Ghost

A few years ago I was talking about ghosts to a lady in a pub about six miles off the southern edge of Dartmoor. She told me she didn’t believe in them, personally, herself. “There is one scary thing that happened to me, though, that I can’t explain,” she added. Around half a decade earlier she and a friend had been driving across the moor on the way to a house party in thick blankets of fog. Increasingly disorientated, and unable to find the house, they stopped the car to check their map. At this point, the lady’s friend, who was driving, looked in the rear view mirror and spotted a figure in a white dress hovering several feet above the road behind the car. Terrified, they peeled out of there, eventually finding the party, in a different part of the moor. It was only the following day that they realised the place they’d stopped had been precisely opposite Jay’s Grave, the raised, approximately human-sized piece of earth that infamously contains the body of Kitty Jay, an eighteenth century working girl from a farm in the nearby village of Manaton who it’s said committed suicide, at the age of just 16, after being messed around by a young fuckboy at the farm in question.

I was out on the moor the day before yesterday, in the mood for a long walk, but hadn’t intended to go anywhere near Jay’s Grave. My intended route was from Widecombe – where I was doing some research for my novel – up along the fighting dog’s arched spine of Hamel Down to the Bronze Age remains of Grimspound village and back via Soussons Warren and Ephraims Pinch, over to the west. The weather was foggy and by the time I’d climbed to the highest point of the fighting dog’s spine the visibility had reduced to just a few yards and the silence felt like having cold cushions pressed to both ears. I’d done a very similar walk a couple of times before and knew where I was going well enough to not have a map with me, but after a few more miles of straightforward fogwalking something inexplicable happened: I took a left turn off the main path, intending to head for the medieval village of Challacombe, but, after following that path for just under a mile, came to a place I know well, and know for absolute certain to be in the opposite direction: Natsworthy Gate, a luminescent mossy spot much more redolent of the east moor, not all that far from Jay’s Grave.

I am not a navigationally challenged person and I have pored over my OS map numerous times in the 36 hours since then, trying to work out where I made my mistake, and can find no logical answer. The rest of the walk was one of two very confusing, possibly even inexplicable, afternoons I’ve spent on the moor this winter: I walked what I thought was south but was in fact north, traipsing past bent abandoned metal and tyres through valleys I didn’t know existed to a field containing a staring bull, overlooked by a smattering of disapproving concrete homes. An eerily silent border collie appeared at a gate and escorted me off the premises to the nearest tarmac. I thanked the collie and patted its head and its benign expression vanished, giving way to a tiny growl and a glint of fang. I knew the time, in the innate way that a person with a trusted body clock knows the time. It was 4.36pm. But when I looked at my phone – mysteriously down to just 3% battery – it told me it was 5.36pm. I knew the way back from here, but knew it was long, around six miles, if I was to stick to the lanes, which was the only sensible course of action. By the time I climbed the hill between Swine Down and Heatree Cross and approached Jay’s Grave, it was almost pitch black, and my whole body ached. I’d been thinking, as I often do of late, about social media tourism: about what magic we might be sucking out of formerly wild stretches of landscape by overphotographing them and overvisiting them, but right at this point, in the dark and the fog, I could feel all the deep old magic of the moor, all of what it could have been on a night in the mid-1700s. I photographed the grave – the picture you see here, considerably lightened with modern editing facilities – and the split second I did so my phone battery died. Raised above road and path level like that, in the murk, it looked horrifying – very different to the place I’d visited on a bright autumn day in 2018, while recording an episode of Clare Balding’s Ramblings series for BBC Radio 4, when I’d left my Caffe Nero loyalty card as an offering. That was me attempting to be funny, of course, to do something obtusely and surreally outside of the normal tradition of leaving flowers and coins on the grave, to tickle the stark ribs of the past with my flippant and indulgent 21st-Century culture. We bring versions of this to all these old dark places with our technology and our well-developed sense of irony. But what I thought as I walked past the grave now in the dark, what I knew innately, is that it was all nonsense and diversion and none of it changed the fact that this had once been a very sad place. A girl was under that mound of earth: a girl who had died in terrible circumstances. A girl. Not a sheep, as some in the early 1800s had claimed, because in 1860, James Bryant, the owner of the land, had the grave excavated and pathologists confirmed the bones were those of a young female.

The other very confusing time I had out on the high moor this winter happened around eight weeks ago. On that day, it was also foggy, but icy too, and after an hour of hiking my hair was crusted with frost. As I followed a familiar path, the land tilted, the fog seemed to swirl and sparkle, and I was not where I should have been. The day was similar in that I felt I’d been flipped in a total opposite direction by some unseen force – possibly the Dartmoor piskies, who have taken so much delight in confusing weary hikers for centuries – but the difference between that day and this was as distinct as the difference between the effects of weed and alcohol. That day, I felt spaced out and slow. This day reminded me more of a night in London in my early 20s when I’d lost an hour of a night in a club due to falling asleep, without fully realising I had. I was sure I had not fallen asleep at any point of this walk but as I reached Kitty Jay’s Grave I was as weakened as people can be by darkness and booze and insomnia, and weakened on top of that by how long and tiring the walk had been. And I credit that weakening, and not just the terror of the place itself and the fog and the night, for the shiver that passed the whole distance up the left rear side of my body – the part of my spine where I’ve had problems for the last few years – as I passed the grave, and for the way I couldn’t stop turning to look behind me as I climbed the hill away from it, and for the way, when I stopped to tie my shoelace, that I made sure I did it facing the direction I had come from. But I cannot credit it for the plume of white I saw between two trees behind the grave: a plume of white that held steady, three or four feet above the ground, and could have been down to the trickery of the failing light, but did not seem to have any logical place in the meteorology or texture of the evening, and seemed so anomalous to the patterns and shapes of it all. I rounded the bend to Hound Tor – two giant shadowy stone dogs, keeping watch – and could not resist a couple more looks behind me, at nothing. There was still a long way to go to get back to the car. I had a stone in my boot. Something barked from somewhere thick and mossy and impenetrable a mile to the east or west – a deer, probably, but not definitely – and everything that had ever happened felt all there all around me in a way that it can’t in the daytime.

My first ever novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. I’d be delighted if you were able to help with its funding by reserving a signed first edition hardback – with your own name printed in the back – here.

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39 thoughts on “Ghost

  1. Okay I am totally spooked. Would love to hear you tell that story in person, I bet you would heara pin drop. Roll on bookshop gatherings!

  2. Had me hooked from the first sentence….. I know Dartmoor well and fully understand the magical mystery of the Moor which just keeps pulling me back there, her mood changes with the weather, I’m convinced she’s more playful in the bleaker weather and plays games with us mere mortals for her entertainment. Thanks Tom for another masterpiece.

  3. This captures so chillingly the leaden neglected air & stupefying mix of terror and curiosity with such meetings. TC’s writing never fails to surpass all expectations. I shall sleep with the light on tonight.

    [The pedant in my head read “pored over”]

  4. I’d love to hear that story, sitting in a quiet Devon pub, in front of a roaring fire. I’d have to have a bag of crisps afterwards…for ‘normality’

    1. I can recommend the late 70’s version of the Peter Tavey Inn. I don’t know it’s still the same but I hope so.

  5. We have a small family cemetery on our property, as are so common throughout this part of Appalachia. Not our family, since we are incomers, but when I walk the dog at night I have the exact same studied caution, hyper aware of my direction and gaze. Thank you for sending a familiar chill up my spine!

  6. That was an excellent read. I’m not sure whether I want to visit Dartmoor or not. Probably not. I do scare easily.

    1. Perfection. Absolute perfection. I’m still shuddering at how well you captured that primordial sense of unrestrained terror our lizard brains are in charge of.

  7. Nice dramatic build-up. I understand your “spine chilling” feeling. It is a real physical happening which I have also experienced. I was on a driving holiday in the Vosges mountains in France in the height of summer. We saw a sign on the road for Le Struthof (concentration camp) and stopped to look across “the buildings”. Off to one side was a small building with a chimney. I knew instinctively what that was “used for”. I experienced a huge shiver down my spine – it was physical and horrible. It was a smouldering hot day in August but I was freezing. We left quickly.

  8. Yes, Dartmoor in the fog, very disorienting, been lost but not lost myself. Put chills up my spine…

  9. Terrific and terrifying, you must have nerves of steel!
    The stuff of nightmares. Oh, I just got my copy of Notebook, looking forward to it!

  10. I love this Tom. I love reading about inexplicable things on walks and although any of us who read your writing don’t want you to permanently get lost, it’s a great read when you do. There is something so curious about fog, because we think of it as an obscurer, but anyone who has ever walked in fog knows that it always shows you that there is more. I don’t know what ‘more’ there is, but I have the feeling it’s not on the OS maps we currently use anyway. I think quantum physicists should be allowed to take a tea break from smashing particles together in underground tunnels, to examine how the perception of time and mind works in fog.

    1. I am there for this research! If they did a crowdfunded i would fund it. In fact, I’m sure there’s a fantasy novel in that idea: a research physicist discovering ghosts in the fog.

      1. Great idea Polly! Definitely a novel that I would read!

        I have just read ‘The Flip’ by Jeffrey J Kripal (non-fiction, Kripal is an academic religious scholar), in which he suggests that the future of understanding consciousness is when the “paranormal” and inexplicable experiences that humans have are taken far more seriously as part of a different and fuller understanding of consciousness. Hard to sum up here, but he suggests that our encounters with ghosts and visions of memories and senses of feeling and seeing the past fit nicely with some space/time concepts in quantum theory. He wants humanities and science to come together about this, rather than beign divisive.

        Maybe the answer is in fog! (this is my fictional mind-wandering now). Maybe it’s just all about water droplets, light and energy and an open mind to listening in and seeing the past?

        Maybe that’s why ghosts are always in cool dark damp places for the right people to encounter them…

        (sorry Tom, for taking over the comments with amateur theories about ghosts)

  11. You have such a way of sharing an experience that makes the reader feel there with you. A great piece to read mid-“Ring the Hill”, which I am at the moment and loving it. Have also been listening to your ramblecasts whilst out walking on my own. Fabulous company.
    Thanks for all the work you put into putting your thoughts, feelings, stories out there.

  12. Ooh love this Tom proper spooky , I once had a spine chilling moment in Skipton Castle. Beautiful day I was in the yard with the Yew Tree and suddenly felt like I was being watched from a window where no one was. Then walked through the castle where that window was super chills down my spine. Energy is interesting it leaves imprints that echoes down the years I think .

  13. In these moments, I wish I knew the English language enough to understand every nuances like in my native tongue. But even without that knowledge, this read is absolutely chilling. Absolutely chilling.

  14. Yikes. That is truly eerie. I can hear the night noises, the heartbeat, the breath, the dog’s growl as I read your description. Wow, Tom. And it is a very moving story, too, connecting as it does with a presence (the land, its human creatures, and their folklore) from the past. Thank you.

  15. You chilled me – in California – at midnight, Tom.

    Great story. I AM navigationally challenged and your unexplained misdirection, coupled with the gathering darkness and mounting exhaustion, frightened me almost as much as all else. Well written.

    One time a couple years ago in Sonoma County at a B&B, I awoke – in the middle of the night – alone – with the distinct feeling of a body spooning with me. I instantly jumped up and said – out loud – GO AWAY. NOW. I could tell it was a female and sensed her loneliness but I was having nothing of it. Fortunately my travel partner was in another room and I went there for solidarity. Freaked me out. In the morning I casually asked the proprietress about the property and she said it was built in the late 1800’s. Very old for that area…..

  16. Excellent piece Tom, really enjoyed it. Put me in mind of a Kathleen Hunt story ‘The Wish Hounds’, which tells of a walk from Chagford to Cranmere Pool and an eerie encounter along the way.

    1. That took a bit of finding! Just ordered a Puffin (children’s book) that includes that story! Thx

      1. If it’s ‘The House of Nightmare and Other Eerie Tales’ it’s the Puffin collection I read it in as a child back in the ’70s. The whole collection is a very good selection, but for some reason the Kathleen Hunt story struck a chord with me, and I’ve never forgotten it. It was one of the reasons I first visited Dartmoor infact.

  17. Well, that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I have only had that feeling once in the landscape near me and that happened at a place called Knowlton. Didn’t see anything, but could just feel something there.

  18. In the spirit of not wishing to be a social media tourist, you carry on rambling and writing, I’ll not visit but continue reading. I’ll feel less spooked that way. Thank you for your service.

  19. This is gorgeous writing. I both love and hate those moments when your logical brain is bamboozled and your primal brain is pointing and shouting, and all the conflict of do I look or not, if I look, how long for? As I think you mentioned before – MR James Whistle and I’ll Come to You?….The reason I couldn’t hang a dressing gown on the back of my bedroom door for years!
    I also think back to the days when ghost tales were told round the fire…and then you had to take the cold, dark stairs up to bed, surrounded by a house whispering it’s own tales….

  20. The location of Jays Grave is, I was told by a local landowner, on the border of 3 parishes, so none of them would have to bear the ignominy of having a suicide buried on their patch. Also on the border of several dimensions by the sound of it.
    Never seen the White Lady, though I gather she is a fairly frequent occurrence around the moor, particularly near streams, like the Hairy Hand is along some crossing routes. Black Dogs are another thing, but not especially on the moor.

  21. I love your walks and the feeling of natural energy and darkness that can be out there. The stuff about where you live and walk is fascinating, was not very aware of these landscapes and culture before you started writing about them (i live in Ireland so not as familiar with English geography).

  22. I experienced similar in Norfolk. A pillar of mist emerged on the road and my friend who was driving was as shocked as I. It wasn’t willow the wisp.

  23. I have always wanted to have a ghostly experience, but have never been truly ‘spooked’. Friends and companions have often had otherworldly sensations while we have been together in atmospheric places – the scariest reported to me was in a long barrow on the island of Jersey, La Hogue Bie, I think it is called.
    Thank you for yet another great post, Tom.

  24. I love your description – one of those pieces of writing that you absorb rather than read; where you reach the end not having been aware of the physical act of reading the words.

  25. Ooh, this is lush writing – I really like the feel of it. I love how you capture the feelings and atmosphere. It gave me chills, which have now settled in just between my should blades.

  26. Brilliant piece. But how desperately sad that this poor lass felt this was her only option and how cruel that she lies where she does.

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