Corinna Downes spent much of her life as a headmaster's secretary and full time mother, bringing up her two daughters. Then she met the director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, and her world was never the same again.
Ely Cathedral, proud and strong, stands atop her island
surveying all below her. In the bright
sunshine, she can be seen from miles away, but when the mist rolls in and wraps
its vaporous fingers around the fenlands, she is like a galleon in full sail
riding atop the mist; she becomes the ‘Ship of the Fens’.
The fenlands were once a place full of foreboding, and
the boundaries – where the land gave way to the water-logged marshes – became
the stamping ground of many a thief who lay in wait for unwary pilgrims on
their way to the Isle of Ely to give thanks to God in the great cathedral, or
for travellers who were hoping to sell their wares, make deals or just rest
awhile before continuing on their journey.
The threat of eternal damnation in the fires of hell that many victims
warned of, whilst their meagre purses were emptied, affected these robbers not.
Travellers and merchants were easy prey, and the clergy were as much to be
despised as the conquering Norman invaders. Such things caused these robbers no
concern, for in their eyes the Lord had long since banished them from his
charity. They were already damned; the
raging fires had already scorched the soles of their feet. And when offered salvation they would merely
crack a disdainful smile and laugh in the face of those who presented such weak
and panic-stricken last deals.
After Harold’s rule had crashed to the ground along
with his body atop Senlac Hill, the bastard king William of Normandy ruled England with an
iron fist, but there were those that dwelt in the fens of Ely who conspired to
make his life a misery …
But that, of course, was many centuries ago.
However, it has been said that - on occasion - the
sounds of footfalls splashing in the thick, dank waters on the edge of marshes
can be heard. If you are caught out on
the fens at night, when the vapours waft across the landscape, your ears may
pick out the low murmur of voices in hiding, or the occasional clank of cold
steel against buckles, and the well-worn
leather of belts squeaking with the motion of hips moving slowly through
tall tussocks. Or you may even make out the sound of the soft splash of an oar
and the faint rub of the wood against the tholepin of a rowing boat as it
carries its occupants across the waters.
Although, of course, the waters are no longer there.
Drainage and ditches have put paid to them.
It was during a September night in 1970 when Becky
and Tim found themselves stranded on the border of the fens. It had been a beautiful day when they had
decided to go for a walk, both to get some fresh air and walk Tim’s elderly
collie. Tim had parked his secondhand,
slightly battered, Mini in a lay-by and they had set off, basking in the late
summer sun. But the darkening sky had
begun its brooding descent several hours into their trek, and it had been this
that had encouraged the pair to cut short their dog-walking for fear of getting
soaked. The British weather often does like to tease, however, and the skies
had brightened again, but as they were – by then - nearly back at the car, they
decided to call it a day. Besides, it
was obvious by the awkwardness of his gait that the walk had agitated Sprout’s
arthritis and he was only too eager to scramble on to the back seat of the car
and rest his weary legs.
Upon the key being turned in the ignition it became
apparent, however, that the young courting couple were going nowhere on wheels. The battery of the car was as dead as a
doornail. So there they were, with no contact with the outside world, and with dusk
only a few hours away.
“Bloody car,” hissed Tim. “I need to buy a new
battery but I can’t afford it at the moment.”
Becky just sighed.
“We had better just walk I guess,” Tim said as he
opened the driver’s door. “We only have
around three or four miles to reach habitation if my reckoning is correct.
Unless we are lucky enough to come across a farm, but we all know that they are
a bit spread out round here in this godforsaken place, and I don’t fancy
wandering off the road even if we do see a lighted window in the distance.”
“I presume you have a torch in the car somewhere?”
asked Becky. “Three or four miles are
quite a way to walk and with only a few hours of daylight left it would be……”
Tim cut in, “Of course I have a torch. Not sure how
long the battery will last though, but we may as well get moving.”
“You seem to have a problem with batteries,”
quipped Beth sarcastically, but by the look on Tim’s face both her joke and her
sarcasm did not go down very well.
They vacated the car, and coaxed Sprout from the
back seat. He didn’t seem that
enthusiastic about the idea.
The three set out on their walk back to civilization;
at a slower pace than they would normally tread due to Sprout’s ageing and
arthritic gait. All too soon, the sun began
its descent in the west, and its orangey light cast a glow over the cathedral. It would not be long before the lights around its
base would switch on and send their beams upwards to illuminate its towers.
There was a sudden coolness in the air as the sun slipped
below the horizon. Luckily for the three travellers, the sky remained
relatively clear of clouds, which would allow the near full unveiled moon to offer
a welcome soft, even if slightly eerie, radiance.
It was time for the bats to feed. Dozens of the winged predators flapped
erratically across the road, dive-bombing and catching hapless insects
“I hate those things. Fucked up mice with wings,”
proclaimed Tim, ducking when one seemed to be heading directly at him, only
veering off at the last second to avoid the looming collision.
“They can’t hurt you. They won’t
suck your blood you know. Not in this
country at any rate.”
“Maybe not, but the buggers do get caught in your
hair,” he replied. “That has happened to me before and I hate it.”
Becky raised her eyes skyward in disbelief at her
When the sun completely disappeared and darkness
finally fell, the beam from the tiny torch didn’t afford them much light, but –
with the help of the moon - it was enough for them to pick their way slowly
down the road. The creatures of the
night really began to stir now. There were not many trees on this flat,
reclaimed land, but those that did grow there were home to many a creature of
the day and of the night. There was the haunting
call of an owl in the shadows of the trees, and the rustle in the undergrowth
as some small creature scurried about its business. A hedgehog bumbled across the road in front
of them, stopped briefly to turn its head in their direction and then scurried
off into the verge on the opposite side of the road. They heard a faint,
frantic squeak as presumably something became the meal of some other diner in
the darkness. Shapes seemed to loom out at them, but were just tricks of the
light from the torch. Becky was not one to scare easily, but even
she found herself twitching at every sound.
A little further down the road, both of them jumped
with surprise as the ghostly shape of an owl left the tree line to their right
and passed silently across the road just ahead of them, with its unfortunate tiny
prey hanging by the tail from its beak. The ghostly bird was so close that it
almost collided with Tim, and he let out an irritated grunt and a low curse
under his breath. “Bloody wildlife,” he muttered. Sprout growled softly as the winged beast
“What’s that?” asked Becky, stopping in her tracks.
“What noise? Oh the church bells, you mean? So what?
They ring occasionally. You scared or something? You been reading too many books about ghouls
“Huh? Books? Don’t know what you mean. But I do like to read books about that sort
of thing, yes.”
“Because they are interesting.”
“But obviously only interesting if you are in the safety
of your armchair it seems.”
“If you like such things, then how come you are acting
so scared and imagining things in every noise you hear? You will be seeing
Black Shuck next and thinking you are going to die.”
She tutted. “I
am not scared. I never said I was. I only asked you what the noise was. And anyway, don’t you think all that folklore
and the stories of ghosts are interesting?”
“This place is full of history. I mean just look at the cathedral. All those people who built it, and died
building it. Such a magnificent
structure – I find it fascinating. I
love living near such a historical place.”
“Yeah, and look at all those tourists that heave
around the place in summer. They think
they own the place, pushing and shoving you off the pavement, and snapping away
with their cameras. The constant
nattering in foreign languages drives me crazy.
It almost comes as something of a surprise when you hear someone speaking
in the local dialect.”
“But Ely has always been full of travellers.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.
Monks visiting with money pouches tinkling, to prop up the church
coffers under the watchful eye of the bishop to make sure every last coin was
deposited. Lords and ladies prancing
around like they owned the place while normal folks – like you and me would
have been – eking out a measly existence, surrounded by the stench of open
sewers and the risk of disease round every corner.”
“You have no sense of history at all, do you?”
Becky tutted again.
But then came the sound once more.
“There it is again,” she whispered.
“The bells?” enquired Tim
He crouched down and arched his back, waving his hands
about and making strange contortions with his face. “Sanctuary, Esmerelda. The bells,” he
“Stop it,” she said.
“You are making fun of me.”
“It is easy, you have to admit,” came the reply with a
muffled giggle. “Did you like my impression of Quasimodo?”
“Not really,” she replied disdainfully. Then she noticed Sprout. He was staring into
the darkness, his ears flattened on his skull.
“Look,” she said, pointing. “Sprout can hear them too, and by the look of
him he doesn’t like it.”
“Probably just hears a rabbit,” responded Tim. “And is
probably upset because he is too old to chase it.”
“Can you not hear the bells?”
know I can. I just said so.”
“Yes but the bells. They are not the
usual bells, I swear it. They are too
deep. If I didn’t know better, I would
almost swear the sound is coming from the cathedral. But that can’t be. Bells have not tolled there for
centuries. Jesus, John, Mary and
“What the heck are you on about?”
“The bells – Jesus, John, Mary and
Walsingham were their names.”
“They actually named the bells?” he asked,
his voice sounding incredulous at such information. He raised his eyebrows as the words uttered
They were cast in Gloucester some time in thirteen hundred and something …”
He broke in… “Enough! I don’t want a history lesson. Thanks, but no
Her doubts about her continuing
relationship with Tim were growing. To
be uninterested in history was one thing, but to totally dismiss it with such
arrogance was another matter entirely. He was really beginning to annoy her.
“You know this area is supposed to be
haunted, don’t you?” asked Becky.
“I have heard the locals spout about
such rubbish, yeah,” came the disinterested response. “No doubt the usual lady in grey, the
headless horseman and the like,” he continued sarcastically.
“Actually no,” said Becky. “For the sake of daring to give another
history lesson, as you call them, the Isle of Ely
has been at the centre of quite a few incidents. For example, back in the 11th
Century, Hereward the Wake had a refuge there where he led insurgencies against
William the Conqueror. William was
desperate to get to Hereward but did not know the way across the marshes, so he
had a timber causeway built – you know down around Aldreth - and sent his soldiers across it in an attempt
to get to Hereward. However, the weight
of the soldiers’ armour and horses was too much for it and it collapsed,
causing some men and horses to drown. Over
the centuries there have been reports of people having heard the sound of cries
for help, splashing and horses whinnying, especially – of course – near the
“Weird folk in Aldreth, so I’ve
heard. More likely to be scaremongering
by the locals. Or even stuff drunks see
and hear on their way back home after having one or two too many at the pub. You
are just trying to freak me out with your tales of ghouls and ghosts wandering
the marshes. You know I hate all that
“I can assure you that I am not trying
to do any such thing, Tim,” responded Becky, somewhat churlishly. “If you are not interested then that is your
choice, and I would most definitely not try to scare anyone on purpose. And the
villagers of Aldreth are not weird. My
aunt and uncle live there, and they are as normal as anyone else.”
“Okay, okay, keep your knickers on,”
replied Tim somewhat surprised at the change of tone in his girlfriend’s voice.
They began to move on, but Tim had
trouble getting Sprout to move. The old
dog strained at the leash and refused to continue forward, but stood staring
intently towards the drained marshes.
“Oh come on, you silly mutt,” called
Tim. “There ain’t nothing there. Get a move on, or we’ll never get home.” And
he pulled harder on the elderly dog’s lead.
“Don’t be so mean to him,” said Becky, snatching
the lead from her boyfriend’s grasp. She
made a clicking sound and called to Sprout in a soft, calm voice. “Come on boy, let’s go.” And, much to Tim’s annoyance, the dog trotted
slowly off to her command.
At last they could see the faint lights
in the distance. The nearest village was
not far off now and Becky felt sure that there would be a telephone box so that
she would be able to ring her mum and dad and ask one of them to come and pick
them up. A silence fell between Becky
and Tim as they carried on walking towards the lights.
And then the torch began to flicker.
Tim frantically began to shake it in an
attempt to get the light to work properly.
“Damn batteries,” he said.
“I am not sure shaking it will help,
Tim”, offered Becky.
“It could be a loose connection, it
sometimes does the trick,” replied Tim testily.
“If you say so,” responded Becky. “But we should be alright, the village cannot
be that far away now and at least we can be guided by the light from the
Tim looked skyward. The stars were beginning to disappear above a
blanket of cloud that was slowly edging its way towards the moon. Becky
followed his gaze.
“It will be as black as pitch out here
in the meantime though if those clouds build up. We will not be able to see where we are
walking if this damn torch goes out, whether or not there are lights in the
distance,” responded Tim.
Becky had to concede that what he said
was true, but still refused to panic.
And then came the voices.
“Listen,” she said, with her hand on
Tim’s arm. “Can you hear that talking? There is somebody here. There. Somewhere. Perhaps they have a spare torch.”
“What are you on about? I can’t hear
anything. Don’t start again, Becky.”
“Start what? I can definitely hear voices – faintly – but
they are there. French I think. But my schoolgirl French was never very good
and I can’t make out what they are saying.”
“Well that will not be much help then,
will it, if they are French, if all
you can say is ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘how are you?’
Becky threw him a glare.
“Oh wait, yes,” said Tim. “I can hear
voices now. Your hearing is a darned sight better than mine.”
And then came the scent of woodsmoke, as
it wafted on the breeze that blew gently across the lane from the fens. And with it came the unmistakeable scent of fish cooking.
“Smells like someone is having a
barbecue,” said Tim. “Surely not – not
out here. The smell must be travelling
from a garden somewhere nearby. Which means that we may have found our
telephone and ride out of here quicker than we thought.”
An uneasy feeling had by now crept upon
Becky. Her skin pricked on the back of her neck, and she had goose bumps on her
skin. She felt as if someone was
watching them, under cover of the shadows around them. Even old Sprout had begun a low growl and she
could see by the light of the fading torch beam that his hackles were up. However, Tim was too intent on trying to get
the torch to work properly to notice.
So she nodded. “Possibly”.
It was clear that the walkers were
heading towards whoever was out there. But
not only did the voices grow louder, they also seemed to infer much animation
in their delivery. And they were all
male voices as far Becky could make out, and – although it seemed somehow not
quite right - she definitely thought it was French. ‘Perhaps just an odd dialect’, she thought to
“They don’t sound very friendly,” Tim
said. “Perhaps we should just sneak by them
as quickly as possible.”
Although his obvious nervousness annoyed
her, she found herself having to agree with him. There was something definitely ‘not quite
right’ about those voices.
The stench of fish cooking invaded Becky and Tim’s nostrils, and Sprout growled
louder, and came to a halt, firmly refusing to move a further muscle.
“Oh no, Sprout. Not now.
Come on boy,” urged Becky.
She pulled on the lead and whispered
coaxing sounds and words to no avail. The dog was going nowhere.
And then the icy grip tore at Becky’s
insides. She felt so cold from the
inside out. Not the feeling of your skin
getting cold and that coldness permeating inwards. This was in reverse. Icy cold.
Deathly cold. She shot a quick glance at Tim, and from the ashen look on
his face it was clear that he felt a similar sensation.
Clumps of mist swirled across the road
in front of them.
“Will-o’-the-wisp,” whispered Becky.
“Ghost lights.” She grabbed hold of Tim’s arm.
“Don’t move,” she continued.
“They will lead you off the road.”
“Superstitious hocus pocus,” replied her
companion. “Come on, let’s just keep
“No!” shouted Becky.
A swirl of ghostly shapes appeared
behind the ‘lights’ and stopped. The
sound of talking intensified as the shapes appeared to turn to face the
walkers. Then they almost seemed to sigh
as one in satisfaction at their discovery.
Becky and Tim knew that these were the voices that they had heard.
The vapourous shapes slowly began to
take the form of men as they walked slowly through the will-o’-the-wisp towards
Becky and Tim.
“There you are, you see,” announced
Tim. “Blokes on a trip stopping off for
a barbecue, that’s all.” But his voice
didn’t sound convincing. “Just say
something to them in French, and we can be on our way.”
“Somehow I don’t think ‘Bonjour, mes
amis. Comment ça va?’ is going to work, Tim,” responded Becky.
Tim looked across at his companion. Her
face was ashen, and for the first time that night he could see fear in her
“Unless we have stumbled across some
film set, I am not sure why we should be greeting a dozen or so men in
chainmail with the greeting of ‘Hello my friends, how is it going?’” she
As the figures drew closer, and the
sound of their armour rang out in the quietness of the night, Sprout growled,
his lips wrinkling around his mouth to expose the rows of teeth.
“Back up,” Becky continued. “Walk backwards and then just turn and run.”
“Why?” asked Tim. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
“These are not real, Tim. Or, rather, they were once but not now.”
“Oh come, on,” said Tim. “You are not
trying to tell me these are ghosts are you?”
“Just walk backwards, Tim. Hold my hand
so we stay together. Come on Sprout.”
The companions began moving slowly back
down the road. The figures kept on walking towards them. The breeze picked up and blew the stench from
their bodies towards Becky and Tim.
“Turn, now. Run!” shouted Becky. Sprout’s growl had turned to a whimper and he
strained at the leash. Becky had to let
it go and she could do nothing but watch him run off into the fields.
The two turned as one and ran back the
way they had walked before. But their
escape was cut short when in front of them more figures appeared. Slowly they were surrounded by a circle of
sneering, smelly figures; a circle that closed in tighter and tighter until
each one of the travellers was staring into a pair of cold, lifeless eyes of
evil. The soldiers’ lips moved as their
unintelligible words uttered forth in a foreign language, but the sounds and
movement were slightly out of synchronisation.
By now Becky and Tim were standing back-to-back
in the centre of this circle of malevolence.
They both heard the smooth sound of steel being drawn from leather and
saw the faint light of the moon shine on the metal. The heavy toll of bells resonated across the
It took Sprout the best part of a day to
walk home. After scratching at the door
to gain entrance, he found his bed by the stove and lay down. As the panic went on around him as to the
whereabouts of Becky and Tim he lay his head on his paws and drifted off to
sleep. He dreamed of the day before and
twitched in his sleep as he re-lived the night’s events. He whined and yelped and then fell silent for
the last time.
The police found the abandoned car later
the next day. But weeks of searching
could find no trace of either Becky or Tim.
The only item found was a torch at the side of the road, its glass
smashed where it had come to rest.
to my last diatribe with reference to the kitchen bin, I can now reveal the
culprit (s). It is 4.00 am and allisquietin the house,nota creature isstirring,not even a mouse. Not in the kitchen anyway,
until – that is – Morticia appears on
an evening pad around the joint. Completely ignoring the bin at first, she is
soon back to remove a scrunched up kitchen towel, then back for something else,
and then on the third not-so-delicate pick, down the bin goes.
But she doesn’t do much after that except for
investigating the folded up empty fish and chip box.Then into shot comes Lilith.Hmm has this whole exercise merely been a
training session for Lilith to learn how to hunt kitchen bins? Nearly an hour
later Lilith appears slightly bored and wanders off, but comes back, listens to
a few more instructions on disembowelling methods, and then disappears again.
that seems to have been that – Morticia merely felled the bin and then just
kept sniffing around it on and off until 5.31 am, perhaps with the occasional
lick of an empty sachet of cat food here and there.Nothing occurred then until Morticia returned
at 7.30 am, to take a couple of cursory sniffs and then leave again.
So how did the contents of the defenceless plastic receptacle end up strewn across the kitchen floor? Move forward to 8.20 am, and in comes Archie. You can almost sense his excitement when he sees the felled beast. He does not waste too much time before getting to grips with the contents and out they come.
that is how the contents of the bin’s bowels ended up as a project of modern
art in a sleepy North Devon village.
PS: All precautions have now been taken to secure the safety of the bin and its inner
depths. A chair was placed against it
last night and one will continue to be
put there at night in the forthcoming future.
It looks like there are not only
two felines here that are possible ASBO material
And it has since transpired that Morticia is a well-known felon and certainly
not new to this kind of crime. I have it
on good authority that the bin at her previous abode suffered similar indignities.
I have never been a fan of modern
art; unmade beds or a half-open, half-eaten can of baked beans in the middle of an empty
room, with one sticky bean 'artistically' left where it dribbled down the side of the can to stick itself on the floor, don’t really rock my boat. However,
as can be seen from the photos, it does appear that we have an exponent of such
artistic ‘talent’ here. Yes right here, in a kitchen in deepest, darkest North
Whodunnit? Well I do not believe for one minute that it
was one of our resident ghosts. So there
are three humans, four cats, and two dogs that are in the running. We know that it was not Poppy McGregor, my
cat of aged years, who likes nothing more than to sleep and then pop outside
for a natural break and sniff round her ‘hood. We know that it was not Prudence
the dog, because she was on our bed, and although she came downstairs at one
point in a huff (apparently she tried to boot Jon out of bed and went off in a
sulk when he chastised her for her impudence) she soon returned when thunder
rumbled in the distance.
So we are down to six possible
Jon – nope he was fast asleep and
away with the faeries. He didn’t even hear the dogs barking, a foot away from
him, at the thunder
Me – well you know I am not a fan
of such art so why would I?
Graham - well he has been known to take odd photographs of things in the past, like chairs in the middle of a room, or drainpipes. These oddities, I must add, usually taken when he is supposed to be taking photographs of speakers, for example, at the Weird Weekend
The ginger kitten, Captain Frunobulax the Magnificent (aka
Peanut) – quite possible due to him being ASBO material
Lilith Tinkerbell the black
kitten – quite possible due to her also being ASBO material and being the sister of the
Morticia, Olivia’s black cat – a bit
of a quiet one and we all know they are always the worst
Archimedes Archibald the Archimandrite of Joppa (Archie for short) the
Jack Russell – the new boy in the ‘hood
Now, it is quite possible that
the two kittens could have ganged up together as they do tend to hang around in
a pair menacingly, flattening everything in sight, and then chilling as if
butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths like two spotty-faced kids around a bus shelter plotting their next act
of defiance against the system. However,
I do have to admit to have witnessed the bin going down under attack from one
of them in the past. But that was before
I was alerted to the bin’s vulnerability and began to wedge it under the
So who has the crowbar and the
weight behind them to un-wedge the defenceless receptacle?
Let us look at the psychological
profiles of the two remaining suspects:
Morticia: As I have already stated, she is the quiet
one. She stalks around the house like a black panther (no such thing? I beg to
differ – she is one). She has this ability to remain unseen while I
frantically search behind curtains, under beds and in cupboards in a bid to
check that she has not managed, somehow, to escape the house. Then she will arrive downstairs with her yellow eyes glinting at her own cleverness at hiding and relishing in her own impudence for ignoring my calls for her.
Being a black cat she is adept at putting the shadows and darkest
recesses to good use.
Archie: The new boy. Well his background his hazy. There is not much information on him to form
a satisfactory profile. We have given him a home due to him being under unavoidable duress at his last abode. However, he was definitely
upstairs with us, at least until I went to sleep. But he is a dog, and dogs are
always on the look out for a free scavenge (and some do have a penchant for bins as we all know). And he did bark at Poppy this morning - was this an admission of guilt? Was he scared she was going to dob him in?
So, readers, who is the perpetrator? I think I know who the guilty party is. If only I could speak ‘cat’ as Poppy may well have witnessed it all and I have a feeling she would be quite happy to squeal
on the offender (or offenders). On the
other hand, she was probably also away with the faeries and missed the whole
messy project as it formed itself on the floor around her.
Poppy: Fetch me Dr. Dolittle and I shall reveal all
Where is Hercule Poirot when you need him? Probably off on some cruise down the Nile I expect. I think, therefore, that this may be a job for our very own spymaster and sleuth, Graham. Tonight, I shall ask him to open his special box of tricks. A box containing, amongst other things, cans of lager, rollie dog-ends, the occasional mug growing its own special culture, and…hopefully …a trail camera. If all goes well, tomorrow we may have our culprit (or culprits).