From ‘The Visit of the Gods’
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
A note to anyone, who may in time, hear or read a transcript of this recording. Please believe I am not mad, lest I think I am not. Though in the few weeks that have passed as I have lain in this bed, it is a question that I have often asked of myself. I now write of the strange occurrences that befell me whilst I am still able, though as I momentarily rest and reflect I cannot begin to rationalise any of it.
I had taken the red-eye flight from Boston to Manchester, and from there I had travelled first by train and then by coach up through north-western England, passing through some quaint towns and villages, and some not so quaint and thought not into Lakeland proper, I did enjoy some mellow British scenery and recoiled at the sight of a large and incongruous nuclear power-station. But that is indeed what I had hoped for, to take the rough with the smooth – to experience all that corner of Britain had to offer.
My reasons for desiring authenticity had as much to do with my career as any personal choice, for by occupation I am a writer of travel books. However the travel books I write are not general guides, but are written with a different perspective. They could perhaps be described as biographies of places or psycho-geographical travelogues and focus both on the history and present life of locations as well as the people whom live and lived there.
As a literary major, I like to follow in the footsteps somewhat of past writers, not travel-writers as such but novelists and poets, previous publications of mine include ‘From A Proud Tower: The Baltimore of Poe’ and ‘The Innocents at Home: Mark Twain and the Mississippi.’
So to the English Lake District I was now set, travelling light, beyond basic toiletries, change of clothing and a quality lightweight wind & waterproof jacket (which I was informed was a must for this region), my only other luggage was a digital camera, a notebook and pens, and a well read copy of ‘Lyrical Ballads’ by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; for the Lakeland poets were my impetus for coming.
My books are not simply historical pieces either, for I like to include the words and thoughts and experiences of both myself and of the people I meet upon my voyages. For that reason I never read whilst travelling and certainly never plug music into my ears, instead I look out of windows and tactfully at other people and I eavesdrop conversations. Though in this instance conversation I overheard was not particularly stimulating and was mainly chit chat such as speculation over how Carlisle would fare in the coming football season or bemoaning how there was a hosepipe ban, when a couple of summers since they were paddling through kitchen floodwater. Still, I listened and gazed out of the window at field upon field and in the distance the rolling hills of the Lake District.
I reached the end of my route and dismounted the coach, glancing at my watch: 6.40 in the evening. Checking the timetable affixed to the bus shelter I realised I had just missed a connection and would have to wait for nearly an hour for the next bus heading towards Ambleside. I was weary though and had travelled enough for the day. My feet ached inside the only footwear I had brought, a pair of light walking boots, good enough for fair conditions on hill and moor, but rather too toasty for hours of plane, train and automobile.
I sat on a nearby bench and loosened the laces a little. The driver of the bus I had just travelled upon stood awhile nearby having a smoke before he would return back along the route. I asked him if there were any motels or hotels nearby. With a cigarette between two fingers and rubbing his short greying beard with his thumb, he replied that there wasn’t much choice as we weren’t quite into the tourist trap as yet, but there was a nearby bed and breakfast. He said he couldn’t comment upon either the beds or the breakfast, as he lived nearby he had never had recourse to try either, but that as part of the establishment there was adjoined a nice quiet pub that did decent food.
That sounded ideal to my ears! As a matter of course upon my travels I avoid corporate hotels that are branded so homogeneously as to be anywhere, but also at the same time don’t care to stop anywhere where I might be sharing my bed with lice or fleas. As it was tonight, in my fatigue I would have likely opted for the bench I now sat on or a cowshed were there no other options; so the suggestion sounded like luxury. I nodded my approval and cigarette in hand he waved directions, “Straight up this street to the end, turn left and second on the right, cannot miss it.” I thanked him and proceeded on my way.
Despite overheated, slightly aching feet I was pleased to stretch my legs as the afternoon began to cool. It had been a hot day, hotter than I expected, though I knew it to be the British summer, I had not before visited this country and had half expected it, I suppose, to be shrouded in a permanent Victorian pea-soup fog.
I enjoyed my stroll up the old terraces and converted farm-buildings, listening to the bleating of sheep in the fields and upon the gentle hills beyond. It was a nice, quiet little place, not many people around and the few shops to be seen seemed already closed or to be closing; a tea-room, a butcher’s, a general store and post office combined, a small hiking equipment shop and a second-hand bookshop (which I would have had to fight temptation not to enter had it been open, lest my light luggage be transformed into a heavy camel hump laden with foxed-paged old tomes).
Within a short time I reached 'The Mellow Beck', from the outside it looked more than pleasant enough. A large old white painted stone building, with a noticeable adjoined division between the lodgings and public house area preceded to the front by a car-park, which had pleasant beer gardens to either end, one of which contained a small swing and slide for children to play upon and to the rear of the building I could clearly see the edges of a large garden that seemed to be dominated by a splendid array of colourful flowers. Beyond which could be seen an unspoiled vista that extended to the mountains of the Lake District.
I entered a small door to the left of the main pub entrance, which had to my relief a small sign exhibited bearing the legend ‘VACANCIES’. On first impressions, inside, I was pleased to note that it appeared very clean and well-cared for, if perhaps a little too old-world for my own décor tastes. At the end of a small corridor with doors leading off and a wide staircase beyond, was an old desk, behind which sat a woman speaking on the telephone. She was in her early 40’s, wearing a feminine, floral dress and with her mousy brown hair cut into a loose shoulder length bob she was not glamorous but could appropriately be described as attractive. Seeing me enter, she smiled, held up a finger and silently mouthed, “One moment please” as she rolled her eyes to what was one of those telephone calls. As I heard her voice in the background talking.
“8 to 8.30 at the very latest and no fizzy drinks or she’ll be up all night. Don’t let her get the lend of you!”
I amused myself by looking at the pictures hanging on the flock wallpaper. Mainly Lakeland scenes, either photographs or watercolours; but startling amongst them was a child’s drawing in wax crayon. It clearly depicted a vividly coloured bed of flowers with a stick figure girl stood amongst them. Childishly crude of course but still very clear in intention, which made the ‘sun’ all the more incongruous it was drawn heavily in black crayon, a disk with snake-like rays and in its centre what looked like a bright yellow cyclopean eye. It had a rather menacing effect. It was signed with a barely legible flourish, with only the letter ‘A’ being distinct.
Finishing her phone-call and noticing my preoccupation, the woman called in a voice with a gentle warm lilt.
“I see you’re admiring my daughter Amelia’s masterpiece, she’s barely 5 and already quite the little artist … precious and precocious!” She laughed.
“She’s staying over at my mother’s tonight and has already got her tearing her hair out” she smiled motioning to the telephone.
“I’m not sure what the big one-eyed spider represents though,” she said with a mirthful tone.
I was momentarily bewildered until I realised she was talking again about the picture.
“Hmm.. More like an octopus I thought” I replied smiling.
She squinted as if scrutinising the artwork, “Oh, well that makes a lot more sense now” she joked and then switched into a natural and pleasant business mode.
“Anyway, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, how can I help?”
Within too long, I had booked a room and had been informed of all the facilities and regulations, breakfast times, checking out time and so forth and then proceeded up the staircase to my room. It was an agreeable enough room situated in the attic area to the rear of the building. Its most remarkable feature was the view from the window. The mounts on the horizon were gently dimmed by a summer haze, which contrasted remarkably with the kaleidoscopic burst of colour from the flower garden below. I could not help but be stirred by the beautiful riot of hue and fragrance that rose from the blooms below to pervade my open window and fill the room with a gentle heady scent.
I took off my boots and lay fully clothed upon the bed, which felt cool and comfortable, letting my feet breathe and relaxing though not sleeping. A short while later I arose, freshened up in the bathroom and decided to investigate the pub next door.
I was relieved to find the place neither empty nor extremely busy and loud. A few couples were scattered around tables, eating meals, a pair of young men were enjoying a game of darts whilst another were playing pool, some girls were sat chatting in a corner and an old man propped up the bar nursing a glass of beer. A short-haired man in his early 40’s wearing a pale blue open necked shirt smiled and called over from behind the bar.
“Good evening, are you wanting to order a meal?”
“Hmm.. Perhaps, I’m not sure if I feel hungry yet.”
“Ok, no worries, we serve hot meals until 8.30, after that you can order sandwiches from the bar if there’s any left or if not, plenty of crisps, salty nuts and scratchings” he beamed.
“If you care to, please take a seat at a table and have a look at the menu whilst you decide and I’ll be over in a moment”.
A bit bewildered by the sound of scratching crisp salty nuts, I took a seat and perused the menu. There were indeed some sumptuous sounding dishes listed, but although I’d only eaten a paltry airline meal and a snack, I still didn’t feel that hungry. The man came over and asked if I’d care to order, I replied that I would leave it till later and asked what he recommended.
“Cannot go wrong with the lamb and mixed organic vegetables” he said, “All fresh, local produce. The homemade meat and ale pie is also very popular. As I say we serve until 8.30. Now, would you like to order a drink?”
“Are there any local brews available?” I enquired.
“Certainly, amongst our real ale selection there is the Cumbrian brewed ‘Mountain Mist’ and ‘Stone Ale’, which is a very popular tipple.”
“A pint of Stone Ale it is then, please”
As he busied himself with my drink, the barman glanced over and smiled. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, but I noticed your accent … American or Canadian?”
“American, I’m originally from Minnesota but have lived most of my life in Massachusetts.”
“I’d love to go to the States. We were thinking of going to Florida, my daughter wants to meet Mickey Mouse, but it’s a long flight for a little hyperactive one so we may go to that one in France instead. So are you over here on business or pleasure, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Sure, A little of both I guess, I only flew in this morning. I’m a writer, and I intend on following in the footsteps of the Lakeland Poets, so to speak.”
“Ah yes, we get a few people come in here either to or from visiting Wordsworth’s House in Ambleside. Got to say though, I don’t much care for his work myself. Some of what I’ve read, which isn’t that much admittedly was alright, but I don’t see the fuss over Daffodils, such a sickly colour. Just my opinion, like” he checked himself in case he’d caused offence.
“It’s not one of my favourites” I admitted, “I’m more interested in the darker deeper moments of the Romantic movement. I’d be curious to get inside Coleridge’s head.”
“Aye, Coleridge, well he’s not local born and bred, but he spent enough time wandering the hills yonder” He continued with a jovial conspirational whisper “If you want dark tales, you’d be best off talking to old Joe there at the bar, he said with a nod and a wink towards the solitary pensioner sat at the bar “Hearsay Coleridge himself ran into him and based his Ancient Mariner on the gruff old buzzard.”
Without turning to look at us the old man growled “I’m not that sodding old and you’ll ne’er catch me in a bloody boat!”
Taken aback by being caught out, the barman muttered, “Bloody hell, enough muck in those lugs to grow a load of spuds and still the old goat could hear a penny drop on a shag pile at fifty paces!”
“Aye, and I heard that an’ all,” retorted the old man, his back still to us.
The barman shook his head in bemusement turning back to me, “Sorry, here’s me whittering on and you’ll be parched, pint of the Stone Ale wasn’t it?”
“Please, I’ll take it at the bar” I said motioning towards old Joe. The barman shook his head with a wry smile and headed towards the pumps.
I moved to a stool next to Joe and asked if it were ok that I sat there.
“Fine by me, lasts I heard, s’ a free country” he replied grumpily.
He was a local character alright, I could tell and it was plain to see he was a regular customer of this pub; I wouldn’t be surprised if his shape were worn onto the stool upon which he sat. I subtly surveyed his looks and manner. His hair and beard were a mass of white curls, his skin rough, somewhat reddened and etched with lines that wrote of a lifetime of experience. Save for his clothes, an old suit faded to the same grey-green of the dry-stone walls familiar to the area and a shirt, probably once white, but now taking on the hue of a mushroom past its best, Joe had the vague appearance of a gin-blossomed Father Christmas.
“Does tha want a picture?” he growled with no real sense of menace. Before I could apologise for staring, he lilted his head in my direction and fixed me with a scrutinising gaze. His stone-grey eyes infused with lines of blue were not unkindly, but I discerned that they revealed both a sharp dry sense of humour and a no-nonsense disposition.
“American, hmm?” I nodded. He nodded, revealing neither approval nor disapproval. “Are you stopping here then?” he asked, with a vague wave of the hand indicating the establishment.
“Yes, for tonight at least” I answered.
“Hmm” Joe nodded “Have they got yeh in the haunted room then?”
“There’s a haunted room? Do you know which one?”
“All of ‘em or none of ‘em, probably according to the punter. Depends on the clientele whether ghosts are good for business or not.”
Not sure whether he was having a joke at my expense, I asked “Haunted by whom or what?”
“Well, there’s some like to say, there’s a melancholy white maiden walks upstairs. Having learned on her earthly wedding day, that her betrothed had been less than faithful with the milking maids, she threw herself from the upper window to her doom.”
He took a drink. “Has wandered in her wedding dress ever since.”
“Do you believe that?” I questioned.
“Do I bollocks,” he said, “A fall from up there I’d doubt would do more than sprain an ankle. Nah, too neat too tidy .. too tourist-friendly. Half the pubs and all the castles in this country are haunted by cheated-upon women, so it seems.”
“So you don’t believe this place is haunted then?”
“I didn’t say that. Besides my belief or anyone’s belief don’t make something so or not. Belief proves nowt neither way.”
Pausing for tastes of beer, he looked like he was about to say more, when the barkeeper put down my pint in front of me. I clumsily accustomed myself to counting out the unfamiliar sterling coins and paid for my drink.
When the barman had moved on to serve a plump lady in a dress a size too small, old Joe spoke again.
“Long, long time since, this was no inn. It were just a big, old stone barn. So happens a plague hit the town, pretty much wiped out the whole population which was far less populated then than even it is now. It came and past, fast and furiously; those that were still living, couldn’t dig the burial pits fast enough. So, instead they heaped up the pestilent bodies in the barn and set them alight– right here where we sit and drink and those folks there are enjoying their roast lamb.”
He thumbed towards the plump lady and her equally rotund husband.
“The ghosts of the diseased are who haunts this place if anyone does. A charnel-house full of rotting bodies ain’t quite so romantic as a wistful white waif now is it?” As he chuckled to himself, I had to concur that it wouldn’t probably be the best marketing strategy for a Bed and Breakfast.
“So, the disease. What was it, Bubonic Plague .. the Black Death?” I asked.
“More like the Yellow Death” he chortled “Whatever it were, it were peculiar to this place. It didn’t affect anywhere else, not fore nor aft. There wasn’t an epidemic of any sort affecting elsewhere at that time. The only learned man in the town at that time was the Parson, and he was one of the first to succumb, so there was nobody to put it down in the history books and those that survived weren’t keen for it to be. They still needed to make a living selling their wool and milk and vegetables to market in the other towns and knowledge of a foul disease wouldn’t really do their trade much good. So they kept quiet and it’s just passed down as a local legend. Tales of a disease that suddenly came and suddenly went, causing those that got it to basically rot alive in a river of stinking pus. I noticed that those who’ve encountered them ghosts have never seen them, they smelt ‘em .. a raw, filthy stench, worse than the devil’s own farts!”
Despite Joe’s pleasure for the grimmer details, the story intrigued me.
“So it’s not known for sure that this ever happened?”
“As I say, nowt was written down, but nose about the graveyard and the church records and it can be seen that something did happen to suddenly lessen the population of this town in a few weeks in 1786.”
He looked at me and continued “There are those of course, that have smelt the ghosts but blame the sewers or muck-spreading on t’ farmers’ fields, but have you noticed all them sweet-smelling flowers round the back?”
I admitted I had. Finishing the last dreg of his pint and mournfully looking at the bottom of his empty glass, Joe said, “Aye. Bet you won’t find a single yellow bloom amongst them. Not there, nor in any hanging basket nor garden round the town. Even the farmers won’t grow Oil-seed Rape round here, though it’d turn a tidy profit. There is an inherent aversion to yellow, round here, cannot be denied.”
I mused this over and noticed Joe looking expectantly at me.
“So what was this ‘Yellow Death’? Something toxic in the water or food supply perhaps? What do you think caused it?”
“Now I do have thoughts on that, but hell if this tale-telling ain’t but thirsty work” Joe said, tapping his empty glass.
“Sorry, of course, what will you have?” I asked gesturing for the bar man’s attention, whom I suspected was probably the landlord judging by the number of photographs of him hung behind the bar alongside the woman tending the desk next door and a little girl, whom I presumed to be his wife and daughter.
I had not yet even tasted my own beer, so engrossed had I been in the old man’s yarn. I took a sip now as the barkeep wandered over. The Stone Ale had a slightly flinty tang, not unpleasant but acquiring a taste which surely would be gained with each mouthful. Also I sensed that it probably had a greater kick than it first suggested. Another pint of it was poured for Joe.
“I hope you are not scaring the customers with horror stories, Joe? Or fleecing them for drinks?” the barman asked, eyeing the old man. Joe shrugged.
“It’s fine,” I said, “my pleasure. I’m not sure what to make of the story though, good material all the same.”
That sparked Joe. “Aye, I forgot you’s a writer. Ere’ Mike. Better give us a whiskey chaser too, on him, if this fella’s gonna write up my words and make a fortune on them!” Mike looked at me, I nodded and handed him more money. This time it was Mike who shrugged as he turned to fix Joe a shot from the optics.
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