There are several old wells in Shuckleigh, every one with a story.
In the garden of the vicarage of St Mary’s Church there is a brick-lined well that was capped over in the 18th century with a thick oak lid bound down to the well wall with iron bands. The old wood looks very weatherbeaten now and the iron bands are pockmarked under several coats of black paint, but the structure is strong and solid. If there is perfect quiet in the garden sometimes the swishing of water can be heard, as if there is something down there, imprisoned in the dank darkness.
This well used to be the primary source of water for the vicarage, but the water turned bad, they said.
The vicar at that time was the Rev. Eldridge Manners, a man who could not bear the presence of women about him. His only servants were a man called George who did general housework and cooking, and a boy who came in daily to help out.
In church of a Sunday, Manners would glare at any woman who caught his eye during his sermon, and direct all his general ire concerning the sinfulness of humanity at her and her alone. It was soon the case that all the women preferred to sit as far from the pulpit as they could.
The very front rows were reserved for a few notable families, and it came to be that the women of these families would often become unwell on Sundays and stay at home – all except one young woman, daughter of a local landowner, Sarah Burns. Soon she was the focus of Rev. Manners’ fury, but she met his eyes with a cool gaze that only enraged him more. She never blushed or looked away at all.
Manners called upon her father, and told that gentleman that his daughter was showing all the signs of being a dangerous sinner, but her father denied the accusation.
‘My daughter is the sweetest, most virtuous of girls,’ he said
‘Sin often clothes itself with the outer appearance of great virtue,’ The Reverend told him, and would not be swayed by any argument to the contrary.
Mr Burns left, declaring that he would no longer attend St Mary’s. His daughter, however, insisted on taking her place every Sunday, sitting alone in her family’s pew while the vicar poured vitriol and the blame for all the sins of the world in her direction.
The rest of the congregation were eager to see how this would end, and some of the other women were emboldened to sit a little nearer to the pulpit, since all the vicar’s anger was directed at Sarah and he had forgotten about the rest of them.
As Manners grew more and more furious, Sarah grew more serene. Those who could observe her closely said that there was always the slightest hint of a smile on her lips, even as the vicar predicted eternal damnation for her and all her sex.
One day she arrived at the vicarage, asking to see the Rev. Manners. He would not have her in the house, but came to meet her in the garden, his manservant George with him.
‘Have you come to repent?’ Manners asked.
‘I have little of consequence to repent of,’ Sarah said. ‘I was only concerned for you, Sir. You seem to be making yourself ill with your hatred of womankind.’
The Reverend was taken aback.
‘You presumptuous hussy,’ he said. ‘I am a man of God, and I preach his truth.’
‘No,’ Sarah said, ‘you do not. You preach the word of a different kind of being. I can see him hiding behind your eyes.’
This was the last straw for Manners. He lost control of himself and lunged at Sarah, taking her by the throat. His manservant stepped forward quickly and laid a hand on his arm.
Manners lashed out and struck George so hard that he fell to the ground.
For a moment it seemed that he would kill Sarah, but she remained calm, and he suddenly gained control of himself and let go of her throat.
‘I have a friend,’ said Sarah, her voice shaky and hoarse from the manhandling, ‘who lives with me. She has seen that you have an enemy who lives with you. She is going to stay with you for a while.’
Sarah walked quickly away from that place, but where she had stood, Manners could see a silvery wraith, indistinct and transparent, but with a female form. He backed away, but the wraith approached. He ran past his manservant, who was just picking himself up off the ground, and into the house. The wraith followed.
For days afterwards the wraith, which no-one else could see, was always with him, whispering things that he could not properly hear. He felt as if his soul was being torn from his flesh, and could not eat and would not sleep. Night and day he talked to the invisible being, and George began to think that perhaps Sarah Burns was a witch after all.
Sunday was coming around again, but there was not likely to be any sermon that week.
‘I see,’ shrieked Manners, ‘I see!’
He ran into the garden, pursued by George, and threw himself into the well. While George was frantically running about getting a rope strong enough to lower himself down to retrieve his master, terrible noises were coming from the well – screaming and raging, and the sounds of a torrent of water, like a mighty wave crashing against rocks.
George finally descended, afraid of what he might find. In the darkness at the bottom of the well, he thought he saw three people entwined in a furious fight. He grasped the one he recognised as his master, threw the man over his shoulder and, strengthened by terror, climbed out of the well as fast as he was able.
‘Cover the well,’ Manners gasped as George lowered him to the dry earth.
George needed no more prompting. The well had an oak cover which he pushed into place. Just before the cover slid home, a soft breeze and a silvery mist issued from the well.
Once the cover was on, George weighted it down with half a millstone that was used as decoration in the garden. He said later that he didn’t know how he lifted it.
Manners was weak for a month after that, but not unwell. He looked younger, people said. He would not, however, preach in St Mary’s again, but he was able thereafter to look upon women as people, rather than as vessels for the sins of the world.
Of Sarah Burns, he was terrified. No-one understood why. Gone mad, they said.
He had the iron bands put on the well cover, and soon after left Shuckleigh forever, leaving something behind in the well. No-one has ever tried to find out what it is.