Simon Wesley stubbed out his cigarette and asked, "Are you familiar with Woolton Minster?"
"Woolton in Suffolk?" I shook my head. "I know of it, of course, but..."
We turned to George Cobbett, who was scraping the bowl of his pipe. He looked up.
"Woolton? Yes, I've been there. A handsome church, mainly Norman. There's a very fine west window, and some remarkably grotesque gargoyles. One of 'em, right at the top of the west front..."
"That's the place," said Simon, "though you must have visited it before the war." (George nodded.) "In 1944, a German bomber on its way to Norwich got into difficulties and had to jettison its bomb. The thing landed right in the Close. Remarkably, no lives were lost, but the west front of the Minster was destroyed. The window - yes, it was a fine one - was shattered, and the gargoyles were pulverised. It was a sad business, but it brought me into the story."
You see (he continued), I was assistant to Sir Martin Runciman, who supervised the restoration work when it finally started. The building had been patched up, of course, but it wasn't until 1951 that they could afford to do the job properly. Money was short, and funds came in slowly, but at last we were able to begin.
Fortunately, there were plans and photographs to work from, and we aimed to make that west front look just as it did before - or very nearly. We used the same Barnack stone, and the window was fashioned as near as could be to the original, though somehow the glaziers didn't quite manage to reproduce the colours. I don't know: there's something about mediæval glass... It was a miracle really that the window had survived the Reformation, but Adolf managed to achieve what William Dowsing and his chums had failed to do.
Anyway, we did good work. You must go and have a look at the church, Roger. It really is very handsome.
The only real difficulty was over the gargoyles. You'll remember, George: there were three of them at the west. Oh, dear. I'll have to describe the place. That west front comes to a peak, about eighty feet high. The porch doesn't project, and there are no towers there; the building is roughly cruciform, and has a sturdy, fairly low central tower. The church is almost entirely Norman, with an apsidal east end, but the west window is - or was - a very nice example of a fourteenth century Tree of Jesse.
At each corner of the gable was a gargoyle - grotesque enough, to be sure, but not uncommonly so. You can see similar figures on many churches: rainwater pipes carved into demonic shapes, with the water coming out of their mouths. But the thing in the middle, right at the peak of the gable, was something else.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't a gargoyle at all, but a statue. It was extraordinary. The only thing I've ever seen like it - and remember: I only saw it in photographs - was the so-called Baphomet of St Bris-le-Vineux in Brittany. It had bulging eyes under thick brows, a heavy moustache, and huge hands that gripped the edge of the roof. And it had female breasts. A very strange and sinister creature indeed. It was crouched, as if ready to launch itself into flight. Yes, there were wings too, folded behind, so that you couldn't see them properly from the ground. There were the traditional goat's legs, and small horns, and the teeth were bared in a rather disconcertingly confident grin.
Well, there was much discussion among the Church Council, and with the Bishop's agreement it was decided to replace this particular demon with a statue of St Michael. That would be more fitting, they said, especially as the Minster is dedicated to St Michael and All Angels. They got John Elen in for this; it was his first major public commission, and he did a fine job. The saint, in armour, is standing, legs astride, looking up, and holding his sword hilt-upwards in front of him. It's hardly what you'd call avant-garde, but that's not what was required. It's a very impressive conventional - no; traditional - work of art, and somehow it gives quite a different aspect to the building.
Our work was finished towards the beginning of 1953. A new history of the Minster was published, written by the Vicar - a decent fellow, who was something of an antiquarian - and commemorative copies were presented to Runciman and me.
I've got my copy here: The Collegiate Church of St Michael and All Angels at Woolton, by the Revd Edmund Wheatley, M.A. There are photographs of the west end before and after the war, so you can get some idea of what sort of a job we did.
Wheatley and I got on very well together, and before the end of the restoration work, when Runciman had gone off to supervise another project in Shropshire, he suggested that rather than stay on at my hotel in the town I should move into the Vicarage, which stands on the site of the old Deanery, just south of College Gate. This was very agreeable to me, as you can imagine, and we'd often sit up of an evening, chatting about antiques, or music, or ghosts - or just reading.
Now, while the work was going on there was a watchman stationed in the Close - to protect my men's implements, mainly - and after Evensong Wheatley always used to come with me to his cubby-hole and have a few words with him. This was sheer good nature on his part, you know, because the church plate - some of it pre-Reformation - was kept pretty safe under lock and key in the vestry.
Bob Chater, the watchman, was a big man: an ex-Bombardier, sociable and cheerful. I wondered occasionally how such a person could cope with the solitude of the job, and was rather taken aback when I discovered that he spent the quiet hours in teaching himself classical Greek. That's by the way, though. Bob would take three or four turns around the Close - at no set time: we agreed that was best - but mostly he'd sit in the little room built into College Gate, with a lantern and his books and a flask of coffee.
I might add that the room had been the janitor's lodgings in the middle ages, and Wheatley told us that it had been used again early in the nineteenth century, when the resurrection men were at work. Still, Bob wasn't likely to meet anything quite that gruesome, we thought, and it became something of a standing joke when we said good-night for the Vicar to add, "Keep an eye open for the body-snatchers, Bob."
Body-snatchers. Hm... Yes, well...
It was early one March morning, a Tuesday, when I was woken by a hammering at the Vicarage door. I thought perhaps it was an urgent call on behalf of a sick parishioner, so I was surprised when Wheatley came into my room and said, "There's been an attempted burglary at the Minster. No, it's all right - nothing's been taken. But Bob Chater's here with a rather curious story, and I'd like you to hear it."
He waited while I got into my dressing-gown and slippers, and we went downstairs to his study, where he already had coffee brewing on the gas-ring. Bob declined a cup, but accepted a shot of whisky. Then he gave his report.
"It's a dark night, sir, as you can see - dry, but very cloudy - and about ten past three I decided to take a walk around the Minster, my third tonight. I started at the west end, opposite my sentry-box, and went round the south side, and everything was fine. Then the east end - nothing. And then I started along the north wall, and as I cleared the chapter house I saw a light in the vestry, as it might be an electric torch, where there oughtn't to be a light at all.
"I don't know sir, but somehow I never really expected burglars here, since everyone in the town knows that I'm on duty in the Close of nights. Still, I knew it couldn't be anyone who'd a right to be there. Any of the clerical gentlemen, or you, Mr Wesley, would have come and had a word with me first. Now, I don't usually carry a stick, as you know, so I had to be very cautious. I put my ear to the vestry door, not knowing what I might hear. I certainly didn't expect to hear what I did: it was a man's voice, sobbing! With fear, too, I'd stake my oath.
"A rum do, I thought, and ever so gently I tried the door-handle. The door was unlocked. I screwed up my nerves, and suddenly flung back the door and stood in the doorway, with my fists clenched, looking as menacing as I could - not knowing what I was up against, you see.
"Well, there was a man there, all right; just one, crouched over by the other door, the one that leads into the choir. As soon as he heard me, he looked up, and his face was grey. There was fear in his eyes, sir - real fear. And now there was another shock. He said, 'Thank God!' - just like that. 'Thank God! A human face!'
"Things were going too fast for me. I said, 'Of course I'm human, my lad - and just in time, by the look of things.' (For I could see that he'd already started to break open that big safe of yours, Padre.) 'What did you expect?' I said, '...a ghost?'
"And at that his eyes opened wide, and his jaw dropped as if he was going to scream. I walked over to him, and I saw that he was hanging on with both hands to that iron ring that's the handle on the choir door - hanging on as if for fear of his life - and he seemed to be twisting it in his hands, trying to open it.
"'You stop that!' I said. 'Your night's work's done, my lad!'
"Then the movement stopped, and for a moment I thought he was kicking his heels against the floor, because I could hear that hollow sound - you know? But it was a harder, sharper sound than he could have made, because he was wearing rubber-soled boots; and anyway I could see now that his feet weren't moving. Yet I could still hear the noise for a moment. Then it faded away.
"Well, I was curious, sir, as you can imagine, so I collared this fellow. He was quite small and lithe, like you'd picture a cat-burglar to be, but he was so broken up that I could see he was no match for me.
"'Now,' I said, 'you're coming along to the Police Station. Robbing a church is a very serious offence.'
"I'll swear, sir, that he was actually relieved. 'God, yes!' he said. 'I'll be safe there. Just take me away - I couldn't face that again!'
"'Face what?' I said, and on the way over to the Police Station he told me. Very strange! I left him with the law (and they'd like you to go over, Padre, as soon as convenient, to see about preferring charges), and then I came back here straightaway.
"What he told me was this:
"He was from out of town, and he'd heard about the church plate. Well, it's no secret, is it? He'd found out where it was kept, and all on his own he planned to steal it. He knew that I was there - and that's no secret, either - so he hadn't tried to come in by College Gate or Dean's Gate, but had climbed over the high wall to the north-east, the one that gives on to the gardens in Wells Street. I said I thought he looked like a cat-burglar, didn't I?
"He seems to have had no trouble getting into the Close and across to the Minster - he knew just where the vestry was - or in picking the lock on the door. He found the safe all right, and noticed that the door into the choir was closed but not locked. That didn't bother him; not until he'd actually started to break open the safe.
"Then he heard the footsteps.
"Quiet at first, they were, but clear - ghostly, you might say - and they were coming towards him from the other side of the choir door. They grew harder, and stronger, and heavier: more - more real.
"Now, I should judge him to be quite a brave man, and perhaps violent too on occasion; but he wanted to know what the opposition was like. The footsteps still sounded some little distance away, so he switched off his torch and stuck it in his pocket, and then he opened the door a crack and looked through, into the church.
"What he saw made him slam the door shut and hang on to the handle for dear life, wishing that he could lock it. He was too frightened to call for help, and I really don't know whether it was in order to attract attention or simply from fear of the dark that he switched on his torch again. That, of course, was the light I saw, and when I burst into that room, he says, he was never so glad in his life to see another human face!"
I couldn't stand this. Bob Chater certainly knew how to build up suspense.
"What the devil did he see?" I said - shouted, almost.
But Bob's face was very serious.
"You must remember," he said, "that he only saw it for a moment, and in poor light, but he says he never wants to see anything like it again. As to describing it, he was - what's the word I want? - he was incoherent. It looked like a man, he says, but it was big, really big. Ten feet tall or more, he reckons. And it was grey; and, as I say, it looked like a man, but it didn't move like a man, not quite. And it was coming towards him, as if it knew just where he was, and what he was.
"So he clung to that door-handle, and he could hear the man - or whatever it was - coming closer, right up to the door. Then he could feel the handle moving in his hands, against all the strength he could put to it; and he was sobbing with fear... And then - well, then I came in."
My mind was full of questions, all unasked. I turned to Edmund Wheatley, trying to frame some words; but they didn't come, and they didn't need to, because I could see excitement and something like understanding in the priest's face. Without a word, he stood up and went over to one of his book-cases, at which he peered, shelf by shelf, until he had found what he wanted. It was a smallish red-bound volume, which I guessed to be about a hundred years old.
"This," he said, and his voice was very restrained, "is a curious little book which I bought some while ago at an auction. It's the work of Dr Davey, one of my predecessors, and was privately printed in 1847."
As he opened it, I could see that the title page read: Quaint Historical Anecdotes and Legends of Suffolk, compiled and re-told by the Rev. John Davey, D.D.
Wheatley and I kept in touch, you know, even after he retired from Woolton; and a few months before he died - that would be in '76 - he gave me that same copy of the book. Here it is, and this is the chapter that he read to us that morning. It's quite short, and if I may I'll read it to you now.
Woolton is a small and rather decayed town which stands a few miles from the coast to the north of Leiston. The chief glory of the place is the Minster Church of St Michael and All Angels, which will be well known to the antiquary and the ecclesiologist. For details of this fine building, however, the reader must consult a guide book. We mention it here because to it attaches a curious legend, which we have collated from several sources. The reader will appreciate that we have used our imagination somewhat in the telling of this tale, but be assured that the essentials have been followed faithfully.
In the days of the fourth King Edward, there dwelt in the town a merchant, one Thomas Drinkall, or Drinkale, who was neither pious nor amiable. He respected neither God nor man, for his creed was that Wealth is Power, and being both wealthy and powerful he believed it wholeheartedly.
This Thomas led for many years a life without crime but without charity, until on a day he found himself bereft of his wealth and consequently of his power, for his two ships, bearing between them the greater part of his fortune, were lost at sea in a storm of præternatural fury. He was forced, in order to meet his debts, to sell much of the property remaining to him in the town, and was thus reduced to a state that to him at least represented poverty. As the reader may surmise, however, Thomas Drinkall was not the man to accept such a fate. He foresaw months, perhaps years, of hard toil before his trade could again flourish; and truth to tell he was no lover of hard toil. He quickly resolved, therefore, to steal what he would not gain by honest labour, and to set himself up in some place far away: Norwich, perhaps, or better, the thronged streets of London.
Now, the house of Sir Giles Flambard, whom he did not love, was nigh impregnable, and only one other house in Woolton held so much treasure for the taking: the House of God, to wit: the Minster Church of St Michael. For the moment fate seemed to conspire with the evil man, for he recalled that his father had been Sacristan at the Minster, having charge of a key to the church. At the old man's death, Thomas had through mere indolence retained this key rather than return it to the Dean and Chapter. Now he thought that perhaps his indolence was vindicated. He determined to "strike while the iron was hot", and to rob the church the very next night.
Meanwhile, he prepared himself by procuring a farm-waggon and a light load of hay, for he intended to leave Woolton as soon as might be in the character of a lowly freeman, which guise should, he thought, protect him from footpads upon the way. He muffled the wooden wheels of the cart and the hooves of his solitary nag, and provided himself with a number of large sacks to contain his spoils. Night fell, and the Angelus sounded, as if urging him to his task. The merchant waited for as long as he could restrain his impatience, until he was sure that the townsfolk were abed, and then he took his horse's reins and set off towards the Minster.
Fortune remained with him, for the night was neither too dark nor too light. Steadily, but without haste, he led the horse along Market Street, past Fish Street and Rosemary Lane, and at the Golden Cross turned right into Gracechurch Street towards the Minster Close. He did not directly approach the great gate, but as a precaution led the horse and waggon into Crown Alley, where they would not be seen by the Watch. Then, be it never so gently, he forced the lock of the wicket-gate and entered the close.
In those days there was an old man, a pensioner of the College, who kept watch in the Close by night, which is to say that he sat in a little room by the great gate and drank small ale. Thomas Drinkall went quietly to the door of this room and rapped gently upon the wooden boards until the old man peered out. Then, swiftly and silently, Thomas struck at the wizened neck, rendering the watchman unconscious, and caring nothing whether or no he had snuffed out the frail glimmer of life. He bundled the body back inside the room and softly closed the door upon it; then he turned to face the mighty west front of the Minster.
High above, at each corner, the gargoyles' faces stared in silent reproach, jutting as the old watchman's face had jutted upon its long skinny neck. Thomas looked up, at the vast window, and over that at the largest dæmon of all: the great grinning figure whose bulging eyes seemed to regard him with scorn and whose huge hands gripped the ridge of the building that it had guarded for more than three centuries. The merchant averted his gaze from this stone watchman and ran silently to the dark safety of the west door.
His father's key fitted snugly into the lock, and turned, ponderously, but with little effort, until the bolt sprang from its socket. Gently he drew out the key and replaced it in his belt, and then grasped the huge iron ring that served for a door-handle. Again a slow, heavy turn, a slight creak, and the latch was free. As quickly as he dared, he pushed at the door, and shortly there was a space wide enough to step through.
The merchant gathered up his sacks and slipped inside the porch, pushing the great door to behind him. It was quite dark, but he had no difficulty in finding and opening the smaller door into the nave; here there was light enough, for the moon was now clear of the clouds and shone through the arched windows of the south wall, while far ahead the candles burned upon the parish altar of All Saints. As his eyes became accustomed to the eerie half-light, Thomas could distinguish the great golden crucifix and the golden candlesticks grouped upon either side of it. Now, he felt, he was committed to his sacrilege, and soon he stood before the altar, stuffing the cross into a sack and putting candlesticks in after it. The sweat fell from his face with mere exertion, for the weight of these holy treasures was considerable. He must not, he thought, be over-greedy, else he would be unable to carry his booty away! With this cheerful reflection he passed beneath the pulpitum towards the Chantry Chapel of the Flambards.
Here he was faced with riches unsuspected, and his evil heart rejoiced. Eagerly he filled a second sack, and began to stuff treasures into a third, bending or breaking those that were too large. At length he opened a fourth sack, delighting in the merry clatter of gold against gold, and it was at this moment that another sound came to his ears: footsteps, hard and heavy, stalking inexorably along the nave from west to east.
His first thought was that the old janitor had recovered and had perhaps alerted the Watch. That would indeed be a blow! He quickly determined, however, that the steps were those of but one man, treading firmly and surely. One man might be dealt with, he thought; for had not he, Thomas Drinkall, trailed a pike in the wars? Swiftly he took the great cross from the altar and secreted himself by the arched entrance to the chapel, thinking to have the advantage of surprise.
Nearer and yet nearer came the stranger, seeming to know exactly where to look. The footsteps echoed solidly and deafeningly among the great pillars, accompanied by a slight creaking that suggested a man in armour. Yet, strangely, there was nothing metallic about the footsteps. Thomas thought that his brain would give way before the hard, reverberating sound. He lifted the cross as he heard the steps approach the chapel, with no diminution in their speed or their volume. Truly, the newcomer seemed to lack all caution. The merchant's arms were tiring quickly, for the big crucifix was very heavy, and the sweat streamed from his brow. He set his teeth, and as Nemesis stalked commandingly into the chapel he shut his eyes and swung the cross down with all his considerable strength.
The cross struck a hard surface and merely glanced off, throwing the merchant off balance. With remarkable agility, he jumped to his feet again and prepared to deal another blow.
He never did, for he saw now what manner of being it was that towered over him. He let the cross fall from his hand, and, overcome by the dæmonic horror of the thing, he slumped to the cold, hard floor. Then the other bent down over him and began to do certain things.
The next morning the Sacristan was appalled to find the old watchman lying dead in his little room, with the mark of a blow upon his neck. Hastily he summoned the Dean, who with some half-dozen of the Chapter followed the trembling Sacristan to the great west door of the Minster. It was unlocked. They stepped into the church and were at once confronted with the desecration of the parish altar, for the candles were snuffed and the precious ornaments missing. Now the Sacristan seemed to take leave of his senses: he let forth a cry of anguish and ran straightway to the high altar in the choir, sobbing with relief when he found it untouched. More sedately, the Dean and his fellows went to the Chapel of St Botolph, off the north aisle, but it too was undefiled. Then they crossed the nave towards the Flambard Chapel. At this time was distinctly heard a metallic clank from the west end of the church, as if some heavy iron object had been dropped by the great door, but so intent upon its purpose was the little band that no one stopped to wonder what it might be. At the entrance to the chapel they paused momentarily and then boldly entered.
Not for a little while did they remark the sacks upon the floor or the golden and bejewelled ornaments that lay scattered about, for something else demanded all their attention. The man who lay dead in a pool of his own blood might have been friend or foe, neighbour or stranger, for he was quite unrecognisable. The eyes had been torn from his head and the heart from his breast. There was another wound also, of which it were better not to speak.
As the priests and the Sacristan, shaken and wondering, passed out through the great west door, they saw the thing that had been dropped to the ground. On the lowest step, covered with gouts of drying blood, lay a mighty key. Warily they looked up, to see the grey stone figure of the guardian dæmon leering down at them. The grinning jaws of the statue and the huge hands that gripped the edge of the roof were dark with blood.
"There's another paragraph or so," said Simon, as he closed the book and set it down in front of him: "just a few lines in which old Davey draws a moral. Very sound, no doubt."
He accepted a cigarette from me and drew on it gratefully. "Well," he said, "you've heard my story. Have you any comments?"
George pulled at his grey moustache, pondering. Then, after a pause, he said, "You told us, I think, that the gargoyle - the statue - was completely destroyed by the bomb?"
Simon nodded, soberly. "That's quite true."
"You also said that there had been no loss of life."
"That was the official report."
"Ah. The report would refer, of course, only to human life. Normal human life."
As I was considering this, a thought occurred to me, and I said, "How strange - how very strange - that it should happen there, of all places!"
George looked up, quizzically, and Simon raised an eyebrow.
"Don't you remember the dedication of the church?" I said. "St Michael and All Angels! Ironic, don't you think?"
I heard a suppressed chuckle from George, and then: "I never get your limits, Johnson. There are unexplored possibilities about you."
I frowned at him, and said, "Don't quote Sherlock Holmes at me, George. What do you mean?"
The old man's face and voice were serious as he answered: "There are Angels of Darkness, you know, as well as Angels of Light."
Copyright (c) 1986 Roger Johnson
Revised version copyright (c) 2000 Roger Johnson
back to top
back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page
Bar by Syruss