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A mid-winter’s country hike

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“Let’s see how far we can walk before it gets dark today” I said to Richard Colston when, on one Sunday in early January 1960, we two Boy Scout patrol leaders went out into the Essex countryside for an exploratory hike. Richard and I wanted to design a future hike suitable for the junior Boy Scouts in our troop. Patrol leaders were encouraged to research, explore, plan and organise such events for the junior Scouts to train us in leadership and to generate, for the juniors, enjoyable and safe scouting activities.

Richard and I left our homes for our local town bus stop, dressed in scout shirts, berets, jeans, walking boots and waterproof jackets. We had rucksacks with sandwiches and water bottles to last the day. The bus was to take us out to a small rural village from where our hike of some ten miles would begin. Richard was a quiet lad who had to be encouraged to make conversation. “It’s ten o’clock now Richard” I said. “We should aim to be home before 6pm this evening because it begins to get dark at about 4.30pm”.

“Yes”, he replied. “My mum asked me to be home before it gets really dark”.

We stepped on to the bus. The bus ride took about thirty minutes, leaving the town in which we lived behind us and then followed narrow country lanes to reach the place from where we would start our planned hike. It was cold, crisp and sunny, a bright and frosty day such as mid-winter often brings.

Reaching our destination, we got off the bus and began our march across the frozen, bare winter-brown fields. We walked and walked, down tracks, along lanes, across fields, we passed houses, cottages, farms and pubs, as we followed our map, but we met almost no-one else. At around one o’clock, we noticed a young golden Labrador following us at a distance. It appeared to be alone with no owner nearby, but it wore a dog collar. Encouraged to come closer, it seemed friendly and allowed us to examine the collar but that held no details of dog or owner. We decided that, since it was following us anyway and appeared to be lost and friendless, we would take it with us and hand it in at the police station in our hometown that evening. We passed a Boy Scout scarf through the dog’s collar to act as a lead and trudged onwards.

We marched along more lanes under a lowering sky as dark clouds appeared. The dog was very well-behaved and calm. He appeared to accept us as his new friends and made no move to escape from his leash. Richard and I chatted companionably, and the hours passed as we, now more wearily, trod the miles.

The day began to darken as 4.30pm came and went yet still we plodded on. At about 5pm and now in the dark, we stopped for brief rest and smoked a cigarette as many of the older Boy Scouts did in those days. We sat on grass under an old oak tree on a small island at the junction of three lanes in a tiny hamlet. On one side was an old church. On the other a pub and on the other side a large house. There were a handful of other small cottages in the tiny village. All was quiet, still and dark on this Sunday evening when, suddenly, the church clock struck 5pm loudly. The surprise made us jump to our feet. We hurried down the hill leading out of the village and towards the lights of the main road, our bus route home, that we could see a mile below us.

As we passed a four feet high wall around some old alms houses on our left, the dog suddenly stopped, its legs stiff as it stared straight and rigidly ahead. The hair along its back suddenly and surprisingly rose up, like a Mohican haircut. The dog growled softly. We followed its gaze. An image of a man in outline, wearing no noticeable clothing and with no colours or further definition, walked silently from right to left in front of us, not looking at us as he walked soundlessly straight across the lane and right through the wall of the alms houses. He appeared to be completely unaware of us.

As the apparition vanished through the wall, I looked at Richard and stammered “Did,,,did see…?”  Richard shouted “Run!” The dog seemed to think the same thing and we three all sprinted down the dark lane, down the hill towards the distant road, the warm and friendly streetlights and our bus home. As we ran, I turned to Richard to stammer again “Did, did, did you see that?”

“Don’t ever, ever speak of this again to me, ever” he shouted in answer, still trembling. And he never would, afterwards, even though I tried later to get him to talk about our experience when we met again at a regular Boy Scout meeting.

Many years passed when, on a business visit by car to the area, I drove to the junction of the three roads and entered the pub there. As the landlord served me a pint of beer, I described to him the peculiar incident experienced by a dog, two boys and a ghost forty years earlier. He laughed. He was a local man and declared “There are more ghosts in this old house and village than you could possibly count!”. He knew of no particular phantom associated with the wall around the nearby alms houses but described several similar events experienced nearby by him and members of his family. The landlord explained to me that a successful young lawyer named James Colston bought and moved into the local manor in 1548. At that time, religious unrest and riots were occurring in the countryside following Henry VIII’s death in 1547. His son, Edward VI, had removed Catholic shrines, images and decorations and made the church Protestant. Catholic Bishops who refused to follow Edward’s changes were imprisoned for heresy. James Colston prosecuted so many rioters successfully that he was made “Chief Justice of the Common Pleas” and grew wealthy. In trying to obtain a good education for his son, he set up a small school in the village in 1558. Later, he conveyed five dwellings and three cottages in the village to the master and wardens of the school. Knighted in 1566, he died in 1567 at the Manor which was sold and re-sold until 1752. Then the new owner began to expand the estate and ten alms houses were rebuilt in 1854 in the Elizabethan style in which they appear today.

So just what did the two boys and dog all see, a shared vision that stopped them abruptly, frozen in their tracks? The fact that the dog saw the apparition also, and was so scared that its hair stood upright, is proof to me that what we all saw was the same, inexplicable sight. It was only an hour or so later, as I drove away, that I realised James Colston and my friend Richard shared the same family name……

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