Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Black Venn

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The superb curve of the cliffs, east of the little borough town of Lyme Regis, describes an arc of about 30 miles in length terminating in the Bill of Portland. Some of these cliffs are 700 or 800 feet high. Their charmingly varied hues, commencing with the dark blue of the lias at Lyme Regis, broken by slips of verdure, and clefts producing deep shadows, succeeded by the oolitic yellow or orange crests of Shorncliff and Golden Cap, whose sides bear little copses of dark fir, interspersed with purple heather and golden gorse, reflect themselves in a calm sea with the brilliancy of the rainbow, giving an Italian effect to the scenery.

As our eye follows the curve of coast beyond, we notice the red cliffs which mark the situation of Bridport and the fishing village of Burton; and, subdued and harmonised by distance, the still receding heights beyond Abbotsbury fade away into an indefinite greenish blue, and terminate in the white rock of Portland, which lifts itself as a pale shadow in the far atmosphere.

We must add to our picture the bright blue waters of the Bay: these, sheltered from the east and north, and open only to the more genial influences (tempestuous though they sometimes be), of the south and west breezes, spread their wide expanse towards the bosom of the broad Atlantic unbroken by any intervening land; and whether tossed into wavelets flecked with innumerable white crests, or still and glassy with a mother-of-pearl iridescence on their surface, add the charm of incessant change to the exquisite colouring.

Standing on the verdant summit of Black Venn, one of the heights I have been describing, between Lyme and Charmouth, in the calm soft light of a summer sunset, a spectator, versed in the local records of the neighbourhood, finds an additional interest in the recollection that the sea and landscape, on which the eye now rests in admiration, presented the identical appearance in hue and outline to the Northern Sea Kings when, ten centuries ago, our Saxon progenitors watched from these heights the robber fleets, sweeping, beneath their bases, towards the adjacent village of Charmouth, and landing their fierce warriors with the raven standard unfurled, to ravage the interior with fire and sword.

Possessed of still greater interest is the reflection that at a much more remote epoch, while the earth was yet a desolate wilderness and man was as yet uncreated to inhabit, cultivate, and subdue, beneath and over these very cliffs, and amid the surrounding ooze, there swarmed countless multitudes of monstrous forms; giants in magnitude, and of great muscular development, endued with the most fearful powers of destruction and rapacity; creatures whose very analogy is in some cases scarcely traceable at the present day, but who then held undisputed sway over that dreary region, the theatre of their internecine war, and ultimately their sepulchre.

The stony skeletons of these monsters, daily disinterred by the pickaxe of the workman, or the hammer of the geologist, attest the unquestionable facts of their animal organisation, even to minute details, details which have enabled us to establish conclusions respecting the condition of the world which they inhabited, as accurate as if we had ourselves been then in existence, with every faculty for observation and personal investigation. A series of inferences, the result of a train of masterly reasoning, supports these conclusions, and stamps with authenticity a very wonderful chapter in our readings from the book of Nature, of the goodness and superintending power of the Almighty Creator.


But the glimmer of the revolving light on the distant Isle of Portland, and the brighter sparkle of the town lamps in the valley remind us of the necessity for our homeward journey, and we therefore commence our descent. The road we are taking towards the town from the hill on the Charmouth side is beautifully diversified; and the dark pine wood, which at some little distance borders it upon our right, calls up a reminiscence of so strange a character, that I think it worth presenting to the reader.

About six years ago I was coming to Lyme Regis by this very road from Charmouth, where I had been engaged until a late hour on professional business. It might have been about eleven o’clock as I reached the gap known by the name of the Devil’s Bellows, a few hundred yards beyond which, is the crown of the hill overlooking a long strip of the undulating and winding road towards Lyme. Below this part of the road is the cliff called “Black Venn.” The night was a bright summer moonlight, almost as clear as day.

From this point the road, with all its turns and hollows, can be seen for the distance of nearly half a mile; and the dark woods on the right which border it to some distance, and out of which it seems to take its rise, rendered its yellow line still more conspicuous by the contrast on such a night.

I had scarcely reached this point when I was startled by a loud but distant scream, or rather a succession of screams, of a peculiarly wild and wailing character.

As nearly as I could judge, the sounds came from the pine wood at the extremity of the road. I stopped to listen, and strained my eyes in the direction from which the screams appeared to come; and there,—just where the road emerges from the darkness of the wood, I distinctly saw something white, gleaming and glancing in the moonlight, and evidently in ceaseless and violent motion. My first idea was that two persons, clothed in white, were struggling, as if engaged in a contest for life and death: but after gazing for a minute or two, I became aware that the figure or figures, whichever it might be, had subsided into one, and that one was rapidly moving towards me!

The screams were now incessant, resembling more the shrieks and howlings of a wild beast in pain, than the tones of the human voice under any conceivable circumstances.

You will readily suppose that I could not withdraw my eyes from the strange white figure, which emitting these most fearful shrieks, was now swiftly traversing the road in my direction, first down the little hollow at the foot of the fir wood, then over the strip of level ground near the gate which leads to a foot path through fields into Lyme, and at length up the very acclivity on which I was standing.

I have often endeavoured to analyse the feelings I experienced on this occasion; but although much startled and surprised, I think the predominant sensation was that of curiosity at the unearthly sounds. If these hideous outcries uttered by the figure at a distance had startled and surprised me, the figure itself, as it approached, occasioned me still greater perplexity.

Imagine for yourself, in the clear moonlight, a spinning, whirling and shrieking creature, making swift progress, with motionless, outstretched arms like those of a huge white scare-crow, extended at right angles with the body. The figure was of a tall man’s height, clothed in something which appeared to me like a gown or waggoner’s frock, of white material, falling in one long droop to the ground! The extended arms were also of the same light colour.

The head of the figure I could not distinguish, for (strange to say) the creature, of whatever nature it was, engaged in this nightly ramble, advanced in a series of whirls, so rapid as to defy my attempts, as it speeded past me, to catch even a glimpse of its features. It combined with this eccentric movement, so swift an onward progress, that, as nearly as I could judge, the whole space of time, from the moment when it first came in sight, to that in which it disappeared from my view, having traversed in that period a distance of at least half a mile, did not exceed a very few minutes. Its shrieks, as it passed close by me, keeping the centre of the road, were horrifying in the extreme; and rang in my ears long after it had disappeared in the direction of the Devil’s Bellows.

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I cannot say that I felt anything like what I should imagine would attend a supernatural manifestation. My sensations were chiefly those of surprise, and I had even prepared myself for the possibility of self-defence in case the figure, if human, should attack me, in what seemed the unrestrained outbreak of some ferocious and irreclaimable maniac! This idea flashed across my mind as the only possible solution; and I anticipated that, on the following day, I should find that the whole neighbourhood had been alarmed, and that, in some way or other, the mystery would be cleared up.

No such elucidation, however, took place; nor could I ever learn that any one but myself had been favoured with a manifestation of this frantic and fantastic apparition.

During the whole of the subsequent week I passed the time in a state of bewilderment. What I had seen and heard was continually recurring to my mind, and I puzzled myself in vain to account for the apparition. All my consideration served only the more to perplex me. One of the circumstances which occasioned me the greatest surprise in my reflections on the matter was, that so far as I could discover, no one but myself had heard the startling cries, or seen the unearthly figure, the former having been first heard by me at the distance of nearly half a mile, and the latter having passed along the turnpike road, on a night as bright as midday, in the close vicinity of two well populated towns; and even the turnpike-house—though not visible from where I stood—was certainly not five minutes’ sharp walking distant from the copse whence the figure at first appeared to emerge; while the shrieks and screams were loud enough to have been heard in that still night as far as the town itself. And yet no one had heard them!

As I mentioned the circumstance to everybody that I could get to listen to it, in the hope of finding some one who could throw some light on the matter, it is not surprising that several persons should have reminded me of the well-known circumstance that a waggoner had, some years before, had his brains dashed out when passing incautiously behind his load of timber, some of which projected beyond the waggon, and struck him on the head, and that this death occurred exactly at that spot on the road near the copse where the hideous figure I had seen first appeared to me.

Neither need it be doubted that many of these intelligent listeners left me with the full persuasion that I had seen the ghost of the unhappy waggoner dancing a supernatural polka, to an extempore air of his own composition, on the spot where he had left his brains.

One fact alone I obtained worth recording, which trivial as it may appear, and lightly as I then regarded it, will probably, to the philosophic reader, be found of some significance; and let any one who thinks it worth his while to follow me to the end of the story bear it in mind.

Among those to whom I mentioned the affair was the inspecting commander of the coast-guard on this station, a gentleman of much resolution and experience, with whom I had the pleasure of an acquaintance.

He heard my story with much interest, and remarked upon its singularity, adding, that, for some time past, he had observed a great reluctance on the part of his men to visit the stations on that beat; that they always applied to be sent in couples; and although he had not deemed it advisable to take notice of the fact, he had heard rumours of their having been terrified by unusual sights and sounds on those eastward cliffs. From the men, however, I could obtain nothing but evasive and unsatisfactory answers to my questions on the subject, and the result was that the mystery remained entirely unsolved.


Courteous reader, we are now about to part company, and I would fain leave upon your mind the impression that the last twenty minutes have been passed in the society of an honest and veracious narrator, to whom you may safely give implicit credence.

This character you say you are readily prepared to allow me, provided that I, on my part, and as a condition precedent, will prove myself worthy of the confidence reposed in me, by at once explaining fully and satisfactorily the circumstances I have related.

Alas! I regret to say that I am unable to secure my good character on these terms, for the simple reason that up to this moment no such full and sufficient explanation has been afforded me. But if you, most searching of cross-examiners, will proceed to inquire whether any idea has presented itself to my mind, by which so singular a phenomenon might possibly be brought within the compass of rationality, I will own that (oddly enough) after several months of perplexity a few words spoken by one whom, to the best of my knowledge, I had never before seen—whose voice I had never before heard, and shall in all probability never hear again, and with whose name I am unacquainted—threw suddenly a faint gleam over what had before been utterly obscure, and suggested the clue to a plausible solution of the problem. It might have been about seven or eight months after the event that I have related, that I was returning from the County Court at Axminster, late on a dark winter evening, and walking my horse up the hill which leads from that town to Hunter’s Lodge, when I was suddenly accosted by a man who appeared to have overtaken me. and who, touching his hat, seemed desirous of entering into conversation.

After a few remarks, he said: “Would your honour like to buy some good brandy?” On this strange question being put to me, I stopped my horse, and turning to the man, said: “Do you know, my friend, that you are putting a question which may get you into difficulty? How do you know but that I am a policeman or an exciseman?”

To this the man replied that he knew I was neither the one nor the other; that he well knew who I was, and entertained no apprehension of risk in making the inquiry: then drawing nearer, and assuming a very confidential manner, he assured me I might rely on the article being of the best description without the least smack of sea water, and that he would be able to procure me any quantity I might wish for within a day or two; “For,” added he, in conclusion, “we last week made a capital run just under Black Venn.”

Dear reader: If this little episode does not furnish you, as it did me, with some elucidation both of the brainless Waggoner’s Polka and of the nocturnal terrors which appear to have successfully scared the coast guard, your imagination is a less vivid one than I am willing to give you credit for possessing. For my own part, I will only add, that the mention of the singular name “Black Venn” (recalling, as it instantly did, the adventure of my moonlight walk), coupled with the accommodating proposal of my unknown friend, suggested to me the hypothesis, that the apparition was probably not a messenger from the spirit world, although in close connection with the world of spirits.