Hartland Quay, North Devon. A place of absolute beauty. On a sunny summers day, with the tide gently splashing over the rocks, it is hard to imagine anything but a tranquil, restful scene. At low tide, however, there is much evidence of the destruction that can be wreaked by the ever-powerful ocean.
It was on one such day that I found myself driving through the narrow streets of Hartland village. I hadn't been here for many a long year, too many, I had decided, and so, on a whim, I had booked a long weekend at the Hartland Quay Hotel. The sun flashed through the trees as I drove past Hartland Abbey and towards the sea just a mile and a half away.
A few minutes later, the road narrowed, and I stopped beside a small hut situated between two very narrow tracks. A toll booth!
I powered the window down.
“Good Art'noon, Ma'am.”
I smiled as I handed the young man two pound coins and received a ticket in return.
“Beautiful day,” I said, smiling cheerfully.
“T'is that, Ma'am,” he agreed. “Oi reckon there'll be a fog later, though. Conditions just roight fer it.”
“Oh, don't say that,” I responded, somewhat crestfallen. “I am only here for a couple of days!”
“You stayin' at the 'otel, then?” I nodded, and he reached into the car and took my ticket. “Don't need to pay again, then,” he said as he scribbled something on the back. “The toll's just fer day-trippers really.”
He handed the ticket back. “Enjoy yer stay, Ma'am,” he said with a smile.
The narrow road wound steeply down towards the hotel, and I hoped that nothing would come the other way. The one thing I hated about Devon was the narrow lanes bordered by hedgerows. Modern cars scratch so easily!
It was only a couple of hundred yards, though and, finally, the road opened out into a small car park. I found a space facing the sea and parked the car. The view was breath-taking! It was a view that must have inspired thousands of stories. Tales of smugglers and wrecks. Rescues, ships in distress and more.
The sea, at that moment, was calm but the tide was coming in. The waves were crashing over the jagged rocks below with a thunderous roar. I could only imagine what it would be like during winter storms.
I walked over to the stone wall, check-in could wait. The sea was a magnet to me, such power. And with that power, an inimitable beauty. Through the polarised lenses of my sunglasses, there was no glare but, the sunlight glinted and flashed across the animated surface of the water.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the fresh, salty air.
A few minutes later, I stood in front of the check-in desk and tapped the brass bell push twice in quick succession. A middle-aged man appeared from the bar.
“Good Afternoon, Madam. Reservation?”
“Yes,” I replied, smiling. “That's right.”
A few taps on the keyboard and the dormant printer awoke, spitting out a sheet of A4.
“Sign here and your vehicle details here, please,” he said, marking the relevant places with an 'x'. I duly obliged.
“Thank you...” he looked down at the sheet. “...Mrs Hambleton. You are here for two nights, leaving Sunday?”
“Yes, I am,” I agreed.
Turning, he lifted a key from the rack behind him and came around to the front of the desk.
“Oh, you don't have a case or bag?”
I chuckled, finding the surprised look on his face amusing.
“Yes, It's still in the car. I'll fetch it later.”
I followed him up the creaking wooden staircase and along the narrow hallway until he stopped at the furthest room. I waited while he opened the door and then handed me the key.
“Your room, Mrs. Hambleton. A sea view as requested. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
After he had left, I stood looking out of the slightly open sash window. The view was stunning, but as I watched, my heart sank, just a little. It seemed that the young man at the toll booth was right. In the distance, just below the horizon, a haze was forming. I told myself that it didn't matter. I had seen sea-mist before. Yes, it blotted out the sun, but it gave the shoreline a totally different perspective. In all honesty, I quite liked it.
The sun was still high in the sky when the fog-bank finally made landfall, still mid-afternoon. The temperature dropped only a little, maybe to around twenty degrees. Still too warm to be inside. Instead, I sat at one of the Hotel's tables which were outside along the sea wall and enjoyed a strong, black coffee.
As I sat there, I noticed, across the bay, what appeared to be the figure of a woman, partially obscured by the fog. I wasn't sure, but it seemed to me that she was wearing a long, Victorian-style dress and veil, a little like Queen Victoria. My cup held below my lips, elbows on the table, it struck me odd that a woman dressed in such a way would be clambering over the rocks. It was strange in so many ways. Obviously, the fog was playing tricks as she seemed bigger than I would have expected at such a distance. Perhaps she wasn't as far away as I thought.
My thoughts were suddenly shattered by the sound of shouting.
I looked around at the handful of other people who were there. They seemed oblivious and continued with their activities totally unconcerned. Maybe they hadn't heard anything.
There it was again, and it seemed to be coming from the seaward side but surely, no. I could still see all the people who were swimming and all were splashing about happily.
The shouts continued, and I couldn't ignore it any longer. I took my Mobile phone from my handbag and tapped out the numbers, nine, nine, nine.
“Emergency, which service please?”
“One moment, please.”
For a moment, the line went dead, but then, a man's voice spoke.
“Coastguard. What is the emergency?”
For a moment, I was at a loss. Should I have called? Did I imagine it?
“Hello? What is your emergency?” The man asked again.
“Erm, look, I'm not sure...”
“Don't worry. Miss. Tell me what is wrong, and I will see if we can help.”
“I thought I heard someone shouting for help, but now I am not so sure...”
“That is all right, Miss. Better to be safe than sorry. What did you hear?”
“It sounded like people shouting, 'Help!' but no-one else seems to have heard it.”
“That may well be so, Miss. Where are you?”
“I am at Hartland Quay. There is a thick fog now, and I can't see far out but...”
Suddenly, I heard it again, “Help! Help!” accompanied by other, unintelligible noises.
“Miss?” the man said.
“I can hear it again, but I can't see anything. There are other noises too...”
“All right, Miss. I've ordered the lifeboat. If there is someone in distress, they will find them.”
Some fifteen minutes later, the peace was broken by the wailing of a siren. A dark blue Land Rover pulled up in the car park behind me, the blue light-bar on the roof flashing brightly. On the side, the words, H.M. Coastguard. Two uniformed men got out and walked towards the slipway.
“Did you find anyone?” I asked as they drew near.
“Ah, was it you who called?” the older of the two asked.
I felt myself flush red and nodded, embarrassed.
“I haven't heard anything since,” I confessed. “I think I may have been mistaken.”
The officer smiled.
“Please don't be embarrassed, Madam,” his voice gentle and reassuring as he sat down opposite me. “There have been many times that we have been called out by members of the public thinking they heard or saw something. Sometimes, it is a false alarm but, sometimes it isn't. Lives would have been lost if, in those cases, the caller had done nothing.”
I looked at him, trying to judge whether he really meant it or was just trying to make me feel better.
“I have never called the emergency services before,” I tried to explain. “I feel stupid now. I can't even explain what I heard. No-one else seemed to hear anything. Perhaps I imagined it.”
“Mrs. Hambleton. Now you listen to me. You called us in good faith. If it turns out that you were mistaken, well, no harm done. The RNLI can consider it a good training exercise. On the other hand, they have launched the inshore boat to search the coastline and the Tamar to look further out. If there is anyone, they will find them.”
I stared at the table. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, but I had to ask.
That's right. It's is the big lifeboat at Appledore. It has all the up-to-date search equipment.”
The time seemed to pass so slowly. From time to time, the two officers looked out to sea through their powerful-looking binoculars. The fog, however, was too dense to see anything clearly.
Frequently, radio sets crackled and unintelligible messages were passed back and forth. The second hour passed and still nothing. As I waited I looked across the bay. She was still there, staring out into the fog. Was I the only one who could see her?
Suddenly, down by the sea wall, I saw one of the coastguard officers speaking on his phone. He turned and stared at me, and my heart almost stopped. It was the younger of the two, and he began to walk up the slipway towards me. My chest began to ache, my heart was pounding so hard. Was I in trouble?
He was met about half-way by the other officer. While they chatted, the first one never took his eyes off me. The other then turned to look at me. I didn't know why, but I wanted to run. To go to my room and shut myself in, away from the questions and accusations. I had never been so scared in my life! I could imagine all those crews cursing me for sending them on a wild goose chase. I swore that I would never dial those three nines ever again!
The older officer sat down again, his colleague standing just behind him, staring at me.
“Mrs. Hambleton. What exactly did you hear that prompted you to call us?” he asked.
“I... I... well, I... it was...” I stumbled over the words.
He could see my distress and placed his hand on my forearm.
“You see, The Tamar has found a boat in distress. Just a small boat, no engine, a sailing dingy.”
I stared at him.
“The Tamar?” I was a little surprised. “Not the inshore?”
“Well, that's the strange thing, you see. There are two young men on board. The mast snapped, apparently, and sent one of them over the side. When the other one tried to pull him back in, his phone fell into the sea so they couldn't call for help. They tried rowing, but the current in the Bristol channel was too strong, and it was carrying them further out to sea. All they could do was shout, in the vague hope that someone on a ship would hear them rather than run into them.”
“Then I did hear someone!” I exclaimed. The relief coursed through my veins and I began to tremble as the adrenalin took hold. “I heard shouting for help!”
The two looked at each other briefly.
“Well, that's just it, Ma'am,” the older one said, having turned back to face me. “They were ten miles out to sea. It couldn't have been them that you heard, that really would be an achievement! The inshore boat is still checking the coastline but, in all honesty, if you hadn't called us, those two boys would have been lost, for sure.”
I was confused. I couldn't possibly have heard those two young men shouting, not from ten miles away.
“Look across the inlet,” I asked them. “What do you see?”
They both turned.
“Rocks, mostly,” the older one said. “A few people in the water, some on the shore. Why? What do you see?”
I said that I only saw the same things that they had seen.
Finally, after another hour of searching the coastline, the inshore boat was recalled. Nothing had been discovered, either in the water or on the rocks.
The coastguard officers left. Once more, I was alone.
I didn't really notice much as the sun slowly disappeared beyond the horizon. I didn't even feel hungry but, with nothing to do but sit in my room, I decided to head down to the bar and have a meal.
The waiter who brought it to my table was the same young man who had taken my money at the toll-booth earlier in the day.
He placed the hot dish in front of me but didn't immediately retire.
“May oi ask ee somink, Ma'am?” he said politely. I nodded my assent.
“Well, oi 'eard it were thee who called the boats out, this artnoon.”
I flushed immediately and nodded again.
“May oi sit down a moment?”
I gestured the chair opposite. “Please do.”
He pulled out the chair and sat on it. Immediately he leaned closer and spoke quietly, looking about as though he didn't want anyone else to overhear.
“Ma'am, oi'm sorry but oi 'ave to ask. Did you see Lady Carolyn?”
My jaw dropped.
“Lady Carolyn, Ma'am. You know, long dress, veil, very Victorian?”
I was confused all over again.
“Lady Carolyn Manners, Ma'am. Some say she can be seen on the rocks when someone is in trouble in the sea...”
“MICHAEL!” a voice shouted from behind the bar. “Come on, now. There are customers waiting!”
“Moi break is at Noin, Ma'am. Oi'll tell ee more then, if oi may?”
“Be my guest,” I replied. “I'm not going anywhere.”
True to his word, Michael appeared bang on nine. We sat together, in a corner by the bar, well away from possible eavesdroppers.
“Thing is, Ma'am,” he began, “Most people think that Lady Carolyn is a figment of our imagination, those of us who believe.”
All right,” I said, “So who is this Lady Carolyn, and why do you ask if I saw her?” My curiosity was piqued.
“Lady Carolyn Manners were the woife of a well known, 'bout these parts at least, sea cap'n. The story goes that one foggy noight, around eighteen-forty-two, the ship that Cap'n Manners were in charge of, the schooner Duchess, were wrecked in the Bristol Channel. It were returnin' from London. It seemed that he had no way of alertin' anyone that the ship was in difficulties. For weeks after, Lady Carolyn was seen to scramble across the rocks and stand, staring out to sea, waiting in vain for 'er 'usband to return. One day, some debris washed up on the shore, just below the slipway. Amongst it all were a smashed plank o' wood, upon which were the painted name, Duchess. Lady Carolyn were so distressed that no-one could console 'er and, that very noight, she walked to the cliff edge and threw herself off, crashing onto the jagged rocks below.”
I listened intently. I loved this kind of sea-faring stories but what I didn't understand was why he thought that I had seen her. I told him so.
“That is a sad story indeed, Michael, but why did you ask if I saw her?”
“Thing is, Ma'am...”
“Call me Margot,” I interrupted.
“Yes, Ma'am, Margot. Anyway, it is said that when someone is in trouble in the fog at sea, Lady Carolyn appears and some'ow, nobody knows 'ow, 'er gets 'elp.”
I sat silently contemplating the ramifications of what I had just heard. This afternoon, I had seen someone on the rocks. Someone who fitted the description of Lady Carolyn Manners. Did I see her ghost?
“No. No, I'm sorry, that can't be true. I don't believe in ghosts!”
Michael looked surprised.
“But it is true, Margot. The records are in the parish church.”
“Oh, no, I'm sorry. I was thinking aloud. I just meant that I don't believe in ghosts who interact with the living,”
Michael pursed his lips and then.
“Alroight then. You called the Coastguard, because yer 'eard cries fer 'elp, yes?”
“But 'ow did yer 'ear them. Them were ten miles out. An' what 'bout the waves on the rocks, yer reckon yer could 'ear over that? That's woi oi asks yer. Did yer see Lady Carolyn?”
Once again, the adrenalin was pumping.
“Yes,” I whispered. “At least, I thought I saw someone, but I am sure it was just my imagination or a trick of the light or something.”
Michael's face lit up. He was grinning like the Cheshire Cat!
“Oi knew it!” he exclaimed. “The voices yer 'eard, her was making yer 'ear 'em. 'Er knew yer would get 'elp and 'er made yer 'ear 'em!” He was almost jumping with joy!
That night, I could barely sleep and so, the following morning, I went to the parish church in Hartland and walked amongst the gravestones. I soon found the one I was looking for;
In Sacred memory of
Lady Carolyn Manners
Born on the 18th day of May 1800
Taken on the 23rd day of July 1842
Aged 42 years
Beloved wife of Captain Daniel Manners
Born 5th day of August 1801
Lost to the sea, July 1842
Aged 41 years
The stone was a simple affair, worn by a hundred and seventy-eight years of weather. While I crouched, reading the inscription, I became aware of someone standing behind me and looked up.
“Oh, hello, Father!” I said, rising to my feet. “I'm sorry, I didn't hear you approach.”
“Yes, I saw that you were engrossed in the stone. Do you know about them?”
“Yes, I heard about them last night, in the bar. Very tragic.”
The priest agreed.
“Yes, indeed. You know, maybe I am getting old, but you look a little like Lady Carolyn. Forgive me if I am wrong, but I would say that you about the same age?”
The thought hadn't occurred to me, but he was right.
“Yes, you are exactly right. I am forty-two and, what is even more strange is that my birthday is on the Eighteenth of May!”
“Would you like to see a picture of Lady Manners? There is a painting at the abbey. I have a book in my vestry with a picture of it.”
As we walked to the church, the priest said he had heard about the rescue on the previous day.
“Does the whole village know?” I asked him.
“News travels fast around here.”
“Well I don't get it,” I said. “Why me? Why didn't anyone else hear the shouts?”
The priest shrugged.
“I don't know. Perhaps it was just a coincidence or...”
“Or what?” I insisted.
“Perhaps someone wanted you to hear.”
“Oh, come on! This is the twenty-first century. No-one believes that any more, surely?”
He shrugged and opened the vestry door, ushering me inside. On the desk, to one side of the room, lay a book. It was open, and the picture was clearly visible. A painting is not a photograph but, had I not known better, I would have sworn that it was a portrait of me! The strangest feeling came over me. I felt as though she was staring at me, not belligerently but friendly, somehow. I felt as though I knew her.
“You see?” The priest whispered. “Just like you.”
I was puzzled. This was just too weird.
“Are you trying to say that I am somehow related to Lady Carolyn Manners? I can assure you that I am not. I am well aware of my family history, and we have no connection whatsoever with Hartland. In fact, with Devon in general.”
Again, the priest laughed.
“Oh, good heavens, no. The family history is well known. Captain and Lady Manners had no children, the estate is still owned by their descendants. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you think that. It was just an observation on my part.”
“No, it is I who should be sorry,” I told him. “This whole business has made me a little nervous. This was going to be a celebration, our wedding anniversary but my husband was killed in a car crash a couple of years ago,”
“Ah, I'm sorry to hear that.” He smiled again, “There is nothing to be afraid of here. This place is awash with strange occurrences. I think it is just the nature of the area. So much history, I suppose. If you wish to know more, please, feel free to call.”
The walk back to the Quay was warm and relaxing. It had been a strange couple of days. The camaraderie of the villagers had been wonderful and they had been so supportive when they saw I was distressed. They really made me feel a part of their cosy little community.
I was not surprised, however, to note that the fog still lingered as I walked down the hill to the hotel. I looked across the bay and, lo and behold, she was there. Lady Carolyn. This time, though, there were no shouts of distress. I understood now. She was no ghost, no phantom Siren, but a stack of rock carved out by the power of the sea. The rescue of the two young men was purely a coincidence. The shouts that I heard, the other sounds too, just my fertile mind creating a story from the surrounding atmosphere. It really had been my imagination, after all... hadn't it?