Back in the 1950s a hole opened up in the garden of a suburban house in Shuckleigh. It appeared overnight. Not a very wide hole, about a metre in diameter, and almost perfectly circular, like a giant’s drill-hole, very deep.

The people who lived in the house were Harry and Lucie Morgan and their children James and Daisy. Naturally alarmed, they called in a builder who said it must be a sinkhole, but he knew of no mining or underground cave that might have caused it.

They fenced off the hole and a geologist came to look at it, said it must be a sinkhole and tried to measure its depth, but his line was not long enough, which he found remarkable.

Since their house did not appear to be in any danger, the Morgans got used to the hole and started to ignore it. Daisy began to throw things into it, a crust of bread, a pebble, a doll that she was now too old for.

When the doll went down, the hole rumbled.

Daisy, who was thirteen and had never really liked dolls anyway, went and got all her others and threw them into the hole one by one. The hole rumbled every time.

The last one went down to a very satisfied-sounding rumble and Daisy got scared in case she was setting off some kind of vibration that would make the sinkhole get bigger and swallow the whole garden. She went back into the house and pretended that nothing had happened. Nothing did happen.

The geologist came back with a colleague and he descended into the hole on a rope. Daisy watched, for two reasons: The geologist was young and good-looking, and she was waiting to see if the hole would rumble when a real live person went down there.

The rope paid out for a long time before he called to be pulled back. Up he came, holding a dirty and battered doll in one hand.

‘Is this yours?’ he asked Daisy. ‘It was caught on a root.’

Embarassed, she took the doll. He smiled at her and she blushed bright red, which only made him smile more.

To her father he said, ‘The hole goes right into the bedrock, but it gets too narrow for me to get to the bottom of it. I’ve never seen anything like it before. No idea what caused it, but it seems stable.’

They went inside to discuss practical matters and Daisy stayed by the hole, mortified, clutching the dirty doll. As she stood there, she heard a whistle from the hole.

‘What?’ she said.

It whistled again, a few brief notes, like someone calling a sheepdog.

Very annoyed with everything, Daisy threw the dirty doll. It bounced off the edge and fell into the darkness. The hole made a low rumble.

She went indoors, and passing the living-room door, she heard, ‘…fill it with concrete…’

Serve it right, she thought.

That night the hole started whistling again.

Daisy’s brother, James, heard it too. It woke him in the dark small hours and he looked out of his window. Daisy was standing in the moonlight, looking down into the hole as if she was listening. James opened the window to call to her to come in, but in the moment he took his eyes off her to find the window latch in the dark, and then looked back, she had vanished. He thought he had dreamed it. There was no more whistling and no-one in the garden. He closed the window and went back to bed.

In the morning, Daisy was nowhere to be found.

James told his parents what he had seen and they called the Fire Brigade to go down into the hole in case Daisy had fallen in. There was no sign of her.

For two days the neighbourhood was searched. Every shed, every garden, the countryside all around.

On the third night there was a tremendous rumble that rocked the whole house and the whole neighbourhood.

Fearing subsidence, the family ran into the garden to find that the fence around the hole had fallen, and where the hole once was, their daughter lay curled up on the earth, as dirty as if she had been dug from the ground.

Daisy did not speak for six months, and when she did, she claimed to have no memory of anything that had happened.

Of the hole there was no sign but a circular patch of bare earth on which nothing would grow for many years.

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

What We See In The Woods, Part Two

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.

What We See In The Woods

What We See In The Woods

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.’