Convalescing in bed a few days ago after a nasty cold I heard some unexplained noises in the kitchen downstairs. It’s a very old house and there are often creaks and groans, as if the weight of the past is sighing through the thick stone walls. We spent so long restoring it we had plenty of time to think about the people who lived and farmed here before, imagining them treading the slabs and floorboards through the centuries. We know that at one time the two rooms downstairs, now separated by a nineteenth century panelling hallway, were just used as one room and this is where the families would have cooked and lived.
So, we get used to living with ghosts.
I wonder if that’s Mr. Creeper, I thought, feeling comforted, as always, by the knowledge that the farms’ most recent resident, prior to our occupation, is possibly still with us. What a good name for a ghost, I hear you say. One friend swears she has seen him, a figure by the bottom of the stairs, not unfriendly.
William Creeper was a tenant farmer who moved here in 1922 as a boy of seven. In those days the farmyard was a rocky slope, a continuation of the bedrock on which the cottage stands. We have tried to recreate this unevenness by breaking up most of the slab of concrete which covered it, allowing the wildness back in, including digging a huge hole, the pond, which fluctuates in level with the water table – it has never dried out, so that gives you an idea of all the spring lines that run down the hill. In fact we didn’t realise how wet the place was until our first autumn when it rained solidly for month and water started gushing around the sides of the house and out of the front, veritable rivers UNDERNEATH the house. Digging out the soil from the back of the house and installing a drainage pipe solved most of the problem but the pond, by accident, was what really solved it in the end. Anyway, the concrete was far more practical and I completely understand why it must have been a joy to a farmer, but we’re in it for different reasons.
Mr. William Creeper used to have a herd of Ruby Reds (North Devons) which shrank to around to nine or ten cows as he got older and the land of the farm was gradually sold off, ending up eventually as the ten acres it is now. There are people in the village who knew him well and we have heard many stories about him. I like to think that I’m following in his footsteps with my small herd which I’m planning will eventually reach a similar number to his.
Right from the beginning his presence was felt very keenly. The house hadn’t been touched for years, possibly since 1922, and had no running water, rotten floors upstairs and a gaping hole in the roof of the lean to extension on the back, sending rain and wind howling into what is now the kitchen. He lived solely in the other downstairs room, while the rest of the cottage fell into disuse and ruin around him. There was an earth dunny in a little lean to on the side of the piggery.
There were dark stories about the owners, relatives of his, who refused to do any work on the property because they wanted to sell, hoping to force him out, the sitting tenant, by making it so uninhabitable he would have to leave. Of course this is entirely possible, but we don’t know for sure. Whatever the reason for the gradual delapidation, he stayed put.
He was eighty eight when he suddenly got ill and became very distressed at having to leave his beloved farm. However, according to the story, once in hospital he was incredibly impressed by the warmth and particularly by the bath and didn’t want to leave. Perhaps a revelation to a man who had washed every day in the farmyard in all weathers at the one and only cold tap, which was only installed in the 1980’s, before that it was the well. He died there just a couple of months later.
He was, by all accounts, rather stubbornly eccentric and loved his cows more than any thing or person. He never married, his cows were apparently the only company he required and they used to come up the front steps and into the house, as the front door was always open, whatever the month. He had abandoned cleaning long ago and when we arrived there was a tell tale area of dirt and grease beneath the door latch to his room, where he’d placed his hand so many times to open the door. We became fond of his traceries and I felt a sadness when about eight years later I finally got round to stripping the old paint off the doors, including his patch of ingrained life.
When we arrived, he had only recently left so there were lots of artefacts of his life around the place, which made him very real. He was a small man and his standard issue hospital style walking stick was propped up in a barn. We still have that. We also have the branding iron which is what farmers used in the old days before the more humane ear tags were deployed for identifying cattle. It is only the C for Creeper which remains, the W we never found, so there is a space where it should be. It is hanging by the front door, a constant reminder.
It doesn’t seem important whether he is a real ghost or not. It is his presence which haunts us, and there is one thing at least I do know for sure – we will never forget William Creeper and his cows.