A Church, a Rectory and a Tractor ~ Mike Heathcote remembers
I shall always remember Monday, July 20th 1969. That was the day the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being the first men to set foot onto the lunar surface. It was also the day when my wife Sheila and I caught the Nottingham to Plymouth train to visit our friends in Ivybridge, Devon for a two week holiday.
Five years previously we had helped Sam and Marion with their Jack Russell puppy named Fred to move house from Nottingham to a three cottage property in Ivybridge that had been knocked into one by Sam on numerous trips previous to this final move. In fact Sam, being a qualified builder and plumber, eventually made it his business of buying up run down cottages mainly in Devon and after renovating letting them out as holiday cottages.
On that first visit we had a wonderful time touring Devon and Cornwall in Sam’s VW van (he had converted it from a Vets Ambulance) each day and returning to base after calling at the local hostelry for a couple of jars of cider (or it could have been more) and then home for another couple of jars (or it could have been more) but this time home-made cider. We didn’t half sleep well! I was told by some of the locals never to mix ale and cider as it would give you one almighty hangover the next morning so we stuck to cider. When in Rome……
The 1969 holiday was a completely different experience. Sheila and I were met at Plymouth Rail Station by Sam, Marion and their two young sons Robert and Ben. The train was actually on time, it’s funny isn’t it how when you are in your 70’s you can remember the smallest detail from all those years ago but can’t recall what happened last Saturday. Once we had been ensconced at Sam and Marion’s, we ambled up to their local for a meal and a couple of ciders (or it could have been more). The London Hotel as it was then, nowadays The Bridge Inn (I think). However, it was only a five minute walk there and half an hour back!
It was whilst we were eating Sam told us of his latest renovation project working for a developer who had purchased a Rectory at a place called Warleggan on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and would we be interested in spending a few days there. His idea being that we could help in the clearance of the grounds each morning and then toddle off in the afternoons visiting places of interest and suchlike. Both Sheila and I thought it would be an interesting and a rewarding activity and especially for me when Sam said he would teach me how to drive a tractor. He told us he had already done quite a lot of work there in the grounds and temporally furnished two rooms on the ground floor, one as a bedroom and the other a lounge with a small kitchen in one corner. The rest of the house was derelict.
So, two days later we packed up Sam’s VW van with provisions and a mattress for Sheila and I to sleep on in the lounge and off we poddled the forty miles or so to Warleggan. On the way there Sam said there was something he hadn’t told us about the Rectory and it’s grounds – it was haunted. He continued to tell us of his strange experiences when he had been working and sleeping there alone. He didn’t believe in ghosts before he started but within a few days he had changed his mind. Strange noises from upstairs every night and sometimes during the day, on a couple of occasions he saw a woman dressed as a bride float through the bedroom wall, smile at him and then float back. He continued to tell us about numerous other happenings. At this point I remember having feelings of both fascination and apprehension as I have always considered myself a bit of a psychic having previous unwanted encounters with the spirit world but not in a serious way. For instance, I can’t forecast the winner of the 3 o’clock at Newmarket tomorrow! Meanwhile, Sheila wanted to go to the loo!
We finally arrived at the Rectory at Warleggan mid afternoon having stopped off at Dozmary Pool on Bodmin Moor which is claimed in Authurian legend to be the home of The Lady Of The Lake and where Arthur rowed out to receive the sword Excalibur from her.
The whole idea of clearing the grounds and renovating the house according to Sam was to create a holiday park with caravans and chalets and turn the house into a restaurant, bar and entertainment centre but, as I learnt later, it never got to that stage and was sold a few months later to Roger and Laura Farnworth.
Anyway back to day one. We quickly unloaded the van with Fred the Jack Russell scurrying around under our feet trying to be of some help. Beans on toast was the only dish on the menu for our evening meal as I recall, washed down with a couple of jars of cider (or it could have been more). Sam showed Sheila and me around the grounds after dinner(?) pointing out the work to be done and introducing me to his pride and joy – the tractor! A battered old David Brown that he had bought from a local farmer but it worked fine, especially for me.
The house was next. Climbing the creaky stairs led us onto a corridor running the length of the house with three bedrooms on each side. Every door had been painted with a cross and a biblical name. There were up to six slide locks on each of the doors on the corridor side, not the inside. Very strange we thought. It was definitely a hairs on the back of the neck situation.
The loo was at the other end of the corridor, I can’t remember a bathroom though. I know it might seem silly now, but at the time we wished we’d had a crucifix with us when we visited the loo. It was such a weird and scary feeling walking down that long corridor thinking that there was someone or something following us. There was one thing for sure, Fred didn’t follow us on those occasions. In fact neither of us used that loo at all at night, we managed with a bucket at the bottom of the stairs in the hallway.
Before it was Robert and Ben’s bedtime, all six of us (but no Fred) ambled along the weed ridden path from the house to the Church with a view to learning a little about the history of the place. No such luck, it was locked. There are a few grey areas in my memory of all those years ago, finding out who was the key holder to the Church was one of them. We all settled down back at the house and caught up on family stories etc., over a couple jars of cider (or it could have been more). Fred decided to sleep with Sheila and me on our bed in the lounge but soon became agitated when the creaking and the sound of footsteps began from upstairs. He cuddled into to us whimpering and shivering with both of us hoping he wasn’t going to have an ‘accident’. To be honest, I wasn’t too bothered as the cider began to take hold of my thoughts and put me to sleep.
I have always been an early riser, so at 5 o’clock the next morning after ablutions, I joined Sam in the grounds for my first lesson on the tractor. That didn’t go down well with the women, making that almighty racket at that time in the morning. Still, there was work to be done and I was going to do it, on the tractor of course. It didn’t take long for Sam to show me the ins and outs of tractor driving, umpteen gears and two gear boxes as I remember. There were loads of tree stumps to pull out and shrubs and small trees to uproot using a strong chain attached to the tractor.
Later that morning after breakfast on the patio (although I’d rather call it a back yard – I’m English, not Spanish), we had a visit from a neighbour who lived opposite the Rectory driveway. Heber Willcock was a retired tin miner who helped Sam out now and again with one or two odd jobs. He told us lots of stories of various ‘happenings’ in and around the Church and Rectory. He showed Sheila and me the pathway that led to a tree trunk seat where the last vicar to live there, the Reverend Frederick Densham, used to sit and write his sermons. This was another strange thing. Why was the unpaved path not overgrown with weeds and brambles when all around was undergrowth several feet high? Its as if it was still well trodden regularly. Heber showed us to the Church (unlocked by this time) where Densham used to preach to pieces of card with names scrawled on them and placed on the first two or three rows of otherwise empty pews. The story and history of the Reverend Densham has been well documented elsewhere in various forms so I don’t think it is necessary to repeat them here.
Heber then introduced Sheila and me to Laurie Smith, who lived and worked as a leather-craft artist in an annex building in Heber’s garden. He made all types of leatherwear including tankards that he sold to Harrods and other craft stores. His eccentricity appealed to me and we became good friends during our short stay. Sheila has always said that there is a bit of an eccentric in me so that is probably why we got on so well. Meanwhile, Sam and I went back to work clearing more unwanted vegetation in the grounds. Come 12 o’clock off we went in the van to find a pub serving ploughman’s lunches (or you could call them ‘tractor driver’s dinners’) and afterwards purposely getting lost down some of the Cornish lanes to see where we would end up.
At the bottom of the driveway on the right hand side of the gate, there was a fairly large hinged box where (it is said) local tradesmen left provisions and suchlike, they would not enter beyond the gate because the driveway was supposed to be haunted as well as the house. I must admit, we never saw any evidence of that whilst we were there. Although Sam, on one previous occasion, had to swerve the van because he thought he saw an apparition when driving up the drive.
We finally settled down on the second night after our usual couple of jars of cider (or it could have been more). This time, not only did the noises from upstairs start in the middle of the night, but strange clip-clopping sounds started outside on the back yard. They seem to last for at least half an hour or more before disappearing round the side of the house. When I mentioned this to Sam the next morning, he said it was probably the wild bullocks from the moor that had broken into the perimeter of the grounds. So we inspected the hedges and the gate but there was no sign of any break-in. Whilst we were in inspection mode, Sam asked me to go down into the cellars with him as he had heard bumps and strange noises coming from below in the past but he never had the nerve to investigate by himself. Most of the rooms were surprisingly tidy and with nothing unusual about them but in one of the end rooms a trench had been dug out. It was about two feet deep by six feet long and two feet wide as far as I can remember. On the opposite side of the hole from where we were standing was an effigy doll with one or two rusty pins stuck in it. I can’t remember whether we took it away and destroyed it or just left it there.
On one of the evenings we asked Laurie if he would like to join us on a trip to St. Neot to have a drink at The London Inn. It was a bit of a squeeze in the van but we arrived there alright. We all enjoyed ourselves watching the children play and talking to the locals mainly about the Rectory.
Laurie really let his hair down (and he had a lot of it!) drinking copious amounts of ale and making us laugh with his wild but interesting stories. I remember he refused a lift back in the van saying he would make his own way home over the moor. I think it was because he would feel embarrassed if he was ill in the van after all of the ale he’d had and some of us being in the firing line. Anyhow, it was halfway through the next day before he eventually arrived home, bedraggled and very tired.
The usual bangs and thumps started the next night and the clip-clopping arrived on the back yard. I’d had enough of it by this time so I got out of bed, wrenched an old sword off the wall, opened the French windows, and went outside to investigate but the clip-clops had already disappeared round the side of the house where it was very dark and I had second thoughts in following them. Sheila saw the funny side of this and still tells people the story today of me prancing around in the moonlight on the back yard with sword held high and stark naked.
The remainder of the week was more or less the same story. Work in the grounds, tractor, trips to the coast, couple of jars of cider (or it could have been more), noises from upstairs and clip-clops. After a week of these experiences we never once saw a ghost. We had arranged to visit places in Devon before our holiday ended so it was time to return to Ivybridge. Anyway, we’d run out of cider!
At Easter 1991, Sheila and I stopped off at the Rectory (now named The Rookery) on our way for a holiday in Newquay as part of our 25th Wedding Anniversary celebrations. We were amazed at the transformation and how tidy it looked. As it was about six o’clock in the morning, we didn’t bother to knock on the door and possibly wake the residents. It was interesting to note that the provisions box at the end of the drive was still there.
In writing this story I have ‘flowered’ things up little but all the facts are true as Sheila and I remember them.