The sheared off wall of golden stone loomed out of the trees with no warning, its naked window frames reaching like broken fingers through strangling masses of ivy. A sight as abruptly alarming in this mist wreathed wood as a shark’s fin cutting through the surface of a boating pond.
The first rule of exploring was that you veered off the main track at every fork or side turning. Most led to padlocked gates or narrowed into woodland paths barely big enough for a fox to follow. The second rule of exploring was that it was always the eldest sister who investigated first and she was already slipping her feet out of the stirrups and handing her reins to her younger sister. She too, however, was quick to dismount. It was easier to control two ponies from the ground and besides, it felt wrong to remain mounted while her sister was going exploring, even if the taste of chocolate in her mouth was suddenly making her feel sick.
“What is it?”
“A church, stupid.”
“Yes, but, why?”
She watched her sister pick her way carefully among gravestones tumbled like discarded dominoes, many were flat on the ground, others leaning precariously against their neighbours, barely any still intact.
She wanted to call out “Is it safe?” But since when had that been a concern for her sister? She looked up again at the end wall of the church, golden Cotswold stone turned wraith-grey in the drizzle and mist that coiled around the ruin in a duel with the choking ivy.
Earlier in the day the sun had made them curse the cheap, heavy waterproof coats they were wearing. The very first side track had led to a small cutting at the side of the path, as if someone had taken a giant ice cream scoop to the crumbling rock of the steep hillside. An old quarry said the younger girl and after loosening the ponies’ girths and taking off their coats she had searched for fossils among the tumbled limestone and primroses. Her sister had tugged old flimsy branches into the clearing, at first with the idea of making jumps for the ponies and then to form a barricade.
“We could come here often and untack the ponies, let them have a proper break while we explore.”
Images of picnics and adventures as in all her favourite pony books fired the younger sister and she joined in gathering armfuls of long brittle grass to leave to dry like hay for a future visit and patted it into comfy cushions on a ledge where they sat and ate their sandwiches, sharing the apple cores with the ponies and devouring Lion Bars.
The next clearing they found was directly on the main track, neatly stacked piles of wood showed it was for logging. The usual arguments ensued as the elder girl moved wood obviously intended for sale into improvised jumps and the younger one tried to measure the ground for a dressage arena. It was just large and flat enough to canter an egg shaped circle. After their own pony had had enough and tried to canter for home, and borrowed, tired old Sam gave up after half a circuit at a trot, they moved on into the denser woods.
The track wound up and down, never following the contour of the hill for long, they manged a few hare-brained canters with the ponies’ hooves squelching through mud or ringing out alarmingly loud where the path became stony. Gradually the track narrowed and a walk was as fast as they could go, the trees crowded in on either side and branches whipped their faces making them duck low over the ponies’ necks. The sun had withdrawn behind ominous clouds and the closer barricade of branches and leaves trapped the steamy air around them and made them sweat while they shivered.
The younger girl had suggested turning back several times. Her sense of direction was better and she knew if they came to a road it would be a long slow ride home, and if they didn’t come to a road they were definitely lost. And then came yet another side track on their right; narrow, twisting, yet very well worn.
Without a word, the elder sister urged her pony to scramble up the bank and then on through smaller scratchy shrubs, and then to a sudden halt.
The wall in front of them was obviously that of a church. The tall pointed shape, the high arching windows even with no glass in them. One side wall joined it, the opposite one was a tumble of rubble, moss covered stones rolled among the drunken gravestones. There was no roof, and no slates scattered among the debris, roof beams lay crumbled in the interior of the church like the staved in ribs of a crushed animal.
While she had stood with their tired ponies she had felt annoyance at having to wait; now she felt no eagerness to explore. “Is here much to see?”
“Go and look.” There was the perennially frustrated voice of an older braver sister. So she went, picking her way among the crumbling graves, craning her head to see the grey scudding clouds through the tree canopy, somehow looking everywhere but at the gutted church with its blind window frames that seemed instead to be watching her. No wind reached through the dense wood, yet the trees rustled and sighed behind her.
She finally peered through the doorway but couldn’t try to push past the piles of fallen masonry and saplings thrusting their way up the length of the nave. How long would a place have to be empty before plants took root, or pushed through the stone floor that must surely have been there?
Stepping back out into the wood she gulped in the moist air, and tasted smoke; through the trees she saw more walls and heard a dog. A cottage, as dark and dreary as the ruin, carved wooden eaves that belonged on a gingerbread cottage dripped dankly, drab curtains hid the inside, as if the grime covering the windows weren’t enough to shut out the dismal day.
She scurried back to her sister. “We should go.”
“Someone might see us.”
“I don’t think we should be here.”
Her sister wanted to explore further but the dog barked again and they heard a door slam and soon were back in their saddles and hurrying to the main track. Without a word the older girl turned left and back home the way they had come, their thirst for exploring and adventure quenched for now, the warmth and comforting smell of damply steaming ponies gradually making everything normal again.
That evening they asked their parents if they knew about the church in the wood. They didn’t and had never walked that way, but the location rang a bell with their father. He searched a local history book and found reference to the grand house in the Ridings, built in the 1820s and pulled down a little over a century later in the 1930s, only the lodge houses and church in the woods being left. Their father remembered a friend from the pub who had talked about it and attended the auctions when the house was dismantled; he had bought some beams from the house to use in his farm’s barns.
A few days letter a very formal letter arrived telling the girls that their permit to ride in the nearby woods did not cover the Ridings. It was a shock. They had been seen by someone, and recognised. They had only recently discovered that they needed a permit for the other woods and knew that very few of their horse riding friends had bothered to apply for one; to now be chastised for their exploring seemed deeply unfair.
They never went back. Not with their ponies. Sometimes the younger sister would think of those armfuls of grass they had so eagerly and optimistically gathered to dry. It would all have blown or mouldered away, or maybe been used as nests by mice or birds.
Many years later they went that way again, with their parents, the jumping clearing had more coppiced wood stacked in it and they walked on, keen to reach the ruined church.
Which wasn’t there.
No stones, no beams, no carved window frame remained. Just a large stone cross on its side in a bank of earth to record the church that had once stood there. The cottage gleamed with fresh paint and a new conservatory and well-tended gardens that reached back into the woods where the graveyard had once been. Not one gravestone remained.
They were following a map, sure not to be caught out for trespassing or being off the beaten track. As they struck out across the fields that had once been the parkland for the vanished country house the younger girl kept looking back, as if hoping to see one wall of the church still poking through the woods and beckoning her as it had years before.
They’ve walked that way once or twice since; it’s a picturesque if long way to a good country pub. One time the younger sister walked it with just her mother and they found bee orchids growing in the logging clearing. Brambles and saplings were reclaiming the cleared ground, the few piles of cut wood were crumbled and past being of any use except to hedgehogs and woodlice as a home. There wasn’t room to canter a circle now and she fleetingly wondered how many precious plants they had sliced apart with their long dead ponies’ steel shod hooves.
She persuaded her mother to turn back soon after that, she couldn’t bear to walk past where the church that once frightened and awed her in the mist should have been. Where long forgotten graves slept silently beneath the whispering branches. They took away all the gravestones, but what about the graves, what about the bodies?
She wishes they had been left to crumble, alone.