Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:30 am
Ghost stories have long been popular at Christmas, and Victorians loved them. In that tradition, and by way of a change from researching a factual article, I thought I would have a go at writing a spectral anecdote. So, in the unlikely event that you have a spare five minutes, and with a degree of temerity that surprises me, I offer you A Bit About Britain’s Christmas ghost story…it’s just a bit of fun.
Years ago, my business often took me up and down the country. When I could, I had taken to breaking the journey with good friends who lived in a little village in the Yorkshire Dales. Theirs was a comfortable stone-built home, with welcoming furniture, an open fire, the happy chatter of children; and, frankly, staying with them was infinitely preferable to camping in some impersonal hotel close to a client’s offices – unless I really had to. I would usually contribute a bottle or two of something-or-other; they would share their news and evening meal, and allow me to bed down on the sofa-bed in their study. A short distance down the road was the local pub, the Bull, to which the husband, Nigel, and I would occasionally repair for a couple of jars after eating. It was a convivial place and we’d join a sociable, intelligent, group of men who all enjoyed solving the problems of the world.
Generally, the conversation was light-hearted, but we turned up one May Day evening to find our associates in sombre mood. The limestone of the Dales makes it famous caving country and there had been a tragedy on the nearby moor. Recent rainfall had been heavy. Several members of the local caving club had become trapped deep underground when the subterranean beck’s swollen waters flooded the cave system it had helped create. The alarm was raised, but the water level had risen so quickly that rescue proved impossible. Despite attempts to divert the gushing water above ground, four people drowned.
Nobody took much notice of George. Somewhat older than the rest of us, George was on the fringe of the group and apt to make gauche remarks.
“She warned me,” he said quietly. “She warned me.”
“What are you talking about, George,” asked one of the group, with a slightly amused expression on his face.
“She came to me at the crossroads,” replied George. “She warned me.”
I raised an eyebrow at Nigel. “What’s that all about?”
“Oh, you know,” he whispered. “George says things”.
“So, what are the crossroads?”
“Ah,” he smiled. “Everyone secretly calls them ‘the Creepy Crossroads’. We actually walk over them on our way here – and back. They’re meant to be haunted by a woman – the White Lady – and she only appears to men.”
We finished our beers and left shortly after that; somehow, it didn’t feel right to stay too long. Outside, the moon bathed everything in a pale, blue-ish, light and, despite the lack of street lighting, we could see quite clearly. There was a figure walking ahead, a man. After a few minutes, he came to a halt.
“That’s the Creepy Crossroads,” said Nigel. “And that’s George.”
We came up to the old fellow. Hands in pockets, he was gazing, vacantly, apparently into space. Seeing us, his expression cleared and he said, matter of factly. “I know what you think of me. But I saw her. She came to me.”
“Tell us then, George,” I said gently. “What happened?”
He straightened and answered clearly, without hesitation. He had been walking home from the pub, he said, like now by way of the Creepy Crossroads. Everyone knew the local legend. Something bad had happened to a woman long ago, she had died before her time, and she came back to warn folk of unexpected loss. He had never believed such stories himself, and they were certainly far from his mind after several pints, but then he spotted a small figure in white at the roadside ahead. Almost as soon as he’d seen it, it disappeared. Then it returned suddenly, out of nowhere, immediately in front and facing him in the middle of the crossroads. He saw it was a woman, a girl, really. Her face was not so much white as grey; lovely, yet infinitely sad. She turned, looked intently up the hill toward the moor, clutching her hands over her chest, rocking slowly back and forth. Back and forth. It began to rain, heavily. Water poured down the road and bubbled from the drain-covers. He sensed a low groan and then the girl turned slowly back and looked him hard, but sorrowfully, in the face. He paused. “It was terrifying”, he said.
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then nothing. She just vanished.”
“When was this, George?” Nigel regarded the old man sceptically.
“Yesterday. Last night. The last night of April. I told you – she was warning me. I should have done something. I feel bad.”
Pointing out that the spectre, if that’s what it had been, hardly gave him much information, and not really knowing what else to say, we bade George a safe journey home and took our leave. We walked in thoughtful silence the short distance to the safe womb of my friends’ cottage, where we discussed the evening over a nightcap. Nigel was inclined to be dismissive, but I sensed that George’s fear and remorse had been real enough. Our conversation resolved nothing, of course. In the morning, after a shower and hasty slice of toast, I got out of my hosts’ hair, leaving them organising departures for work and school.
Britain has a reputation for the supernatural. You don’t have to go far to hear tales of hauntings, ghostly carriages, strange spectral hounds – and, indeed, of ethereal white ladies. Some are shades of past events, some are malevolent; and some are portents of death. I also vaguely remembered folk tales suggesting that the veil between this world and the next was particularly thin on certain nights – the last days of April and October, I thought, and at mid-winter – allowing spirits to pass more easily between the two. It was madness, of course, and I couldn’t do anything about George in any event. Work was busy and several months passed before I found an excuse to divert to Yorkshire again and disrupt my old friends for a night. September had given us an Indian summer and even October had behaved itself fairly well. Now we were into November, and the nights were inexorably closing in. Even so, it was light enough for Nigel to suggest an after supper dusk stroll round the village. Sheep bleated forlornly on the fells as we ambled down the lane toward the old church.
“You remember Tony at the Bull?” enquired Nigel as he unclipped the lych gate.
“Yes, of course. Why, what’s he done?”
“He died, quite suddenly, the other week. The day after Halloween as a matter of fact. November 1st, All Saints’ Day. Heart attack.”
“Oh, that’s dreadful. He was about our age, wasn’t he? I’m sorry, I can’t remember; was he married? Children?”
“Yes to both.”
We carried on, debating the injustice of mortality whilst making our way past the graves of long-gone Yorkshiremen and women. Rounding the south-east corner of the church, we came upon a lonely figure sitting on a tabletop tomb. It was George, gazing desolately through the closing darkness toward the vanishing hillside opposite. I greeted him and he turned, startled.
“I didn’t hear you,” he said a little reproachfully. I apologised and asked how he was.
“Not good, if you really want to know,” he replied.
“What’s the matter,” laughed Nigel. “Been seeing our friendly White Lady again?”
George looked at him with an expression I couldn’t quite work out. He was evidently under stress, but there was a kind of resignation there too.
“She came,” he said. “On Halloween. She appeared much as she did before, only this time she was trying to get me to follow her, up the hill, up to the High Street. She was beckoning and when I didn’t follow she came back, close as you are now, and just stared. She made my chest feel tight, I swear she did. She was trying to say something, I know she was. It was ice-cold around her, but her eyes weren’t cold; they were soft and full of sorrow.”
I didn’t really know what to say, so I did what seemed natural and put my hand on his shoulder. He seemed grateful. Nigel and I mumbled some inadequate, embarrassed, farewells and we wandered off.
“Tony lived on the High Street,” said my friend as we left the cemetery. After that, we didn’t feel much like going to the Bull.
I had a difficult job with a client in the north that necessitated staying near their offices for the fortnight before Christmas. Nobody was keen to work between Boxing Day and New Year and, by putting in some very long days, we managed to get finished on Christmas Eve. Despite my guilt at being away so long, and being desperate to get home, I knew I was too tired to sensibly make the drive in one go. My friends in Yorkshire had already offered to put me up if it should come to it and, clutching several bottles of wine and a poinsettia hurriedly grabbed en route from a Skipton supermarket, I turned up in time to completely disrupt their family evening. Angela kindly brushed aside my apologies and thrust a mince pie into my hand.
“I’ll be off first thing in the morning,” I promised.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “Besides, I could do with Nigel being out of the way for a couple hours this evening – if you don’t mind…”
The Bull was packed, sparkling with tinsel and lively with Christmas music. Nigel’s usual gang was there, in festive mood, albeit missing Tony, whose memory was solemnly toasted. Even George seemed relatively cheerful. We chatted, with some difficulty, over the din.
“You really believe you saw this White Lady?” I asked him.
He sighed. “Honestly? I don’t know. She seemed real enough at the time. And she knew, didn’t she?” He looked at me stubbornly, full of self-reproach. “She knew. She tried to warn me. Bad things normally come out of nowhere, but I was given advance notice. Maybe I could have woken Tony and his missus up, saved his life.”
People began drifting away. Nigel and I drained our glasses and made for the door, leaving the remainder of the group behind. It was magical, a classic foggy Christmas Eve, with a whiff of spice and woodsmoke in the air. I had a vision of Santa and his reindeer, soaring through the sky on their annual mission. I loved this magical time of year. We paused at the Creepy Crossroads. Pretty lights twinkled with seasonal promise in windows and outside houses and the village was as still and silent as the grave. Everything seemed perfectly normal.
I had a disturbing dream that night. I was standing at the Crossroads. Everything was as before – the fog, the twinkling lights, the smell of woodsmoke – but I was all alone. No, I wasn’t. She was there. Pale, lovely, yet not fully human-formed, her gown seeming to drift and billow like some kind of vapour around her. She came to me and gazed from the past into my face, a look of anguish in her eyes. “I can’t prevent this”, she seemed to be telling me. “I can’t prevent this. You can. You need to.” I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak; you know how dreams can be. She glided away, up the hill a little; then stopped. Her arms unfurled gracefully and she began waving them, to and fro, high above her head, trying to attract someone or something’s attention out of sight in front of her. Twin lights appeared through the gloom ahead. Low, glowing, orbs, coming too fast, heading down the hill to where I stood, rooted and immobile. The phantom kept waving, and the lights kept coming, coming, passing through her, getting bigger. They weren’t going to stop. A roaring filled my ears and I woke, shaking and distressed.
It was impossible to get back to sleep. I was restless with a deep, unreasonable, sense of impending doom. Children’s giggles and cries of delight drifted into my consciousness. I tried to be as unobtrusive as an infiltrator on Christmas morning can be, got my stuff together, gratefully accepted a cup of tea and got away as soon as I could. An unsettling, nagging, thought was telling me that I should have mentioned the dream to my friends – or someone – before I left. But that was silly, and would have delayed me even more. The roads were virtually empty and I was more awake than I would have been if I’d attempted the full drive the previous night; today should have been a reasonably swift, uneventful, journey. Yet everything felt terribly wrong, uncomfortable. Like some kind of documentary film, the Christmas songs on the radio formed a soundtrack to my progress, inexorably onward: in the background, Lennon sang, “and so this is Christmas,” the white lines flashed beneath the car and the girl’s face hovered like a distracting reflection in the windscreen. “George!” I suddenly thought. “I should have stayed to tell George!”
By the time I realised that the spectre’s grief-filled eyes had morphed into headlights heading straight for me, it was too late.
All images via Pixabay