WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Windmill Hill

Write Across Sussex
Write Across Sussex
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by Josie Gilbert

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

“Can you hear scratching?”

Fiona paused reading the inscription on the tombstone for a fraction of a second.

“It’s probably just Toby. I need to take him to the vet for a repeat prescription of his flea treatment,” she replied.

Sandra glanced down the hill. Toby, Fiona’s Border collie, was amusing himself herding imaginary sheep and any passers-by who ventured too close.

“No, it wasn’t him. He’s nowhere near us.”

“May be it’s the breeze in the trees then.”

“No. It’s perfectly still here now and anyway, the nearest tree is too far away for us to hear it,” Sandra commented.

Fiona sighed. “Well, I didn’t hear anything,” she added distractedly.

She finished reading the last few lines of the epitaph and then turned towards Sandra.

“Have you read this?”

“Part of it, but not right to the end. To tell you the truth, I find this place rather creepy.”

They had both been basking in the hot, July sun, but now she felt a shiver run down her spine. She wanted to leave, but knew that Fiona would not budge until her curiosity had been sated and so she quickly scanned the entire inscription. It was dedicated to a man called Oliver John, who was described as being a local miller. He had died in 1785 at the age of 54. The wording concluded with a pious quote from the bible, which she skimmed through, without paying it much attention.

“It’s rather an isolated spot to chose,” she commented. “I wonder why he wasn’t buried in a graveyard?”

“May be you should look it up on the internet,” suggested Fiona. “I don’t really know anything about the place, except that it’s called Windmill Hill. A friend told me this is a good place for walking dogs, so that’s why I brought you here. Apparently if we follow this path the views from the top of the hill are stunning.”

She looked at Sandra and noticed that she was frowning.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Are you sure you can’t hear scratching?” Sandra asked, but more hesitantly than the first time.

“I’m positive I can’t. Anyway, what’s the sudden obsession with scratching? Next you’ll be saying you can hear groans coming from in there.”

Fiona pointed to the tomb as she spoke.

Sandra had thought she could hear a low, moaning sound a few minutes earlier, but dare not admit it. The last thing she wanted was Fiona thinking she was imagining things. As it was, she was beginning to feel unnerved and wanted to leave the tomb as soon as possible.

“Shall we get moving again?” she suggested, turning towards the brow of the hill.

“OK,” replied Fiona. “Toby, come on!”

The dog looked up, wagged his tail and began running towards them. Suddenly, he stopped. He dipped his head, lay his ears flat and his tail drooped behind him. He watched as Fiona and Sandra began following the footpath again and then ran to incept them further up the slope. Sandra noticed with curiosity that Toby avoided the actual spot where the tomb stood.

The remainder of their walk passed without incident. They admired the views, chatted to other walkers when their paths crossed and Toby made some new doggy friends. For some inexplicable reason though, Sandra continued to feel uneasy and found herself wishing that they had not stopped to inspect the miller’s memorial.

Her mood lifted after she returned home and by the time the evening arrived and she had eaten her dinner, she felt completely at ease again. She decided to check her e-mails and found one from Fiona, saying how much she had enjoyed their walk and suggesting a new route for the following week. Sandra sent a brief response confirming the arrangements and it was at that point that her thoughts returned to the tomb.

She typed the name “Windmill Hill” into a search engine and the first page of a list of thousands of entries appeared. She clicked on a few at random and discovered that several orchids grew on its slopes, that there was a Bronze Age barrow near the summit and that it was used as a beacon site when the Armada was threatening the South Coast.

Then one site included a brief mention of the miller’s tomb. It was basically the same information they had read on the tombstone itself, but with a footnote about local folklore. Allegedly, if anyone runs round the tomb seven times when the moon is full, the miller’s ghost will appear.

Sandra returned to the search page and re-phrased the query to read, “Folklore about the Miller’s Tomb, Windmill Hill.” This time she found several sites devoted to local legends and myths and began methodically working her way through them. The third one was an encyclopaedia of Sussex folklore, which included the additional information that the miller was reputedly involved in smuggling. He arranged for the tomb to be built during his lifetime and rumours spread that he was using it to hide contraband goods. There were suggestions that his fellow smugglers continued to do so after his death and that they invented the ghost story to scare people away. To Sandra, that seemed a perfectly plausible story, especially as she had never believed in the supernatural.

Then she read the two concluding sections of the entry.

The first listed a number of dates when people had reportedly gone missing after visiting the tomb, together with their names and a brief description of the circumstances. To Sandra’s sceptical eye each entry seemed explicable, but taken as a whole, she began to wonder if something strange was happening at the site after all.

The last section referred to an incident, which had happened within living memory. Instead of simply reporting what had happened, the website included a statement made by the main character involved. The man’s name had been omitted, apparently to save him any embarrassment and unwanted attention. Sandra made herself comfortable on her sofa and then began reading it.

“It all happened when I was about 16 or 17. Some of the things I did then were really stupid, but at that age, you think you can do whatever you want and get away with it.

Well one summer night, some friends and I had been hanging round the local playground, taking the mickey out of each other and being a bit rowdy. There were about six of us in all and we were all at school together. Then the older brother of one of the lads walked past and we asked him if he’d go to the local off licence and buy us a bottle of drink. We’d scraped together the money for a bottle of vodka between us and he was the only person we knew who was old and daft enough to do it.

To cut a long story short, we drank the vodka and a large bottle of cider that one of us had taken from his parent’s house. We were all a bit out of it and started telling each other lurid stories of what we’d done - well at least we made up some stories. I don’t think any of it was real.

Then someone mentioned the old miller’s tomb and the legend about walking round it seven times on a full moon. By then it had become dark and when we looked up, we saw the moon shining bright and full in the night sky.

I can’t remember who suggested that we climb Windmill Hill, but we started off. It took us some time, as we had trouble climbing over the stiles and we fell over a few times. We weren’t sober enough to walk in a straight line by then.

Eventually we arrived at the top of the hill and looked down the slope towards the tomb. It was an eerie sight in the moonlight, especially as an owl was hooting in the wood downhill from us and a fox screeched and ran off as we approached. Apart from that, the place was completely silent.

I guess we reached the spot about midnight, although I can’t be sure, as none of us was wearing a watch.

I was the youngest of the group and I admit that I felt nervous being there. I think that’s why the others chose me to be the person to walk round the tomb. I didn’t want to do it, but they threatened to tell everyone else at school that I was a coward, so eventually I agreed. I thought the others would lose interest after I had completed the first few circuits, but they didn’t. If anything, they became more insistent that I continued.

As soon as I completed the last lap, I stopped walking and stood by my friends.

Immediately we heard a loud grating noise, and watched in horror as the top slab of the tomb began to slide to one side. At first I thought it was a trick of the moonlight, but the stone carried on moving until the gap was a couple of feet wide.

Then a grey, grizzled head slowly appeared from beneath the stone, followed by a pair of shoulders, draped in tattered, dusty cloth. The apparition began emerging more quickly and within seconds, the entire body of the miller was climbing from its resting place.

My first reaction was that my companions were playing a trick on me and that they had arranged for someone to hide in the tomb and then appear on their signal. But when I looked more closely at the figure in front of me, I realised that I could see through it.

Someone screamed and the others turned and began running back up the hill and towards the village. I tried to follow, but was a slower runner. I had only moved a few yards away, when a pair of thin, hard and cold hands grasped my waist. Their grip tightened as I attempted to rip myself free and I felt myself being pulled backwards. My feet slipped on the loose gravel at the side of the tomb, as I struggled to maintain my ground.

I yelled at my companions to help me and after the third cry, they finally stopped and turned round. They saw me being dragged towards the tomb and came to my help me just in time. The miller had already pulled me to the edge and was beginning to yank me upwards, towards the opening. I could feel the hard stone rasping at my back. My friends grasped my arms and braced themselves against the stone.

It seemed to take forever before they managed to wrench me free and we fell into a heap on the ground.

Then we heard an unearthly scream, as the ghost of the miller toppled back into his tomb and the slab slammed shut over his head.

For a few seconds we just lay there, getting our breath back. Then without saying a word, we all stood up and ran back home.

None of us dared tell anyone what had happened at the time and it was only years later that we “confessed” to visiting the tomb that night.”

Sandra laughed as she read the last few sentences. She had always been sceptical about ghost stories and felt this account was a complete fraud. She clicked off the folklore site, then shut down her laptop and looked at her newspaper. The film she had been waiting to see was due to begin in a few minutes, so she switched her television on. The local news was being shown and Sandra was surprised to see a view that she thought she recognised. A reporter was standing on a hillside, describing the disappearance of a youth four nights earlier. She turned up the volume and concentrated on his report.

“Sean Williams was last seen on Tuesday night at nine o’clock, when a witness spotted him walking through the village. He was heading in the direction of Windmill Hill, but despite extensive searches and police questioning his friends and family, no trace of him has been found. Anyone who had any information is requested to contact the police on the number being shown at the bottom of the screen.”

A telephone number scrolled across the television and then hovered for a few seconds, before the reporter concluded his piece.

“Unconfirmed reports from an onlooker claim that a police dog tracked Williams to this tomb, where it stopped and sniffed frantically at the bottom of the stones. Then it whined, slipped its lead and ran back to the waiting patrol car. It is believed that forensics officers have since inspected the site, but have found no trace of Williams, although there are what appear to be fresh scratch marks on some of the slabs of the memorial.”

As the reporter was speaking, the cameraman had changed angles and was now showing the Miller’s Tomb.

“There is a local legend, that anyone who circles the tomb seven times when the moon is full will conjure up ....”

Sandra already knew how the legend concluded and paid no more attention to the news piece. Instead, she snatched her diary from her handbag and opened it on the page for that week. The moon phases were marked and to her horror, she saw that a full moon had fallen on Tuesday.

Had she really imagined the groaning and scratching at the tomb?

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