The milestone inspector

When I was a lad of nine, I lived amongst the rolling hills and densely wooded valleys of Devonshire, with a sparkling river meandering past our back garden. My best friend Trevor and I roamed those hills, valleys and woodlands and navigated the river in our tin-bath boat like the explorers of the Wild West that we imagined ourselves to be.

One day, we decided on a new adventure that would take us deep into the woods of the farthest hill from our town to try to find the old lost house. The house wasn’t really lost, of course, because I could see the roof and chimney from my bedroom window, but it was lost in the sense of having been uninhabited for more years than most folks could remember. Over those years the house had also acquired a sinister reputation of madness and suicide associated with the last occupants.

Trevor’s granny, an ancient crone who habitually wore black from head to toe and was known to us kids as Black Gran, was the source of all the scary stories concerning the old house. She claimed to have worked there as a servant girl at the turn of the century and often told us tales of insanity, suicide and — after the occupants of the house had all died — of how their ghosts still haunted the place. Black Gran had always concluded her hair-raising stories by warning us to keep well away from the old lost house in case some terrible fate should befall us there.

Until that day we had been sufficiently cowed by her stories that we hadn’t dared venture close. But that day, with the sun shining, the birds singing and the scent of jasmine in the air, we felt sufficiently brave to venture through the dark woods to find the house.

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Image by Ben Salter / CC BY

From the outside, the years of neglect were evident, with ivy and blackberry overgrowing every door and window. The front door was sufficiently damaged to allow us easy entry into the dark, damp and decidedly melancholy interior, where we explored the ground floor. Before long, however, the dank and dreary atmosphere found us clutching on to one another and talking in whispers.

As we inched up the creaky stairs, still hanging on to one another, Trevor pointed in silent horror to where Black Gran’s ancient suicide victim had reputedly hung himself. But then, as we reached the top step, there was a flutter and a flash of silent movement as a Barn Owl, disturbed by our furtive advance, swooped past us and out the front door. Trevor and I ran screaming insanely down the stairs and out into the sunshine, where we eventually recovered our wits sufficiently to roll around on the grass laughing hysterically.

When we recovered and re-entered the house, we almost at once discovered a mystery. In an upstairs back bedroom, we found a mattress, blankets and other evidence of recent occupation and on a marble topped wash stand we found the still warm embers of a small cooking fire.

At first we didn’t realise the significance of the still warm fire and the billy-can of water, but then Trevor turned to me grey faced. “This could be the mad wood chopper’s house. This could be where he lives.” My skinny legs turned to jelly as I remembered another of Black Gran’s horror stories. She claimed that in the woods lived a mad wood chopper and if he ever caught any boys he’d build a big bonfire and cook them. Then he’d eat their flesh and sell their bones for charcoal. We knew that what she said was true, because on a number of occasions we had heard his axe ringing through the woods. Once we’d actually seen him tending his great big smoky bonfire and guessed there was a boy inside, but we didn’t hang around to find out.

Now it seemed we’d unwittingly walked into his very own house. I said, “Come on Trev. Let’s get out of here while we’ve got the chance.” But as we turned for the door, we were instantly frozen into stunned immobility. Completely blocking our way out was a giant, a man both tall and broad, and hairy too. Despite the summer weather he was wearing a huge ex-army overcoat, boots and a dilapidated trilby hat. The grey hair poking from under the hat was unkempt. His face, except for his not unfriendly blue eyes, was hidden by an equally grey beard. My blood turned to ice, my limbs refused to function and my voice came out in a squeak like that of a terrified mouse.

“Well!” said the giant in a friendly nut-brown Devonshire accent, “What are you two young shavers doing in my house?” I couldn’t get a single word out, but Trevor managed a squeak, then in a rush said, “Please, Mister, are you the mad wood chopper that eats boys?”

The giant looked surprised and then amused. “Of course not. Don’t be silly lad. No one eats boys. Who on earth put that idea into your head?” Trevor, much to my annoyance, refused to quit while he was ahead and came right back, “My gran says there’s a mad wood chopper in these woods and if he catches boys he cooks them and eats them and sells their bones for charcoal and it’s true because we’ve seen his bonfire.”

The giant smiled a sad smile and put his great hand on Trevor’s head. “Your gran should be ashamed of herself for filling your head with such nonsense. She’s just trying to frighten you so you won’t come into the woods.” Then, almost to himself, he added, “It’s probably because she’s frightened of the woods herself and doesn’t understand why boys love it here.”

Trevor, still not content to leave well alone, said, “But we have seen his big bonfire and heard his axe.” The giant smiled an understanding smile and ruffled Trevor’s hair. Then he said, “That man you’re so scared of isn’t a mad wood chopper; he’s a charcoal burner. That’s his job — cutting down wood and burning it in a big bonfire to make charcoal. If I’m not mistaken he has four sons with one about your age. You probably go to school with him. Don’t believe everything your granny tells you.”

The giant came right into the room and said, “Since you two have come to visit me, the least I can do is offer you some food. Do you like bread and cheese?” We both nodded vigorously, dumbfounded by the strange turn of events and the offer of food. “Right boys, get blowing on the embers of that fire, and we’ll soon have that billy boiling.” From various pockets he took bread, cheese, a dead rabbit and a pheasant. He patted the rabbit and winked. “That’s for my supper, and the pheasant is to sell to the gentry for half a crown. Not a word to anyone, mind.” He swore us to eternal secrecy by putting his forefinger up and pursing his lips and we nodded solemnly in loyal agreement.

We sat down to a right royal feast of large chunks of bread and cheese and tea from an old jam jar. The giant won our undying admiration by drinking his tea straight from the billy-can.

With a full belly I finally found my voice. “Mister, are you going to sleep here tonight?” The giant, with a mouthful of bread, nodded.

“But,” I asked, “What about the ghosts?”

The giant’s face cracked into a huge grin. “Is this your old gran again, telling you ghost stories now?” I opened my mouth to defend Black Gran, only to shut it quickly when I realised the old loon had told us more lies.

The giant cleared his throat and said, “Listen, lads. Don’t go through life being frightened of every shadow — face up to life and live it bravely. Don’t believe everything people tell you. Think for yourselves and you’ll do alright.”

We stayed all afternoon with the giant who told us of some of his adventures as a soldier in two world wars and why he’d turned his back on a normal way of life and preferred roaming the countryside, living off the land, poaching and only working when he really had to.

As we left I felt bold enough to ask him, “Mister, are you a tramp?” The giant gave me a friendly smile.

“Why no, lad, I’m a milestone inspector. I walk around Devon county checking on all the milestones along the roads, and I report any that aren’t  standing up quite straight. Now remember what I’ve told and be brave and come and see me again anytime.”

We never did see him again though. The next time we ventured to the old lost house, he’d moved on — inspecting milestones, no doubt.

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