Thursday, 19 December 2013

Midwinter Solstice: 21 December

Highbury & Islington Station: 14 October 2010,
drawn just after dusk   ©Heather James
In a couple of days it will be the Winter Solstice and where I live in the northern hemisphere that means it will be the shortest day of the year so I thought you might like to read a ghost story to chime with the time of year. So if you are sitting comfortably I will begin.

The Crier of Claife
It was around the time of the Reformation (in the 16th century). On one stormy winter's night when the wind howled up Lake Windermere (in the Lake District in the north of England) and the waves rolled northwards a party of travellers were staying at the old ferry inn beneath Station Scar. They had postponed their crossing until the next day and sat together in front of the roaring fire telling stories and jokes, the ferryman among them. Outside the bare branches of the young sycamore trees moaned and whistled in the blast while from time to time squalls of rain beat against the windows. The ferry boat was securely tied to the landing stage opposite Crow Holme, a small island nearby.

The sound of a voice suddenly wafted across the lake and the ferryman heard it first as he had an ear open for travellers through long practice. It was a prolonged wailing sound and only just audible above the wind. "Holloa! Boat! Holloa there! Boatman!" The long O's sang through the night across the stormy water, at times merging with the wind, at times rising above it.

"Listen!" the ferryman cried. "Somebody's calling!" The chatter stopped and the room was filled with the sounds of the storm.

"I can't hear anything," someone declared.

"You've drunk too much ale ferryman," said another.

"No, listen! I can hear it again!" the ferryman persisted.

Everyone fell silent and then faintly the sound of a voice was heard.

"You can't go tonight" someone exclaimed as the ferryman drained his mug and rose to his feet.

"There's someone waiting, I'll have to go" he replied "it may be a matter of life or death if there's anyone abroad on a night like this."

He made his way to the door and some of the travellers accompanied him to the boat to see him on his way. Once outside the blast of the wind caught them suddenly. Through the interlaced trees the scudding clouds were dimly lit by the intermittent glow of the moon over the far shore. "Expect me in half an hour" the ferryman called as he cast off and took to the oars.

The ferryman steered by keeping the lights of the inn in line with the hill above. At other times a lantern was kept burning at the landing on Nab End but tonight it had blown out. And still that voice called out: "Boat, boat. Halloa there!" as if the traveller could not discern the vessel was creeping slowly over the water towards him.

"Alright, I'm coming, blast you!" the ferryman cursed as he pulled on the oars his temper growing short. The voice had a mournful note about it which fitted in well with the dismal weather.

At length the ferryman gained the lee of the Nab and came alongside the tiny stone jetty looping a line through one of the iron rings set in the stone work. He stepped ashore peering about in the gloom for his mysterious passenger.

"I'm here," he called. "Hallo are you there?" He walked a few steps up the road, his eyes searching in vain for some sign of his impatient fare beginning to think that the fellow had given up hope of a boat and gone away.

A tall shape suddenly materialised out of the darkness before him. "Ah! There you are. Thought you'd given up sir. Have you across in no time..." But the words froze on his lips and the breath choked in his throat. For a split second the ferryman stood stock still and gazed in horror at the abomination that leered at him in the moonlight.

Then uttering a scream he turned and rushed to the boat and pushed panic stricken into the lake. For what stood at the water's edge, claws upraised to the sky, wailing and shrieking in devilish rage was neither man nor beast but some loathsome creature from the very blackest depths of Hell.

The guests at the inn were becoming impatient for the ferryman was long overdue. Just as they were getting ready to go out and see what had happened there came a sound at the door. The ferryman stood at the threshold and for a second there was a deadly silence.

The fellow was scarcely recognisable as a human being. His face had aged 20 years and his hair had turned completely white. He was unable to speak and he was put to his bed and a priest was called who could do nothing for him.

For three days he lay in bed with a high fever, his face contorting with terror when anyone approached, shrieking aloud at times like a soul in mortal torment and then he died without once becoming lucid enough to relate what had happened at the stone jetty at the Nab.

This story is an extract from Tales and Legends of Windemere by Peter Nock, Orinoco Press

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