that she is a witch, wrongly accused of blighting a farmer’s cattle and condemned to be burned, but the Devil himself came down and pulled her out of the flames, casting her into the woods where she remains to this day, bearing a fierce grudge against the rest of humanity. Especially men.
Others maintain that this is untrue, that no witches were ever burned in Shuckleigh. They say that the Old Lady is the spirit of the wood, one of the fairy folk left behind when the great forests were felled and her wood became an island surrounded by people. The wood is her home, her domain, and whoever strays into it is subject to her desires. She might leave you alone if the mood strikes her and you are attuned to the ways of the wood, but if you behave like a human – take without repaying, cast off your unwanted litter without thought, crash through the woods disturbing those who belong there – then she will make you pay.
There is one curious account from the 1920s of an encounter with the Old Lady.
A young man was visiting relatives in Shuckleigh, and having nothing to do one day, he went for a walk. The woods looked cool and inviting on a hot summer’s day, and, never having heard the stories, he decided to go in, looking for birds’ nests. In those days. collecting eggs from nests was considered a healthy hobby for a young person.
He climbed through the thorny undergrowth and began to wander about the woods, searching the trees for promising signs. After a while he found a few different eggs and stowed them carefully in a cotton-wool lined box he carried for the purpose in his knapsack.
Not long after his third or fourth depredation on the bird life of the woods, he became aware that there was someone else nearby. He heard a lovely song being sung, but could not make out the words. Following the sound, he soon found a sweet-looking old lady with long silver hair and old-fashioned green clothes sitting on a fallen tree trunk. She stopped singing and smiled at him.
He said hello and asked if she needed any help, because he was a well brought-up youth.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘someone has stolen my eggs.’
Thinking she was talking about hens’ eggs, he sympathised with her and said how sorry he was to hear that.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you will be sorry.’
She stood up and stepped towards him, opening her mouth wide and letting out a wild and frightful scream. The young man should have been scared, but he was mesmerised by the strange scene, and she was only a tiny old lady. He stood there, wondering if she was perhaps a bit mad.
As she moved towards him, her mouth kept opening wider and wider. he could not quite believe what he was seeing. Closer and closer she got, and her mouth became a dark cave bearing down on him. Then he thought he saw in that cave darker creatures, with red eyes like hot coals, coming towards him.
He watched in puzzlement and fascination as the cave grew larger and nearer and the creatures within it approached and reached out for him.
All at once it occurred to him to be frightened. He still did not understand what he was seeing, but he understood that it was dangerous and that it was coming for him.
He screamed and ran, lashed by branches, slashed by brambles, but managing to break out of the wood at last.
He got away with his life and most of his sanity, but the Old Lady kept his knapsack and the stolen eggs.