A Way Through the Woods (this is a homage to the brilliant Kipling Poem of the same name: http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_woods.htm)
They closed the way through the woods years ago. Some said it just never was used enough to keep it open; others that it was haunted by a masked highwayman who’d been hung from an overhanging oak; yet others insisted the ghost was the daughter of his Grace the Bishop of Twyne who had been ravished and strangled one murky November evening. Whatever the reason years passed and the ruts filled with leaves as the branches grew thick and the bramble twisted like sharp tongues.
By the time Martin Peasewick took possession of the Living at Twyne-Under-Wold, only one or two elderly parishioners even knew of the stories; and they had no knowledge of the route itself.
The last incumbent had been well past the time he should have retired and the congregation had dwindled in number. But Martin and his young wife, Estelle, made up for inexperience with boundless energy and somewhat myopic enthusiasm. One of the first things Estelle noted, when she called on the Squire’s wife, Eleanor Pattison, was the inconvenience of the journey from the vicarage to the village which required them to travel three sides of a square.
‘I don’t understand,’ the smiling Rector’s wife exclaimed. ‘It looks as if there should be a path at least, through Josiah Copse.’
Mrs Pattison concurred. ‘I agree dear. In winter that track by Willow Farm is positively pond-like. I’d suggest to Martin he asks the Squire to organise a cutting party. They’ll soon shorten your ride and they’ll be more time for us to talk.’
A knowing look passed between the two women. There may have been twenty years difference in their ages but they both had a facility and liking for gossip.
And so it was, on the morning after the last of the harvest had been brought in and stomachs had been filled and heads confused in celebration that the village men turned out to cut a way through the woods. Old James had, as he always had, partaken fully of the liquid repast so it was just as the first tree was about to be cut that the old man, his breeches still unbuttoned and his shirt flying out behind him ran, pink faced to the working party.
‘Stop, no stop.’
Everyone looked at the mad eyed ancient as he gasped for breath. Someone said, ‘You should be sleeping it off Old Man,’ and others laughed but the wild look and, yes, fear in the old man’s eyes caused them to wait for him to regain his composure.
‘It ain’t done, this cutting in them there Copse. It’s evil.’
‘What you on about, you old fool?’ ‘You’re still drunk.’ ‘Go home.’
However hard James tried no one listened. Finally young Ralph swung his axe, cutting through the first sapling with a clean stroke. As the thin, sticky trunk sliced in two a noise, much like a distant scream made the men turn. Ralph looked the most startled before he laughed and pointed at the shaking tree above his head. ‘Just an evil wind, eh James. We’ve all got evil wind after yesterday, eh boys?’
The rest laughed and soon the only noise what the clump clump of axes hitting wood and the crack and crash as the timber fell. Gnarled hands swung picks to grub up roots and soon a way began to take shape. It took the day but by the end a path had been cleared.
Proudly the Squire led Martin from the Vicarage to the Village where they shared a beer at the Blacksmith’s Arms. ‘Tomorrow,’ Ralph will finish the job with four good men and after that you and your lovely wife will be able to walk to the Village in no time.’
‘Would you tell them to come to the Vicarage for some cold meats and cider at dinner time? It is the least we can do.’
The next day, at 7.30, Martin noticed Ralph organising his men. He had a sermon to write and settled on the veranda in the warm sun. It was about 11 when he awoke with a start, unaware he had dozed off. He felt strange, like he was running from something. Estelle appeared with some lemonade. ‘Did you call out dear?’
Martin shook his head. ‘I think I might have fallen asleep. What did you hear?’
‘Someone crying. It sounded so sad. When will the men come?’
Martin checked his watch. ‘In an hour I imagine. I think I need some air. I will go and see how they are progressing and return with them.’
Martin breathed in the crisp air; it was a perfect early Autumn day as he crossed to the stile and climbed down onto the path that headed for the Copse. Turning this Sermon over his head he was not concentrating as he rounded the corner and aimed for the new opening. He stopped, puzzled then began to run forward. Someone – something – had stumbled from the wood and was falling to his or her knees. As he came close he realised it was Ralph. ‘Good heavens, man, what has happened?’
Ralph looked at the Rector and his mouth formed a twisted circle. He worked his tongue hard but the only noise that emerged was a soft gurgle.
It was a mad day. As Estelle comforted the crazed Ralph, Martin organised a search party but the impenetrable wood made it difficult and by dusk none of the other men were found. Over the next six weeks, five other men were involved in continuing the work of the path but two took a fever, one was dreadfully hurt by a falling branch and the other two refused to enter the Copse. At last, Old James, supping from his pot in the public bar, had an audience. ‘Tis the Highwayman Roger who is cursing them trees.’
Over the next years several attempts were tried to build the passage but the stories were now firmly fixed and finally the Eleemosynary Council agreed the answer was to move the Vicarage rather than build the path. Gradually the cut trees regrew, the brambles twisted themselves into a thick barbed fence and the wood reclaimed its sanctuary. Occasionally, on stormy nights, a sound, like a moaning man might be heard but while heads were shaken and children admonished not to play near the old Copse, no one said what they were really thinking. Never again should there be a way through the woods.