The old road from Ashford to Faversham in Kent, passes by the tiny hamlet of Sheldwich, signposted, but blink and you will miss it as you drive by. On moonlit nights, this is probably a good thing. Few will pass this way on foot at the full moon, and those who do so have been considered by the local folk to be foolhardy or at best, deeply in need of help.
You see, Sheldwich holds secrets, secrets of fear, wicked doings and age old mystery.
The village is not big but is pretty, and is set around an attractive village green, a space which in summer is used for community activities such as local school sports, car boot sale flea markets, and amateur cricket matches, it is a pretty and quiet place.
As with all Kentish villages, and British rural farming communities, May Day and the harvest at the end of summer are of great importance, and are celebrated in various ways, including the usual harvest festival celebrations at the nearby church.
You may even see the local Morris men, arrayed in their colourful costumes and prancing around to old folk tunes, another ancient tradition from the pagan past, or perhaps the medieval May Pole celebration, where children intertwine coloured ribbons into a complicated plait as they dance around the tall pole.
Kent is thought to be the earliest settled part of England, only twenty-two miles from the European mainland across the English Channel, now the world’s busiest seaway and crammed with modern shipping as well as the past spirits of dead seamen.
With so many early settlers arriving in the far distant and pre-Christian past, from all over Europe and beyond, the remnants of paganism remain to this day, in the legends of the past, in ceremonies and dances, and in the strange objects which can be found around the county. For example, Kitts Coty, a small stone structure in the style of a tiny druid Stonehenge, or the many burial mounds and ancient carved Sarsen stones that abound in this southern county. Even many of the hedges and paths predate historical record, – stone age man has left his mark here very well.
Throughout history, Kent has been of the upmost importance in keeping the country safe from invasion, and is littered with beautiful and ancient castles, the most important of which is Dover, from the walls of which the cliffs and hills of France can be clearly seen across the water. Our village churches are largely from the Norman period, almost a thousand years old in some cases, but still standing erect and stable, ready for another thousand years of prayer.
Sheldwich then, is typical of the small rural hamlets which litter Kent, but in some ways, is far more unique and strange, one could almost say, weird.
It is said that the village green, in past times, has seen strange sacrifices to the pagan gods of the earth and sun, to ensure good harvests in the growing seasons or to encourage wealth for the village. Sacrificial structures would have been constructed, used in the worship of now unremembered gods, and burnt as offerings to placate those gods from sending the expected poor harvests that often-brought famine in their wake.
And in later days of witchcraft and wizardry, the suspected were burnt at the stake or left in the stocks to die a humiliating and slow death as they were tormented by the good folk of Sheldwich, upon the same pastural green. A century or two later, felons, thieves and highwaymen would be hung here at the village gallows or left to die in the iron basket of death, at the gibbet. Is it any surprise then, that this pretty village green, as sweet as it looks today, is also shrouded with evil, and rampant with ghosts and ghouls from all periods?
It is said that an old lady still haunts under the grove of trees beside the green, her eyes piercing through the darkness as she wanders towards unsuspecting folk. It is only when she is a few yards away that she turns her head and the true state of her visage is seen, the flesh burnt and shrunken from the great heat of a fire, and her lips shrivelled, the worn and yellowed teeth shining in the grin of death as her claw like hands reach out towards her victim. Is she still trying to find someone, or is she seeking to avenge her untimely and horrific death at the stake? Who is this old woman, still seeking something in death? Nobody these days can say, but she seems destined to walk here forever, bringing fear to the village and those she meets on her moonlit walks, and leaving those unfortunate enough to run in to her, trembling from the experience.
At the junction of the two roads that join at the village green, history tells us that the gibbet was once set up, its rusted wrought iron cage a warning to travellers and the unwelcome. To be caged alive, hanging in the cold wind and rain, or suffering in the live heat of a summer day, when the sun hot iron would burn into the skin of the victim with searing pain, must have been torture beyond comprehension.
This gibbet area seems to be haunted not by one, but by at least three different ghosts, each appearing at specific times of the year and each with their own special characteristics. The saddest of these is a young boy, clad in rags and often seen sitting at the exact site of where the gibbet was once set. Tears stream down his tiny white face as he clutches what seems to be a loaf of bread against his chest. If you should see this ghost, he will reach out to you imploringly and mouth unspoken words as you pass him by. His eyes will catch yours and it seems impossible to lose his stare. Do not be afraid of this figure however, the village people in the last century named him William, after a small lad interred in the village churchyard. William stole bread it seems, to feed his starving family and suffered on the gibbet for it, being made an example to other poor people and children. It is not known if the ghost is that of the boy in the churchyard, the name just seemed to fit, and so was given.
A more unusual spectre at the old gibbet site, is that of a young man, most often seen before summer storms, when lightning flashes momentarily brighten the green. He has the appearance of being wild and untamed, an aggressive stance often being described by those who have seen him, along with a shabby appearance and long matted hair. It is reported that objects, usually stones and rocks, but sometimes other items like conkers and nuts, are seemingly thrown at those who see this apparition. Sometimes people have reported being pushed over from behind, or having been suddenly punched in the neck or back. This is not a ghost to mess with, most of the villagers agree, the punches often leave a physical bruise.
The other spirit is most often seen in the deep winter months. He stands, writhing about and clasping his hands together as though chained to an invisible post or stake. He is known to speak softly to the persons who see him, in an unknown dialect, possibly Latin, or to wail and scream on the wild winter nights when snow falls in the village. A feeling of deep unhappiness is reported by those who have seen this ghost.
Across the green, a small old house has its own haunting spirit, I will not describe the house, but will say that carved into a wooden lintel above a door, a spell against witchcraft can still be seen. It is not there to keep witches out, but this one more unusually, to keep a witch confined inside, with a spell to kill, if the doorway is passed through from inside. The door has not been used for many years, so perhaps the spell is much too powerful, and might be still working after the three centuries that have passed since it was engraved on the lintel above!
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