Proud Yorkshireman Dave Gracey, of Leeds, has penned this atmospheric ghost story based on the Yorkshire coast with a Christmas theme for Dalesman readers. Enjoy!
There is something wholly unique about the small fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay, something that transcends words; a certain feeling, a state of mind, a precise way of being that pervades the soul with a distinct sense of mystique; a sensation that is both comforting and fulfilling yet at the same time somewhat beguiling and tinged with curiosity.
Those of you who are familiar with the tight huddle of red-roofed cottages which clumsily spill down towards the sea, and the secretive inter-connecting paths that wind about the village like veins will surely identify with my sentiment; it is as if the whole place harbours some strange source of intrigue and mystery left over from the midst of time that keeps pulling you back to its shores, like an addiction, time and time again.
Wild visions of witches and highwaymen fill my mind as I sweep down from the blustery purple moor above, only for these visions to gently morph into images of clandestine smugglers and red coats as the village comes into view, and all at once I feel like I only feel when in Robin Hood’s Bay; at home.
I have been lucky enough to have holidayed in the ‘Bay from a very young age, and I have grown to know the higgledy-piggledy cluster of old fishing cottages with their frayed-rope banisters and uneven floors as a home from home. I have many happy memories of fossil hunting and splashing in rock pools or exploring the secret paths and tunnels that intersect the old cobbled passageways; memories of freedom and joy; memories of escaping the constraints of urban life and letting my imagination rejuvenate my soul, but there is one particular memory that sticks in my mind.
It had been a tough year, marked by the passing of my late granddad. Like everyone else in the family, he too had shared a passion for the ‘Bay, so it was decided that we would take an unscheduled, surprise holiday over the Christmas period in his honour. I remember my parents collecting me and my two brothers from school early on the last day of term, the excitement of the Christmas assembly fresh in my mind and the aftertaste of Christmas lunch still saturating my palette. They wouldn’t tell us where we were going; only that it was a surprise. The car was packed to the roof with the usual paraphernalia that accompanied us on our Robin Hood’s Bay trips and despite my mum’s best efforts to keep the location a secret, we soon deciphered where we were heading. After a long drive filled with stories and song, we eventually crossed the brow of the hill on the edge of the desolate moor and there, far below us, standing ornate like a delicately crafted model village, was Robin Hood’s Bay.
Our cottage was nestled at the bottom of the steep hill in the heart of the bay, surrounded by a cluster of multi-coloured cottages, each one more curious looking than the last. It was noticeably larger than the surrounding buildings and appeared grand and somewhat opulent in comparison. When we went inside I was delighted to find that my grandma and two uncles had joined us for our break. My brothers and I ran about the house, inspecting the many nooks and crannies, hunting for signs of bygone smugglers and wreckers while the adults took to unpacking and rustling up something to eat, and so began our holiday.
I remember it was a particularly cold winter, bright, yet cold. The days were crisp and fresh yet the bitter wind hinted that things could quickly change. We kept our fire stoked high and enjoyed the comfort our cottage provided, only taking short and infrequent exploratory walks about the frost covered cobbles when required. It was just what we needed; the togetherness and peace seemed to help us all with the grief and brought us closer to one another; it was as if all the problems from the outside world no longer existed; they were mere fragments of memory which bore no importance to life in the ‘Bay. I remember taking an evening stroll down to the slipway with my mum and grandma, and we gazed in wonder at the bright full moon that hung heavy just above the crest of the horizon, leaving a bright silvery path across the black sea in its wake. It was as if, my grandma said, our granddad was in that moonlight, saying farewell in the most beautiful and fitting manner, and we wept and hugged and then felt better.
Christmas Eve soon came and with it the excitement and wonder that usually accompanies the occasion. We woke early and breakfasted well and spent the following hour or so decorating the cottage with foliage we had scavenged from the surrounding countryside the previous afternoon. Before lunch, we took a mid-morning stroll down to the beach and hunted for fossils while the adults prepared our traditional Christmas Eve stew. It was as fine a winters’ day as I can remember, a light sheen of frost painted the village white while the winter sun cast deep shadows about the obtuse angles of the narrow pathways. I felt so lucky to be walking about the ‘Bay on Christmas Eve, the excitement and the beauty was simply awe inspiring, like a dream that you never want to end. After a while we returned to our cottage and my uncle suggested that we took advantage of the fine winter weather and take a walk along the old railway line that leads up to Ravenscar. The old railway line which runs between Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscar has always been one of my favourite places; the distinct coconut scent of the gorse bush in summer, the staggering views of Robin Hood’s Bay far below and the chorus of birdsong as you stride along always draws me back, so naturally I jumped at the chance. We ate a simple lunch of bread, cheese and pickle before setting off, equipped only with a flask of tea and a packet of biscuits.
It didn’t take us long to reach the old railway line and we found it in good spirits. The sun was shining and the sky was clear blue, yet our breath misted the frost filled air so it billowed out before us like smoke. We happily strolled along and chatted of bygone times when steam trains would have tirelessly chuffed along the route, we hunted in the bushes for abandoned relics from the age of steam and found old cables, forgotten signposts and the shadows of sleepers poking up through the cinder lined path like ribs. We ran through the tunnels making whistling sounds and admired the charred memories of soot which coated their roofs, and we felt like the luckiest people on earth. After a while our energy began to wane and so did our enthusiasm, so we stopped and drank tea and ate biscuits and my grandma told us the history of Ravenscar, the town that never was, and furthermore, the royal retreat built for mad king George, the Raven Hall Hotel. And with a renewed sense of vigour, we continued on our way.
We didn’t make it all the way to Ravenscar, we could have made it, yet we decided to turn back with a half mile or so to go; the sky was beginning to darken and we feared becoming lost in the winter gloom. Our spirits were high and our chat became tarnished by that over-excited delirium which is unique only to children of a certain age on Christmas Eve. We positively skipped back down the old railway line fuelled by the promise that Santa would soon be on his way.
I remember where it all changed quite distinctively; we had walked through one of the small, overgrown tunnels and rounded a corner when we found ourselves consumed by a dense sheet of fog which blanketed the surrounding area. It was one of those impenetrable sea fogs which silently drifts inland and somehow seems to deaden your senses and coat your pallet with salt, and all of a sudden we found ourselves stuck. It would be no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t see my hand 30 centimetres from my face; it would be no exaggeration to say that our collective mood plummeted from one of elation to one of despair.
I must admit to not fully comprehending the potential danger we faced; the railway line, at times, runs alongside deep ravines with almost sheer drops on either side which would have proved treacherous if we took a tumble, and the fields beside us ran straight down to the cliff and the sea beyond. My mum called for us all to keep still, her voice was serious and flecked with concern. The adults blindly spoke with one another, their voices muffled and strangely distant. My dad was becoming impatient and wanted to press on, while my mum feared the danger and wanted to turn back. Voices became irritable as opinions of what to do differed and for a moment we seemed incapable to take any form of action, yet after what seemed a prolonged and unwelcomed break, it was agreed that the only choice was for us to press on for the dark was closing in.
Our progress was slow and marked with anxiety and apprehension. The fog seemed to broil along the path in great churning clusters, like plumes of smoke. Conversation was limited to instructions to keep safe, look out, be sensible; and all the time the sense of unease grew. It was a strange atmosphere up on the line that night; dream-like, somehow familiar while at the same time feeling alien, unusual and odd. The fog saturated us and our slow pace allowed the cold to creep in so we shivered and started to regret the outing. My grandma attempted to raise our spirits with the promise of steaming baths, roaring fires and mugs of hot chocolate, but it didn’t do much good.
And as we moved on it became apparent that we could well have been lost for we couldn’t see a thing. For all we knew we could have unwittingly veered off one of the many farm paths that branched off the line and headed towards the cliff edge and the sea beyond, so it came as a great relief when we noticed someone walking towards us. It was the torch light we noticed at first, it seemed to illuminate a patch of fog some way down the line in a strange and unearthly manner, before breaking through and manifesting itself as a hazy beam, growing ever brighter as it’s carrier drew closer.
My brother was the first to notice it, ‘Look,’ he exclaimed, ‘someone’s coming towards us, I can see a light!’
We all squinted our eyes against the brilliant white of the fog, and sure enough we saw it.
‘Oh, thank God,’ said my mum, the relief evident in her voice, ‘we must still be on the line, perhaps we’re nearly back!’
Our spirits rapidly lifted at the prospect of sanctity and warmth and we increased our pace in anticipation of seeking some kind of hope and clarity.
‘Good evening,’ my grandma called into the fog. ‘And a Happy Christmas to you!’
‘Good evening,’ came back the reply.
We stood still for a moment as the glow of the torch grew brighter and the figure of a man came into view. I remember feeling quite strange as I saw him; his clothes were smart but of a distinctly different era, he carried not a torch but an old paraffin lantern which filled the air with an acrid scent that threatened to make my head spin, and there was a paleness to his face which seemed to mimic the colour of the fog. I felt the distinct impression that we all felt the same towards the man and as he drew nearer we instinctively moved closer to one another, each of us waiting for someone else to speak.
He held the lantern up and squinted so he might make us out a little better, ‘Happy Christmas to you, too. Are you going to the ball?’ His voice was chirpy enough and his face was friendly and kind.
‘What ball might that be?’ My grandma was very good at making conversation.
‘Up at the Raven Hall Hotel; the Christmas ball of course!’
My grandma smiled, ‘A Christmas ball, it does sound lovely. But we haven’t been invited, besides, we’re hardly dressed for a ball! Might I say though; your costume is terrific!’
The man smiled and looked down at his outfit, ‘If you can’t get dressed up on Christmas Eve, then when can you? You should all come along you know, everyone’s invited. They’ll not mind; the more the merrier.’
Buoyed by my grandma’s success, my uncle stepped forward, ‘You say anyone’s invited?’
The man nodded enthusiastically, ‘Come along and ask for me, Thomas Granger, and I’ll introduce you to the hosts, I guarantee they’ll make you welcome.’
My uncle was always interested in adventures and parties, and his curiosity was tickled, ‘You know what, I might just fancy coming along later on. Who else wants to join me?’
The man watched on, all the time smiling, soaking up the Christmas Eve spirit and appearing happy in our company.
‘It does sound rather exciting,’ said my mother, ‘I suppose it all depends on how long it takes us to get back and changed, are we far from the ‘Bay?’
The man shook his head, ‘Not too far now, and it’s all downhill for you too. You’ll be back in half an hour or so. I’ll hope to see you all then, but if not; Happy Christmas!’
We thanked him for his kindness, said our farewells and pressed on back towards the ‘Bay. I can remember feeling my earlier elation begin to return as we headed back along the line, and this feeling was further buoyed as it became apparent that the treacherous mist which had dampened our spirits was rapidly beginning to thin. And as it did, the stunning view of Robin Hood’s Bay, lights twinkling in the frost filled dusk, gradually began to manifest below us. We excitedly discussed the possibility of attending the ball, my dad wasn’t too keen, but the rest of us didn’t need much persuasion. Even if we just called in for an hour or so, it would truly make our Christmas one to remember. We fantasised about the elegant ball room and the luxurious food, we speculated who might be in attendance and what treats could be in store, and we commented on our good fortune; our granddad surely must have been watching over us.
It didn’t take us long to get back to the ‘Bay, and it was decided that we would call in at Ye Dolphin before we went home to change so the adults could have a quick Christmas Eve drink. We found a table next the crackling fire and warmed ourselves as my uncle went to the bar. He struck up conversation with barman as he fixed the drinks and enquired about the Christmas Eve ball up at the Raven Hall Hotel.
‘I’m not sure there’s a ball up there tonight you know. Anyhow; I don’t know anything about it if there is.’
My uncle thanked him and then relayed the information to us. Perhaps the barman just wasn’t in the know, we suggested as the disappointment began to set in; if he advertised it then his pub would be empty; perhaps we’d just go home and give the Raven Hall Hotel a call.
So we drank our drinks and made our way back to the cottage. My grandma called the Raven Hall Hotel; it was clear by her tone that there was no ball.
‘The lady said that the man on the line must have been having us on,’ she said after she had hung up, ‘unless it was a ball somewhere else in Ravenscar, in which case she didn’t know where it was.’
By this point it was getting late, we hadn’t eaten and we were all quite tired. In truth, we had all gone off the idea of going back up to Ravenscar that night; it was a long drive and once we were back in our cottage none of us really fancied heading out again. So we soon forgot about the man on the line and enjoyed our Christmas Eve stew before nestling into our warm beds in a blur of excitement.
And that was that. We had the best Christmas I can remember that year; it was simply perfect, and in the years that stretched on in its wake we often meet and reminisce about the year we spent Christmas together at the ‘Bay. We talk of the peace and the excitement and we talk of the foggy walk along the old railway line to Ravenscar. We often speculate what we missed that night; if only we knew where the ball was, what would have happened? Who might we have met? But we quickly move on and remember all of the other pleasant memories from that holiday.
This happened nearly 25 years ago now, shortly before my 10th birthday and I have visited Robin Hood’s Bay many, many times since then and I hope and anticipate I will visit many more times in the future. My grandma turned 80 last year and to mark it she suggested that we all go to Robin Hood’s Bay for the week. We booked various cottages around the ‘Bay and descended there in April. We enjoyed our trip, as we always do; foraging for fossils, walking the old railway line, trips out to Whitby and such, and on the penultimate day, my uncle and I went to the old Robin Hood’s Bay museum to fill a rainy afternoon. We spent time marvelling at the relics from the age of the smugglers and enjoying the old black and white photos of bygone days.
We were just about to leave and head over to the pub for an afternoon drink when something caught my attention. At first I felt a wave of confusion spill over me, followed by a sickening sense of panic which throbbed and pulsated through my chest as I realised what it was I was looking at. There, amid the old newspaper cuttings which illustrated the history of the ‘Bay, was a photo of a face that was strangely familiar. I shook my head and looked again, it must have been a mistake; it was impossible, yet there he was as clear as the moment he emerged from the fog all those years ago; it was the man we met on the old railway line that magical Christmas Eve. I gazed at his smiling face which stared back at me from the black and white photo and it seemed to hypnotise me, enthral me and send me into a complete state of shock. My face became moist with sweat and my hands trembled, and I hoped that I was mistaken for it made no sense, but the text below confirmed it. It told the tragic story of local boy, Thomas Granger, who had been killed by a train on Christmas Eve 125 years ago as he made his way up to the locals’ Christmas Eve Ball at the Raven Hall Hotel. It reported that the line became engulfed in a dense fog and he had subsequently slipped on the track, knocking himself unconscious, only to be hit by the train moments later.
I felt my head spin as I recalled that pale man on the line all those Christmases ago and I instantly questioned my sanity. My uncle noted my pale and somewhat shocked complexion and asked me what was wrong. Words escaped me, so I passed him the cutting. Initially he laughed, assuming it was some kind of elaborate joke, but once the owner of the museum confirmed the authenticity of the clipping, he too took to a state of disbelief.
We shared the clipping with the rest of the family and together we questioned the events of that night. None of us consider ourselves to be spiritual or religious and up until this point we did not believe in ghosts, so we looked for rational explanations, we sought out explanations that fitted with our beliefs, but try as we did, we kept coming back to the same conclusion; we had met this man, and it was the same man in the photo.
After much deliberation, we decided that we should go back to the part of the line where we had met Thomas Granger and we would spend a moment of silent thought there in his memory. It was a beautiful spring afternoon and we set off in a contemplative mood. It was a strange walk for none of us really knew what we were doing or what we hoped to achieve, only it felt right to do something. The birdsong was vibrant and bright in the hedgerow and the smells of early spring hinted towards a glorious summer, yet all the same I couldn’t help but feel a certain element of sorrow as we retraced the last steps of such a happy looking young man. It didn’t take us long to reach the old overgrown tunnel where we had encountered Thomas Granger that foggy Christmas Eve nightfall, and we stopped and followed my grandma’s lead.
We stood in a circle, closed out eyes and bowed our heads, and as I did I felt overwhelmingly sad; sad for a lost life, and sad for a lost way of life, and there on the railway line I wept for all the loss I had experienced in life, and then I felt better.