Friday, 31 October 2014

The Stairway Ghost

"The Stairway Ghost" (Part I)--Lisl

Generations perhaps dilute elements in family lines and in our case there was no exception. My mother’s mother enthusiastically brought from Scotland endless stories of people roaming the earth long after their demise—hauntings that frightened my mother, Hannah, to no end. I heard many tales from the time of earliest childhood but despite Mother’s belief that I, as a boy, enjoyed being frightened, the reality was I simply didn’t believe them.

When I was thirteen we went to live with Grandmother for about a year’s time in her old, largish house, a misshapen oddity of many nooks, crannies, corners and shadows. Mother’s old bedroom, which I slept in, had been mostly redecorated but there remained a few items from the past: a prairie doll whose dress had once been matched to the material on a lampshade, many old books, and a hodgepodge of ridiculous small items she had saved from different places she had lived. A soft toy—a wee mouse—made me shiver largely because it ought to have been tossed long ago. The room had a somewhat musty smell to it what with stale air trapped within its walls, I suppose, its owner being long gone.

Just adjacent to the door was a stairwell: I had seen the maid descending earlier in the day, which struck me as odd given there was a hallway above meant for her to use. Assuming she snuck through this way for its easy access to the kitchen, I let it lead me late the first night when I wanted something to drink.

It was a very long stairway, the steps narrow towards the top, widening as one descended and opened up to the lobby sort of area below. Having arrived at the bedroom from the opposite direction, I was puzzled as to this result and thought it strangely fortuitous to see the maid once more at the top of the stairs, though wondered how I had missed her minutes before.

Running back up to greet her, I was surprised to find her gone. “My” bedroom’s closed north door sat at the start of a dead end, so there was nowhere for her to have gone. Bleary eyed, I started towards the staircase again when I heard a muffled cry and repeated, clackety banging, like shoes hitting against stairs as one fell down them—at least that is what I thought had happened. I ran to help the girl only to see an empty staircase.

I couldn’t help but remember Mother’s story of Grandmother being pushed down these very stairs, by an unseen hand that had to have belonged to the ghost of these stairs, the woman seen so many times walking up and down. But she wore an old-fashioned ankle-length dress, so the woman I saw couldn’t have been the same, though as I thought more on it I could no longer picture in my mind what she had been wearing. Strangely, I had assumed her to be the maid, perhaps from the earnestly reluctant expression on her face, the sort seemingly stamped on to people who have lived a lifetime of taking orders and having little say.

Curious as to how this horrific racket had not awoken the house, I chalked it up to the faraway other bedrooms and thick walls. It was an older estate and, as Mother was fond of repeating, “New houses are cheaply made with thin walls and fake tiling.”

A short while later, having achieved my goal, I walked out of the kitchen and through a hallway to cross the formal living room. Something gave me pause and I looked out the window to a street wet from the earlier thunderstorm, scanning the piles of wet leaves giving a fiery cover to the front lawn. Straight away I sensed someone sitting on the sofa directly behind me. There wasn’t enough light for me to employ a reflection in the window, but I knew someone was there.

For the first time my skin crawled; I knew it was neither Mother nor Grandmother, and secure in the knowledge that none of my various relatives had arrived later, I stood, deciding what to do. I had never experienced such an intense feeling even after years of Mother’s own recollections of this house, and decided to take charge. I turned quickly, expecting to see a menacing person, though there was none. But I knew someone had been there, watching. It annoyed me that someone should play such games and I called out a demand for whoever was there to show himself. No one came.


“I beg your pardon—there is no maid?”

“Of course not, why would I have need of a maid for the small part of the house I continue to use?”
I had to close my jaw consciously, for I knew very well I was not in the habit of hallucinating or making up stories. No one accused me of lying, so I was relieved at this, but thought it strange Grandmother didn’t question me further as to why I asked about a maid I might have seen—as if she had no need of any answer. Mother merely pursed her lips.

I determined then and there I was going to get to the bottom of what has been going on in this house since my mother was a small girl, and over time came up against a number of inexplicable occurrences, despite their sometimes contradictory natures. Mother, for example, used to sit at the top of the stairs because she refused to go into her room at night until her sister, who shared it with her, also retired for the evening. And yet there was supposedly some aggressive ghost inhabiting the stairway? How would a young girl terrified of apparitions manage to wait in an area known for a violent presence?

As it turned out Grandmother’s days tended to be long and full, and the activities she planned and chores and projects she had me help with when school was out contributed to excellent sleep at night. Nevertheless one evening about a month into our stay I woke in the middle of the night; seeing the clock I knew it to be Mother’s time of the night right before what she called her “second sleep.” So it was unsurprising to hear murmuring in the night, and I pondered that she and Grandmother were having tea.

As I lay in the darkness the moonlight began to spill into the window and I saw the outline of Mother’s cedar tree outside, its coniferous branches reaching out in the night in dark outline against the light in the sky. It was so beautiful that it took me a full few moments to recognize a shape near the window, that of a woman also looking out. She turned, as if sensing I saw her, and put her finger to her lips to quieten me.

I had not moved but an eyelash in the time I had awoken, and yet this woman somehow knew I was awake and seeing her. This was absurd! I sat up, my attempt being to shake out the sleep from my brain and catch the person sneaking into this room, or at least recognize a dream when I see one. However, when I switched on the light, of course no one was there.

As I allowed myself to drift onto the pillow I heard once more the forgotten murmurs, which lulled me into sleep.


Over the course of time I became a little angry: I went looking for phantasms and saw nearly nothing, but seemed to dream a lot of them. What could at all possibly be real yet disappeared upon further examination is what perturbed me, and then is when the activity stepped itself up a notch.

The light in my bedroom began to play up despite several months of being in perfect order. Sometimes clothing in the room’s only closet was heard to move; that is to say, the sound of hangers being pushed along a rod made itself clear. When I looked, the clothes were always parted down the middle, as if someone had inserted both arms and swiftly opened them wide.

Frequently a breeze would pass through the room, not unlike that brought in when someone steps inside from the cold. A strong scent began to filter through the room, a flowery sort of perfume that seemed to have come from another time. Occasionally I would hear a woman’s long sigh, and sometimes watch as a depression appeared on the bed, as if some unseen person had just at that moment sat upon it.

Soon after I began to hear rapping on the wall across the room, a wall which Mother had said divided the bedroom and another area my father had referred to as the “attic,” despite it being on the same level as the bedroom. On that side of the wall was virtually another century: no lighting or even walls or floorboard, one had to step over rafters to advance through the area, eventually reaching to above the stairs. I was sure I would find my culprit here and several times sat watch to catch the person playing tricks on us.

I later realized this area ran the length of the entire house, or at least that crazy segment of it, and thought about the passageways in a house we had lived in when I was smaller. With a friend I used to sneak through it to peep in the keyholes of other parties’ sitting rooms, as it too ran the length of the entire structure in which our apartment was housed. However, recalling one story Mother had also told of a servant peeping through the keyhole where his master and the devil played cards only to have his eye struck out, I determined it prudent to cease this activity.

But here would be no keyholes, only a wall dividing larger rooms, the back ones being the perfect hiding places for my uncles to have played tricks on Mother as she sat reading or hiding or what it was she did to escape the torment. Really, I thought to them, a half smile playing on my lips as I contemplated their wickedness, you were persistent, weren’t you?

The first night I brought through with me a torch, mirror, bottle of water and a paperback to pass the time. After awhile I thought I might have brought a pillow, so sleepy did it make me, and indeed my eyes began to be heavy. At this point I was next to the room actually across from mine, though inaccessible by the formerly shared hallway. I’d had to climb over an arched area directly above the staircase, so close I heard the tread of some restless night person.

Happening to glance down where I had set my items, I could see the clear reflection of a face in the mirror. I held my breath, awaiting discovery but the person appeared unaware of my presence, even when I slowly picked up the mirror framing its face. Watching in awe I saw that he—for I could clearly make out this figure was male—was not bothering to glance my way as he was conversing with another. I heard a sharp gasp to my left and when I looked, there too was another eavesdropper! In her instance she appeared to detect what the pair were saying; for me it was once more just murmurings. Despite this, the lone figure, the same woman from my room some weeks prior, looked to me and once more put her finger to her lips, then turned her attention to the conversation some meters away from us, which only she could understand.

It was all rather curious and I reflected upon Mother’s fear and how intense it had, by her own admission, been. I was unafraid, but at that moment I admitted to myself that for some time now I had believed the beings wandering this house were not amongst the living. My mother had been right, and my heart sank in pity when I realized how it must have been for her to grow up, terrified, amongst all of this, knowing few others were also aware.

The two gentlemen continued to converse on what must have been a serious and very important topic, for they never once evidenced awareness of either my presence or the ghost’s, and after having witnessed this several times—always being warned to be silent—I crept away, wondering if they ever would hear me.

The attic continued on, as I say, for the length of this side of the entire house, though the ghostly activity seemed to be concentrated in that stairway area—on and above it, in the attic, and as well in the bedroom I guested in. Mother must surely have known this for she steadfastly refused to visit me here and she slept elsewhere. Like her mother before her, she housed her child in a haunted set of rooms, though in this case the child was more curious than afraid.

On some evenings in my secret reading spot I distinctly felt as if someone were looking over my shoulder at the book I held; the sensation I received was curious but unable to decipher what I had. Sometimes I would hear a soft tread on the stairs directly below me, and occasionally the clackety sounds of fast or falling feet. After having heard it numerous times it dawned on me that the exactness of the sounds gave the impression of a re-enactment.

I did sit on a number of occasions at the top of the stairs, trying to channel, absurd as it may sound, what Mother had been feeling when she sat there as a little girl, too frightened to go into her own bedroom. Though she had told me many of the stories, I didn’t know them all, and I wondered that this mystery, admittedly with a different angle now, might never be solved if I didn’t know all the details. We were only meant to stay here for a year while my father was in the Army, and time was running out…


Lisl is a contributor to Alaska Women Speak and Naming the Goddess. She can also be found at before the second sleep. If you would like Lisl to review your book, please see our submissions tab above. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

In the forest of awaiting - Wendy J. Dunn--

The bright sun reached its noonday peak, the morning dew long gone from grass crushed beneath hoofs and feet, as the spirited stallion pranced, sporadically shaking its head, following rather than led by the reins his young rider held. Only a short time before, the man had fallen off his horse, not because he lacked riding ability but simply out of pure exhaustion. A good thing too they were friends – the dark haired rider and his coal black horse – otherwise it would have been such an easy thing for the horse to break away; leaving the man completely alone to confront the unknown.

After long hours of negotiating the leafy wood, where light wrapped around itself a green-like veil and towering, overhanging trees imprisoned the man on either side, the forest path brought him to a clearing. Overwhelmed- in this treeless place- by the power of the sun, its onslaught of brilliance forcing the man to raise his free hand to rub hard first one eye and then the other, he felt blinded, wholly assaulted by light; his throbbing head hurt more than it had done while making his way through the forest. His stomach heaved, forcing him to kneel on the ground before it rose up at him. He wondered how he possibly could go on.
As his sight began to return to normality, the young man slowly lifted his head, looking left and right, trying to make sense of this place where he found himself.  While stricken with near sightlessness, he had found himself growing fearful of all the unrecognized noises around him, One noise frightened him more than any other, now he distinguished it as the sound of a heavy waterfall cascading into a deep, wide pool.
The pool overflowed from one end, forming a narrow stream, slithering its way through more woodland, which edged the other side of the clearing. He felt relieved. Since the day before yesterday, continual humming afflicted his hearing and, added to this humming, the noise from the waterfall only served to make him think his senses deranged.
Having isolated one sound, he now recognised other noises: the buzzing of nearby bees, the chirping of nesting birds, the heavy, snorting breathing of his patient steed. But what of the long-haired girl approaching him? She who moved towards him with an unhurried dancer's grace; the man found himself thinking, ‘her footsteps make no sound’. 

Beautiful wasn't a strong enough word to describe her. Adorned with a golden circlet, her loose hair, golden red, shined so bright it appeared alight when set against the backdrop of blue, cloudless skies and the greenery of not too distant trees. Her face was oval and pale, the young woman's skin so pure threads of veins showed clearly at temple and neck; with her countenance uplifted by eyes that were glistening orbs of deepest blue. Curved in a gentle smile- a dimple formed in each flushing cheek- her rosy mouth revealed white and perfect teeth. Wearing a green, velvet gown, the woman's laced bodice clung to her upper body before falling, in flowing drapery, from her slender hips to hint at fragile, naked feet.
There was such a line to her very form, beginning from the well shaped head, held Queen-like high on a slender neck, down to the pink, translucent nails on her toes, that spoke simply of grace and sang out loud to the glory of her young womanhood.
‘I remember…’ he thought. But the brief moment of remembering passed, as does the memory of a dream on sudden awaking. Leaving the young man only with the sense he floundered, twisted and turned in his struggles to break his way through to true awareness.
Seeing the woman come closer to him, the man feebly let the steed's reins fall to the ground. The horse wasted no more time, taking its freed reins as permission to graze on the lush, green grass. The stallion pulled grass from the soft ground and busily chewed, moving further and further away from his human companion. His rider, suddenly aware of this, glanced to ascertain that his horse stayed safe. When he returned his gaze to the approaching girl, he found her standing in front of him with a tenuous fingered hand outstretched. 
"Come," she said. ”You are thirsty. Come and drink."
Without ado, she helped the man up from his kneeling position and took him through the foot-sucking sedge to the harder ground at the side of pond, gently assisting him to sit on one of the rocks bordering its closest side. Then she stood behind him, with her hands lightly resting on his shoulders, making no attempt to give him some of the nearby water to moisten his dry mouth. 
The man felt another moment of utter confusion, and tried to glance, around the body of the girl, back at the way he had come – the trees so far away, blurring as he looked. The girl squeezed his shoulders, giving him a slight though gentle forward push. Suddenly concerned for his balance, the man spun around to look forward and down at the pool of water. In an instant, the man forgot the importance of his backward glance, importance he now never needed to fathom, and found his upper body leaning even further towards the water. 
         He thought, 'the pool is so beautifully clear. Not only can I see the girl and myself as if I held a huge mirror before us, but there is something here I cannot grasp. It’s like the body of water is enchanted; a huge, rippling mirror that draws from me and gives me back something I have yet to fully understand. My ears have finally stopped the dreadful humming. I felt weary and sore, now it is as if my body is no more.  Likewise, I felt dying of thirst yet that need too is quenched.’
       He gazed into the shining, clear water, staring at his reflection and that of the red haired girl. It was as though the rippling water, sparkling with brilliant sunlight, began to turn their reflections into something other than two human forms until it was that the water simply shone with stars.
                                        *           *           *
The young woman sat by the hospital bed, all her attention closely focused on the shallow fall and rise of her husband's chest. For three long, terrible days she had watched her husband's struggle to fight death become weaker. Three long days – time enough for this small room to evolve into a world closed in- all else shut out. Three long days… time enough for the woman to lift her gaze to death.
They said it wouldn't be very much longer- even less time now. Only moments ago, the medical staff switched the life support machine off. She touched his hand and then took it up quickly, beginning to rub. He felt so very, very cold. If it weren’t for the rising and falling of his chest and the occasional jerk of his fingers, she would think him finally gone. 
      Strange how she now came to some sort of heart-aching acceptance.
When the woman first arrived here, after being told of her husband's car accident, she railed at him, crying out, “Don’t you dare let go! Fight, my love, please, please fight. You must fight for me.” Yes - just for her - the man must fight even death.
She refused to listen to the medical staff when they told her it would be best for nature to take its final, relentless course. More than any thing else, she wanted to keep her face turned away, away from those horrible, horrible facts. Facts telling of a reality that she never thought to contemplate- a reality that gave her such little hope, offering no way for him to surmount his injuries, or return to her. 
Even on the second day, wiping away a flow of blood seeping from his ears, she lay her cheek against his and implored, whispering, “please don’t leave me, darling. I don’t want to be alone. My love. My love. How can I live my life without you?”
But on this last day all hope died. She understood his injuries were such it would be only a cruelty for him to live. She could no longer abide his body being tortured and know his spirit was clipped and flightless.  Unable to speak, she nodded when they asked again to turn off the machine giving his body illusion of life. She lay her head on his chest, her ponytail snaking in a red spiral, and stayed here without moving, dry-eyed, listening to the weak, irregular drumming of his heart, thinking of their time together, of every joy and heartbreak. And the woman told him that it was all right for him to go – death simply cannot be the end. 

 About the author:

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter – named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne. She gained her Doctorate of Philosophy (Writing) from Swinburne University in 2014. Wendy also tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program. 

Visit Wendy's website here:

A Little Ghost Story by Wendy J Dunn

This is an extract from an article first published at my long retired Suite101 Tudor England column, many years ago. My little ghost story has since been included in Karina Machado’s lyrical, sensitive,  beautifully written Spirit Sisters: “a collection of true-life encounters with the supernatural based on the first-hand experiences of everyday Australian women from all walks of life”.

On the English freeway up to Scotland there's very likely still a sign all history-seeking tourists should be aware of: Hadrian Wall, it proclaims, that way. Years ago, on a driving tour of England and Scotland, my family went that way, and continued to go that way for a long, long, long time.

Every since reading Rosemary Sutcliff's
The Eagle of the Ninth as a twelve year old, I had daydreamed about visiting Hadrian's Wall. Now visiting England for the first time, I was determined to live that dream. My long-suffering husband, driving off the freeway onto English winding roads, suffered even more when I yelled, every time I saw a crop of stones suggestive of a wall, “Stop!  That’s it!”

One of these stops proved well worth a visit. We discovered a tiny temple of Mithras right in the middle of a farm pasture full of nonchalant sheep, all of them far too used to seeing tourists trespassing over their home to even lift their heads from grazing. The farmer - who kindly showed us the temple – also gave us the right directions to Hadrian's Wall. By then the patience of two of our children had run bone dry. Finally reaching our destination, they opted to stay in the car and listen to music, while our second son, Tim, my husband and I climbed the hill to the remains of a long-ago Roman fortress.

At those Roman ruins, I looked down from the crest of that hill and took in a deep breath. I imagined Roman soldiers, exiled so far from home, also gazing at the view all around, fearing another uprising of the British tribes. It gave me goose bumps. But that wasn't the only thing to give me goose bumps on this trip.

We continued on our way to Scotland where we stopped first at Edinburgh. On our second day in Scotland we went up to 'the Castle.' Perched like a protective eagle over the nest of the city, Edinburgh Castle calls out to all its majestic grandness and invincibility. The castle is so ancient that it appears almost a natural outgrowth of the very rocks forming its foundations.

There's a great deal to see and hear at the Castle, from the various exhibitions, the cannon blast fired at 1:00 p.m.  every day, except for Sunday ( another one of my travel frights) and the tiny but beautiful Saint Margaret's Chapel. Every moment, I was there, I found myself swept away by its history. So maybe that explains what happened to me while on the Castle's organised tour, passing under the portcullis and through the gateway of the Castle.

Have you ever felt like you've stepped into another dimension, as if a veil has been lifted, and you experience something beyond your day-to-day existence? That's how I felt when a woman’s voice began singing, right next to me.

I spent the first moments in great disbelief. Someone must be very brave, I thought, singing their heart out in a group of least twenty people. And rather rude too - because the guide, apparently choosing to ignore this woman’s rudeness – was telling us his spiel about the Castle. But the voice was lovely, the words foreign. French, it suddenly came to me, the song a haunting ballad. Tears came to my eyes, and I turned to the person who had moved me so. As I turned my head to look at the blonde, oblivious woman beside me, the voice just petered away. Pulled back to the time it belonged. Yes, I really believe this to be a ghostly experience. Straight after the event, my first thought was it must somehow be connected to Mary, Queen of Scots - though not her - more likely one of her French female attendants. And I still believe that. Whether you believe me or not is up to you, but - I swear faithfully - it did happen, exactly as I've told you here.

About the author:

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter – named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne. She gained her Doctorate of Philosophy (Writing) from Swinburne University in 2014. Wendy also tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program. 

Visit Wendy's website here:

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Tell me what you see

“What do you see?” 
“See? The cell is dark. I can barely see anything.” 

“You’re not looking hard enough. Go on, move closer in, and look towards the window.” 

“Oh — there’s a cold draught somewhere…”

“Try not to think about it. Are you looking towards the window?” 

“The light is rather…all I can see is a haze— a shower of light. It hurts to look.” 

“Listen carefully— try to look into the haze and tell me what you see.” 

“I feel cold—”

“Don’t think about it. Just focus on looking.” 

“Oh dear Lord!” 

“Why have you stepped back? Did you see something?” 

“I thought I saw…” 

“Tell me.” 

“I thought I saw a girl, sitting in a window-seat. But I can’t see her now.” 

“Come back beside me and see if you can see her again.” 

“I’m frightened—”

“Don’t be. I’m here. Come now — hold my hand.” 

“All right. I’m ready.” 

“Is she still there?” 

“Yes. Oh yes. She’s weeping…I can hear her!” 

“Good! It’s happening now…Can you try to describe her?” 

“She’s tiny and so young…I think no more than fourteen. But wait…she’s dressed like a matron, with her hair all covered. O — there’s another thing…I think the clothes are Tudor. In fact, I’m sure they are. But she must be Protestant…”

“Why do you say that?” 

“Her clothes — her gown is unadorned by any jewels. Dark colours — all black, I think. So severe for such a young girl. She has a prayer book attached to her girdle. If I remember right, that’s how Protestants dressed. But why is she weeping?” 

“Perhaps if we found out who she is we would find the answer to that.” 

“How do we do that? You know, she looks so real I could touch her…”

“Are you frightened now? 

“No — not any more. Just so very sad for her. But you haven’t answered my question…”

“All in good time…”

“Oh — she weeps like a child weeps. So forsaken and alone. Can’t we do anything for her?” 

“No. Nothing. And —to be truthful— she’s no longer here. This is a moment in time scarred by such raw emotion that it remains with us forever.” 

“So - her spirit really is at peace.” 

“Of course. She was an innocent and God keeps her safe.” 

“You know who she is, don’t you?” 

“Yes. But I want you to see if you find the answer yourself.”

“But I don’t know how…”

“See what else you can see. Describe the room.” 

“It’s more like a cell than a room - grey stone walls. But a comfortable cell. I think I see more than one chamber. The window is thick lattice glass. She must have been some one important to be in a chamber with glass.”

“Yes - she was.” 

“But such a young girl to be so filled with grief. O- she's stopped crying. I think I can hear her speaking…” 

“Can you tell me her words?” 

“No. She went too fast for me. Wait - she’s speaking again…‘Live still to die…by death you…purchase eternal life.... There is a time to be born…a time to die…the day of death is better than the day of our birth’.” 

“So, do you know who she is now?

About the author:

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian writer who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor history since she was ten years old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction; and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. Born in Melbourne, Australia, Wendy is married and the mother of three sons and one daughter – named after a certain Tudor queen, surprisingly, not Anne. She gained her Doctorate of Philosophy (Writing) from Swinburne University in 2014. Wendy also tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program. 

Visit Wendy's website here.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Witch of Wookey Hole - A Hallowe'en Post by Rob Bayliss

Marking the north-eastern edge of Somerset, stand the Mendip Hills. These are hills of Carboniferous limestone and Triassic dolomite, and exhibit classic karst landscape features. Climbing up through the hills is the amazing Cheddar Gorge and its network of cave systems. Inside these caves the air has a steady temperature and humidity which was found to be ideal conditions for the six to nine month maturing process of Cheddar cheese.

South of Cheddar lies Wells, the smallest city in England, famous for its Bishop’s Palace and its swans that swim in its moat and ring a bell to be fed. Near to Wells is the tourist attraction of Wookey Hole Caves.

Unfortunately Wookey has nothing to do with Chewbacca from Star Wars! As is usual in Somerset the name derives from an amalgam of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words to describe a geographical feature. Hence we have a derivative of ochie (Welsh for cave) tagged with hole (Old English for cave) and of course cave, itself a Latin/Norman word. So Wookey Hole Caves translates literally as Cave Cave Caves, and at the same time gives us a linguistic history of England in chronological order!

From out of Wookey Hole the River Axe emerges. It is the dissolving effect of the water on the limestone that has created this cave system: a network of caverns that has been used by humans for at least 45,000 years, evidenced by the discovery of Paleolithic tools and fossilised remains of animals. Ice Age denizens who found shelter in shallow caves in the nearby cliffs included cave hyenas, Eurasian lions and woolly rhinoceros. Other fossils indicate an almost tropical climate was enjoyed here between ice ages.  

The full extent of the main cave system, as it worms deep into the Mendips, is still to be ascertained. It was at Wookey Hole that some of the first successful cave diving expeditions in Britain were attempted by teams led by Malcolm Balcombe in 1935 using standard diving dress. How these early cave divers managed to squeeze through these dark tunnels in cumbersome diving suits doesn't bear thinking about. So far divers have explored approximately 4km including 25 chambers, but at the cost of two lives.

From the Stone Age and beyond the Iron Age these caves and its river have been used by humans. There is evidence of occupation up to the Roman period and the River Axe was used to power mill to grind corn in 1086, and the water used for both power and the manufacturing process for a paper mill since 1610.

The caves and mill are now a popular tourist attraction. In fact the beautiful stalactites and stalagmites have long drawn people to marvel at them. In the 18th century Alexander Pope visited the caves. He had several stalactites shot down from the roof to take home as souvenirs! In 1912 archaeologist Herbert Balch undertook a two-year exploration of the caves prior to them being opened to the public as a recognisable modern tourist attraction.

Obviously with such a long period of occupation the dark mysterious caverns have gathered about them many a tale and legend. I wonder if those early cave divers had a niggling doubt regarding the legend of a huge, 30-feet-long conger eel that once haunted the Severn estuary and set himself up as king of the fish? He would feast and gorge himself, destroying fishermen’s nets and flooding the land with his thrashing about. Eventually, sick of his antics, fishermen managed to corner him near Brean Down and forced him up the River Axe. Unrelenting, they forced the beast further and further upstream. With nowhere to go the deposed king of the fish squeezed into the caves, and was never seen again.

The most well-known legend of course deals with the famous Witch of Wookey. There are a few versions of the story of the goat herding witch who lived in the caves. All gave the caves a wide berth during her reign of terror. If ever there was an example of “hell hath no fury than a woman scorned” then she was it. It was said that the witch had experienced a failed romance and if she was to be denied love, then so would all others. Relationships and marriages around Wookey turned sour as she threw her curses at the villagers. The villagers sent word of their plight to Glastonbury Abbey who dispatched a monk to deal with the fiendish assassin of love.

Some versions say the monk had once been betrothed to a girl from Wookey until the witch had spoiled the relationship; others that he himself was the witch’s one time love before spurning her and commiting  himself to holy orders.

The monk ventured into the dark forbidding caves and there fought a terrible battle with the witch. She cast spells and threw curses at the Benedictine who parried them with prayers and incantations of his own. The caves were lit with the fell light of her magic as she, strong in her lair, sought to finish the priest. But as she advanced upon him he reached inside his robes and, finding a vial of holy water, cast it upon the sorceress. She screamed, stricken by its holy power and turned to stone before his very eyes. And there the petrified witch remains to this day. You can see the crone’s nose, chin and bonnet quite clearly.

A nice story to explain a stalagmite and yet… during Herbert Balch’s investigation in 1912 a thousand-year-old skeleton was unearthed. It was an aged Romano-British woman. Around her were the bones of goats, and beside her a dagger and a polished lump of  stalactite shaped like a crystal ball...

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow fantasy series. Book 1 - The Sun Shard is available at Amazon.