25. Jun, 2021

'Milner Field'


“Alice!  Alice!” the loud voice shouts from somewhere nearby, waking me at dawn as it has done on every day of my stay.

I am not sure if I hear it or dream it, but it has become my signal to get out of bed.  I am staying with my younger cousin and his wife and it would be rude to lie in when they are always up and about so early.

“Good morning, Graeme!” they singsong when I appear downstairs. 

Emma smiles, offering me the choice of muesli and granola containers which hold their breakfast fare.

“Thanks.  I’ll have some in a bit.  You know me, coffee and a ciggie first.  Outside, of course.”

“Gra - eme!” they chorus in laughing disapproval, but they have agreed already that there is no doing anything with me.

John and Emma live in a semi countryside area near the main town which they both cycle to for work.  There is talk of them doing an 'air b and b' here and my stay is a kind of trial run for that.  With them gone, I have the days to myself.

There is plenty to explore in the woods.  I am very drawn by the ruins of a mill owner’s mansion called Milner Field, a place with tragedies attached to it.  Photographs show a fine place but there is nothing left of that, except rock heaps which turn out to be dressed stone covered in moss.  I find some comfort in thinking that all houses, grand or humble, just enclose the outdoors and that one day, nature will take it back.  No point, then, in regretting my own square of contained fresh air, a home now repossessed by the mortgage company.  Everywhere is temporary.

I come across a hiker in the woods there later today.  Sturdy and curly haired, he wears khaki greens that blend in with the scenery.  He is sitting on a fallen tree trunk smothered in lime coloured lichen, looking about him in delight.  He has a rosy, open face of cheerful wonder, which makes me want to approach him.

“Hello there!” I say. “Do you know that you’re sitting in the middle of a conservatory?  Look, the mosaic floor is right under your feet.”

He smiles and looks down, shuffling his boots among last year’s leaves.  I sweep more aside, and the magic appears, bright tiles in swirling patterns, once the floor of a great glasshouse that grew pineapples and held an orangery.  There are photographs of it in its glory.

“Look!” I say.

He looks, following the outline of the stone carpet on the forest floor where a living one springs through it, ferns knuckles ready to unfurl and hide it again. 

“Gone back to nature,” he says, his voice a rich, earthy baritone.  “As it should be.”

“You feel that, too!” I exclaim.  “This is a strange place, you know.  All the people who owned this house, Milner Field, were once managers in mills, where the money to build it came from.  The builder was the son of Titus Salt, the philanthropist businessman.  When it was new, it was so fashionable that Edward Vllth visited.  And yet, everyone who lived in it suffered tragedies here as if it were cursed from the start.  The first owner died young, early forties, collapsed of a heart attack in the billiard room.” The hiker looks over to another point across the one-time mansion’s vacant floor plan, and I exclaim,  “Funnily enough, I think that was the place!” 

He returns eyes as brown and round as those of a forest deer to me, as if to say that, of course it is.  I go on, eager to keep his interest.

“His widow had to sell on to one of the other mill managers.  Now he had already lost one son who died of pneumonia, then his youngest drowned.  His second son died of a nervous illness and the third survived the First World War but was terribly injured and unable to take over the business from his father.  Finally, there was a notorious scandal because this owner’s married daughter took a lover, her husband’s best friend.  Her  husband was a shell shocked doctor recently returned from the front.  When his wife told him that she was leaving him, the doctor found his best friend and shot him dead.  The doctor went to Broadmoor.”

“So, what happened to Alice?” asks the hiker.

“I don’t know what happened to his wife , but that’s not all that happened there.”  I hurry on with these lurid but true stories.  “The next owner’s wife died only two weeks after the move and then he died mysteriously, of blood poisoning from a thorn in the rose garden.  He had had an ancient hedge bank dug up to plant roses and the locals said he was cursed for doing it.”

“And wasn’t he?” the hiker asks.  “It sounds as if he was.”

“I know!  There’s one more.  The very last owner’s wife died of pneumonia a year after they moved in, and then he hiccupped himself to death three years later.  Bizarre, isn’t it?  It’s as if Milner Field and anyone involved in it really were doomed for building it or living in it here!  By 1930 it stood empty.  Nobody would take it because of its terrible history, and it was said to be haunted, of course.  In the end, it was demolished to put an end to it all.  First, it was dynamited but, can you believe it, it did not fall?  Then, it was literally torn down stone by stone.  Yet it was so solidly built that even now there are rooms you can find underground, the story has it.”

“You look for them?” asks the hiker, who is not quite as visible in the clearing as before, for the day has clouded and tree shadows thicken about us under the dense canopy.

“I do,” I say. “I come every day looking.  It passes the time.  I have plenty of that on my hands.”

“That sounds a sad state of affairs” the hiker says, his deep voice warm and sympathetic

“Oh, don’t speak of affairs!  My wife left me too after an affair, then I lost my house.  Maybe that’s what calls to me about this place.  You can’t pin life down with a building, can you?”

“No.  There’s peace in the woods, isn’t there?  I can help you to look.  Perhaps you will find what you want today,” says the hiker, getting up so that once more his face’s ruddy brown glow shows in a dapple of sunlight striking through the trees.

“Oh, yes, good!”  I am glad of his offer of company.  It will be hours before it is time to go back to John and Emma.  “I studied the plans again last night online.  I’m almost certain the entrance to the cellars is this way.”

I blunder through twigs and branches clumsily but the hiker, an accustomed walker by the supple way he moves in spite of his stocky build, makes far less noise.  After a time I cry,

“Here!  Here!  This is  a stone lintel, surely and - isn’t that a hole underneath?”

Excited, I part overhanging grass and see that I am right, shining the light of my mobile phone into a rubble filled place with fine brick walls and an arch behind.  My companion peers in too.

“Yes, I think you’ve found it.  Do you want to go in?”

“Definitely taking a look down there!” I exclaim.

“You are sure?”

“Certain!” I tell him confidently.

I am small and wiry, so I will have wriggle room and besides, I am delighted by my discovery.  I scramble in and my mobile phone’s little torch picks out further rooms, quite open under there and dry.  I might find things inside.  I call back to him while making my way about through these den-like caverns and his voice rumbles back through with reassuring encouragement. 

Finally, I decide that I have taken enough photographs on my phone to impress my cousin and his wife and turn to make my way back.  It seems to take longer to do so than I expect, and I have a moment or two of panic that I have lost myself in a catacomb like labyrinth and not a set of, at most, four of five big cellar rooms, all that remains of the Victorian pile.

“Hello!” I call out, to hear his voice and get my bearings but there is no reply.

I finally see daylight above me, which must be where I got in.  Where is the hiker?  The entrance, which had been clear to get through from above, down below is thick with gnarly root systems.  Why it looks so different inside, I can’t tell.  Still, I have got in, so I will get out.  I get onto a rubble pile of old bricks and tried to push my hands up and through the tough cordon, standing on tiptoe, where I lose my footing. I fall and look up for the rough ledges I used coming in.  Sunlight is dim through the root tangles, which coil around one another in spiral twists like hazel wands.

“Hey!” I shout up.  “Are you there?”

Again, there is no answer.  Surely, he hasn’t left me?  But then, I had been so keen to get in, which was all I had been bothered about, that I hadn’t asked him to wait for me.  After those first calls back to me, thinking me happy enough, perhaps he has gone on his wandering way?  He could not have realised that I would not be able to climb out as easily as I had got in.  But this place is like one of those humane traps for mice.  You can go in, but you can't get out again.

“Don’t panic,” I tell myself.  “Ring John and Emma and tell them exactly where you are, that you’re stuck, before your battery goes, you silly fool!”

I try both of them, send texts and finally get Emma.  She sounds baffled about where I am but tells me not to worry, stay put and she will get help.  I have given up on my frantic attempts to scramble out and try to conserve the last of my battery, which I have all but used up.  If they can’t find me, they will need pinpoint my phone if it comes to emergency services.  What if it runs out first?  Perhaps they will be able to find where the signal last showed? What an idiot I am! 

The roots seem thicker and more tangled than ever, and I notice ivy now also closing off the entrance from the view above ground.  It is so lush and deep in the wood that I feel I can almost see the forest growing as I wait.

“You’ll soon be sitting in the pub over a drink together having a laugh at all this,” I tell myself.

I picture it, the pub we visit in the village, of Jacobean age, with blackened oak settles, famous for its Green Man carvings, which I have studied in some detail.  These are cheerful, pagan faces surrounded by oak leaves for hair.  That’s what the hiker looked like, I amuse myself by thinking, with his thick curls and broad, smiling face.  I hadn’t even asked his name!  Thinking of this, something odd occurs to me.  When I had told him the story of the wife and her murdered lover he had asked, what happened to Alice, hadn’t he?  A name I hadn't mentioned.  Alice, the name I hear every morning -

“Alice!  Alice!”

How strange!   When will they come for me, I wonder, as the tangle of roots seems to grow ever thicker, shutting me in completely with the empty rooms below ground.  It is dark where I am although I know, having just checked the time on my dying phone, that it must be a light early evening outside.  At last, I hear voices calling my name.  I yell back.

“Here!  Help!  I’m here!”  and then the rescuers find me.

Emma has rung  999 to explain that I am stuck underground, and they have after all managed to track my phone to find me in the woods where she told them I was.  They have to hack through the root system to get to me and are baffled as to how I got down there.  I must have gone in another way and got stuck, they say.  But I know better.  This is the kingdom of old forces of nature, and I have met the Green Man who rules it.  I had done no harm here, whatever about the masters of Milner Field intruding upon it, and I was sure that, after hearing my story, the Green Man had tried to grant me, in the only way he had the power to do, what he believed to be my wish. 


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