A Month In The Countryside

From mysterious frosty footprints to a ghostly encounter with a guffawing yokel, Helen Walmsley-Johnson ponders the spookier side of country living.

Illustration by Claire Jones

It’s almost Christmas, traditionally the time for storytelling, so settle yourself by the fire with a glass of something special and permit me to ask you a question: do you believe in ghosts? I doubt I’ll need to press you on this because by the time you’re halfway through your favourite tipple I bet you’ll remember that thing you couldn’t quite explain. I’ve got a few of those too.

Old country houses and dogs have quite a lot in common: they’re inclined to have bits drop off them, they make sudden and unexpected noises and occasionally they release an unholy stink. Despite this I love them both. Fifteen years ago, when I was living in one and with the other – a cocker spaniel – there were a fair number of bumps, creaks, odd whiffs and peculiar incidents that could easily be chalked up to one or the other. Old houses settle a bit with changing temperatures and produce squeaks, groans and loud cracks while they do it as, increasingly, do I. Add to that three teenage daughters, the cat collective (seven), a lunatic dog, mice in the walls, two bat colonies in the roof and an owl in the chimney and it’s a miracle any of us managed a wink of sleep. In winter when the fluctuations of temperature and humidity in our conspicuously-lacking-in-central-heating house tended to be more extreme, the nightly repertoire of thunks and shudders from contracting timbers reached symphonic proportions. It was in these long dark nights at the heel of the year that other things, aside from our selves, had their sleep disturbed…

There was, for instance, the bitterly cold day we came home from a supermarket run to find, neatly positioned on the garden path, the very clear imprint of a pair of child’s feet, naked and warm, in the thick hoar frost. It was as though someone had been waiting there for us to return. There were no other footprints and why would there be – we were all out and our nearest neighbour was a couple of fields away

Illustration by Claire Jones

Our house on the hill had a steep central staircase, which neatly divided the very old from the not so old halves of the house. A long passage connected the two parts of the house upstairs. The bathroom, as is often the case in old houses, was downstairs. This made a nocturnal loo run in winter a chilly experience to be avoided. If you were desperate, you sprinted down the stairs and back up again as quickly as possible, often by moonlight, to avoid disturbing those lucky enough to be still tucked up in bed. One night, not long after the introduction of a humane (as opposed to the traditional Little Nipper) mousetrap to the larder, I was on my way back to my nice warm bed when at the top of the stairs and directly into my right ear came the words, “You’ll not catch ‘owt in that bugger” followed by a throaty chuckle. This was our first visit from someone we decided to call “Mr Nobbs”. I think it’s a good sign that we took all this in our stride and made room for Mr N. He was for the most part a benign presence gamely taking the rap for any number of things, including missing homework. From that point of view at least the girls chose to see a resident Mr Nobbs as a distinct advantage.

One snowy Christmas holiday when everyone was outside stuffing cushions inside old fertiliser bags and sledging in the lane (try it – it’s brilliant…and dry!) I was enjoying some peace and quiet, reading by the fire. After a while, great gusts of childish giggles came drifting down the stairs, followed by a thunderous stampeding along the landing. The cat collective, also enjoying some peace by the fire, took off like rockets. My little family were all outside but still the high jinks continued until I went to the bottom of the stairs. “If you don’t stop that racket this instant, there’ll be trouble!” I yelled. And do you know what, they did.

Now, I daresay there could be a perfectly sensible explanation for all of this. Perhaps I thought I was awake but wasn’t when I heard Mr Nobbs on the stairs. But truthfully, I’d rather not try to rationalise it because these tales have become part of our family history – like my late father’s story of our Uncle Sam and the haunted piano (there was a mouse inside, running up and down the strings). But even he, a policeman and bursting with common sense, was a changed man after one night shift found him out by the ruins of an old priory and he saw “something” drift across the road in the moonlight. He said it was probably mist…

This house where I live now, facing that other across the valley, has my remembered home’s same feeling of affectionate embracing warmth. However, I do keep seeing a black cat about the place. I have decided that this is Mr Titus Cat – Mr Pushkin Cat’s late brother – who has come to join us in our new home. And to anyone who sneers and scoffs and tells me they’ve never seen a ghost I simply say, “Well, how do you know?” because as far as I can see, ghosts look and sound just the same as you or I. Now there’s a thought.

Happy Christmas.

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear