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Feather's Miscellany: The Garland

...My disbelief was to be proved wrong sooner than I expected, for on Christmas Eve as I left the lych gate at the entrance of the graveyard, finding my way through the dark by torchlight, I noticed a strange glow in the porch, a warm inviting glow. At first I thought someone had been in the church before me to put on the lights, yet the rest of the church was in darkness...

John Waddington-Feather tells a seasonal ghost story.

It happened shortly after I’d retired from my parish in an industrial Northern city, where I’d spent a lifetime ministering in downtown parishes. My wife and I were exhausted. We’d had enough of living in crime-ridden city centres where, it seemed, all spirituality had died with the crumbling buildings around us.

Folk were reverting to paganism again, Godless and tribal. Gang warfare was rife. Obscene graffiti was painted all over the church walls outside and occasionally inside, too, before we locked the doors; and our vicarage windows were regularly targeted by brick-throwing teenagers mindlessly marauding the streets each night. What we experienced in our final years up there must have been what believers felt like in the early Church. We were besieged by hostile hordes whose only gods were drugs, money and the telly, whose only interests were sport, vandalism and the pub.

Like the rows of mean streets and the estates they ministered to, the churches were falling apart except in oases of renewal where the more Evangelical churches were keeping alive the Faith and seemed to be winning. The rest were the left-overs of Victorian England. Few churches in the city were over a hundred years old and several were demolished before they reached their centenary, vast barns of places which were white elephants from the start, way beyond the upkeep of their dwindling flocks. My wife and I struggled on not without some success, I hope. There were still Godly folk around young and old, but in the end it all became too much and I was glad to move into the country and hand over to a younger priest.

On holiday in Shropshire not long before I retired, we let on our dream cottage which was up for sale in a little hamlet called Mucklebury. Our prayers were answered when our bid was accepted and we moved in a week or so before Christmas. An old friend, now a bishop, invited me to oversee the parish I’d retired to and I agreed. It was the least I could do in gratitude for our cottage.

Mucklebury, nestling in the blue Shropshire hills miles from anywhere, was an idyllic place which time had long passed by; just the spot for my wife and I to pass our later years. Quiet and peaceful with a loyal and active congregation, it was the next stage to heaven and we settled into the community immediately. The church was relatively full each Sabbath and packed to over-flowing at Festival times like Easter, Christmas and harvest. During the week it was used by young mothers for pram services and for mid-week Communion, and once a month we served a ploughman’s lunch for the older folk at the back of the church.

Early on I noticed how the farmers loved their land which they’d tilled for generations. When I examined the registers, time after time the same names on the same farms appeared which had been in the same families for centuries. Their surnames were as old as Mucklebury itself, all the way from their Anglo-Saxon forebears who’d settled the place fifteen hundred years before. There were one or two in-comers like ourselves, but the parish housed mainly farmers or farm workers. The local schoolmistress and her assistant, the doctor and ourselves were the only ones not connected with farming.

St Michael’s Church was quite large and stood on a walled circular mound surrounded by ancient yews with a solitary oak near the lych gate. Its site and name suggested at once there’d been a pre-Christian temple on the site. Other pagan monuments and symbols were all around: the standing stone in the graveyard, the stone circle on the hill above the hamlet, where, lore had it, a witch had once milked cows dry, the massive oak, the sad yews and the huge bunches of mistletoe which clung to the trees in the surrounding woods and orchards. All bore witness to a Druidic past and earlier religions lost in the mists of time.

The name of its patron saint, Michael, also pointed to there being a temple where the church now stood. Michael was the saint appointed from the heavenly host to drive out evil spirits with his flaming sword from any church built on a pagan site, cleansing the place from previous blood rites. Those had long gone with the priests who’d performed them and what terrible sacrificial rites the yews and oak had witnessed centuries before, they kept to themselves.

A millennium of burials had filled the graveyard whose headstones leaned at crazy angles. The oldest were covered in lichen and were illegible so soft was the sandstone from which they were made. Time and the elements had erased any names and epitaphs and there remained only memento mori, the reminder of death, the skull and crossbones. Earlier generations than ours were not as squeamish in facing death. Death for them was simply the transition into a better – or worse - life than this where you reaped your just rewards or suffered for your sins.

Inside the church were more reminders of death and the past: the tomb of a medieval knight, the lozenge-shaped memorials bearing the coats-of-arms of local gentry, and, most poignant of all, a solitary bridal garland in a glass case on the west wall over the door; the garland a young bride would have carried on her wedding day had she lived, but in fact was placed on her coffin as a wreath. Such garlands are found in churches throughout the county.

The garland was connected to a young couple whose names were on a memorial tablet on the wall beneath. They’d died the same day from a cholera epidemic which had ravaged the area in the late eighteenth century. “Sacred to the memory of John Edward Tudor and his betrothed bride, Sarah Mary Davies. Died December 20th 1780 both 22 years of age. May they rest together in Christ.”

As I read the memorial I tried to imagine how their families must have felt. Many from the surrounding farms and hamlets had died in the terrible epidemic. The dates on the gravestones outside were proof of that, just as the many names on the war memorial were proof of another terrible slaughter wrought by man a hundred and fifty years later. The solitary wedding garland though faded was still intact after more than two hundred years and was missed by many visiting the church until pointed out.

I hadn’t long been there when the church was decorated for Christmas. Holly and yew branches filled the window ledges and a huge Christmas tree decorated with baubles and a Bethlehem Star stood near the font. Colourful flowers packed vases either side of the altar and below the pulpit. A crib made by the school-children was placed by the sanctuary and candles had been set at intervals around the church ready for the Carol Service in the New Year.

The porch, also, was heavily decorated and hanging from its vaulted roof was a huge bunch of mistletoe. I suspected mistletoe had been used in rites which pre-dated the Christian church and were embedded in the psyche of the parishioners from the past. Other rites like blessing the crops and the land fell to my lot as I got to know the church and its people better. Certainly the age-old custom of couples kissing as they passed beneath the mistletoe was still practised, especially after Christmas Midnight Mass when they left the church. And it was my first Christmas Eve, when I’d gone to prepare for the Mass that it happened. Old Roger Kent, the church warden whose farm adjoined the church, had told me when I’d arrived in the parish about the ghostly couple who appeared mysteriously each Christmas Eve and kissed under the mistletoe. Of course, I, a townie, coming from the dour North, didn’t believe him, but I listened patiently as he told his tale in rich dialect and with wide eyes. He believed it even if I didn’t. Shropshire countryfolk have vivid imaginations and are full of folk-tales; but the longer I stayed In Mucklebury, the more I was to discover they’re often based on fact.

My disbelief was to be proved wrong sooner than I expected, for on Christmas Eve as I left the lych gate at the entrance of the graveyard, finding my way through the dark by torchlight, I noticed a strange glow in the porch, a warm inviting glow. At first I thought someone had been in the church before me to put on the lights, yet the rest of the church was in darkness.

Then as I drew nearer I saw the figures of a young couple facing each other under the mistletoe. They were dressed in clothes of a bygone age, he in knee breeches and fine worsted jacket and she in a bridal gown holding a garland! My mind raced and I walked on trying to tell myself there was some kind of Christmas fancy dress party going on nearby and a couple had come into the porch to court. But when I was only metres away, they turned and smiled before slowly fading away, leaving the porch in darkness again.

I rubbed my eyes. I was tired and imagining things. Although I’d been startled by what I’d seen I never mentioned it to anyone, not even my wife, so you can imagine my surprise when I read out the banns of marriage the following Sunday. They were the banns of a couple I’d never met, for their marriage had been arranged by my predecessor before he left. Old Kent had told me they were in church and we prayed for them later, but I faltered momentarily as I opened the register and read: “I publish the banns of marriage between John Edward Tudor, bachelor of this parish, and Sarah Mary Davies, spinster, also of this parish. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, you are to declare it. This is for the first time of asking.”

Only then as I read did it click they had the same names as the couple on the memorial tablet, and only when I met them afterwards over coffee in church did the meeting of the ghostly couple kissing under the mistletoe come flooding back to me. The youngsters whose names I read out lived on the same farms and were from the same families generations on. As I chatted to them I was intrigued for I saw their strong resemblance to the couple in the porch. It was uncanny, but still I said nothing.

More was to come. Some weeks later in the New Year, when I entered the church from the vestry to take the marriage ceremony, I’d a strange feeling that there were more guests than in the packed congregation; and as I looked around I saw the couple in the porch standing at the back of the church looking on. Around them were other ghostly onlookers, the guests who should have witnessed their wedding two centuries earlier. The wedding went off well and as the couple left the church, they paused and kissed as was the custom under the mistletoe in the porch, bonding them in love with its age-old power.

Their wedding completed what had begun centuries earlier, it seems, for neither I nor anyone else saw the ghostly couple again.

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