Sprits Of Wycoller Hall

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Sceptics scoff at the old man's stories of paranormal activity in an abandoned village and its ruined manor house. But when a group of young professionals decide to spend a night within the walls of the old house, the ghost hunters become the hunted. If anybody needs a reminder that it is always unwise to mess with the dark side they'll find it here.

Submitted: August 25, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 25, 2017



1. The Witches Brew


The Pendle Witch Trial
(scanned from engraving in a public archive)



Even now, in an age of secular reason and scientific scepticism,when superstition and belief in the paranormal are condemned as 'magical thinking' bordering on heresy, there are places that have the power to fill the minds of logical, enlightened people with dread and foreboding. Only the fool hardy ignore such primal instincts, they are an evolutionary reminder of a time we were closer to all aspects of nature, even those we now try to shout out of our consciousness.

Myself and five companions were such foolhardy people when we ignored the warning and the old wives tales and decided to spend a night camping in the ruins of Wycoller Hall. And to make things worse, as I know now, to compound our hubris, we decided to hold our sleep out on October 31.

The adventure started in the pub as do many acts of gross stupidity masquerading as bravado. I, the name is Jason Smethurst by the way - Jaz to my friends, along with Tony Denton and Pete Hollins, an engineer, chemist and computer programmer, all relative newcomers to the area known as The Forest Of Trawden having moved from cities to take up jobs, were winding up old Tom Hartley, an elderly local who believed in all the folk tales of boggarts and bogles, ghosts and witches.

We were all familiar with the local legends, Old Mother Demdike and the Witches of Pendle, The headless horseman of Cliviger, a bargeist or demon dog that was said to roam the wild fells beyond Clitheroe and of course the ghosts of Wycoller, an abandoned village clustered around the ruined hall that is said to have been the model Charlotte Brontë had in mind when she wrote of Mr. Rochester's dark and gloomy house in Jane Eyre. Though Wycoller is now a restored history park with three ancient bridges and a load of restored weavers' cottages, it is so far off the beaten track that until the mid twentieth century it was a decaying ruin, having been abandoned almost a hundred years before as the residents moved to be closer to work. And inevitably the old place, which is quite spooky even on bright, summer days had its share of ghost and witchcraft legends. You're never far from a witch legend in that part of Lancashire.

Such nonsense was dismissed by intelligent people such as we, but it was  surprising to learn how many people like ourselves, who seemed perfectly level headed and not prone to fantasies but who had lived in the area longer, claimed to have experienced encounters with the paranormal in the vicinity of nearby Pendle. In spite of that we were determined to wind up old Tom and a gang of us ended up accepting a challenge from the Landlord of The Witches Brew to camp out in either the ruin at Wycoller or the half collapsed shell of Malkin Tower in the shadow of Pendle Hill, not the grand place the name suggested but a peasant's hut which according to local legends had been the home of Mother Demdike and her family and the meeting place of a coven of witches.

The Witches Brew, once less fancifully named before it had a makeover and become a theme pub that exploited the local legends to attract trade from visitors to the picturesque area, stood at the point where Demdike Way, a walking route which followed the old drovers' road to from Burnley to Lancaster, the route which according to legend had been travelled by the witches and their guards on their way to trial in town's the great castle, crossed the path said to have been used by Druids on their way to and from the stone circle at Cliviger.

We ignored all these portents of course, why simply tempt fate when you can seduce it? We were all atheist or agnostic and believers in Darwinian evolution and all that. The arguments about evolution explaining the origin of the species, rather than the origin of life or how humans made the leap from ape like knuckle draggers to … well whatever we have become due to intervention by visitors from distant planets, did not impress any of us. As far as were were concerned life was just a chemical accident and Dawkins was right about people being biological computers running programmes encoded in our DNA.

At the appointed hour one group of jolly ghost - hunters, laden with tents, sleeping bags and copious hampers filled with wine, beer and snacks, piled into two cars and set off on the ten minute drive to the village of Barley, under Pendle Hill. The remainder of us waved them on their way with sarcastic comments, shouts of “May the force be with you”, and warnings to Andy, a prodigious farter, not to frighten the spooks by letting rip too loudly. We did not know it but they were doomed, all doomed (hat tip Private Frazer in Dad's Army).

Once the other half of our paranormal investigation squad were gone, the rest of us, me, Tony and Pete, Tony's partner Sue, a teacher and civil engineer Harry Conroy with his inamorata Donna Benson, a social worker, set off on the short walk from the small mill town, Trawden to Wycoller, and our rendezvous with The Dark Side.


The Pack Horse Bridge, Wycoller

2. Apparitions




As we made that half hour walk to the abandoned village we compared the various stories of the downfall of House Cunliffe who had been lords of The Manor and how the once magnificent hall had been deserted and allowed to fall into decay. An odd thing about ghost stories is that many of them seem to involve the religious festivals, particularly those Christianity shares with the old pagan beliefs. I told myself we have more than our share of nutters around Lancashire who are still determined to believe that sort of rubbish despite everything science and reason have taught us, but somehow the thoughts seemed hollow and the jokes and sneers of my companions started to sound like people whistling in the dark as we neared our destination.

Wycoller is old, the bridge that carries Demdike Way, an old pack horse trail, over the beck is known to be a thousand years old and the Clapper Bridge is a relic of the Bronze Age according to archaeologists. As we crossed the pack horse bridge I felt someone grip my arm. It was Sue Meacher, Tony's other half. I looked around but Tony was engrossed in a conversation up ahead. People often remarked that there was a certain chemistry between Sue and I. We were both aware of it of course but things had never gone further than a kiss under the mistletoe at Christmas.

“If everything goes mad we must run for this bridge Jaz,” she said, “Remember the witch in Robert Burns poem Tam O'Shanter, she can't cross running water.” The giggle that followed her words was definitely filled with nervous trepidation. I did not voice my repose which was that the witch she mentioned was named Cutty Sark, also the name of one of the most famous ships in history. So much for not being able to cross water

Some stories told of brutal murders, others said there had really been a madwoman in the attic who started a fire and destroyed the house, killing all the residents early in the nineteenth century. According to other folklore there had been duels, love affairs and the legendary curse of the Cunliffes.

The story was that during a violent argument in which the insanely jealous and recently married John Cunliffe had accused his wife Matilda (neé Hartley) of having an affair and beaten her mercilessly, she had called upon the spirit of Mother Demdike, the notorious leader of The Witches Of Pendle, to bring down a curse on the Cunliffe's and foretold that the family would die out. Her infuriated husband beat her again and cast her out into the cold night. Matilda was never seen again, not was her body found. She may still lie in some deep combe on the bleak and wuthering heights of Withins Moor, that looms darkly over the village. That story of brutal cruelty and a wronged woman was recorded by a local diarist in 1746

We shall never know if story is true , but  within two years John Cunliffe had gone completely mad. There was a family tradition of open house over the twelve days of Christmas, a board laden with food would be put out and people from the estate and surrounding villages could visit and eat their fill. As Lord Cunliffe's behaviour grew more bizarre (he had taken to appearing dressed as his absent wife, jumping naked onto tables and singing bawdy songs, and allegedly once when the hall was crowded with visitors, rode his horse up and down the stairs) local society began to shun him. The peasants of the area also began to drift away to seek a better living in the mill towns that were growing rapidle all over Lancashire as the cotton industry expanded. Wycoller Hall and its residents were progressively isolated.

Madness became a congenital disorder in the Cunliffe family and the last descendant died in 1819. Due to the legend of the curse nobody was ever willing to buy the house and it fell into decay. Matilda's curse was fulfilled. Bizarrely though there had been no history of madness in the family prior to Matilda's calling on the spirit of Demdike to curse her husband, only drunken high spirits, and though mad John Cunliffe never married again after the incident with his wife, his madness seemed to infect the rest of the family.

Naturally we sceptical fools were eager to laugh off such fanciful tales and our little gathering had taken on a party atmosphere. Harry had brought along a guitar and began to strum the chords of well known tunes. Soon the woods around Wycoller echoed with the voices of our tuneless, semi drunken choir. It was well past midnight when we settled down to sleep and nobody had seen or heard anything that hinted at the presence of other worldly creatures. Even so both Sue and I, when we could managed a short, private conversation, sensed the jolly mood felt forced and brittle, We both had a bad feeling about what we were doing.

There is a theory that is based on sound quantum physics logic which proposes that the past is recorded somehow in the atoms of material things, that everything an atom encounters is somehow remembered. Thus old houses are like history books written in a language we cannot read. Its sounds as crazy as homeopathy until you realize that the stone and clay houses are basically made from are inorganic materials, they have no carbon atom in the molecule, and computer memory relies on inorganic material for its memory chips. I had asked Pete, an IT guy about it once but he just said he just wrote code and left the technical stuff to to eggheads.

Thinking of such things now, I realise how little we understand of the world around us and the worlds beyond what we can see and feel.


3. Ghost Hunters Hunted


Escape routes
Escape routes



I don't know how long I had slept before being wakened by a finger poking my shoulder, but the darkness seemed more enshrouding than ever.

“Jason wake up, I'm scared. I think there's someone out there.” Sue Meacher the science teacher (she hated being called that because it was like the title of some comic strip aimed at very young kids), the one who in daylight or a strongly lit room and in company was always the most scathing in her mockery of superstition and magic was scared and close to panic.

“Wha'? Sue?” Wits scattered by drink, sleep and a few tokes of herbal mixture, I needed several seconds to get my head together, remember where we were, why and understand the significance of what had been said.

“Sue, what are you doing, are you mad. Tony is only a few feet away.” Sue had moved her sleeping bag next to mine. Sure, thoughts of what might happen between us has crossed my mind, and even settled in for long visits at times, but tonight, surrounded by people we knew?

“Jason, you must wake up, I'm not joking and I'm not looking for a shag OK. There is someone else in this ruin and they're not friendly.” She took hold of my hair and pulled to turn my head towards the direction in which she was looking. Sure enough there was someone there, or something. Not one person in fact but a small crowd, pale creatures dressed in old fashioned clothes, some were cowering back from a couple at the centre of the tableau, a gentleman was raging noiselessly as he beat a young woman with the blunt end of a bull whip. The woman screamed back at him but again nothing could be heard, while the others pleaded with the man to show some restraint.

The scene faded to be replaced by another, the same room crowded with people most quite poorly dressed. Again they were uniformly pale grey in colour but not quite as transparent as the previous ones. And this time there was sound, the buzz of a chattering crowd and then the clopping of a horses hooves on a hard surface. I looked towards the sound and saw the man who had been beating his wife, now riding a spectral horse up a staircase that had not existed for over a hundred years but was clearly visible. The horse was a phantom but its fear was apparent as the rider turned it at the top of the stair and descended again. Once on a level surface the horse began to rear and kick.

Sue was clinging tightly to my arm, half behind me. “For God's sake Jason, tell me you are not seeing this, tell me I'm hallucinating.”

The others were awake now and staring transfixed, obviously all seeing what we were seeing. All except for Tony who as usual had drink the most and smoked most dope. The images changed several times, eventually Sue sniffed.

“Do you smell fire?” she demanded.

“Yeah but ...”

“But nothing Jason, my belief in logic and reason has just been shattered, look.” My eyes followed her pointing finger and I saw flames spreading rapidly, all around us. Three of our companions were now standing with us, Tony remained comatose. We had tried but nobody could budge him.

The flames rose but there was no heat. The ghost of a fire? Why not, fire is a living thing. It struck me we were seeing the events in the downfall of the Cunliffe family in fast forward.

“I can't carry Tony, he's a big bloke, and the others don't look like they will be much help” I told Sue. Harry was holding his girlfriend who was screaming hysterically and the other single guy, Pete, chose that moment to run, heading first for the Pack Horse bridge before turning to head upstream towards Withins Moor. Shaking Harry roughly I indicated it was time to go, then with Sue and I holding hands we ran.

About fifteen yards from the bridge I saw why Pete had gone the other way. Another figure blocked our path, a woman in a hooded black cloak. Where her face should have been was a void but she emitted a bloodcurdling scream without breaks for breath. Harry, half carrying his girlfriend Donna took the ford which is only inches deep in summer but now was a fast flowing stream of about two feet. I thought about it and then saw the spectral horseman in the middle of the stream.

Looking at Sue who was shaking like a skyscraper in an earthquake but somehow holding herself together, I yelled, “What doesn't exist can't hurt us right? Go.”

Pulling her by the arm I charged towards the figure on the narrow, ancient bridge. The spectre seemed to grow, to tower over is and then ....


4. There Are Always Consequences

We usually find that the weirdest things happen in the biggest towns Jason,” the Sergeant said, “now obviously you can't help us know what happened up there but anything you can tell us about your friends will be useful.

That Halloween dare was certainly a life changing experience, I'm a Church of England clergyman now and trained to perform exorcisms. My understanding that there are things in this world reason and logic cannot explain guided my choice and I feel people need help and guidance to avoid the kind of trouble I any my friends had blundered into. Sue and I are together, she has retrained as a counsellor and helps people who fear they are under psychic attack. She and Tony were never formally married so there was no obstacle to us marrying. Not that we have forgotten Tony, we see him every week. He mumbles to himself and his eyes move but never shows any sign of recognizing us or even of being aware that somebody is there.

As soon as Pete was released from hospital he packed his bags and returned to London. He does not return out calls. Donna returned to her old life after convalescing for a few weeks. And Joanne joined a Buddhist meditative order after a spell in a psychiatric hospital.

Tom Hartley became a local celebrity and the landlord of The Witches Brew made a fortune from his pub's notoriety, so the night did not turn out a catastrophe for everyone.

More short fiction from Ian:

Sawney Bean (a retelling, in a humourous style, of a Scottish folk tale)
The Strangers Field (a novelette) Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4



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