by Amyas Northcote
I am venturing to set down the following personal experience,
inconclusive as it is, as I feel that it may interest those who have
the patience to study the phenomena of the unseen world around us. It
was my first experience of a psychical happening and its events are
accordingly indelibly imprinted on my memory.
The date was, alas, a good many years ago, when I was still a young
man and at the time was engaged in reading hard for a certain
examination. My friend J. was in similar plight to myself and together
we decided to abjure home and London life and seek a quiet country
spot, where we might devote ourselves to our work amidst pleasant and
J. knew of such a place: a farm belonging to a Mr. Harkness, who
was a distant connection of his own by marriage. Mr. Harkness was a
childless widower and lived much to himself at Branksome Farm,
attended to only by an elderly housekeeper and one or two servants.
Although he called himself a farmer and did in fact farm fairly
extensively, he was a man of cultivated and even learned tastes,
widely read and deeply versed in the history and folklore of his
neighbourhood. At the same time, although good-natured, he was the
most reserved and tactiturn man lever met, and appeared to have a
positive horror of communicating his very considerable fund of local
knowledge to outsiders like ourselves. However, he was glad to welcome
us as paying guests for the sake of his relationship to J., and he and
his housekeeper certainly took great care to make us comfortable and
Branksome Farm is a large old-fashioned house, surrounded by the
usual farm buildings and situated in a valley winding its way among
the Downs. The situation is beautiful and remote, and it would
astonish many of our City dwellers to know that within two or three
hours' railway journey from London there still are vast stretches of
open Downland on which one may walk for hours without sight of a human
being, and traversed only by winding roads which run from one small
town or hamlet to another, linking a few lonely cottages or farms to
civilization on their route. Behind the house Branksome Down, the
highest in the neighbourhood, rises steeply, and beyond it at a
distance of —about three miles is Willingbury, the nearest town,
whence the railway runs to London.
It is necessary to describe the geography of the country between
Willingbury and Branksome a little more closely. The two places lie,
as is usually the case in the Down country, in valleys between the
hills and by road are distant from each other about six to seven miles,
being separated by the long ridge of Branksome Down. But actually the
distance between them does not exceed three miles across the Down: the
path from Branksome, a mere sheep-track, leading up to the top of
Branksome Down whence the wanderer sees before him a wide shallow dip
in the Down, nearly circular, about three-quarters of a mile across
and at the other side sloping up to another gentle ridge. Arrived at
the summit of this second elevation the traveller gazes down on the
Willingbury-Overbury road and following another sheep-track down the
hill-side he reaches the road about a mile outside Willingbury.
The whole Down is covered with sweet, short turf, unbroken by trees
or shrubs and, at the time of my story, was unmarred by fencing of any
form. Flocks of sheep tended by shepherds and their watchful dogs were
almost its sole inhabitants, save for the shy, wild life that clings to
all natural shelters. Of the beauty of this Down and, in fact, of the
whole neighbourhood it is useless to speak. To anyone who has once felt
the fascination of a walk in the fresh, pure air, over the springy and
centuries-old turf, and who has allowed his eyes to wander over the
miles and miles of open Down, studded here and there with rare belts
of trees, and has watched the shifting lights play over the near and
distant hills, it is needless to speak, and to anyone who has never yet
been fortunate enough to find himself in Downland in fine weather one
can hardly make its fascination clear in words, and one can only
advise him to go and explore its beauties for himself.
Well, it was at Branksome Farm that J. and I took up our abode and
commenced a course of steady reading, tempered and varied by long
walks about the country. Our time passed pleasantly and profitably,
and we discovered one day with regret that more than half of it had
Dismayed at this discovery we began to set our wits to work to find
an excuse for prolonging our stay at Branksome, when suddenly an event
happened which entirely altered our plans.
Returning one day from our accustomed walk, J. found a telegram
waiting for him, which called him to London without delay and the
contents of which appeared to indicate the probability of his being
unable to return to Branksome. No time was to be lost in making a start
if he was to catch the afternoon train at Willingbury and, as it was
really quicker to walk across the Down than to drive round the roads
behind Mr. Harkness' rather slow old mare, he threw a few clothes
hastily into a bag and departed for the station. I accompanied him to
see him off and we made the best possible speed to Willingbury. But we
had miscalculated the time; the afternoon train had gone, and we found
on inquiry that there would be no other until the night mail for
London, which passed through Willingbury shortly before 11 p m.
J. urged me not to wait for this but to leave him at the little inn
and go back to Branksome before dark, but I was anxious to keep him
company and cheer up his rather depressed spirits, so finally we
agreed to dine together at the Blue Lion and spend the evening there
until the train left.
I was perfectly confident in my ability to find my way back over
the Down to Branksome at night, as the path was very familiar to us,
and I expected to be aided by the light of the moon which would rise
about ten o'clock. In due course the train arrived, and having seen J.
safely on his way to London I turned my steps towards the
WillingburyOverbury road and its junction with the Branksome
It was a little after 11 p. m. when I left Willingbury on my
homeward way, and I was disappointed to find that the moon had failed
me, being completely hidden behind a thick canopy of cloud. The night
was profoundly still as well as being very dark, but I was confident in
my powers of finding my way and I strode contentedly along the road
till I reached the point where it was necessary I should diverge on to
the Down. I found the commencement of the sheep-track without
difficulty, as my eyes were now accustomed to the surrounding
obscurity, and set myself to climbing the Down as quickly as possible.
I must make it clear that up to the present time I had been in my
usual state of health and spirits, although the latter were somewhat
depressed at J.'s sudden departure and the break up of our pleasant
association together. Up to this night, also, I had never in the least
suspected that I was possessed of any special psychic intelligence. It
is true that I had known that I was in the habit of occasionally
dreaming very vividly and consecutively, but I had never given this
faculty a serious thought, nor, like most young men in their twenties,
had I ever given any consideration to psychic matters. It must be
remembered also that I am writing of nearly forty years ago, when an
intelligent interest in the potentialities of unseen beings and kindred
topics was far less common than it is to-day.
Well, I commenced my ascent of the hill, and I had not gone very far
when I became aware of a certain peculiar change taking place in
myself. I fear I shall find it very difficult to describe my
sensations in a fashion intelligible to those who have never
experienced anything similar, whilst to those who have undergone
psychic ordeals my description will probably appear bald and
I seemed to be in some mysterious fashion divided into a dual
personality. One, the familiar one, was myself, my body, which
continued to walk up the sheep-track, keenly alive to the need to keep
a sharp look out against losing my way or stumbling over some
obstruction. This personality also felt loneliness and a certain
degree of nervousness. The darkness, silence and immensity of the
empty country round me were oppressive. I feared something, I was not
quite sure what, and I anxiously wished I was at the end of my journey
with the farm lights shining out to welcome me. My other personality
was more vague and ill-defined; it seemed to be separated from my body
and from my outer consciousness and to be floating in a region where
there was neither space nor time. It seemed to be aware of another
world, a world surrounding and intermingling with this one, in which
all that is or was or will be was but one moment and in which all
places near or far, the Down and the remotest of the invisible stars,
were but one spot.
All was instantaneous and all was eternal. I am not clear how long
this mood lasted, but it was probably only a few minutes before my
earthly self was brought or appeared to be brought into entire control
of my personality by a sudden shock.
As I walked I became aware that I was not alone. There was a man
moving parallel with me on my right at the distance of some four or
five yards. So suddenly and so silently had he appeared that he seemed
to have risen from the earth. He was walking quite quietly at my own
pace abreast of me, but apparently taking no notice of me, and I
observed that his footsteps made no sound on the soft turf. The dim
light made it difficult to see him at all distinctly, but he was
evidently a tall, powerfully built fellow, dressed in a long cloak,
which, partly covering his face, fell nearly to his feet. On his head
he wore a queer-shaped, three-cornered hat and in his hand he carried
what appeared to be a short, heavy bludgeon.
I was greatly startled. I am a small and by no means robust man and
the apparition of this odd-looking stranger on these lonely Downs was
disquieting. What did he want? Had he followed me down the road from
Willingbury, and, if so, for what purpose? However, I decided it was
best not to appear alarmed and after taking another glance at the man,
I wished him good evening.
He took not the faintest notice of my salutation, which he appeared
not even to have heard, but continued to advance up the hill by my
side in dead silence.
After a few moments I spoke again; and this time my voice sounded
strange in my own ears, as if it did not come from my lips, but from
somewhere far away.
"A dark night," I said.
And now he answered. In a slow, measured voice, but one in which
there sounded a note of hopelessness and misery, he said:
"It is dark to you. It is darker for me."
I scarcely knew what to reply, but I felt that my courage was at an
ebb and that I must maintain it by endeavouring to keep up a
conversation, difficult though this might prove. Accordingly I went
"This is a strange place to walk in at night. Have you far to go?"
He did not turn his head or look at me.
"Your way is short and easy, but mine is long and hard. How long, O
Lord, how long?" he cried. As he uttered the last words his voice rose
to a cry and he tossed his arms above his head, letting them fall to
his side with a gesture of despair.
We had now almost reached the top of the Down, and as we neared the
summit I became aware that the wind was rising. At the moment we were
sheltered from it by the brow of the hill, but I could hear its
distant roaring, and as we reached the summit it broke upon us with a
With it and mingled in its sounds came other sounds, the sounds of
human voices, of many voices, in many keys. There were sounds of
wailing, of shouting, of chanting, of sobbing, even at times of
laughter. The great, shallow bowl of Branksome Down was alive with
sounds. I could see nothing, save my strange companion, who continued
to move steadily forward; and I, dreading his company and yet dreading
even more to be left alone, accompanied him. The night was still
profoundly dark and, though as I advanced the voices often sounded
quite near, I saw nothing until after we had passed the centre of the
depression and were mounting the opposite slope. At that moment the
wind tore aside the clouds and the moon streamed down full upon the
Downs. By her light I saw a marvellous and a terrifying sight. The
whole of Branksome Down was alive with people hurrying hither and
thither, some busy and absorbed in their occupations, whatever they
might be, others roaming aimlessly and tossing their arms into the air
with wild and tragic gesticulations. The crowd appeared to be of all
sorts and conditions and to be dressed in the fashions of all the
ages, though ancient costumes seemed to predominate. Here I saw a
group of persons clothed apparently in the priestly robes of ancient
Britain; there walked a soldier wearing the eagle-crested helmet of
Rome. Other groups there were in dresses of later date, the steel-clad
knight of the Middle Ages, the picturesque dress and flowing hair of a
cavalier of the Seventeenth Century. But it was impossible to fix the
shifting crowd. As I gazed, absorbed, at one figure, it melted and was
gone and another took its place, to fade likewise as I watched.
My companion paid no heed to the throng. Steadily he passed on
towards the crest of the hill, at intervals raising his arms and
letting them fall with his old gesture of despair and uttering at the
same time his mournful cry of "How long, how long?"
We passed onward and upward and reached the top of the Down, my
companion now a few yards in front of me. As he reached the crest of
the hill, he stopped and, lifting his arms above his head, stood
motionless. Suddenly he wavered, his figure expanded, its lines became
vague and blurred against the background, it faded and was gone. As it
vanished the wind dropped suddenly, the sound of human voices ceased
and gazing round me I saw the plain bare and still in the moonlight.
I was now at the top of the hill, and looking downwards I saw a
light burning in a window of Branksome Farm. I stumbled down the hill
in haste, and as I approached the house saw Mr.
Harkness standing at the open door. He looked at me strangely as I
"Have you come across Branksome Down to-night," he exclaimed,
"to-night of all the nights in the year?"
"Yes," I replied.
"I should have warned you," he said, "but I expected you back
before dark. Branksome Down is an ill place to-night and men have
vanished upon it before now and never been heard of again.
No shepherd will set foot upon it to-night, for this is the night
in the year when, folk say, all those that ever died violent deaths
upon the Downs come back to seek their lost rest."