STRATTON DORSET
   
             
The Gully
A short tale by
Cornelius James

 
             
     
 

I woke from an unmemorable dream to a bright, clear summer morning; the sort of day when, by eleven o’clock, the air would be warm and almost every type of flying insect that inhabited the countryside would be bothering the horses in the field at the end of the lane. A vigorous shake of the head and a swish of the tail would be no match for those little monsters.

The day was my own; no appointments, no commitments, and I’d chosen to walk a modest length of the coast path; a section that is spoken of by ardent walkers as ‘gently undulating’. I know from several years experience that this description is a total lie. The coastline is hilly and the ups' and the downs’ are steep and arduous.

Within forty minutes or so of waking I was ready to go. The coast path is no more than a mile and a half from my front door and the connecting footpath, across open farmland, is just beyond the horses that by now would be preparing for battle.

I locked the cottage door, hoisted up my small canvas rucksack, pushed the start button on my tracking App and set off along the lane. Within a few minutes I reached the field where the horses should have been. There was no sign of them. This was the first time that I could remember, that there wasn't at least one of them in the field.

The footpath across the farmland was easy to follow. It was a well-worn route and even a first-time-user would have been unlikely to go astray, which made it all the more surprising that two fields away to my left I could see the figure of a man near the scrubby bushes that line the top of what is known as The Gully. There was no footpath over there and although I am not familiar with everyone who lives and works locally, there was something about this individual that instinctively seemed wrong. I looked hard. There was a heat shimmer rising from the fields which distorted things somewhat. Was he really wearing a dark coloured frock coat and top hat? Surely not.

Before I had properly processed everything, an automatic bird-scarer; the type that sound like a shotgun being discharged, surprised me. I looked for the figure again but he had disappeared. I watched for a short time but he didn't re-appear. I assumed that he must be working in amongst the bushes. I didn’t dwell on what I had, or at least, what I thought I had seen and marched on.

Five minutes or so later, I reached the coast path. The dilapidated remains of the cliff-top barn marks the junction of the footpaths. The building isn't wholly visible as you approach. It’s in a slight hollow and almost entirely covered by rampant ivy and brambles. Strangely, on such a warm day, I felt particularly chilly as I passed the barn and caught my first glimpse of the sea. The water looked fantastic. With the cloudless sky and the breathless air, it just laid there, shimmering, the currents producing an occasional ripple.

I turned to my left and walked east, taking great care to avoid the sheer drop to the rocks below. One misplaced step and the result could be catastrophic. I passed through a kissing gate and began the descent of the cliff that led to the bottom of The Gully. Everything was exceptionally quiet, although just for a second, I thought that I heard a seagull but even with the sky so clear, I couldn't see it.

The Gully is one of those quirks of nature that doesn't entirely fit with its surroundings. It is a fairly narrow but deep gorge that reaches inland from the sea. Except for an hour or so either side of midday, the sun doesn't touch both sides of The Gully at once. In amongst the rocky outcrops are low gorse and blackthorn bushes, all pointing away from the sea, towards the blunt end of this geological feature. There’s a small stream that runs down to and disappears into the shingle that forms the beach. It is usually an overwhelmingly tranquil place but today there was a certain uneasiness in the air and I felt a degree of apprehension. Something wasn't quite right but I had no idea what that something was.

I sat on a large, reasonably smooth grey-black rock surrounded by the weathered bushes; my legs dangling towards the ground. I took my drinks bottle from my rucksack and downed a couple of gulps of refreshing water. I’m not sure how long I sat there.

I was brought to my senses by the smell of smoke. I couldn't see where it was coming from but I heard a crack; the sort of sound that a smouldering log makes as the heat splits it open. It came from down by the shingle. Leaving the cover of the bushes, I wandered onto the beach expecting to find someone preparing to barbecue their lunch. All I found were the glowing embers of a fire that had probably been fairly substantial at its height, and which now, had found enough fuel to re-ignite itself. There was no-one with it. There was no-one else here.

The right thing to do was to extinguish the fire. I waited a few minutes just in case someone arrived. No-one did, so I filled a plastic carrier-bag that I took from my rucksack, with water from the stream and poured it onto the embers. A cloud of steam rose and with a few handfuls of shingle covering the ashes, the fire was out.

Then it struck me; apart from the brief sighting of the distant figure, I hadn't seen a soul all morning. Perhaps that was the cause of the uneasiness that I was feeling, or maybe it was because of that figure at the top of The Gully.

Time to move on. The footpath leading up to the top of the cliff beyond The Gully was definitely not just a gentle undulation. I like to think of myself as being fairly fit but the effort involved in the climb made my heart pound and I noticed that the sweat from my brow was particularly salty. I needed more water when I got the top of the climb. Taking advantage of the enforced stop, I sat down to enjoy the sandwiches and fruit that I had packed. I noticed that the far side of The Gully was in shade. Time seemed to have passed very quickly. I must have spent longer on the beach than I had realised.

It was then that I heard loud voices below. They were coming from the shingle. I instantly thought that someone must have returned to the fire and that they weren't too pleased that it had been put out. Occasionally, the sounds seemed to fade as if being carried away by the wind. But there wasn't any. Everything was still. The voices carried on. There were shouts and screams. Booming deep voices and higher pitched shrieks, all with an element of panic in them. This wasn't just people who had found their fire extinguished. Then almost as suddenly as I’d first noticed the voices, they stopped. I’d been scouring the beach from my vantage point throughout but there was no sign of anyone.

I sat for a while, waiting to see if I could hear the voices again but there was nothing but silence. I watched the sea gently rise and fall as it met the beach and I noticed that the tide had ebbed leaving a noticeable line along the now steep shingle bank. The lower water level had also revealed the dark jagged rocks just seaward of the shingle and the obvious narrow natural gap between them that would allow an approach from the sea.

I was getting uncomfortable sitting on the hard turf and decided to move on along the wide grassy track that formed this part of the coast path. I lost myself in my thoughts as I walked but, just as with my waking dream, what those thoughts were is a mystery to me now. After a while I reached a finger-post that pointed inland along a bridleway, to a lane that I knew would get me home. I still hadn't seen anyone. Where were they all?

I reached the firm surface of the lane and began to stride out a little, heading towards the village. I knew that I wouldn't reach the houses in the village because I would arrive at my left turn, at the junction where the old public house used to be, before I got that far. The pub closed for good about ten years ago and everyone living there moved away. The building has been standing empty ever since.

Opposite the old pub there was still a telephone box although it hadn't housed any phone equipment for some while. The kiosk had taken on the role of a book exchange and when passing, I regularly checked out the shelves. Very occasionally someone would deposit something worth reading and today it looked as if someone had. Tucked away high-up on top of the home-made wooden bookshelf I found the grubby maroon cover of a pocket-sized volume with the title ‘As Things Once Were’ picked out in faded gold-leaf. I browsed through the pages and found that this was a volume of short stories, or rather, tales based on a combination of reminiscences and folklore, recalling past times in the part of the world that I now lived. I had to borrow this.

With the book safely stowed away in my rucksack, I walked along the lane towards home. Thirty minutes or so later, my circular walk was complete and I was back indoors. I really don’t remember unlocking the cottage door but I do know that I stopped my tracking App because it read; Distance 7.8 miles, Duration 6 hours 14 minutes, Elevation 908 feet. I didn’t realise that I’d been out that long.

A refreshing cup of tea was followed by a fairly lengthy shower. Then I raided the refrigerator and devoured the cheese salad that was waiting for me. I sat down in my favourite chair with the book from the kiosk exchange. I was by the open window and the cool evening breeze was causing the curtains to flutter. I opened the book. There were five short stories, each one claiming to have been written by a different author. The style of writing was the same throughout and I wondered if, in fact, they were really by one hand.

The first story told of, what seemed to me, the harsh life of a Shepherd charged with maintaining the Squire’s flock and the second was a very short account giving an insight into the day-to-day problems encountered by the Farrier cum Blacksmith. The life and times of the Victualler followed. This was a much lengthier piece that mentioned many of the folk and their families who were patrons of his drinking house. So far, each story admirably lived up to the title of the book.

It was the fourth story that really captured my interest and my anticipation grew as events in the paragraphs unfolded. The tale was called ‘Kegs & Ankers’ and it was an account of an incident that had taken place at The Gully on a particularly dark night in October 1832. The author claimed that his grand-father had provided the details and that they were completely accurate because he, the grand-father, had been present at the time.

In 1832 many of the local people were involved in bringing ashore kegs of brandy, brought to the coast from the near continent, and many more men and women helped to distribute the valuable spirit inland. They considered it free trading. The authorities called it smuggling.

On this occasion, every possible requirement thought necessary had been arranged by the Lander; the man overseeing the receipt of the brandy from the Captain of the lugger that had transported the goods across the channel. The Lander had seen that a number of horses would be taken from their field at dusk and held in a virtually hidden paddock created in a natural fold of the land, near to the inland end of The Gully. The horses would be used to carry the large brandy ankers away from the coast for safe-keeping in their first storage place.

The men involved in bringing the kegs onto the beach from the lugger had all gathered together in the cliff-top barn above The Gully beach. They had to be there ready to act when called but were instructed not to arrive too soon. The Lander knew that they’d bring a something-to-keep-the-cold-out drink with them on this unpleasant, damp and squally night. Too much drink and one or two of them might break the strict code of silence. The barn was always quiet but on occasions such as this it was absolutely vital. Any noise might alert a member of the Coastguard or the Dragoons which would result in the whole operation going awry.

Checks were made of the countryside and paths all around The Gully by another team appointed by the Lander. These were the Batmen; the club-carrying strong-arm bands who scouted and protected those transporting the brandy. When the Lander was satisfied that no-one other than those involved in the proceedings was in the area, he gave the go-ahead to the Vestry Clerk.

The Vestry Clerk from the parish church, was a tall, thin, middle-aged man who always wore a dark frock coat and most often carried a low top hat which he donned very occasionally. He was employed by the Venturer who financed the whole import operation, and who, in this case, was the well-respected local Squire. The Vestry Clerk was considered by the Free Traders to be entirely trustworthy. He knew the countryside hereabouts exceptionally well and his perfect eyesight secured his employment as the look-out.

The appointed time for the lugger to appear offshore approached and the Clerk was in position, standing by the bushes at the field edge near to the top of The Gully. He watched the blackness and the surface of the sea intently. Now wearing his top hat, he directed the covered nozzle of his spout-lantern seawards. Then, at precisely the arranged moment he spotted the blue flash sent up by the Captain of the lugger. The Clerk replied by momentarily exposing a thin beam of light from his lantern. This was the signal that all was well ashore and that it was safe to come in. His next task was to scramble down through the gorse to The Gully floor, to keep a tally of the number of barrels brought ashore.

The depth of the tide, the sea swell that was picking up and the narrow width of the gap between the rocks guarding the beach prevented the lugger from coming in to meet the shingle as it sometimes did. Tonight a small boat was launched from the lugger. The boat would be rowed in, towing a rope line to which pairs of kegs were tied. When the boat reached shallow water, it would be met by the men from the barn; the Shepherd, Farrier and Victualler included, and they would haul on the line to bring the contraband ashore. Farm Labourers, Fishermen, Sailors, Ex-Soldiers, in fact all those chosen by the Lander, considered to have sufficient strength and stamina, would carry the kegs into The Gully and beyond using the path that led to the fields above.

Carters had already used the same path, normally well hidden by the gorse, blackthorn and rocky debris, to bring the horses down from the paddock, and they had readied them to receive the larger, heavier ankers.

The four men rowing the boat were guided through the gap in the rocks by positioning the light from two small lanterns placed on a sizeable, smooth rock close to the beach. As they reached the Lander’s men, who had waded into the surf, they threw over the line and immediately began to turn their boat to retreat to the lugger. It was at this point that things started to go wrong.

The weather had taken a turn for the worse. The wind had increased and the cold rain was now driving along parallel to the beach. The sea swell had increased. A huge wave caught the boat and dashed it onto the rocks on the east side of the access channel. The sound of splintering timber could be heard above the noise of the wind and rain. The four men aboard were thrown into the sea and were momentarily lost from view. A couple of the Lander’s men waded towards the damaged boat to try to rescue the rowers and miraculously all six men managed to drag themselves and each other on to the shingle. One of the crew from the lugger was in a pretty poor state. Throughout this whole episode most of the workforce kept hauling in the kegs. The Captain of the lugger realised that something was amiss and pulled away quickly, vanishing into the darkness of the night.

Two of the younger Labourers from the Squire’s estate were directed by the Lander to leave their hauling duties and carry the injured boatman away. Just as they set off into The Gully, a runner for the Batmen arrived on the shingle. He had word for the Lander that the Dragoons had been seen near to the public house and that they were moving towards the cliffs.

The Vestry Clerk confirmed to the Lander that about three-quarters of the expected contraband had been brought ashore and, against his better judgment, the Lander decided to evacuate the beach. The smugglers picked up all that they could and hurried into The Gully. During their rushed departure, one of the kegs was dropped and split open as it hit the rocks. The wind and rain were not subsiding, in fact, conditions seemed to get worse. One of the two guiding lanterns, mistakenly left on the rock by the smugglers, blew over and ignited the brandy that was seeping from the keg. Then the keg itself burst into flames; then a single gorse bush crackled as the fire took hold. The Dragoons would soon spot this. The smugglers made more haste into The Gully.

The Batmen had joined the Carters on the path below the paddock, in order to protect the ankers that had been brought ashore. Better to secure the goods than engage in a fight with the Dragoons. They; the Dragoons, arrived at the beach, to discover just the burning gorse bush and, on closer inspection, the charred remains of a brandy keg and the hot metal parts of a lantern. Even in the strong wind the smell of smoke and brandy was evident. As they tried to extinguish the gorse bush, the tunic of a young Dragoon caught fire. His screams and the shouts of his colleagues filled the air before being carried away on the wind. It was rumoured that he survived his ordeal.

The Lander managed to get all the contraband to its intended hiding places. The horses were eight miles away by early morning. Everyone got home during the day. The injured boatman was taken to the pub and nursed by the Victualler's family. He made a full recovery and was given employment at the pub. He later married one of the Victualler's daughters.

That wasn't quite the end of the matter. Three weeks after the events of the night, the Vestry Clerk was found dead on the spot by the bushes at the field edge on top of The Gully. He had been shot. A shotgun lay beside him. No-one has ever been able to ascertain if he was murdered or whether he committed suicide.

The fourth story in the book ended abruptly just like that. I had so many questions. I sat there bemused. Had I witnessed some of this action during my walk today, in some time-lapsed kind of way? I was confused. I ran over things in my mind. The horses absent from their field, the figure in the frock coat and top hat, the sound of the bird-scarer, the eerie feeling at the old barn, the flat rock, the smoke and the fire, the voices from the beach. Surely there was too much here for this to be completely coincidental. But no, it couldn't be; could it? Did I believe in such things?

I turned the page. The final story was headed by a publishers note claiming that the text that followed had been penned by the Vestry Clerk in his own handwriting and that the document had been found in the parish church soon after his body had been discovered.

The untitled work began “I woke from an unmemorable dream to a bright, clear summer morning; the sort of day when, by eleven o’clock, the air would be warm and almost every type of flying insect that inhabited the countryside would be bothering the horses in the field at the end of the lane. A vigorous shake of the head and a swish of the tail would be no match for those little monsters.”

This was just too much.


 
     
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