A Buried Body? – Wandering in an English Wood

Cycle touring on a mountain bike
Photographic cycle touring
on a mountain bike

Part of my working method as a travel and stock photographer is to load up my mountain bike with equal amounts of camera and camping equipment and set off to traverse a broad piece of terrain or follow a particular canal or river. My attitude to travel has turned out to be remarkably similar to Ratty’s feelings about ‘simply messing about in boats’ – whether I arrive at my destination or whether I reach somewhere else doesn’t really matter, as there’s always so much to see along the way. So, I mess about on a bike. Stopping and starting as muse and photographic opportunity dictates: waiting for a narrowboat to pass by a meadow, for someone to operate a lift bridge, for the sun to illuminate a hillside of sheep. As a result, I often find myself in unfamiliar rural parts at dusk, scrutinising my maps for an inviting patch of deep green wood to tuck into for the night.

This is how I found myself in an airy wood in the Midlands this autumn, sitting cross-legged at the door of my tent enjoying the silhouettes of the oak and Scots pine around me against the darkening sky, savouring a pot of Puy lentils and vine-ripened tomatoes from my little stove. Halfway through dinner I noticed through the intervening trees, about 100 metres away, a small red light travelling past at waist height. It had to be a bicycle. I couldn’t hear a bicycle, but the wind was blowing and the tree tops were whispering loudly. Curiously, there didn’t seem to be a white headlamp, just the red tail light. ‘Who on earth would be cycling down that stony forest trail in the dark?’, I mused. Where would they be going? There were no villages, or even houses, out this way, only fields interspersed by strips and rectangles of forest.

I had a few more spoonfuls of lentil, then noticed a whitish light about 40 metres away, low to the ground, on an even smaller path that ran off at a right angle to the stony trail. The light had stopped and faintly illuminated a patch of scrub. I could make the patch of light disappear and reappear through the tangle of trees by moving my head. I waited to hear voices, to confirm I wasn’t imagining things, but I couldn’t make out a sound. Even when the wind died in the, by now, black and invisible tree tops, there was no sound. Just a very faint glow. So, I thought, one person on a bike. Stopped. Doing what?

Man walking dog in wood
Man walking his dog

I have done a fair amount of ad hoc camping in England. Probably my Canadian wilderness upbringing superimposed, in my adult years, onto the English landscape. It is very rare to see anyone in a forest after seven o'clock in the evening in this country. During the day you see people walking dogs and occasionally a rambler striding through. But at night forests are empty of people, so I always have them to myself.

I now became conscious of my spoon scraping the side of the cooking pot and sought to finish my dinner quietly. I did not want to be discovered. At the very least, it would be highly inconvenient to be asked to move on into the night. As time passed and the low light persisted, though, the fact that someone was hanging around out there in the dark was starting to give me the creeps. At nine o’clock, an hour after I’d stealthily packed away my stove and put aside my empty pot, there still seemed to be a glow low down through the trees. I wanted to close myself away for the night so I muffled the sound of each zip on the tent by squeezing them between my thumb and forefinger, cupping it with my other hand. It took five minutes to close two zips.

Shortly afterwards a rough, clunking sound – like metal on stony soil – began to issue from the direction of the light. Someone was digging! Why would anyone be digging at the remote edge of a forest at night? Truffle poaching? No truffles here. Cleaning up after their dog? Who’d carry a shovel out here? Hunting? The noise would scare off any prey. Digging a trench? Why dig a trench in the dark when it could be done so much more easily in daylight. I even considered an overzealous paint ball enthusiast secretly preparing the ground for the next day’s battle. But this was a bit far fetched, and not in a publicly accessible wood. Perhaps they were burying a family pet. But at night?

I reasoned there could only be something illicit taking place, and it suddenly struck me forcefully that someone was burying a body. What else could it be? Now I began to get spooked. There was no way I wanted to be discovered – a witness to some foul play being secreted away in the night. I told myself to keep cool and quiet. Sit it out. Preparing for bed, I was gratified that my sleeping bag was already zipped up and I just wriggled in. I was careful not to clunk anything in the tent against the stove or pot. Certainly no reading by candlelight. The dull metallic sound continued to scratch and clunk for five to ten minutes, then stop for about the same period. Then start up again. Clearly it was extremely slow, methodical work.

I felt I could remain undiscovered as long as I didn’t sneeze loudly, start snapping twigs by moving around the wood in the dark, or panicking. Earlier, to set up my encampment, it had been necessary to carry my bike and panniers separately over thorny undergrowth and awkward deadfall while ducking beneath low hanging branches. My tent was pitched within a tight circle of trees on a bed of pine needles, and I had scattered a few branches over the tent fly as makeshift camouflage. Under the cover of darkness, I was invisible. Come dawn, though, I knew the tent would be obvious to anyone who looked this way from either the far trail or the close one 40 metres away. With this uneasy mixture of thoughts, I drifted off to sleep.

I awoke with a jolt at about 1am. The forest intruder was still at it: ‘sssskkkklunk’ ... ‘sssskkkrtttt’, ... ‘sssskkkklunk’ ... ‘sssskkkrtttt’, just barely audible when the wind died. Light and gravely. I woke again at 3am and still it continued. I could now sleep no longer. There was no way it would take that long to bury a dog or cat. Or a suitcase of money. It must be a human body. I began to mentally prepare myself for creeping out of the wood at absolute first light. I would leave everything behind and head for the road. If I was spotted, I would flee. Anyone burying a body who discovered a witness would be ruthless. I was most afraid of operating the zips on the tent in the morning. Their sound would cut the cool autumn air like a serrated knife and signal my presence.

Tall autumn shadows
Tall autumn shadows

It was still black as a mine inside the tent when I heard a plane fly high overhead. I reckoned it must be near dawn as air regulations usually don’t allow flights before 6am. I prepared for my own flight. But then I must have fallen asleep. For when I next awoke there was a dull light passing through the fabric of my beige tent and I could make out my panniers and books and jacket scattered about, like flotsam washed up around me. I strained to hear digging. All was quiet. I lay there frozen but hyperaware for twenty minutes. Not an unnatural sound could be heard. There wasn’t even a breath of wind. Had they finished and left? I cautiously opened the zips. Poked my head out. Day light and forest. No movement between the trees.

I would try to quietly pack everything into the panniers – every object had its place – and get out. Standing up outside, I suddenly spotted three figures in silhouette walking along the far trail. I dropped to the pine needle floor. Never has my tent seemed so huge and ungainly as it loomed beside me. The three people disappeared up the trail, but returned two minutes later and again disappeared in the opposite direction. They didn’t return. I collapsed the tent and quickly got everything onto the bike.

It’s strange and heartening how daylight emboldens the fearful. I brazenly decided I would wheel my bicycle through the scrub and deadfall the way I’d carried it in. If I ran into anyone (on this 40-metre journey!) I would laugh off their enquiries as to where I had been and say I’d just popped into the forest for a quick toilet break and was now continuing my holiday tour of the Midlands. So ‘hail fellow well met’ would I act that even a nocturnal grave digger would little suspect I’d hidden there all night and witnessed black treachery.

Slender trunks at edge of wood
Slender trunks on the edge of a dark wood

In truth, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. Seeing nobody about, I leaned my bike against a tree and walked back and forth inspecting the overgrown trail that had hosted the low light and dull scraping noises throughout the night. There was a small patch of grass where a bicycle may once have lay. But on either side of the trail the lush, dense undergrowth remained impenetrable and intact. There were no longish mounds. No animal-sized mounds. There were no mounds in the turned farmer’s field either, although in the sheared earth this was more difficult to confirm. There were no fresh or uneven patches. Tracks could be covered in the field, but this would have been very difficult in the dark. In the hard light of day, there was nothing unusual to see at all.

Suddenly I felt a chill, and didn’t feel like hanging around any longer. I straddled my bike, bumped over the stoney trail to the edge of the wood, and bolted down the road towards open fields and the next village. Travel is sometimes a strange affair, and aspects of it simply remain mysterious.

Jim Batty
Jim Batty Image Library

 


Text and photographs copyright © 2008 by Jim Batty. All rights reserved.
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Fir tree trunk in a wood
Fir tree trunk in a thick English wood
Dangling bough
Dangling bough
Jim Batty Image Library

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