By Katherine ‘Weird’ Wetherell
The ancient hamlet that crowds itself under the shadow of Gallows Hill is witch haunted. Narrow, twisting unpaved lanes and mud tracks wind through leering gabled dwellings, half-timbered and half in disrepair. The rotting daub and worm ridden beams stand silent and impassive against the battering storms that tear through such exposed settlements, and hold fast their secrets of cunning and devilry.
Yet an oppressive and unsettling atmosphere prevails, as if a mantle of shadows and hushed frightened whispers had fallen and weighed down ever heavier as the dust gathered, crippling the inhabitants into states of quiet madness.
Such was my impression when I arrived. I wandered through the streets, slipping and splashing mud, keeping myself steady on the façades of the gabled houses which encroached ever further inwards, seemingly keeping themselves up by leaning on each other. My eye was on Gallows Hill, which held a mysterious and demanding presence all of its own, and was the place I was trying to get to.
Giles, my old school chum from so many years ago had become quite the amateur archaeologist, and being myself a dabbling antiquarian was glad to be invited up to investigate further what was deemed to be Iron Age remains at the base of Gallows hill.
In return for my assistance Giles had promised me lodging in one of the oldest and most infamous dwellings in the village. Home in the 17th Century to Robert Helme, witch hunter, and from what is known hadn’t been truly lived in since that time. The house produced in the locals a suspicious dread, they would cross themselves at the mention of it and only mumble of the creaking, the dreadful creaking and groaning heard if one was foolish enough to venture near in the night. As I am partial to a good ghost story, my interest was naturally piqued.
I trudged further onwards until the base of Gallows Hill came into view, it was circled with stunted, twisting trees; forever bent into unnatural and grotesque forms from pounding winds. In amongst this distant haze of thorns and grey I could see the house, a timber framed mass of mould and smut, leering forwards as if to watch me approach. The closer I got the more it repelled me, the stench of centuries of mildew and creeping fungi enveloped me as my eyes were fixed to its blackened windows. I stopped a few yards away to take in this edifice of terror, and wondered no more at the villager’s unease.
It was then that Giles, after strolling unnoticed out from the trees made himself known.
‘Chapman! I’ve found you at last! Haven’t seen you in…are you all right?’
I raised my eyebrow and tore my gaze from the house to his face.
‘So this is the old place is it? I’m all for a few nights of ghostly goings on Giles but this thing looks like a biohazard!’
‘Yes it does rather.’ He chuckled ‘Works like a charm for keeping folks away though, wait till you see inside, Chapman, you won’t believe it!’
Giles brushed aside some tendrils of ivy from the door while fumbling for the key.
‘Through some ancient line my aunt has ended up with it, and like hundreds of care takers before her has been instructed to keep all as it is, and to ensure only that it stays tidy and secure.’
‘You mean to say the interior has been left untouched since Helme’s time?’
‘Pretty much, yes. Robert left strict orders in his will, and it’s been a well kept secret for centuries, just within the family you see.’
I knew of Giles’ distant connection with the witch hunter, hence my bargaining to stay at the house, but nothing could have prepared me for such an astonishing time capsule.
With a small judder the door swung inwards. We entered into a hallway that led to the stairs, ebony stained timbers and beams contrasted with the off white of plastered daub. Cast iron sconces lined the walls, ringed with black soot from years of burning tallow candles.
‘Your room’s up the stairs and at the back of the house, Robert Helme’s very own, I’ll be across the hall.’
I grinned with excitement and looked towards the stairs, waiting for approval to go bounding up as fast as I could.
Giles laughed ‘Yes, I thought that would please you, go ahead, explore! I’ll be outside having a smoke.’
Giles left closing the door behind him. I paced my way up the stairs, studying various framed portraits of Puritan theologians lining the wall. On reaching the landing I noticed two doorways on either side in the Tudor style, I entered the one I deduced to be Robert’s own. Illuminated by streams of the dusty sun, I beheld what was indeed a bedroom. The head of a solid carved bedstead lay under a small leaded window, a large wooden chest in similar Jacobean style stood at the side of the bed. Besides a chair and a washstand the room was fairly unpretentious, but beautiful in its simplicity and alluring in its history.
I stood observing a while, when from the direction of the bed I heard a thin creak, as if a foot had slowly eased from a floorboard. I was grinning to myself as I flew down the stairs and out the front door, Reaching Giles’ side I breathlessly placed my hand on his shoulder.
‘We’re in for one hell of a stay!’ I panted.
Giles and I walked through the early autumn sunshine towards the Iron Age dig site. There was a couple of local lads scraping at the bottom of a pit with trowels, their backs to the hill.
‘We’ve come across a few sherds and worked flint, but no luck as yet with finding any foundations or burials. You can see earthworks from the top of Gallows Hill, fancy taking a look?’ Giles gestured up the hill, we began to climb.
Gallows hill rises about 250 metres above sea level. It’s long and narrow like the spine of a dragon. As we ambled through the yellowing grass I thought of the condemned men and women who trudged this way, to meet their fate at the end of a noose, the majority found guilty of witchcraft and workings of maleficia. Deformed hags, secret Catholics and cunning folk smoked out of their holes by Robert Helme, and sleep deprived into admissions of guilt.
From the summit looking down I could indeed see what Giles was talking about. Mounds and tussocks in the grass created a labyrinth like network, almost like a cemetery.
‘What makes you think it’s Iron Age?’ I asked.
‘The shapes look similar to a burial site I’ve dug before, that and the finds are all pre-Roman. We’ve only just begun though so who knows what could come up.’
‘What about the people that were hanged here on this hill? Where were they buried?’
‘Most under the prison yard in the city, some below their own gibbets. In fact you can see way over there in the distance by the road, that’s an old gibbet post. Bill Delaney’s burial site, an 18th century highwayman, though the post is much older.’
We headed back down the hill, and settling myself in a nice spot I began recording the finds. The day drew on into evening, the sun rested on the horizon, casting over the landscape an ethereal gold. I looked back at the hill, crowned with gathering storm clouds. In my sheltered spot I hadn’t realized the force of the wind coming around the hill, the storm was moving in fast.
‘Call it a night?’ I shouted to the others, receiving tired nods in return, I think we’d all seen enough pottery for one day.
Giles and I walked back around to the house, fighting against the fierce wind and drizzle to the door. After a snifter or two in the parlour we went to our separate rooms. Being such an ancient structure there was of course no electricity and no heating. I stumbled about in the dark with a chamber candlestick, and kneeling on the hearth attempted to light a fire in the small grate of the bedroom. The wind was howling in the eves, the trees outside roaring and whispering to each other. I’d just scrunched up some paper and began to light a match when I heard, once again from the direction of the bed, a sharp creak. I was so startled I threw my candlestick into the fireplace, I heard it crack against the brick of the chimney.
The creak was joined in quick succession by groaning, scraping and banging. To my mind it brought the vision of a tormented stumbling ghost, caught and tripping up in its own winding sheet somewhere behind the bed. With haste I picked up the candle and re-lit it. I held it at arms length waving it about the room, there was nothing to be seen, but the terrible creaking continued.
The noise echoed from wall to wall, surrounding me. Was this what the locals were referring to? What frightened them so much? Just then Giles walked in.
‘Is everything all right old chap? There’s one hell of a commotion all over the house.’ he shouted over the racket.
‘Ah, so you hear it too? For a minute I thought it was just my room, but it’s getting louder still!’
Remembering the storm I looked to the small window, through whatever dim light the moon could produce I could see shadows dancing, swinging from side to side with the sound of grinding and tightening rope.
‘You know, I think it’s the trees! It’s the trees in the storm battering the house.’ I called out.
‘I think you’re right, perhaps you’d better stay in my room tonight until the wind dies down, we’ll take a look outside in the morning’.
I was awoken in the early dawn by chattering crows. I got up and went back to my room, determined to light my own fire and get dressed in the warmth. Once the kindling was ablaze I sat and looked into the flames. As I daydreamed my attention was caught by a dislodged brick at the back of the fireplace, which I must have done when I threw my candlestick. Leaning forwards and gingerly reaching over the flames, I removed it to find that it had something lodged behind it. Pulling it out I realised I had found one of those old Bellarmine jugs, of which I had seen a few examples similarly bricked up in old houses like this one in the past.
They’re known as witch bottles, a charm made up of rusty nails, bent pins and urine sealed tight in bottles to guard against the evildoings of witches. I was so excited I went to wake Giles.
‘Look at this!’ I whispered hoarsely as I poked his shoulder.
He looked at me, and then the jug, then back to me.
‘Not more damn pottery’ He groaned and rolled over.
‘Not just any pottery my boy! It’s a witches bottle, I found it in the fireplace. By Jove this house is a real treasure Giles, I don’t think you know what you’ve got here! Who’d have thought? The man that struck fear into people’s hearts, Robert Helme, fearless witch finder, resorted to superstitious charms to keep witches away… Come on Giles, get up!’
After breakfast we wandered to the back of the house to look at the trees that created such a disturbance in the night. To our astonishment, though the back of the house was indeed surrounded by warped lichen clad trees, not one of them touched the house, or was even close enough to bend towards it in a high wind. Nonplussed, we made our way back to the dig site.
The lads were already there, one of them noticed us as we approached and began to run towards us.
‘Sir! We ‘ave found something most disturbing, I don’t reckon it to be what you was lookin’ for, sir, even thoughs it is iron!’ The lad spoke between breaths, his face pale and blotchy from cold air.
We ran to look into the pit. Laying at the bottom was a corpse, shrivelled and preserved with skin like paper, its face sunken, brown teeth grimacing from receding lips. Even more disturbing was that it lay under a cage, thick iron bars held it tight from head to foot.
‘Something to stop grave robbers, you think?’ I looked to Giles, hoping he had answers.
Giles stared down with glazed eyes ‘I think we need to keep digging.’
In that strange in-between time of the coming twilight, we stood in a silence interrupted only by wind and crows, looking down into the pits of three opened graves. All strange bog mummy type corpses held down with iron cages.
Giles and I didn’t talk much on the way back to the house, although our discovery was nothing but fascinating, and ought not to be sinister, there was an air of some creeping terror, as if the opening of those tombs had brought about the feeling of an unsettling dread, like when an unexpected visitor knocks in the middle of the night.
I dozed in my bed later that night, blinking slowly, subconsciously fighting sleep, and fighting to ignore the continuous grating and moaning brought on by the wind, nothing but the wind and an old house. Soon I was swept into those dark untraceable seconds of true unconsciousness, only to be rudely snapped from them by a lonely screech owl from beyond the window. I frowned in irritation as I scanned the bedroom through narrowed eyelids, and just as I was about to let my heavy eyelids drop down again, they snapped open wider than I ever knew them to be capable.
It stood at the end of my bed. Though standing beyond my feet, it was leaning, leaning so much as to have its face nearly above my own, its oppressive energy squashing me into my own mattress. At my best efforts to recoil back into a wall of bed springs, it too began to shrink. The black elongation now stood, looking down at its feet. Though little more than a shadowy mass, its form was clearly that of a man, a man that began to lift his knee and kick into the floor, heavy boots stomping, stomping.
Unable to suffer any more, I lurched forwards with my blanket in an attempt to smother the thing, while releasing a thin, harrowing wail from my shivering lungs I fell upon the foot of the bed, almost toppling over the edge from the lack of anything there to resist me, the figure had gone.
The next morning I got down on my knees to inspect the wooden floor where I saw the apparition standing. I brushed my hands gently over the smooth and dusty boards, when I noticed that one sat slightly higher than the others. Digging in with my fingernails I managed to lift the board, underneath which was a small recess. I put my hand in to feel around. There seemed to be nothing in this secret hiding place, nothing but a small leather bound book. I bent closer to make sure this was all, and noticed something odd on the floor beneath the bed. It was a chalk like sketch of a daisy wheel, or witches mark, another charm for holding fast the spirit of a witch. Trying to take each surprise at a time I sat myself on the floor with my back against the bed, to open the cover of the book.
Leafing my way through a selection of mottled and fragile pages, I deduced that this was the diary of Robert Helme. In delighted astonishment I went down to breakfast, holding the diary between my fingers and reading all the while. I pored over the short daily entries, amused and delighted at my discovery, and read on in anticipation, while waiting for Giles to come down and join me.
As I approached the latter months of the year I became troubled and much more intrigued. It seemed to shed light on our discovery under the hill. I have transcribed the relevant entries:
Wednesday 20th October 1649 – Have seen to the execution of three most damnable women this day upon the hill, of their workings of maleficia and meetings with the Devil I dare not put to paper. I be stricken with a great fear of what other loathsome ungodly creatures do slip under my nose, and do put my trust in God that he will continue to guide me, for I do naught but live to carry out his great work.
Monday 25th October – The most loathsome hag I did put an end to last week I have ordered up into the gibbet cage. Let those who come here see that this beloved cunning mayd be nothing but a servant of the devil, and that she do rot now in Hell as she does upon the road. Her two companions do lay still at the bottom of the hill, let them rot as like.
Sunday 31st October – Making my way on foot from church I did pass by the gibbet, and am much afeared to see that the witch within still be intact. No crow has gone to peck at the vittles nor have maggots come to partake of the ungodly flesh. Her eyes still look out, black. I am to bed.
Monday 1st November – Much wailing and commotion did disturb my sleep. I fear some devils curse be upon me and I be watched every moment. Have toiled hard to-day in aid of protecting my home. Early this e’en I had long discourse with the blacksmith, I have ordered his services in fashioning three Iron cages to hold down the three hags who now lay unspoiled. It be them I am sure who taunt me, and walk about my house in the night, I must now it seems imprison them to the earth and hold them fast for mine own sanity.
Thursday 4nd November – I darest not call for the witches to be taken to the city, who may still ride I’the night to haunt me. I have interred all three in iron beneath the hill, I have done all in secret in hopes they shall never be discovered. I am to bed with much prayer.
After these compelling entries his days seemed again to ease, and he makes no more mention of the three ‘hags’.
Giles and I discussed at great length the diary at breakfast and while walking to the hill. On arriving at the pits we were alone, it seemed what we had found was enough to frighten away the suspicious locals, and the lads had kept away. Giles stopped to have a smoke as I ventured forwards to look at the remains of what we now knew to be convicted witches.
I was looking down into the face of the first, when something unsettling caught my eye.
‘Giles?’ I called, ‘Did they always have their eyes open?’.
He began to walk towards me, frowning.
‘Definitely not, and I wouldn’t have thought they’d even have eyes after all this time?’
We both looked down together, and after a moment, with a cloud of tobacco smoke Giles spoke.
‘They’re black, is there soil in the sockets or something?’
‘I don’t think so Giles, no.’
‘By God, this is crazy! And to think it’s exactly like Helme said, even after all this time, strangely preserved and with…wait, wait WAIT! Where are the cages?’
‘Jesus Christ, how did I miss that? What the hell’s going on here?’
Giles sat in the grass making various frantic phone calls. I wandered away from the hideous corpses to finish the diary and see what else I could discover. As I came to the last few entries, all I gained was more questions, and more fears.
Thursday 30th December – To-day the villagers did pull down the gallows, they want no more of witches and have all become cowards in the sight of God. I do show them the pride of my work till the last, and have taken the gallows’ lintel and placed it for the eves above my window. As night hath come I am taken to my bed with a fever, my head does swim about the room, I must stop writing.
Friday 31st December – I am sorely sick and do feel that these days are my last. I will receive an unnatural death, something is coming. I heard the moaning and twisting rope about my window, the eves are haunted. I have been informed by the mayd that there is much disturbance at the hill. They are come, the witches are come, God save my soul and protect me from these devils.
And in that diary he wrote no more, and indeed apart from his will, I suppose they were his last words, as I remembered the date of his death recorded as sometime in January, 1650. My thoughts then turned to what he’d said about the gallows and the eves. My mind was taken back to that bedroom, the creaking and moaning all through the night, I realised I too had been the victim of this ancient haunting, the banging and scraping wasn’t the wind in the trees, but countless ghostly cadavers swinging above my window, tortured souls reliving their last moments upon the gallows. And what of the spirit at the end of my bed the night after uncovering the witches? Was it Robert Helme coming to warn me? To show me his diary?
I began to shiver, and look about in fright. I wanted no more if this place, I could feel it, just as Helme had said. Something was coming.
As if nothing at all strange was occurring, in the evening Giles and I went to dine at the house with his aunt, she was particularly intrigued by our work and wanted to know more. We sat in the dim light of a few lamps, sipping on spoons of warmed up soup while being kept apart by a long oak table. Giles’ aunt was a thin and spindly creature, with hair pulled back so tight it smoothed the wrinkles under her eyes, eyes that were dark and sparkling.
‘It’s all tremendously fascinating boys, truly. Could I take a look at the diary you found?’ She spoke in a deep almost sensual tone.
‘Of course’ I slid the book along the table ‘It is your property after all’.
She leafed through with painted fingernails as Giles and I continued to eat. I watched her turn immediately to the back pages, as if she was looking for something specific. She read a while till the corners of her lips began to crease, and she kept down a throaty chuckle.
‘Ha! The poor fool was so frightened, and what a deliciously poetic end to his murderous crusade, wouldn’t you agree?’ She slid the book away and leant her elbow on the back of her chair, thrusting out her chest as she picked up a cigarette.
Before either of us could reply our attention was caught by some shuffling and banging from the upstairs rooms.
‘I’m sorry Giles, I don’t think I can stay here another night, it’s all getting a bit much’ I whispered, straining to listen to what was occurring upstairs.
‘Are you afraid of him?’ She raised her eyebrow. ‘His tormented stomping and banging shall come to a head tonight.’ She stood and walked to the window, and began to stroke the curtain. ‘Oh yes, Judgement day has come for dear old Robert.’
I stood and turned towards her.
‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I asked, looking back at Giles who seemed equally perplexed.
‘Don’t you see?’ She turned back to us and grinned. ‘So long have my ancestors wished to find the resting place of the three witches, the three sisters. Oh they have waited so patiently to rise again, and devour the soul of Robert Helme’.
‘But I thought Robert was our ancestor?’ Giles asked, mouth agape in anticipation.
‘Oh darling, you see everyone had to believe that was true, so the house would come to me, into my care, as it has for every one of the sisters’ descendants, we have all done our duty, in turn.’
‘You mean we’re descendants of the witches, is that what you mean by sisters?’ Giles shook his head, trying to understand.
‘Yes, that’s right, such powerful souls held under tombs of iron. Their blood runs through our veins Giles! It is our duty!’
‘What duty?’ Giles began raising his voice.
‘To hold Robert Helme! For centuries we have kept him a prisoner in this house, his spirit walks tormented, waiting for the sisters return! And oh it is this night! This night!’ She began to twirl and giggle.
‘You mean the charms and sigils I have found about the house are for him? To trap his spirit? It was you who removed the cages? I asked, slightly trembling, becoming afraid of the woman.
‘Yes! His own charms turned against him! Isn’t it marvellous? Thank you boys, oh thank you for finding the sisters, and it was…’ She paused and skipped to the window ‘Hark! Here they come!’
Me and Giles instinctively moved closer together, and away from his aunt. We stood in silence, listening to the wind. The lamps began to flicker as a strange and distant wailing began to creep up to the house, moving closer.
The floor above us began to shake, a thick and electric atmosphere filled the room. The lamps went black, the air became still. We stood in the quiet dark.
Holding my breath I waited, waited for an eternity until the silence was broken.
‘Rooobert’ A quiet, gravelly and crackling voice stretched out the name in apparent delight. From outside the parlour door creaking and dragging sounds began to emanate, as more thin and hissing voices joined in the chorus, louder and louder ‘Roobeert’ The noise gained more volume and more pervasiveness in seconds, filling the house, the witches began to cackle and screech, the house began to tremble under the unbearable supernatural onslaught, timbers bent and snapped, windows cracked and smashed. The voices became a frenzy, Giles’ aunt began to join in with unnatural hysterical noises.
I looked at Giles, I could see we both had in our minds to run, but the commotion stopped. Stillness again. Giles and I made for the parlour door, but we were halted in our tracks when the same rasping voice spoke again, from the other side of the door.
‘Thou canst not hide, my pet.’ The door swung inwards, hitting the wall. There she stood, her twisted skeletal body erect but hunched at the waist, her head stretched forwards, black eyes peering out through cobweb hair. She looked at us standing there, watching. With a banshee like shriek she lurched into the room. ‘Sisters!’ She screamed, and in return the whole commotion began again. I grabbed Giles’ arm and ran through to the back of the house.
‘They’re behind me, oh Jesus!’ He wailed, as I ran full force at the back door, I smashed through landing into the ground and splinters of wood, losing my grip on Giles. I scrambled up looking back to see where he was. He stood in the doorway, staring at me with an unsettling calm.
‘Come on Giles!’ I screamed. He stood still, and gently bent his head backwards, as a long skeletal hand crept around his face, pulling him back. The black eyes in sunken sockets peered out from behind his shoulder, a sickening grin split across her face as she slid her arms around him, his face turned gaunt and papery and like wet sand he imploded in her grasp, falling to the floor in dust and bones.
I ran, I was in a dream, my heart beating so rapidly my whole body was vibrating. Tears streamed from my eyes as I fought against the wind, running and running till I didn’t know where I was, and I fell to the ground, exhausted.
I find it difficult to recall what happened after this, how I made it home. Giles and his aunt were never found, the house stands empty and crumbling, with nothing but the wind howling through the broken glass. I live in fear each day that the sisters are out there, searching for me. My nights are troubled, sleepless. I hear them on the wind, whispering my name. I feel feverish and weak. They are coming.
The ancient hamlet that crowds itself under the shadow of Gallows Hill is witch haunted. And now they’re haunting me.