For the first post of this new repository of the odd and uncanny, I will introduce a place that has a strong personal resonance with me. That place is Gibbet Hills & Douglas Lane which lies close to where I grew up and again currently live. Lying between the villages of Howden Le Wear and Witton Le Wear, in the Wear Valley district of County Durham in North~East England, this country lane and handful of dwellings may appear to some to be unremarkable perhaps, yet it is the place where I have probably personally most strongly experienced an ‘otherly’ presence and felt the veils between worlds to be at their thinnest. I may sound melodramatic, but I feel a profound numinosity there. It truly beguiles me, yet I often feel a certain discomfort there. Though I believe myself to be clairsentient to a certain degree, I have heard of several people who normally don’t pick up ‘vibes’ from places feeling the heebie-jeebies from the energy there.
One of my experiences at the location, shared with my friend Damian Leslie, was featured in The Fairy Census collected and collated by the writer and researcher Simon Young of The Fairy Investigation Society. As with many tales from folklore and people’s personal anomalous experiences, borders and boundaries blur when it comes to the ‘labelling’ of strange phenomena and it may well be remembered that one theory of the nature of fairies is that they are the spirits of the dead.
My report to the Fairy Census follows now in full …
§95) England (North East). Male; 2000s; 31-40; in open land (fields etc), on a country
road; with one other person who shared my experience; 12 am-3 am; ten minutes to an hour;
mischievous, angry; occasional supernatural experiences; you had taken alcohol or a medicine or drug;
loss of sense of time, profound silence before the experience, hair prickling or tingling before or during
the experience, a sense that the experience was a display put on specially for you, unusually vivid
memories of the experience.
This true experience reads like a ghost story but there is a fey
element to it. It was at some point between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and
a friend and I have been out for a drink and decided to go for a ‘ghost walk’, named
as such as we were going to a place called Gibbet’s Hill, which in centuries past held
the gallows in which sheep rustlers and other executed criminals were locally hung. It
is a place that since childhood [I] have felt exudes a strange atmosphere. Gibbet’s Hill
lies between two crossroads along a path called Douglas Lane. Douglas Lane itself is
reputed to be haunted by a Grey Lady. She is said to be the spectre of a Lady
Douglas, past resident of Witton Towers, in the nearby village of Witton le Wear. It
is said that she was murdered, possibly by her husband and that her spirit wanders on
New Year’s Eve between the villages of Witton Le Wear and Howden Le Wear. That
night there was a crisp covering of snow a few inches deep and there was a bright
moon, perhaps full I do not recall but it cast a purplish-blue light upon the snow.
Upon turning onto Douglas Lane a fox crossed our path. We proceeded along the
lane to a ramshackle empty old house (since bought and renovated) which as children
we used to run past as it was ‘Mad Mary’s house’ – Mad Mary probably wasn’t mad
but she was a reclusive old woman who sometimes twitched curtains and looked out.
As children we thought she was a witch. Mary (which I seem to recall might have
been her real name, but I’m not positively sure) had at this time been dead for a
number of years and her house had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was to our
surprise as we cut behind it onto fields where there is a public right of way, to see
lights on in the house. Except there wasn’t but seemed to be a trick of the strange
moonlight. It was quiet and still, save for the oddly nocturnal cawing of a solitary
crow roosting in a skeletonised tree on the crossroads. We mildly jumped when we
were approached by a curious horse whom we hadn’t noticed. We had ‘spooked’
ourselves up for the walk and had had a few beers but the events that followed
happened as described. We crossed the field to the corner where the stile at the end
of a thorn or holly hedge ran. (Cannot recall now, something spiny anyway). Except
the style was not there. That seemed odd, it had been there for years, so we looked
along the hedge to see where it had moved too. No sign, so we retraced our steps to
see if we’d made an error. Knowing something of folklore, I talked about being
‘Pixie-led’ and joked that we should turn our coats inside out to break the spell, but
we both decided was too cold to even take our coats off.
So I said I’d heard that whistling was another method to reputedly break the spell,
but us both being fans of M.R. James also ventured that whistles can sometimes
also attract the wrong attention from the other side.
That did not stop me whistling however. Strangely,especially as this area is open area
on the top of a hill and not really an echoey place.
There was an echo of the whistling but not instantly. There was a short delay of only a
second or so, but still noticeable where the whistle hung on the air and then returned,
as if in mimickery rather than a bounce. So there was an odd climatic effect at play.
Our steps led us back to the corner of the field – still no stile. Then suddenly there
was a noise at the other end of the hedge, low down. It sounded like something
charging at us breaking twigs all the while. When I remember this in my mind’s eye it
is like a triple zoom camera effect that you see in some films where it appears a figure
is stationary but the background rushes forward. Whatever it was that made the
noise, we did not see nor did we wait to see. Without a word to each other we both
scrambled over the thorn hedge and ran across fields, only stopping when we had
reached a path leading back into our village. We stopped then and looking at each
other were both like ‘What the ‘expletive’ was that all about?’ No idea, but whatever
it was and I still remember it as being very strange, instilled in the pair of us (who
were admittedly already ‘spooked up’ in a watching horror movies thrill frame of
mind and having had a few drinks) a sense of sudden panic. Some days later I
retraced the walk in daylight, the snow having melted so could not follow exact
footsteps, but discovered at the end of the spiny hedge, the stile where it had always
(not quite always) been. There was no clue as to what made the rushing, crunching
noise that made us run away.’ ‘I don’t class it specifically as fairy or ghost etc. just
that the ‘Pixie-led’ experience seemed to make it relevant to this census.’ ‘I do think
some places are ‘thin’ and the reasons for that could vary, but although not stating a
fixed belief as to the actual nature and causes, but ‘supernatural’ type experiences are
real. ‘Reality’ itself being something of more questions than answers.’
Returning to Gibbet Hills recently with another friend, the medium, artist and pod-caster John Chadwick was also an odd experience. I told him little about the area before getting there as I was curious to see whether he would pick up any sensations there. That night we did not even leave the car as the feeling in the air was so palpable. It actually felt to me, that somebody else had got into the car and was sat in the back seat. This feeling remained until we had driven quite a distance away and then faded.
Recently John and I returned to the area so that John could record a segment for his podcast The Innsmouth Book Club which can be viewed here.
Note that the errors in directions in the recording are my fault. I only vaguely gave the rough direction of nearby places and some details are a little off … but Hell, I’ve got lost up there before as the earlier account described.
I blame the Pixies … or maybe the dead souls of nefarious criminals hung up in the past to rot in cold gibbet cages , bound between several crossroads, so that they themselves may remain eternally lost.
I daresay I will return to Gibbet Hills and Douglas Lane again and again. Though it is not the most pleasant-feeling location there is something there that draws me back time and again. If I do and anything happens or if anyon else passes on their experiences of the gallows site, I will surely let you know …
All photographs ©Andy Paciorek