Thursday 31 October 2013

The Ship of the Fens

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 mid-flight. 

“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.

Becky chortled.  “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 boyfriend’s whining. 

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 glided over. 

“What’s that?” asked Becky, stopping in her tracks.

“What’s what?”

“That noise.”

“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 and ghosts?”

“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?”

“Not really.”

“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?”

“Nah.  Boring.”

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 slobbered.

“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?”

“Huh?  You 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 Walsingham.”

“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 forth.

“Oh yes.  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 thanks.”

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 village.”

“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 stuff.”

“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 windows.” 

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 herself.    

“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 moving.  Sprout…move!”

“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 ├ža 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 eyes.

“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 said. 

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 landscape. 

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.