The Beggar’s Folly

Upon the western-most hillside of one of the many classical country estates of southern England, you will find an example of a ‘folly’. These whimsical buildings built for no use other than aesthetics are, depending on your taste, either an eccentric yet artistic bonus to the stately grounds of this country, or an incongruity that perhaps could have required a second opinion. This particular example, bar its foundation walls of brick already colonised by moss in many places, is designed in the Italian renaissance fashion so in vogue with the gentry at the time of its 18th century construction. A marble floor and staircase lead some 12 feet onto a veranda, where a pillared wall and ornamentation seek to bring to mind days in balmy Mediterranean heat, and create the air of some Arcadian paradise that despite its often-overcast locale. On the odd days of summer that came close to such a dream, the family seated on this estate would lead their friends and associates up here with bottles of wine and oft-repeated stories, where they could gaze down upon the splendid views for miles, their manor the centre piece of it all beyond the lake.

Beyond that, it served little purpose outside of these jovialities that only occurred on a miniscule few days a year, and thus its elegant form harking to recall Ancient Greece looked quite out of place when left untouched during the chill winds of Autumn and Winter. A narrow country lane passed not far below it, and as locals took a glancing eye as they walked or drove slowly by, the thought of a ‘white elephant’ came to mind in many. After all, when the dead leaves blew upon its portico and wind-blown stains of mud browned the marble, certainly those estate hands of a more practical mind saw little use in maintaining a complex structure for the sake of a few days of sweaty inebriation a year.

Such indifference was excluded for one day each year however by the workers of the estate and the local residents. Not in summer for idle celebration like the seated family, but very shortly before the turn of the year when the folly stood most neglected, the 30th December to be exact. It was on this day, just shy of some 50 years ago now, that the male heir to the estate’s seat had a gathering of friends from Oxford University come to join him ahead of New Years’ celebrations. It was decided after lunch that the priority was to continue on to the village pub that bore the family’s name. As they short-cutted at their own pace through the muddy lanes between cattle pastures and maize fields, a distant rumble behind them grew steadily louder. When it was close enough to be worth conversing about, they turned to see a tractor coming towards them on the opposite side of the hedge. The rather unhealthy sounding engine stopped once it had drawn up parallel to them and a wiry old figure in a wax jacket stepped out, rubbing his hardened, tobacco-stained fingers together against the chill.

“G’noon, young sir” he greeted.

“Good afternoon, Harry” the heir replied, “did you have a pleasant Christmas?”

“Aye, tis well as can be, tis well as can be. And greetings to your companions, happy new year for tomorrow one and all.” He nodded at the strangers and they each mumbled a greeting in return.

“Now, you remember to give your custom at the folly today?” Harry reminded him, pointing up the hill towards the building.

“Ah, of course! Yes we’ll be passing by on the way back from the pub, so I’ll make sure we all make sure if it. Saying that –“ he fumbled around in his tweed jacket pockets without taking anything out of them, “I’ve not got a key…”

“You can borrow mine, young sir” Harry replied, presenting him a slightly rusty one from out of the side of his coat. “Just remember to leave it with Milly when you get back to the manor. Now, I must get back to it, so you’s have a happy new year alright?”

The heir wished him well in return, and after some initial uncertainty from the engine; the tractor turned the field corner and chugged up the hill.

“What was he going on about then?” asked one of the friends.

“Oh it’s a very old tradition, going back to the late 1700s or thereabouts” the heir explained, and pointed up the hill. “You see that little structure there with the pillars, almost like a Greek temple? Back then, not long after it was built I think, there was an old beggar who used to sit on a stone on the lane just below. They think he used to live somewhere in the woods around the estate, but no one’s quite sure. Anyway, he used to get a fair bit of coin there as most of the locals used the lane to head to the market towns, so even if a minority actually gave him some money he would still get enough to keep him content. He grew to become quite a well liked character in the end, which certainly helped warm locals into donating to him.”

“But then one year had a particularly harsh winter, yet he still he sat out on his stone under the folly. Until, on this day however many years ago, they found his frozen body dead. And ever since, every 30th December the locals leave a sprig of heather by the stone, while my family have gone into the folly itself and leave a few coins. No one’s exactly sure why heather is left, or who started it, or if this beggar had any sort of relation to my family.  Whatever the case, it’s something that’s been going on for generations now, and I’ve been doing it like clockwork every New Year’s ‘eve eve’ since I can remember.”

“And what happens to the, um, tributes?” asked one of the friends. “Is there a huge pile of 200 years worth of cash in that building?”

“No, it’s all gone by the next day! The heather generally stays in place, which is the odd thing, as you don’t need a key for that. I always assumed it’s one of the staff or tenant farmers like Harry, but no one’s come forward in all the time it’s been going on.”

“He’s probably nabbing it all to spend on booze!” another friend laughed.

“Come on, that’s a bit of a low blow” said another. “Maybe he gives it to charity?”

The heir shrugged. “It’s always been a a mystery, and some of the fellows working here have been with our family for God knows how long, so I would assume it’s a secret task passed down father to son. But I think the enigma’s just part of the intrigue. Personally I’d rather it stayed that way.”

They gazed up at the folly, before chatter quickly turned to reminiscing on one of the heir’s drunken antics back at Oxford in the previous term, and they carried on towards the village.

By the time the party had left the inn at mid-afternoon, the winter sun was already making itself scarce with a weak light, until a large veil of cloud passed over just as the group were approaching the folly from up the hill. The stone by the lane did indeed have an assortment of fresh sprigs of heather gathered at its base, and on the slight rise to its right, the miniature temple awaited under a fading light.

“Well, best pay our respects” the heir announced to his companions, drawing the key Harry gave him out of his pocket. He lead them up to the folly’s iron gates, and had to play with the lock several times before it opened much to their delight, as their tipsiness from the inn had far from departed.

“You’ve all still got change, right?” the heir asked, dropping a few pound coins at the foot of the steps, where several left by other family members already sat. “I held some back as soon as that farmer told us that story!” said one, while most others mumbled an acknowledgement and duly left their tokens with the others.

Except one, however. It was the same friend who had tried to garner a laugh by suggesting they were contributing to farmer Harry’s beer fund. He had spent most of his change on rounds, but while he did still have a few coins left, what was the point of leaving them here? His own family had built their great wealth not by spending after all, and certainly not on farmers who were inevitably going to get drunk off their landlords by swindling them with an irrelevant tradition.

He held back at the end of the group, feigning fumbling round his pocket and with a carefully cupped hand, pretended to leave some coins by the steps. Not that his friends would’ve noticed anyway, as they had mostly all left the folly and were standing outside, where the gathering cold steamed their breath into a cloud above them. All eager to get back to the crackling fires and further drink back at the manor, they headed back down the track into the valley, the shadows of the fir trees to their right seemingly quickening the nightfall.

They were not far from the bottom when the drifting clouds became less frequent and wispier in consistency, and in turn the sky turned a marvellous shade of cream crimson. Their sobriety still not yet recovered, they stopped to gawp at the sudden change of colours in the skyline, the cold notwithstanding. The friend who had held on to his change felt the adventure was not quite over yet, and suggested they ascend back the way they came, and take in the view of the estate from the folly. At this proposal, a sober cloud magically washed through his companions as the logistics of going back while still being able to get inside and warm before nightfall were considered. Not one to admit a bad idea however, the young man decided he’d go anyway, and meet them back at the house slightly later. To not take in such a breath-taking moment from such a vantage point was certainly worth a little walk in the dark, he explained, and with that he started back up the lane in a slow jog.

He had exerted so much on the way up that once he arrived he could sling his jacket over his shoulder even with the first hints of a gathering frost in the air. But oh, it was certainly worth it! The sunset had cast the vista into colours akin to one of the many Tudor oil paintings of pastoral scenes that adorned the corridors of both his family’s and his friend’s manors, the house itself and the serpentine lakes lit up in the centre almost certainly as Capability Brown and his contemporaries had envisaged in design. Drying the Beggar’s stone non-committedly with his jacket, he sat back and drew out a cigarette, taking in the view and the sound of nothing but a distant road and the clacking of blackbirds in the bramble as the evening settled in.

By the time the cigarette had burned its last, the orange had faded to the slightest shade of light bronze on the far horizon, where rising upwards it diluted into an ever-deepening shade of blue. The moon was already clear and bright in the sky, but the young man could still discern the land ahead clearly, so he carried back the same way he descended perhaps only 20 minutes or so ago. Reaching the bottom of the hill, he looked back up at the folly, stark against the wall of darkness created by the fir trees. And strangely, there even seemed to be someone there.

Well, he thought it was someone. If it was, they were certainly sitting, crouched upon the sloped lawn in front of the folly. The fir trees were behind, so it was hard to discern where his or her edges were or what they were sitting on if anything at all. But no, it was clearly a sat figure – or was it a pheasant feeder? He had certainly seen a few scattered here and there on the walk, often quite rusted and fallen at odd angles, and with the fading light perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him.

Just past the fir trees, where the hilltop became exposed to the horizon, there came a low rumble, which startled him at first with how silent the air had been. Two headlights appeared, that while relatively dim struck out vibrantly against the final hint of daylight in the sky. It was Harry and his tractor, likely out on one last venture for the day. Watching as the vehicle turned and chugged along the hilltop and disappeared behind the trees, the sound was strangely reassuring. That even a rusty old tractor could hold such sway over a vast stretch of landscape, its rumbling echoes bouncing off the valley sides, was melancholy yet comforting. He looked back towards where the figure sat, wondering if it may have been a colleague or friend of Harry’s awaiting him, but whether that were the case or if it even was just a pheasant feeder after all, he couldn’t tell. The darkness had grown such that he couldn’t make out anything in front of those fir trees except the folly itself. Either way, it was certainly time to get back to the comfort of four walls.

The lane back to the manor carried on past only a couple of fields, but the young man had to adopt a slower pace given the mud that had overtaken much of this low-lying passage. It took so long to navigate that by the time he was past, the darkness of night had well and truly fallen. The path then rose slightly out of the mud, from where it carried on through a small wood. He was very lucky there was a strong moon that night. Patchwork pools of silver light clasped their way through the canopy to illuminate what little they could; small comfort even if it was better than facing an unfamiliar place in pitch black.

But while what he couldn’t see was discerning on its own, it was what he could pick up with other senses gave the young man most unease. The smallest rustles seemed amplified tenfold; a drop of a branch to the ground crashing with a weight like some object had been thrown at him. His balance felt lost. While he could still make out the path in compartments of moonlight ahead of him, he would suddenly feel his foot hit a cushion of damp leaves, or fall swiftly down some small excavation by an animal, with the realisation he was constantly and unwillingly steering himself off course each time the lane took the slightest bend.

Making sure he was clearly back on the path, he stopped to regain his composure. He just about remembered from earlier that this wood did not take long to pass through, but was that just daylight’s blessing when all could be seen? He squinted and could just about make out the welcome sight of slightly less darker shades of night beyond the inky blackness of the wood, so at least it didn’t seem far off.

He took a step forward, and within an instant he felt as if his heart had leapt out of his mouth. Dozens of shots sounded like they had exploded above him at once. He staggered backwards and swore, only to chuckle at his own terror as wheezing squawks echoed out into the night – he’d just disturbed a pheasant roost, but by God, they’d given him a fright.

He looked up to see the silhouettes of a handful of brave birds who had decided to freeze instead of flee cast against the starry sky, and clapped his hands three times to send them on their way before they could think about inducing another cardiac arrest. As the last pheasant’s alarm call faded into the distance, the wood once more faded into silence. He tutted, and considered lighting another cigarette. But when he looked behind him, just to check if there weren’t any more pheasants in the canopy waiting to shock him, his eyes suddenly fixed back on the way he came.

In one of the pools of moonlight, he could have sworn he saw a dark figure moving through it. A figure that seemed to be walking, but didn’t, for it was in slow, staggering bounds as one might do when attempting to run in a dream, and seemed unperturbed by the physical ground – there was certainly no sound. But there were no drifting clouds to provide an explanation for this shadow either.

As it reached the shadow cast by a large oak, it disappeared. Perhaps it was just more visual trickery, in the same way small sounds now seemed so loud? But as he looked to the next patch of moonlight, his heart sunk.

The figure of dark, whatever it was, was there once more. It was coming towards him. And, without a single breath or sound of foot on ground, it was getting quicker and closer.

He ran, ran with no heed for direction, no care for whether he was on the path or off it, he just needed to get out. He felt his feet splash and freeze as they broke muddy puddles, brambles scratched and branches twisted as he sped towards the fields as quickly as he could. Trees begun to give way and he felt a wave of reassurance as his feet hit grass and the moon could be seen with no canopy in between, but the single aim to reach the manor providing no relief to his adrenaline. He made for a fence line bordering a meadow, the slightest sign of the human hand as reassuring as reaching the light of the house. At its corner was a stile bordering a thick hedge, and he leapt onto it: only to feel his foot slip immediately upon contact. The frost had already set into its timber.

There was the tiniest moment of confusion, and then the sound of plunging water, a grip that felt like a hundred hands of ice clenching his whole body, and the taste of earthy water in his mouth. He gasped in shock – was he drowning? He thrust his chest forward, and found himself once again in air. He had fallen into a ditch, yet it was shallow enough that he was sat up with his top half exposed, while his hands rested in freezing water upon the silt.

Blinking, as the water cleared from his vision he was struck by the sight of one thing – he was looking directly towards the other side of the valley. And there, the folly stood with such a piercing clarity, its marble reflected in the moonlight. It felt less like he was staring up at it than the structure, through some strange force that could be felt rather than seen, was looking down on him.

An instinct inside him made him look for the figure; the one in pursuit must have been the same curiosity perceived on the hill earlier. But before he could reassure himself it had returned to its far away vantage point, the view of the folly was broken by a branch veering towards him from the hedge.

Only there was no wind. It came down with such a force on his face it flung him back under the water. With horror, he realised that the branch was not only holding them there beneath the surface, but that it was not a branch. It was a bare, skeletal foot.

Copyright © Pete Cooper 2021