The Owl of St Barnabas
A ghost story
We lived in the city when I was a child in the 1980s. It was and old industrial city that hadn’t changed much since the 1800s. There were new buildings here and there but that was in the centre, where I grew up much of the old mills and warehouses still stood alongside the old tenement buildings. We lived in one of them. It had been converted in the 1950s but it still looked tired. My parents had done a great job making it homely but to a young boy it’s lack of outdoor space was always a problem. There was no green space around us for me to play in and though on Sundays, when they were both off work, my parents would try their best to find me somewhere to play it was short lived. During the week there was nothing for me, especially during the school holidays. As I got older I began to wander and soon I found the only grass anywhere near me. The churchyard of St Barnabas’ became my quiet place, my countryside.
It was an unusual little church. Smack bang in the middle of a street filled with tall grey nondescript buildings this small, delicate ornate church stood in its own bubble of calm and beauty. There was a knee high red brick wall that surrounded it on which was placed a further six feet of black iron railings topped with fleur-de-lys. The iron gate that sat squarely in the middle opened up to an immaculate paved path which led to the front door of the church.
The gate was never locked, I always managed to get in and stroll around the small church yard. It was overlooked on the left and right by two ugly buildings that had at one time been warehouses but at some point the lower levels had been changed into shops. At the back it was enclosed by the rear of the old workhouse which was now empty and condemned with the widows smashed, boarded or so dirty you could not see in or out. The truth was, other than from the street there was nobody to watch or disturb you.
There were shrubs around the edge of the yard, planted against the wall and one very large Yew tree in the far corner that offered even more privacy, I would sit there and eat my lunch and read during the holidays. I devoured books of all kinds, whatever I could get my hands on. When I wasn’t reading I would wander around the gravestones. They were all so different, from the really old ones that were so worn you couldn’t make anything out and they just looked like a propped up paving slabs to the spectacularly carved Victorian ones with angels and weeping women, books and flowers. The one that stood out to me most was the one that had a stone barn owl carved on the top. It was interesting not only for the owl, but also for its lack of name. All that was carved on it was a Latin inscription which read ‘semper vigilantes in te‘. It was undoubtedly a gravestone but there was no indication who it was for.
The church itself was never open, I hadn’t been there during a service and so I hadn’t had a chance to see inside. I am not and have never been a religious person but I was really very intrigued by the building I spent so much time sitting outside. In fact it had been quite a few months that I had been visiting the churchyard before I saw anyone else there. I had arrived quite early that particular day and had with me a book and a drawing pad in case the fancy to sketch something took me. I hadn’t been there long when a voice distracted me from my book. It was that of the vicar, he walked over to me and asked if he could join me under the tree.
“Hello young man, I have finally caught up with you, what a pleasure to meet you.” He said as I put my book on the grass. He was a very ordinary looking man, probably in his 50s or early 60s with greying brown hair brushed into a side parting. He was wearing a grey shirt with the tell tale sign of a clerical collar with a waistcoat over the top.
“I spotted you here a while back and I’ve noticed you seem to come here a lot, especially to read, it’s lovely to have someone here. It does get a bit quiet when you’re here on your own. My name is Reverend Robert Liversedge, I am something of a bookworm myself and I have a lovely collection of books in the church. It seems so sad they sit there unread so I was wondering if you would like to read them?”
I had got over the initial surprise of there being someone else in the churchyard and hadn’t said much to this point. I thanked the vicar and told him I would love to read the books. He leapt to his feet and with a beaming smile helped me up and led me to the front door of the church.
“Have you ever been into St Barnabas’?” He asked, to which I said I hadn’t. “Oh, I must give you the grand tour.”
As he got to the large wooden door he stopped for a moment.
“I am going to let you into a little secret.”
He stepped over to the side of the small stone porch and pulled out a loose brick. Behind the brick was an old iron key. He winked and waved the key at me before opening the door and inviting me in.
The church was incredible inside, the dedication of the vicar and his parishioners was clear to see. The pews were immaculate, there were fresh flowers throughout the building and it felt unbelievably warm and welcoming. The vicar beckoned me down the centre aisle to the front of the church and into the chancel.
“This is my favourite part. Look up.”
I did and saw an incredible pattern of wooden beams criss-crossing the ceiling in between each was a painted image. It was, even to a cynical teenager, breathtaking.
“I like the carvings, see, look where the beams join, each has a carving. They are amazing.”
I hadn’t noticed them in the first place but now I saw them. Every plant or flower you could name was carved expertly into the wood. I stood looking at them for a while and suddenly noticed one of the carvings seemed slightly out of place. It was not a plant or flower, it was a barn owl. Immediately I pointed it out to the vicar who smiled.
“Ah. You spotted him. Wait, look here.” He said walking over to the pulpit. As soon as he did I spotted another barn owl carved into the old wooden pulpit.
“There’s a stone one outside too.” I said to which he clapped his hands together.
“Oh you have been busy, and you want to know why it hasn’t got a name on the stone don’t you?” He chuckled. “Well it’s an old story, the church has always had a barn owl living on the site. It started all the way back in the 1700s when the church was built, that was when this was all fields, but even when the city grew up around it there was still a barn owl and the story goes that the people believed that when the owls left the church would fall. That’s why they are hidden all over. The inscription is ‘always looking over you’.”
“That’s a nice story,” I said, “when was the last time there was a real owl here.”
“Oh, there is one I believe. I’ve never seen it but I’ve heard it sometimes sits up in that Yew tree at dusk.”
I was shocked and disappointed that I’d never spotted it but I was completely committed to finding it at some point.
The vicar showed me the bookcase that was sat in the far corner of the church and invited me to borrow them whenever I wished. He said that I could use the key to come on and out as I wished as long as I remembered to lock the door when I left.
I thanked him again and took one last look around before heading back outside to the tree to read making sure to look for the resident owl.
I continued to visit all that summer and despite the books all being very old fashioned I enjoyed Reverend Liversedge’s collection. I only saw him once more, he waved as he was heading into the church on morning.
As September came so did school and I had moved from the local comprehensive school to a new grammar school a significant distance from home. I had to walk a long way every day and as the mornings got darker and the evenings got earlier that walk was increasingly more unfriendly. In early October a boy from my old school went missing, there were all sorts of rumours and stories but after a while everyone forgot and life went on as ever.
It was nearly Halloween and I walked my normal route to and from school on the Monday but I was very edgy, something wasn’t quite right. It was the same the following day, it seemed like I was being watched. Then on the way to school on the Wednesday morning I was certain I saw a car slow as it went past me. I mentioned it to my teacher and she put my mind at ease but warned me to go straight home that night.
I did as she said, but as I turned away from the main road the school sat on I spotted the car again out of the corner of my eye. It was following me I was certain. I quickened my pace and then slowed and pretended to tie my shoelace. It was still there. My nerves began to fizz and my breath quickened. It was following me.
I hurried and made way my home the quickest route I could think of. Suddenly the car brakes squeaked and a man jumped out of the car and moved to grab me. I wrestled my arm from his grip and ran but he was quick and was gaining on me. Then I saw the church. At the very least I could lock myself in, but who knows, Reverend Liversedge might be there. I swang myself round the gate and up the path just as he got close again. Then out of nowhere a screech and a flurry and I looked around to see a big white barn owl swooping at the man following me and slowing him down. I used the opportunity to retrieve the key, open the door and then lock myself inside. I slumped with my back to the door not knowing quite what to do. The lights were on so someone must have been in the church at some point recently I thought, so if I wait here I must see someone who will turn the lights off.
I watched and waited then came a knock on the door. I held my breath.
“Hello, it’s Reverend Liversedge here can you open the door for me.”
Cautiously I unlocked the door and pulled it open. I stared out into the dark and saw nothing, no vicar, and nobody else. I tentatively stepped outside and noticed a muddy footprint on the step, I allowed my eyes to follow the line of footprints which led to the gravestone with the owl on it. The ground that had formerly been grassed was now freshly dug and filled. I looked around and decided it was safe to go so I returned to the church to pick up my school bag.
As I stepped into the church I noticed just how dark it was, not only that, the pews were dull and unpolished, it was cold and empty and there was dust and cobwebs everywhere the limited light touched. I grabbed my bag, shut the door and locked it behind me replacing the key in its hiding place. I then walked back down the path towards the gate. Before I got to the gate I stopped and took a look at the grave. It was strangely freshly dug but what was more unusual was that under the Latin was a new inscription. It read:
Here lies Reverend Robert Liversedge great friend and shepherd to all in this parish.
1837 - 1889