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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Children’

A Night-Time Terror

Or, a true story of the paranormal from Cornwall

As it’s nearly Hallowe’en, I thought it might be time to post a creepy story. And this is a true creepy story. I posted it originally on my Tumblr, six years ago, as an account of something that happened to K and I when The Children were both still only crawling and we took them away on holiday for the first time, to a holiday cottage on a farm in North Cornwall. It happened a few weeks before I wrote it down, more or less exactly as it is set down here, in the middle of the night just before we were due to leave. I haven’t edited the originally, so “about a month ago” should be read as “September, 2014”.

This is not a ghost story. It has no climatic ending, no plot and no dramatic arc. It is, however, something of a paranormal story. Moreover, the reason it has no plot and no ending is that it is a true story. The reason I’m writing it down is because it was strange enough to merit remembering, and I wanted to write it down before its strangeness was corrupted and faded away.

About a month ago, my partner K and I took our 10-month-old twins away for their first holiday. They had reached the stage of crawling, climbing, and taking an interest in everything they saw, but had not quite mastered their first steps or their first words. Thinking it best not to travel too far away for a first holiday, we hired a cottage on a farm in North Cornwall, in the wedge of land between the River Camel and the sea, the landscape that is famously the home of both King Arthur and the North Cornwall Railway. The cottage was, to be frank, more like a modern bungalow than a stereotypical Cornish cottage; but it was indeed on a small, slightly ramshackle farm, and was surrounded by beautiful countryside. It overlooked rolling hills, small ancient fields divided in haphazard fashion by twisting raised hedges and sunken holloway lanes. It was a beautiful, disorienting landscape: looking out from the picture windows of our cottage’s front room, I was convinced I was looking north or north-east until careful correlation of maps and hedge-lines persuaded me we actually faced southwards. A small ravine led the eye gently towards the distant lights of the nearest town, but otherwise there were no landmarks in sight, not even a church tower or a sign of the nearest village. Not being able to find north is unusual for me: I’m normally fairly good at orienting myself. When I was a child, I read lots of Enid Blyton books in which the characters always wake up on the first day of a holiday and, forgetting they’ve gone on holiday, have no idea where they are. To me, this is an entirely alien concept.

We stayed for a week, Saturday to Saturday as is the custom, and greatly enjoyed ourselves; this isn’t the story of our holiday, but suffice to say we had a wonderful time, and returned to our cottage each night to settle down cosily on the sofa. Not having a TV at home, we enjoyed the illicit treat of snuggling up, sleepy babies alongside us in their sleeping bags, quietly watching inane programmes about home redecoration and suchlike.

I wondered a few times just what the night sky looked like on a clear night there, given how dark our cottage felt with the lights out, but most nights, at least when I remembered, the sky was overcast and no stars could be seen. On our final night, though, I needed to go outside, and saw what seemed a perfect black sky, scattered everywhere with starlight pinpricks.

We were cleaning up the kitchen that night, after the babies had settled down to bed, and I said to K, my partner, that we should go outside to look at the stars. It would be romantic, I thought. Outside, though, a mist had started to drift in. Towards the south, the stars were still on show; towards the north the sky was black, and the mist was already thick enough to be noticeable over the hundred yards or so across the farmyard, between our cottage and the farmhouse. “Can we go inside?” said K, nervously. Not to get ahead of things, but she admitted later that, just before this, just as the mist had started to drift around the farm buildings, was the point at which she had started to feel anxious about our surroundings.

We went to bed as normal, hoping that we might get an uninterrupted night of sleep - an unusual treat for us at the moment, as it’s rare that our daughter doesn’t wake up wanting a cuddle and a small drink. In the strange surroundings of our holiday cottage, much darker and quieter than our city home, both babies had tended to go to extremes, either sleeping soundly all night, or waking and refusing to settle back down to sleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke. There was screaming from the babies; loud, urgent screaming from both of them. Where was it coming from, though? I knew instantly, as if the idea had been pushed into my head: the babies were outside. We had left the windows open, I thought, which was why we could hear them; the babies were outside, in the garden, crawling around on the grass surrounded by fog, and I had to go outside and rescue them. It was the one thought in my otherwise terrified mind: I had to go outside. I couldn’t find where I was, though. I stood, next to the bed, and whirled around, arms out, trying to find a wall or a door.

Before I had left the room my mind had cleared slightly, and I realised there was no way the babies could have left the cottage, or even have climbed out of their cots. As I still kept trying to work out which direction the crying babies were in, though, I suddenly realised that something, something nearby, was trying to make me leave the cottage.

Staggering a little, I made it out into the hallway, and quickly closed all of the doors off to the other rooms. Going to the desperately crying babies, I tried all the usual methods of settling them back to sleep: a drink of water, a tight hug, soft words. Nothing worked. I was trying not to think about the dark feeling I had that something else was inside the building, trying to help the babies relax, but the babies were still clearly very upset, still crying, definitely not going to go back to sleep on their own.

One at a time, I hurriedly carried them back into our bedroom, so that all four of us could settle back down together in bed. K has also started to wake, and held them close to her. “Have you shut all the doors?” she mumbled.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m scared,” she said. “I feel like there’s someone else in the cottage.”

Rationally, I knew I had locked the doors. The only way in was through a door with a bolt on the inside, which I had bolted before bed. So why did we both suddenly feel that someone or something else was inside? Why had I felt it was trying to trick me into going outside?

I quickly went, trembling slightly, into the hallway. Open the living room door. Flash the light on. Nobody there. Despite what I had thought earlier, the windows were firmly closed and locked. Into the kitchen: nobody there, the windows closed and the door still bolted.

Back to bed. “There’s nobody else here,” I said, “and the doors are all shut.” The babies were slowly calming, drifting back to sleep making quiet whimpering sounds. Slowly, me hugging our son and K hugging our daughter, we drifted back to sleep.

The next morning the mist had gone, the cottage was itself, and it almost felt welcoming again. We were glad to leave, though. I don’t think we even dared discuss it, hardly, until we had loaded the car, had our final chat with the farmer and his wife, and were driving the car under the horse chestnut tree that shaded the farm’s gates, and off down the long dead-end lane that took us back towards the Atlantic Highway. We had no idea, no idea at all, what we had felt, or what could have been influencing us. What struck both me and K, though, was that without discussing it - without even being able to - all four of us had apparently woke up with great distress in our minds. Obviously we don’t know what the two babies were actually thinking; but they were most certainly not their usual awake-in-the-night selves, and nor were K and I. K had been, as I said above, nervous that something was approaching before we’d gone to bed, but she didn’t mention a word of it until the next morning.

I’ve searched for information, since we came home, about possible haunted mists and rural panic attacks associated with that area. I have a vague memory, after all, that the word “panic” originally meant a specifically bucolic terror, after Pan himself. Nothing I’ve found, though, has been connected to that part of the country. K suggested that panics can be caused by ultrasonic noises, which could be a plausible and non-supernatural explanation for us all feeling the same terror. At root, though, I don’t think this is ever going to be fully explained, or fully explainable. All I can tell you is that: it did happen, exactly as I’ve told you above.

In the footsteps of Fox Talbot (part one)

Or, going back to the early days

The Child Who Likes Animals is a great devourer of television, particularly documentaries, and can recite great swathes of the hours of television he has watched. Usually this involves things about his usual interests, such as animals, or palaeontology, or Brian Cox talking about planets. Recently, though he’s rediscovered a CBBC series from a few years ago that has recently been repeated: Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, in which said presenters learn about great STEM figures from history. He was rather taken with the episodes on Darwin (naturally), the Herschels, and Delia Derbyshire;* but became particularly obsessed with the inventor of the photographic negative, Henry Fox Talbot. In that one, Dick and Dom build a pinhole camera out of an industrial-size wheelie-bin, making it into a binhole camera; the episode is worth it for that pun alone. The Child Who Likes Animals, naturally, wanted us to build our own.

Making one quite that large, I pointed out, wouldn’t really be practical for taking around the place; but pinhole cameras themselves aren’t that hard to build. In fact, as it turned out, we had a papercraft one already lurking in the rainy-day-activities cupboard. Naturally I would have to do most of the building work, but why not get started?

The starting point

The instructions on the packet said it could be built in as little as two hours. If you use some sort of instant-setting impact glue that might be possible, but with standard PVA (the packaging recommended “white glue”) I suspect it will take rather a lot longer, given how sensible it is to stop and let things set properly between steps.

Folding up the innermost box

As expected, not only did I end up doing all of the building work, but The Children rapidly disappeared to go and watch a film or something. In theory, though, you would think a pinhole camera would be an ideal subject for papercraft, because all cameras are essentially just a black box with a hole (or lens) at one end and something light-sensitive at the other. This build seems largely to consist of folding up a few card boxes, gluing them together, and attaching a fiddly-looking but entirely cosmetic fake pentaprism housing on top. By the time it’s finished, I suspect it will end up 75% PVA by weight.

Folding up the takeup spindle housing, with a lot of excess glue

There are two potential issues I can see with the whole thing. Firstly, building a working and light-tight takeup spindle out of card is going to be a very fiddly exercise which might well prove to be the Achilles Heel of the project. Secondly, there are a couple of card edges that the film has to pass over, emulsion-side down, and I can imagine them scratching the emulsion to buggery. Oh well, I wasn’t exactly expecting it to take pin-sharp perfect results in any case.

The basic carcass of the thing

I have to admit that previous papercraft projects have foundered, incomplete, after one or two building sessions. Hopefully given that this thing is at least intended to produce something usable, I’ll manage to get it finished to the point of being able to put a film through it. Whether anything will be visible on the film afterwards (and whether The Child Who Likes Animals will actually want to use it) is another story. I’ll keep you posted.

* Personally I rather liked the episode about James Watt, which featured the Newcomen Engine at the Black Country Living Museum, the Crofton Pumping Engine, and a few brief moments of the Severn Valley Railway’s Stanier Mogul 42968 at Kidderminster.

The spread of death

Or, exploring some local history

Yesterday, after the rain had stopped, we went for a walk around Greenbank, the local Victorian garden cemetery. It’s a lovely place to visit whatever the weather, but on a cold day, after a rainstorm, with drips coming from every branch and all of the colours having a dark rain-soaked richness, it is a beautiful quiet place to wander around. Even when the children are pestering you to turn around and head back home so they can have some hot chocolate and watch TV. “It is a very hot chocolate sort of day,” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

Wandering down the avenue

Exploring the graves

At the centre of Greenbank Cemetery is a connected pair of mortuary chapels: one for Anglicans, and a separate but identical one for other forms of Protestant. They have been derelict and fenced off for a long time, and their central wooden spire was taken down sixty or seventy years ago, but they are still surviving despite the failure of plans a few years ago to restore them and make them usable spaces once more. Above the entrance to the central atrium, between the two chapels, is a finely-carved inscription. “Opened 1871. Enlarged 1880.”

Greenbank Cemetery, Opened 1871, Enlarged 1880

Nowadays when you look at Greenbank on a map it’s surrounded in many places: by roads, by housing, on one side by a disused railway line. So I thought I’d dig into the archives to find out what its original groundplan was, and which parts were extended. Luckily, thanks to the fantastic work of Know Your Place Bristol and their maps, this was relatively straightforward to do. This first map is dated to 1880-81, so it seems to be after the first phase of enlargement of the cemetery. If you don’t know the area, note that it is bounded by an open stream to the west and north, and that Greenbank Road goes up to the cemetery gates and no further. I assume the original area of the cemetery was the part centred on the chapels, and the extension was the area east of the line of trees.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1881

In many ways, even without the big garden cemetery this would be a typical landscape for the fringes of a growing Victorian city: a hotchpotch mixture of farmland and unplanned speculative terrace-building. There are rows of houses without proper streets in some parts, streets laid out without houses in others, and a city-sized workhouse with its own private burial ground behind it. If I’d extended the map to the north or to the south, you’d see a typical Victorian park: Eastville Park on one side and St George’s Park on the other.

If we skip forward thirty years or so, we can see how much the landscape has “filled out”. Moreover, we can see how the cemetery has been expanded to the west. The stream has been culverted; the land to the north and south of the cemetery has been taken by allotments. This map is from 1912; I’ve traced a map from 1902 which doesn’t show this, so we can assume this expansion took place some time in the Edwardian period, more or less.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1912

In that thirty years huge parts of Easton which previously had just been sketched out for development have now become packed terraced streets, and some of the terraces which were built along narrow paths now have proper roads to them. Schools have been built, and a church. There’s a lot less open space, but there’s still some, here and there. Fishponds Road has acquired trams, up in the top-left corner; and the workhouse have stopped burying their dead on their own land.

If you know the area, though, you’ll know that it does still look a bit different today. To see the modern layout of the cemetery, we have to move forward to a 1950s map.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1955

This is the boundaries of the cemetery as it is today. Greenbank Road has been extended, and Rose Green Road has been widened to take traffic. The cemetery has swallowed up the allotments on either side of it, stretching out to reach the roads. This must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments. However, it can’t have happened very long after, going by the dates of some of the graves on the ground. These sections of the cemetery include a number of graves from the Second World War, including civilian victims and enemy prisoners.

What’s always puzzled me about this, though, is that still to this day the emptiest parts of the cemetery include some of the areas which were included in the original 1871 cemetery right from its opening. The north-western side of the original cemetery, which slopes quite steeply down to the course of the brook which marked the original boundary, is still empty of graves. It’s one of the areas being used nowadays for interment, along the line of a path which was put in place when the cemetery first opened. Meanwhile, the late-Victorian and the 1930s extensions are jam-packed with graves, many of them now overgrown and abandoned.

This is the point at which a proper essay on local history would be drawing to a conclusion and discussing what conclusions we can draw about the growth of cemeteries in provincial English cities. As for me, I just like looking at old maps. I think it’s a fair assumption, though, that that city council deliberately bought additional land around the cemetery with the aim of expanding the cemetery into it when required, and in the interim used it for allotment space. Of course, I also like wandering round a cold, damp cemetery, too.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

At some point I’ll have to write more about that other burial ground marked on the map. That’s not just disused: for many years there was no sign of it at all on the ground, until a memorial was erected relatively recently. That, though, will be a story for another day.

Sitting by the fire

In which we regress

So it didn’t snow. I was back on the railway yesterday, and everything went rather well. None of the equipment failed, I didn’t do anything stupid, and I didn’t drop any tokens, which is always my biggest worry. It was a relatively quiet shift; I sat in the big armchair with the coal stove roaring away next to me, handwriting a diary piece about how sitting in the big armchair with the coal stove roaring away next to me and the clock ticking on the wall reminded me of visiting my grandmother’s house on winter Saturday afternoons when I was small. I was the first person to arrive at the station; and by the time I left all the station staff had already locked up and left too, it was getting dark, and all the lights were on. Although it didn’t snow, it felt all day as if snow was potentially on the menu.

I do wish the children could come with me to the railway, but I doubt that getting them in the same room as a cast-iron coal fired stove is a good idea: it would result in severe burns and trips to casualty, if not a full-scale conflagration. It is a shame, though, that I spend all day working on the line and then am not home until after they’re in bed.

Today, well, we have a strict no-romance-on-the-14th rule in this house; so instead of doing anything special we went into town and did the usual mundane weekend shopping: new gloves for the children, some stuff from the craft shop; a new USB cable. The Child Who Likes Fairies has learned the word “gouache”.

Imagination

In which we are sitting in a dangerous ocean

In one way, today was a completely unproductive day. But in another way, completely unproductive days are themselves a good thing, if you’ve managed to relax.

We did get out of the house, at least, to go to the shop to get various staples. When the children walk there, instead of taking the pushchair, it does turn a ten-minute trip to the shop into a rather longer adventure.

After we got back home, The Child Who Likes Fairies decided a large plastic box was a boat for rowing across he floor in - not unusual - but also asked me to take photos of her posing in it, which is new. When I had taken a few, she looked through them and decided which she thought was best. “Better. Like it me.”

Winter busking

Or, rain

Lots of wind and rain today, rain being blown hard, the sort of rain that seems to be in your face whichever direction you are travelling in.

Went into town with the kids to do various dull things, like go to the bank to pay the bills, and pick up some firelighters ready for a turn on the railway next week - being February, I will probably want to get the stove going. The regular busker who only seems to play Nirvana and Green Day was in the Podium again, and as usual The Child Who Likes Fairies approved: “Like it music!” She has started introducing herself to other children when playing.

Undiplomatic

Or, a free-ranging post

Has anything happened so far this month?

Work has been the sort of place when I get irritated, because of people approaching to ask stupid questions when I’m trying to concentrate. It’s at moments like that that I start to answer the questions undiplomatically, if not unprofessionally. No, I don’t know anything about the issue you are asking me about. No, I don’t mind if you rewrite the workflow in the ticketing system, because negotiating the workflow will still be an unhelpful distraction from actual work.

At lunch, a woman at the next table was showing her colleagues pictures of shiba inus she’d favourited on her tumblr.

At home, we have been rearranging the furniture. On Tuesday I bought a couple of safety gates. We had one across the door of the front room; now we have a wide one to go across the archway that separates dining room and kitchen, and a narrow one to go across the stairs. I am not supposed to refer to the stair gate as “SG1″, incidentally. With these gates, and with some rearrangement of the dining room furniture, we’ve been able to take down the front room gate, to give the kids free roam throughout front room and dining room. Of course, their first response was to rearrange furniture themselves, pulling the nappy box in front of the TV so they could climb up and scratch the screen of the TV with a screwdriver I’d forgotten to put away.

Dinosaurs

In which we explore past times

As soon as we got up on Sunday morning, The Child Who Likes Fairies made it very clear what she wanted to do. “Museum! Museum!”

So, we headed into Cardiff, amazed at how quiet the city was. No more than five or six cars parked in the park-and-ride by mid-morning. The museum was, indeed, a hit, particularly the “Evolution of Wales” gallery starting with geology and the Big Bang then running through dinosaurs before ending the a fake cave of Paleolithic animals. “Dinos!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies and “Daaaaaa!” shouted The Child Who Likes Animals, running back and forth from the dinosaurs to the prehistoric marine animals and through to the mammoth and bison, then back again backwards in time.

There are always so many little things I spot during the day and think: “I must put that into a diary blogpost,” but when it comes to the time for writing things down, I can’t recall what any of them are. What else? We left the museum and walked around the city for a while, popping in the art supplies shop and various phone shops, looking to replace the one that turned into a brick the other day. I notice the site of the Ian Allan transport bookshop in the arcades, closed down nearly a year ago because of a rent increase, is still empty and untenanted even though the landlords have split it into two shop units. After we got home, at bedtime, The Child Who Likes Fairies could still remember what we had done: “Museum! Walk! Dinos!”

Today, back at work, was one of those days full of meetings. The longest meeting, however, was in The Tower, a board room way up above the rest of the building on a little floor all of its own, with panoramic windows looking out over suburbs and fields towards the mountains. As the afternoon dragged on the sun came out, its angle highlighting all the slight ridge-and-furrow remnants of ancient agriculture in the fields of pasture alongside the motorway, and just as the skies all turned blue the tower rocked, slowly but firmly, in the wind.

When I got home, I asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she’d done today. “Go museum see dinos!” was still the answer.

Celebrity

In which I say whatever inane thing is on the tip of my tongue

Monday morning, about ten past seven. I was getting dressed ready for work when K shouted. I went to the top of the stairs, and she came the bottom.

“David Bowie’s died!”

“What!?”

“It was just on the radio. He was 69.”

“That was the age my grandparents died at,” was the random stupid thing that came out of my mouth. It’s only true for 50% of my grandparents, too. It feels strangely young, for 2016, for someone to die in their 60s, especially someone who felt like a force for foreverness. “The Man Who Sold The World” has been stuck in my head for most of the past two days.

Tuesday: the weather has turned colder, but still no frost on the ground here. No frost at all this winter so far, in fact. The Child Who Likes Fairies has taken to asking to have a grey headscarf draped over her head so she can run around wearing it, looking like a ghost as she does so. I’m not sure she knows, though, that she looks like a ghost.

Out of joint

Or, things not fitting together

Saturday: we went out to the pub for lunch with friends. Our local pub does very nice pizza, and nice beer, and moreover whenever you go in there on a Saturday lunchtime it’s full of children running about the place going crazy, so our own children generally aren’t actually the worst-behaved in there. We caught up on all the local gossip, whilst the children threw toys at each other and other people’s children screamed and cried around us. At bedtime we asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she had done today, and she replied “People. Food. Baby sad. Pizza! Daddy walk hop-up.”

Sunday: we walked around town with me constantly grumbling about feeling unwell. The charity bookshops had no good books that were affordable; everywhere we went in was so hot it made me feel sick; and in general it felt like the sort of day where things didn’t properly fit together. Still, we got a table in a café for lunch even though it was packet with students on Macbooks who had clearly arrived at opening time and settled themselves in their seats for the day, and one of the waiters was fantastic at bringing us free milk for the kids within seconds of sitting down, and generally stopping to entertain them whenever he was passing. Afterwards, as we walked into town, The Child Who Likes Fairies started shouting “MUSEUM!” as soon as we were within 400 yards of the city museum, so we had to let them run around the stuffed animal galleries for half an hour, fighting other children off the “pull this lever to see a dinosaur’s jaw move” exhibit, and pushing past goth teenagers to get to the best taxidermy.