Building up a History for ‘Foxfires’

When I’m writing a larger piece of work, one of the fun parts is the conjuring of odd snippets to add to the history or background of the story. Sometimes these snippets end up in the book (like the chapter headings in The Curtain Twitcher’s Handbook and the petitions in Blackwood), and sometimes they initiate a complete change of direction.

This snippet will be part of the book ‘Foxfires’. The protagonist, trapped in a snowbound farmhouse with strangers, will come across the thin volume of curious tales with this particular page corner turned down. He is already in fear of his life, so this’ll really make him freak out. Hee hee! (Sorry Jack!)

‘Curious Tales from Travels in Yorkshire’ by G.Nesbitt

Chapter 8: A Disturbance at an Inn on the Edge of the Moors

“In the autumn of 1905, the author was passing through a village on the edge of Saddleworth Moor when he decided to rest and take refreshment at a small inn. At first glance, the inn seemed peaceful and emanated a warm glow from a lit fireplace but, upon entering, I was alarmed to find several weeping women and angry men. A number of the gentlemen were arming themselves as if for battle, though the distressed ladies pleaded with them to reconsider. They made no allowance for a stranger in their midst and continued with their heated discussion.

I asked the innkeeper if I could partake of a brandy as the weather was inclement, and it appeared winter was arriving before its time. He poured me my drink with one ear on the growing dispute behind me. I wondered out loud what was happening and he shook his head with a grimace and told me that Mr Hawkins, a young farmer, had not returned from tending his sheep in the hills. His sheepdog, Bess, came home without him and in a dreadful state, covered nose to tail in mud and bleeding from numerous lacerations. Clearly agitated, she set off again after just a few hours rest, presumably to find her master, and she had not come back.

This did not explain why there was a need to prepare for a fight, but the innkeeper did not care to elaborate so I retired to a chair by the fire and listened to the dispute.

By the time I finished my drink, it was clear something sinister was afoot. This was not the first time someone from the village had gone missing on the moors, nor was it the second. Names and circumstances were mentioned going back many years.

I had not noticed the old woman in the corner of the room. So still was she, and dressed in dark clothing, that she blended into the surroundings. It gave me quite a fright when a disembodied voice spoke to me, until I saw the voice had an owner after all.

“They speak of going to war,” she said to me.

“But surely,” I replied, “it is the nature of the moors, so vast and desolate, that they take people from time to time.”

“Aye,” she said, “Though sometimes it is not the moors.”

“Are there still wolves in these parts that might take a man?”

“Nay. The last wolf died hundreds of years ago.”

“Then what, pray, if not the moors or the wolves?”

She gestured to the people who argued behind me. “It is something they can do nowt about, no matter how they arm themselves. And it will keep happening, no matter how often they talk of war.”

“But war against what?”

“Against foxfires.”

She had a piece of blue paper on the table before her, and bent over to write on it. Though I tried to ask her what she meant, she chose to ignore me. When her writing was done, she stood up, nodded her head at me, and left.

The ladies had, by now, calmed the gentlemen, and the party sat in silence, weapons cast to one side. I approached them, but they turned away, making it clear they did not want to speak with me.

Having finished my drink, and with no companionable chatter to delay me further, I left the inn. Outside, the old woman was closing the glass window on the church noticeboard. She shuffled away, leaning on a walking stick.

I ventured closer to the noticeboard to find the blue piece of paper she had placed there. It appeared she was looking for a lost distaff. But it was the rest of the messages that caught my attention, for there were three notices of missing persons. One, a young man aged twenty-five who was crossing Saddleworth alone on horseback but never made it to Greenfield where his mother lived. Another, a criminal of thirty with a price on his head, chased by the police as far as the Ravenstones until they lost track of him in fog. And the last, a simple local boy of just seventeen, gone peat-digging with his father, wandered off after a rabbit and was never seen again.

I recognised these three names from amongst others mentioned at the inn, though Mr Hawkins was not on the board yet. And I also remembered where I had heard the word ‘foxfires’ before.

My childhood home was on the edge of Dartmoor. I was a light sleeper, prone to waking often, and would open my curtains and gaze out of the window, waiting for sleep to return. It did not happen often but, on occasion, I saw flickering lights playing above the marshy land in the distance. I believed them to be people with flaming torches and wondered what they were looking for in the middle of nowhere. Upon mentioning this strange sight to my parents, they told me there were many legends about the lights known as ‘Will O The Wisps’, ‘Jack O Lanterns’ or sometimes ‘Foxfires’, but a learned friend had revealed that the phenomena was merely an ignition of marsh gases. Nothing more.

Upon examining this memory, it was clear that the marsh gases could not be responsible for the disappearance of people, and one could not wage war with such an element. I wondered if, when the old woman blamed ‘foxfires’, she was perhaps alluding to something else.

This particular curious tale has rarely left my thoughts, and I will attempt to resolve it when I next have occasion to visit that same, small Yorkshire village.”

Excerpt from the Foreword in the 2nd Edition (1910), written by J Briggs, friend of the author:

“George Nesbitt was ever the traveller and ever the scholar, with a keen eye for a mystery. For he himself to become one of his greatest mysteries would have delighted him, however much it does not delight those who cared for him. For George disappeared some three years ago, while journeying through some Yorkshire backwater, and has not been seen since. It gives me some solace to write this foreword to his excellent book, and I send my words forth with respect, admiration and a heartfelt wish to one day see my dear friend again.”

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Photp Credit: Emanuele Delepiane (Unsplash)


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