British folklore has more than its fair share of arcane sylvan entities. From the Apple Tree Man, guardian of the harvest in Somerset, to the Poldies of the Wirral Peninsula, diminutive and mischievous faeries that dwell within the woods, the very islands themselves seem to have a deep connection with rustic spirits.
Considering how much the world has changed in recent times, is it possible that these spirits linger on even today?
An usual occurrence in a parish located in the county of Kent suggests that this maybe the case.
27th December 2009
Sarah Chatterley is a sober, serious individual. Pushing fifty, she is a well-respected solicitor, specialising in commercial law. She comes across as someone not prone to tall tales or flights of fancy.
Which is what makes what she has to say even more surprising.
We meet a couple of days after Christmas in a quiet café in Richmond. Over coffee and a plate of baked goods named something I cannot pronounce, Ms Chatterley recounts her story:
“The family ‘pile’, if you will, was a big place in Chilham. It’s a large house, with a long garden that backs on to some woods. My brothers and I used to have a great time bumbling about in the afternoons. Halcyon days, let me tell you.”
“Now, when I was young, I was absolutely terrified of thunderstorms. Scared to death of them, and we seemed to get a lot when I was a child. I used to run into my mother and father’s room and beg to sleep with them. After a few times, they asked me not to do this, as I invariably woke them as I climbed under the covers. So I switched tactics and started just sneaking into their room with a blanket and curling up on the floor beside their bed. I suppose it made me feel safe just to know that they were close.”
She takes a sip of her alarmingly expensive coffee before continuing.
“I believe it was the late summer of ‘68, as I would’ve been about six or seven, and it was one of those really humid, muggy nights that we get on occasion in the South East.”
“The storm was the worst one that I can recall, and it broke late that night. I remember gathering my blanket and sneaking into the corridor to head to my parent’s room. In the hallway, stood outside their door, I saw it.”
“It was about the same size as me, maybe a little shorter. It’s body and limbs were thin and it’s head was large and triangular, shaped a bit like a shield. At first I thought it was wearing a mask, but as I looked closer, I could see that that was its face. It had these weird black eyes and a little mouth full of sharp teeth. And it looked to be made of some kind of pale wood.”
I press for further details.
“It had a sort of grain pattern running all over it. Absolutely terrifying, let me tell you.”
“It took a few steps towards me, and when it moved its motion was odd… stilted even. Like it was something out of a Ray Harryhausen film. Do you remember those? Then it bared its teeth and opened its mouth, I can only assume to speak. I’m not too proud to admit that I turned on my heels and ran back into my room. I spent the rest of the night under my blanket with my eyes on the door, scared rigid. I could hear it moving about in the hallway, but I suppose I must have fallen asleep at some point.”
“Come morning, I told my parents, but they thought it was just my overactive imagination. My brothers only laughed at me. By the afternoon, I’d managed to convince myself it was nothing but a bad dream, and I certainly never saw it again. Eventually, it must’ve just faded from my mind. But I’ll tell you this, Dr Gotobed: never again did I leave my room during a thunderstorm at night.”
“And it never came into my thoughts again. Not until a few years ago, anyway.”
All this can be easily chalked up to a childhood nightmare, or possibly a case of sleep paralysis. After all, the developing brain is a complex organism, much of which is still a mystery.
But that only makes what happened thirty six years later all the more intriguing.
The following is an old fable, native to the local area, taken from the 1896 edition of Taylor’s Folklore of The British Isles* (I have taken the liberty of updating some of the more ‘archaic’ terms):
In a little village, over one hill but before the next, there lived a woodcutter and his wife.
The woodcutter was strong, and his wife hearty. They were happy, for they wanted for naught but one thing: a child, with lips to speak, and a heart to beat.
But try as they might, the woodcutter’s wife could not bear her husband neither son nor daughter, and as the years passed, her smile began to fade.
The woodcutter’s desire to see his wife happy eventually went they way such things do, and turned to desperation.
And desperate men do desperate things.
One dark and wretched night, driven deep into the forest by despair, the woodcutter fell to his knees and begged the ancient spirits of the woods for help.
For they provided him with his living, he reasoned, could they not provide a child as well?
To his surprise, the spirits answered.
The ageless things that lived in the forest told the woodcutter to find a white tree of blasted oak. Chop it down, said the spirits, take the trunk, fashion yourself a child, and we will grant it life.
A child with lips to speak, and a heart to beat.
The woodcutter did as he was told. Finding the tree, he took his axe to it, and felled the blasted oak. He dragged the trunk home, and for three nights he hewed and carved, shaping the wood into a small boy.
On the fourth night, the spirits of the forest did as they promised, and breathed life into the boy.
Wooden lips to speak, a wooden heart to beat.
The woodcutter showed his wife what he had made, hoping that she would finally be happy.
But the small wooden boy, animated by the forest’s magic, filled the wife with dread, and she ran to the village. When the people found out what the woodcutter had done, they held a meeting and humm’d and ha’d over what should be done with this accursed boy.
For wooden lips should not speak, wooden hearts should not beat.
With the rising of the sun and the casting of the die, the villagers came for the woodcutter and took him for the noose, his boy for the fire.
The trunk of the white oak was found, the earth around it salted. And the spirits of the forest, angered at the refusal of their gift, fell silent, never to speak to man again.
Ms Chatterley continues:
“About five years ago, my parents held a barbecue for the family. It was a lovely day, and all my brothers were in attendance with their own children in tow. Most of my nieces and nephews were surly teenagers at that point, and so they amused themselves with their phones and what-have you. But Rosie, my brother Simon’s youngest daughter, she was only eight years old and, being a city girl, she was quite happy to run around my parent’s big house and garden. We didn’t see her for most of the day.”
“As it began to get dark, Rosie came out of the house with a big smile on her face. I casually asked her where she’d been and what was amusing her so much. Her answer made a shiver run down my spine.”
“She said she’d been inside, playing with ‘the little wooden boy’.”
Rosie was asked to draw a picture of her new friend. I have the original and will include it in this file. Ms Chatterley confirms it to be the same thing she saw during that terrible thunderstorm in 1968.
The eldest members of the Chatterley family have since moved from that particular residence. I have spoken with the new owners, and they are yet to experience anything unusual.
I have left my details with them should that change.
My first thought was that the young Rosie had overheard a member of the family mention Sarah’s encounter that stormy night. Having spoken to all the members of the Chatterley family, I can confirm this was not the case. Indeed, none of them even had any idea what I was talking about, such was the trivial nature of their relative’s experience all those years ago to them.
I am reluctant to dismiss all this as the product of mere coincidence and childhood delusion. After all, Sarah Chatterley makes a most convincing witness, and for young Rosie to see the exact same thing as her Aunt saw some thirty-odd years later suggests that something unusual has been loitering around that large house in Kent.
It is also interesting to note that, whatever it was, it chose to reveal itself only to children.
Unless the ‘little wooden boy’ decides to make a further appearance, I am afraid it’s identity and motivation will remain unclear.
Perhaps the spirits of the forest wish to be heard once more.
Dr Thomas Gotobed
* If anyone has a copy of this book, could they please get in touch? All I can dig up is a few vague references on Wikipedia and funny looks from the staff at my local Waterstones – C.R.