There was only a passing reference to it in my guidebook, but I did have a fancy to visit Stonedyke Kirk. I had first heard tell of it by my old Geography teacher, Mr Timmins, who’d been a keen explorer of these parts and his tales of the village that fed its congregation were of an age gone by that I often mused over. Of course, there was no village now and it was of some surprise to many that the old church still stood in such good condition. It was said the sheep were employed by God himself to keep the graveyard grass neat and if you visited when the sun was right, the light through the still intact stained-glass windows lit up the interior in such a way as to provide a glimpse of heaven itself.
It was but a half mile or so detour from the footpath I had been following for some days. My intention was to complete the entire 103-mile route over the summer but I would allow myself the odd day of rest to visit local sites of interest. Curiously, at the small Guest House I’d stayed at the night before, the other guests, as well as the landlady herself, were rather hesitant to offer information on the church, one of the young ladies crossing herself quickly before removing herself from the room of a sudden. This had only served to pique my interest further.
The landlady had informed me that few visit the church nowadays. ‘You’d be as well to keep right on past the path that leads to it and follow your feet on to the next village without stopping’, she exclaimed. ‘Only bad ‘uns stop there now and there’s naught to see anyroads, so’s not much point in it.’
One of the guests, a Mr Gladfellow from down Shropshire way, joined in. ‘There aren’t even any brass rubbings now, each gravestone as smooth as though newly polished’, he informed me, seemingly quite knowledgably.
‘Have you been there?’ I inquired hopefully, but he had not been himself, only he’d heard from a friend of a friend who’d been there but who would not return.
And then, placing his paper down and looking me straight in the eye he warned me in the most alarming of fashions, ‘And you’d do well not to go there either.’
Well, this was a turn of events but I was determined to take the small detour to visit the old church I’d first heard about some ten years earlier. The path to it was not well marked and I had to retrace my steps to ensure I’d found the right one. The guidebook clearly stated that it was over a small stone bridge by the edge of a deer fence and led upstream for a few hundred yards before leading into the valley where a scattering of rocks marked the locations of where houses once stood. The church ought to be visible from that point up a small rise to the left.
Although the deer fence was intact, the stone bridge was gone. I could see the remnants of the arch on either side of the stream but the bridge was completely gone. I spied the rough, overgrown footpath leading upwards from the ruined bridge and following the small brook which came down to meet the main stream at this point and so, convinced this was the spot and determined more than ever to see the church first-hand, I removed my boots and socks and waded across the swift moving steam.
Perhaps it was the sharp intake of breath as my skin met the icy water that disturbed them, but immediately on entering the stream a large flock of rooks took off from the trees behind the deer fence with such a sudden and startling racket, I almost lost my footing altogether. I paused to get my breath back as I watched them, swirling as a single black cloud drifting up in the direction I intended to walk before curling out of sight towards where I had calculated the church to be.
I reached the other side of the stream rather out of breath and sat down heavily on the bank to dry my feet. On re-tying my bootlaces, I noticed something written on the remains of the bridge arch, on the side of the stream I’d walked from, that had not been noticeable from that side. Peering over to the rough scrawl I could just make out the words, ‘do not let them follow’. I thought that odd, but dismissing it as nonsense, or some message from a farmer or shepherd, and convinced I was definitely not trespassing, I headed on up the path as directed by my trusty guidebook.
The few hundred yards up the path by the little brook was muddy, and very overgrown with long grass and ferns at either side which soon soaked my legs and feet making me wonder why I’d bothered taking my boots off to cross the stream. However, once I reached the bend it levelled out into a wider, drier and far less overgrown space. I could now see rough outlines of houses etched into the side of the hill and imagined I was now walking along what had been a narrow lane between two rows of houses.
Although I hadn’t gained much height, the air seemed cooler, with the clouds growing darker in the distance. As I slowly turned, taking in the atmosphere and looking all around me, I was again startled by the cloud of rooks, flying so close to my head, screeching loudly as they headed back downstream to the trees from where I’d first disturbed them. I looked to where they’d come from. Up to my left, on a small rise, still some distance off, was the unmistakable outline of a small church.
I can’t say why but the sight of it did not inspire me the way I had imagined. Seeing it now, it looked sad, neglected, angry at having had its congregation removed when the village died out. The wind seemed to be growing colder and stronger as I searched for another layer to put on. The words of the landlady and her guests at the Guest House the night before started to gnaw at my mind and I wondered at Mr Timmins’ tales from my schooldays; could this be the same place he talked about with such wonder?
When I eventually reached the church, the first few drops of rain had fallen. The small black, wrought iron gate creaked as I opened it to enter the churchyard. Some of the gravestones had fallen over, and quite some time ago, while many others stood at angles close to the end of their days. There were also some rough patches of grass where gravestones seemed to be missing entirely, with the bare earth still visible. I walked around for a moment, examining each stone, but could make out no marks, no names or dates on any of them. I imagine they’d all been polished smooth by years of wind and rain.
The grass upon which I walked looked well kept, perhaps by rabbits as there were no sheep up here. I turned my head suddenly at a loud creak and looked to the front door of the church. It was partly open, swaying gently in the increasing breeze. More raindrops fell as the clouds thickened and I was beginning to think of shelter, but I was by now feeling reluctant to enter the church.
Slowly, I approached the door in order to peer in but could see nothing but dark. It was then that I imagined sounds. It felt like whispering, or perhaps fluttering, or perhaps it was simply the wind through gaps in the structure of the building. Without assistance, the door opened slightly further as a stronger gust of wind blew from behind. At once, the whispering grew, and almost as quickly diminished.
‘It must be rats, scurrying about the floor’, I thought. I leant forward and pushed the door further open to let in more light. Again, I felt the strange whispering from deep within the church. At first rising, and almost as suddenly settling. By now, the rain had started properly and from what I could see of the church floor, it was perfectly dry inside. I took one last look at the sky and the remains of the old village in the near distance, and slowly crept inside.
What I saw will haunt me to the end of my days. Some tell me it was my imagination but it couldn’t have been. I saw those things and I see them now when I close my eyes. I hear them now inside my head. As I moved fully into the church the first thing I noticed was the windows. Beautiful stained-glass windows with an unnatural light coming through them. Providing sufficient light, I saw the whole of the inside of the tiny little church and I saw them .. move. Around the walls like shadows, over the windows, whispering, ‘you have come, we must follow, you have come, we must follow’.
I stood transfixed, watching them swirl and group, separate, and spin around me. The light flickered as they passed over the narrow windows and all the time their whispering, their constant whispering, growing, growing, ‘you have come, come at last, you have come, we must follow, we must follow you’.
Faces came and disappeared, laughing grew that chilled me to my very bone and of a sudden, the door flew open wide. In panic I turned, stared at the empty doorway. ‘We will follow’, they chanted. Leaving everything, my bag, my guidebook, my sanity, I ran. I ran while the wind followed me and blew shadows around my legs, swirling across my vision. Breathing heavily, most likely screaming I ran though the lost village while they followed me, flowing over abandoned, ruined buildings, maintaining my speed and staring menacingly into my eyes, whispering all the time, ‘we must follow, we must follow’.
I fell down the muddy path by the brook to the ruined bridge and landed face down in the icy stream. Facing the opposite bank I could see the words I’d dismissed earlier staring at me, ‘do not let them follow’. Shadows swept over the ruined arch on the side of the stream by the brook as I stumbled, fell, picked myself up and fell again and crashed through the water to the opposite bank, all the time hearing, and getting louder and getting more menacing, ‘we MUST follow, we MUST’.
Coughing and gasping for breath I climbed out the stream to look back. They were not crossing the water. A swirl of shadows explored the bank, tentatively testing the water. It was then the rooks suddenly burst from the trees and joined the clouds of whispering horror. I fled. Not daring to look back, unable to control my fear, and I ran until my legs would run no more.
And now, if you ask me why I flinch at rooks it’s because I hear them whispering, ‘we’re still looking, searching, we must follow’.