He was a remarkably undemanding lodger, for a ghost. But, on reflection, maybe he was the host and we the lodgers. After all, he had lived in the house for almost 200 years; we had been there barely eight.
I had heard of him, of course. From my childhood in the farmhouse I was familiar with the story of the ghost with a lantern seen walking beneath the scarp of the Downs towards the cottage. I never met anyone who had actually seen him in person, just the lamp moving in front of the wood.
Jack O’Lantern, the old boys called him; not a very imaginative name when you come to think of it. It was always assumed that he was a keeper or a shepherd returning to his cottage through the late evening darkness after a last look round at his charges.
It never occurred to me when I moved into the cottage that it might be haunted. Cottage-under-the-Hill, the previous occupants called it. House-under-the-Hill it became, rather pretentiously, after the landlord had renovated it. We decided to call it Shepherd’s Cottage when we took up residence, more appropriate somehow.
There was no reputation, no stories of spooks haunting the sleep of anyone staying there. So, as I say, I was not exactly looking for a visitation. Until, that is, in the dead of night one Christmas Eve, many years ago now.
The children were very young and, though excited, were tired enough to go to sleep once they had put out the sherry and mince pie for Father Christmas and a raw carrot for the reindeer. I ate the mince pie, drank the sherry, carefully disposed of the carrot and laid out the stockings. My wife and I thankfully headed for bed.
It was a bitterly cold night, a hard frost to accompany the snow flurries. In the early hours, the wind strengthened and it started to snow in earnest. I was snug in bed, fast asleep, when I became aware of a man beside the bed, his face lit up by a lantern.
He was short by today’s standards, of stocky build with thick grey whiskers. The collar of a coarse woollen shirt protruded above the leather jerkin. Surprisingly, the apparition of a strange figure in my bedroom in the middle of the night was not remotely frightening. Indeed, it was somewhat reassuring.
As consciousness seeped slowly through my brain, the mirage faded leaving darkness, lit only by the digital display of the radio alarm clock. 3.30 am. I knew I had to get up. Quietly, rapidly, I dressed, dragging on a heavy anorak and Wellingtons.
Outside, the wind cut like a knife, freezing the breath in my nostrils. I set out along the wood, the scarp of the Downs a dark shadow above me. Even without a torch, I could see clearly, an eerie light showing the way. It swayed slightly as I walked as though coming from a lamp held by an unseen hand.
Snowflakes swirled, creating drifts, and I wondered if the cottage would be snowed-in come morning. Although I was unaware of the specific purpose of my nocturnal ramble, I was sure of its necessity.
We crossed Rat Pond Lane and into the next pasture and, suddenly, I knew why we were there. I saw ‘we’ because I could feel the presence beside me, although I could see nothing. The sheep were in this field, the ewe flock heavily in lamb, halfway through gestation.
Over by the trees were a large number of sheep sheltering from the wind. But drifts were forming amongst them as the snow eddied round the corner of the wood. Already some were almost buried. I started to move them away from the danger area, wishing I had a sheep dog to help me.
Clapping my hands and shouting at the stupid creatures at least restored my circulation and, despite their reluctance to move, I soon had them in a safer haven from the lethal weather.
We made our way back to the cottage in the quiet comradeship of a shared experience. I wanted to thank him but felt foolish talking to an invisible spirit. Yet there was communication despite the silence. I knew his name was Seth (you never really believed Jack O’Lantern, did you?) and he worked as a shepherd for the Kingsmill family in the latter part of the 18th century, at around the time of the French Revolution, although he would have known little of that.
I already knew that the Kingsmill family had owned the estate since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the identity of Jack O’Lantern had always been a mystery.
As I quietly made my way back to bed, my wife stirred and asked where I had been. I thought of telling her but knew that there was little point, at least at that time of the morning. As I drifted towards sleep, I was glad that we had called our home Shepherd’s Cottage and knew Seth approved.
A very Happy Christmas to all readers of this column.