Iken, 654 AD: A holy man named Botolph has been busy constructing a mission in the pagan marshlands of Ikan-Hoo, on the banks of the River Alde. The locals have warned him against it, they know that amongst the mists, reeds and trees live spirits with longer and deeper claims to the land. But the works continue.
Tools break, building materials go missing and there are accidents.
Eventually there are bodies, found mutilated in the morning dew.
And so Botolph, in desperation, builds a great stone cross, inscribed with holy images of wolves to force the spirits to leave. They flee and, so the story goes, find refuge in the wood at the top of nearby Yarn Hill.
Iken, 2013 AD: We’re driving through the stormy night, the van struggling to grip the icy road. Snow flys horizontal in the headlights. Then a sign, half covered in white. “Yarn Hill Farm.”
We park and find the track that will take us up to the wood.
The world is out of sorts, spring has been beaten down by winds tearing through the darkness from the east. We are in the east of East Anglia, just a few miles from where the storm has hit the coast, and its as cold and furious as it gets.
It seems like a good night to see if the spirits are still haunting the wood.
We walk quickly, it’s too cold to hang about, away from the farm lights, up a half flooded track bounded by large, crooked oaks.
We turn a corner. A strange low hum beneath the high roar of the wind. We look through the hedge – just the wind vibrating on some farm machinery. Its ok.
The torches are turned off, they dont help on a night like tonight. The world reduced to the beam in front of you frees your imagination to ponder the shadows all around. Fears from our collective past can take over – the unknown at the cave mouth – the space beyond the fire’s glow.
Slowly our eyes adjust and we see Yarn Hill in the distance, the dark trees at the top rising from the white, a wooden island in a frozen sea.
We walk on, talking to remind ourselves that we are in company.
Up the final stretch, facing us is a gap in the trees, the mouth of the wood, swallowing the path.
We go in. We are under firs, the branches groaning and creaking above us, swaying wildly in the breeze. We can hear the trees.
The path makes a circuit of the wood which is a near perfect circle, we follow it round. As we walk we disturb roosting pigeons, their flapping just audible over the general din.
We don’t feel scared though. Creaks are creaks, groans are groans we remind ourselves, nothing unnatural. We can’t see much but we don’t have the sense of their being anything unseen.
And then through the trees the outline of wires and frames. We make out ruined cages. A little prickle on the backs of our necks. A sense of something not right.
Strange that, in a wood supposedly haunted by spirits from darker ages, it’s the modern and human that makes us feel afraid in the end. Even though we reasoned it was simply an old pheasant hatchery there’s something about the man-made that feels wrong here, something a little menacing about the decaying timber and metal.
We take photos and leave.
Now we are walking into the wind and, half blinded by the snow, it’s hard to see where we are going. But we make it back.
We sleep in the van, on the edge of an open field, in a howling wind so strong it rocks the vehicle. Near us lie hares, we’ll see them in the morning when they and the rest of the natural world shake the frost from their fur and raise their heads again to take stock of the changes brought by the storm. For some of the animals and bird it will be the first time they’ve experienced snow. Later we see a stoat and, though it’s risky to infer too much from animal behaviour, he seems to be enjoying running through the fallen ice crystals. Certainly his route – a random dash up and down a hedge – seems to have no obvious purpose.
We walk along the Alde to Iken village. On the edge of the wide brown estuary the Red Shank are hunched, heads tucked in, facing the wind. Though strong it has dropped enough that we can hear the Curlew making their sad calls.
On to St Botolph’s, the church that now lies on the land first chosen by the saint some 1350 years ago. It’s peaceful, on a beautiful promotory. With long, dramatic views over the water, alive with birds and home to the odd seal, it’s certainly a place fit for the young local men who died in the World Wars and came to rest there. Their names are written on a memorial. A few surnames are repeated – I thought of telegrams bringing the news of the deaths of the brothers and fathers, nephews and cousins who made up the village families. The little pieces paper, bearing their awful news, must have broken the heart of the place.
From the church we re-trace our steps to Yarn Hill. The tracks we left the previous night have gone, buried in drift or blown away, replaced by those of pheasant and crow recently passed.
Once back in the wood we walk to the centre. The wind cannot reach this far in and it’s calm. We pour some brandy onto the snow, a thanks for our safe passage, just in case. A muntjac breaks cover and runs past us, the only noise we can hear. We find the abandoned cages again, in the light they look mundane.
It’s time to leave – we walk down the hill and back to the van. We drive away.