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The Phantom of Ulm Water

by Tony Nunn 7 months ago in fiction

A tale of the supernatural from Stiltshire

Ulm Water is the largest inland body of water in Stiltshire: a roughly kidney-shaped lake about three miles long by one and a half wide, surrounded by flat, uninhabited countryside for several miles in any direction. There are two substantial islands and several tiny islets, but in other parts the water is deep and impenetrable. It can be a disquieting place even by day to a solitary walker or angler and positively eerie at night when the moon lies low and casts long shadows from the gnarled willows at the water’s edge. But an atmosphere of utter foreboding hangs over the larger island.

Whatever it is that lurks there has been known about for centuries. In the library of St Cedd’s College the Master’s journal for 23rd October 1561 records that a student, one John Fylney, was “taken to ye physician, being delyrious and beside hymself with fear, having seen ye phantom of Ulme Water”. In 1728 the Parish Clerk of Ulm St Mary wrote that two men from Oxbake had been rescued from the island one morning after their terrified screams were heard by a farmer on the shore. It appears that they had been ambushed, rowed there and abandoned by a gang from Jupton the previous evening but were unable to articulate exactly what had happened during the night. One showed no physical symptoms and in due course recovered from his ordeal but the other began to foam at the mouth, succumbed to a fever that evening and died two days later.

However, these seem to have been isolated incidents. By and large, local people shunned the area after dark and visitors seldom came that way. Doubtless there were other manifestations of the phantom prior to the late nineteenth century but they have not been recorded.

The most celebrated case concerning Ulm Water occurred in 1895. Three years earlier a wealthy businessman by the name of Robert Worley, not a native of Stiltshire, had moved into the area with his wife and three children and built a handsome house in beautiful gardens about half a mile from the lake’s southern shore. This pleasant homestead was called Tippledown - an innocent enough name but one that was later seen to show a dreadful prescience - and during the summer it was used to entertain a succession of house guests including some old friends, the Crisp family.

In the afternoon of August 17th, the Worley children, Edwin (aged 11), Sophia (9) and Victoria (5), together with the Crisp’s son, James (8), set out to explore the lake in a rowing boat. When they failed to return by nightfall, the alarm was raised and the local policeman with a posse of volunteers from the village began a systematic search of the area. Many of these good men had severe misgivings about setting foot on the large island (strangely, it has never been given a name), but the knowledge that young lives were at risk drove them to overcome their fears and make a hasty but thorough examination of the place. When it was announced that Mr Worley had offered a substantial reward they redoubled their efforts, but it was all to no avail: no sign of children or boat was found that night.

The search resumed at dawn and it was not long before the boat was spotted drifting at the northern end of the lake with little Victoria lying asleep in the bows. The child was unable to explain what had happened; indeed, within a matter of days she seemed to have erased the incident from her memory entirely. Meanwhile, the party which returned to the large island found the lifeless body of Edwin lying face down at the water’s edge. There was no sign of injury but his right hand grasped a stick as though he had been trying to defend himself or his companions. Both islands were searched many times and the lake scoured with drag nets but the bodies of Sophia and James were never recovered, although large numbers of ancient and unidentified bones were brought to the surface. Not surprisingly, the Worleys left the area shortly afterwards and Tippledown - or “triple drown” as it quickly became known - fell into disrepair. The ruin still stands, adding another eerie touch to that bleak landscape.

In 1920, at the Dipsomaniacs' Club in Eyvesborough, Ezra Nallory and George Swist accepted a wager from the actor Sebastian Thrice-Wessley who promised them 100 guineas apiece if they would spend a night on the large island. On 15th October, just before sunset, they rowed out to the island, taking with them a small tent, hurricane lamps, provisions and a bottle of extremely good cognac put up by Thrice-Wessley as part of the deal. He, with two of his gamekeepers, patrolled the shores of the lake to ensure that the bargain was kept. The evening passed uneventfully until eleven o’clock. Nallory’s diary records what happened next:

“Not long finished supper when the lamps went out. Tried to re-light them and failed. It was as if a wind blew from within the lamp itself. Odd. Took some brandy and turned in. Tried to sleep. Now about midnight. Lamps still won’t light, so writing by moonlight. God, this is a frightful place. Need a good shot of cognac.”

“1 a.m. Getting cloudy - can’t see to write. Cognac nearly finished. Feel a bit drowsy now.”

The next few entries were scrawled in a shaky hand a few hours later:

“Must have slept a bit and was awakened by Swist getting up to relieve himself. Looked at my pocket watch and it was about 2.30. Took some more brandy. Swist seemed to have been gone a long time but I was too weary to go after him. Felt as if something was trying to draw a veil over my senses.”

“Woke at ten to seven. Almost light. Swist’s sleeping bag empty. Forced myself to get up despite still feeling half paralysed. Called to Swist. No sign of him near tent.”

“Found him - Lord, I feel sick, but I must write [Nallory, it should be noted, was a scientist and retained the presence of mind to record the events in scrupulous detail] - at the other end of the island. Lying face down. Cold. Eyes glazed. Right hand grasping rock. Looks dishevelled but no injuries. No marks on ground. The air is oppressive, I’m going to choke. Can’t stay here.”

At 7.30 Nallory, having rowed ashore, made contact with the gamekeepers. They had seen or heard nothing untoward. The post mortem on Swist gave the probable cause of death as heart failure.

One afternoon in 1936, Jean-Pierre DuBois, a Frenchman on holiday, took it into his head to swim across Ulm Water. It seems that the undertaking proved more strenuous than he had supposed, so he stopped to rest on the island, fell asleep and did not wake before nightfall. The following morning, he swam back and arrived at a farmhouse on the outskirts of Smitley, wide-eyed, exhausted and panic stricken. He was taken to the Lonchelsea Sanatorium, where he slept for 36 hours.

His behaviour on awakening was bizarre to say the least: at times he would mumble “les six” and roll his eyes horribly in between uttering the most appalling shrieks and groans. [The registrar, a man well versed in contemporary music, opined that he must be voicing his disapproval at the works of Honegger, Milhaud et al, but the nurses were not convinced by this theory.] Then he would murmur “Angelique”, close his eyes and drift into a peaceful sleep. In due course, Mme DuBois arrived from Lyon and proved not to be called Angelique nor, to her knowledge, did her husband have a mistress of that name. Eventually he made a full recovery and returned home, contributing nothing further by way of explanation of his ordeal.

During the Second World War, a badly damaged bomber returning from Germany limped over the Stiltshire coast with engines blazing and crash landed on the South Drones. Hopes that the crew had managed to bail out were justified when the tail gunner walked into Smitley Police Station early in the morning. He confirmed that all four had parachuted. He said he had landed in water and swum twenty yards or so to shore and believed his comrades to have come down some distance away “in the middle of the lake or possibly on an island”. Fearing the worst, the Sergeant despatched his men to Ulm Water.

Of the other three crew members only the co-pilot, Lt. Francis Oatman, was found alive. He insisted that both the pilot and the fore-gunner had also landed safely but that during the night they had lost contact while trying to determine their whereabouts. Eventually, overcome with drowsiness, he had lain down and slept. At dawn, he soon realised that he was on an island and set off to find the others. The gunner was lying on the shingle, much as George Swist had lain. Before long the police launch arrived, having already recovered the pilot’s body from the water.

John Finley grew up in Ulm St Mary during the 1960s. A taciturn, studious boy who preferred his own company and that of Mother Nature to playing with other children, he developed a fascination with the Water and the stories surrounding it, which became all the keener when he heard of his near-namesake and the first recorded sighting of the phantom four centuries earlier. While a student at St Cedd’s, he made the acquaintance of Professor Simeon Thrule, an acknowledged expert on the history and folklore of Stiltshire.

After he left university, Finley’s fascination with Ulm Water started to take the form of a dangerous obsession. He began to talk of spending a night on the island. A friend, Peter Foggert, a young man of immense bravado and arguably little sense, rashly offered after a few drinks to accompany him. But Finley hesitated to accept the offer. He mulled the available data over in his mind: Fylney, presumed alone - delirious but survived. Two Oxbake men - one died, one survived. The Worley children - one dead, two missing, presumed drowned, one survived. Nallory and Swist - one died, one survived. DuBois - alone and survived. Three airmen - one drowned, one dead on land, one survived. One survived! Slowly the inexorable conclusion dawned on Finley: if he wanted to see the phantom and live to tell the tale, he would have to go alone.

Meanwhile, Professor Thrule, examining some manuscript fragments from the Eyvesborough assizes of the 14th century, came across a fascinating discovery. In 1392, seven sisters named Errent from the Parish of Ulm St Mary had been accused of witchcraft and subjected to ordeal by water. The youngest, Ruth, a girl just thirteen years of age, had drowned and was thus deemed innocent. Unusually, the clerk recorded that she was a fair child with golden hair and that she was buried in St Mary’s churchyard. The other six were sentenced to death by burning but then drowned for the sake of practicality; the manuscript does not state where, but there is only one sizeable body of water in that part of the county. Although some of the charges were predictably fanciful, there seems to have been strong evidence linking the older sisters with several murders, robberies and other heinous crimes.

As he penned an excited letter to his young protégé, the professor was struck by an intriguing thought. Suddenly the Frenchman’s ramblings about “les six” and “Angelique” began to make sense. He thought about little Victoria Worley, made a discrete phone call to a senior RAF officer of his acquaintance and the following day received confirmation from the archives that Lt Oatman had indeed been the youngest member of the ill-fated bomber crew. He already knew that Nallory, at 33, had been two years younger than Swist. Immediately he phoned John Finley, but there was no reply.

Unknown to the professor, Finley had chosen that very evening to make his trip to the island. Peter Foggert ferried him across in his father’s motor boat and left him there with a bivouac, a sleeping bag, a thermos flask and a pile of sandwiches. Several hours - and pints - later, Foggert began to have reservations about leaving his friend on the island and just before midnight, notwithstanding Finley’s insistence on being alone, he returned to the boat moored at the lakeside, started the outboard motor and set out across the still water towards the foreboding black shape that lay ahead.

He had cut the throttle to coast the last few yards when he saw Finley, who had heard the roar of the outboard, shouting and waving at him frantically to turn around. They are both able to describe what happened next. At first it was just a faint glimmer on the surface, then six eerie blue lights seemed to rise from the water and move towards the island, spreading out as if to encircle the two men. Foggert had by this time scrambled out of the boat and the two stood transfixed as the six shapes advanced. They knew that total silence prevailed and yet in their heads both experienced the most blood-curdling groaning and wailing.

Then, their attention was drawn to the horizon where a speck of bright white appeared. Briefly its glow picked up the silhouette of St Mary’s spire like a faint floodlight and then it moved rapidly towards them, growing larger as it flitted across the water. Again they became aware of the blue spectres now closing in on them, their willowy forms at once sinister and strangely sensual like exotic dancers. Each man felt these awful beings were intent upon him alone, while the hideous music in his head reached a crescendo with a harmony of bowel-chilling intensity that no composer of horror film soundtracks could emulate in a million years.

But still that blob of light sped over the dark waters until it too was upon them, brilliant white and gold, subtle and sensuous but beautiful beyond description. For what might have been a split second or half of eternity it seemed that some dreadful Manichean struggle ensued, and then the torturous music faded, the blue spectres retreated, twitching angrily as though thwarted of their prey, and the pure bright one blossomed with such radiance that her evil siblings melted away into the lake as she engulfed their would-be victims.

Both Finley’s and Foggert’s memories of the incident stop there. Finley awoke first, shortly after dawn, and roused his friend. Of the boat there was no sign. Fortunately, Foggert’s father had raised the alarm when his son failed to return with the boat. A few fragments of the vessel were later found drifting ashore, looking for all the world as though the tiny craft had been blown up by a substantial charge of high explosives. But the two men were recovered and, apart from suffering mild shock, none the worst for their ordeal.

Professor Thrule arrived shortly, having driven down from Strupton after repeatedly failing to contact Finley by phone. In the light of his findings, the descriptions of the night’s proceeding certainly made some kind of sense. But Finley was puzzled: why were they both alive to tell the tale? The professor was even more puzzled: had “Angelique” excelled herself this time?

John Finley’s parents had left Ulm St Mary some years earlier. That afternoon, Peter Foggert’s mother telephoned them to tell them the story. Mrs Foggert knew Mrs Finley quite well; after all, some 23 years earlier they had both been in Grencham Cottage Hospital and spent several hours in the labour ward together....

Shortly after this, the Bishop of Stilchester conducted an exorcism the like of which has never been seen before or since. Finley and Professor Thrule had located young Ruth’s long-lost grave and prayers were said for the repose of her poor innocent soul, but not before the entire shoreline of the lake and the island had been thoroughly purged with bell, book and candle.

That was more than twenty years ago and no-one has died or seen strange apparitions there since. But Ulm Water is still an eerie, lonely and disquieting place, the island as dark and foreboding as ever. Could there be some primaeval force of evil which drove the Errent sisters to their errant ways and makes simple god-fearing people instinctively stay away?


Tony Nunn

Tony is the author of “The Great Bass Cookery Book” and “The Chronicles of Stiltshire” (available from Amazon in paperback or e-book), an amateur singer, cook, bell ringer and beer drinker.

See his food & drink blog QR's Little Morsels.

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