Guest blatherer Oliver Bayliss goes down to the dell to find something rotten…Read the comments, for recently discovered notes
The South of Warwickshire is considered one of the most scenic areas of England, maintaining its picturesque appeal without succumbing to parody. While the North of the county is dominated by the Isengard landscapes of Birmingham and Coventry, the South remains peaceful, cultured and preserved, with Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-Upon-Avon lovingly at its heart. Historic castles towns such as Kenilworth and Warwick offer civilisation at its most decorous between the blonde wheat fields and nicely understated hedgerows. Even the roughest streets of Leamington Spa would appear to a passing Londoner so clean and lacking in human rubble as to suggest that a royal visit must be due the following day. Of course, dotted about are the rampant pustules of Little Chefs, KFCs, Slug and Lettuce pubs and Blockbuster Videos that one must expect these days but even they fail to rupture the static serenity.
However, there is something rotten in Shakespeare’s county.
On Thursday the 20th of August this year, The Courier, the local newspaper of Leamington Spa, ran a short article on the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl named Sophie Wager. Details were sketchy; Sophie’s parents had last seen their only daughter on the 17th of that month, when she had left home at around noon with a couple of girlfriends on a bicycle ride through the Warwickshire countryside. The girls were riding close to the banks of the river Avon an hour later when Sophie exclaimed that she had forgotten about something and turned back, racing off before her friends could even say goodbye. That night, one of the girls, after being unable to connect to Sophie’s mobile, rang the Wager household to talk to her and swiftly induced panic; Sophie had not returned home and nobody knew where she was. After two days of frantic searching by her parents across the countryside, no trace of Sophie was found. The article concluded with a plea written by Mrs. Wager, asking anyone who had seen her daughter to contact her.
In the subsequent issue of The Courier, dated August 27th, an editorial footnote declared Sophie Wager had returned home on her bicycle on the night of the 24th, having been missing for a week. She was in good health, with no signs of undernourishment or dehydration, and appeared utterly unharmed. Her clothes and hair were perfectly clean and both had evidently been washed during her disappearance. When asked where she had been, Sophie would only offer the rather cryptic reply “down in the dell where we all fell”. Local police were said to be conducting an investigation.
The incident concerning Sophie Wager is but the latest in a disconcertingly unspoken series of vanishings among South Warwickshire teenagers, dating back decades and possibly even centuries. Cases of missing persons are of course very common but since being founded in 1832, The Courier has, on average, reported such a weeklong disappearance once every year, always during summer. In almost every case, when the reappeared and unblemished child was asked where he or she had been, the answer was some variant of “down in the dell”. On July 10th 1973, as a typical example, 14-year-old Kulwant Dhinsay walked off from a family picnic outside Stratford and showed up seven days later on the family doorstep as if he had just popped out to the newsagent, explaining that he “had to go to the dell”.
One can easily deduce that these vanishings have been little more than copycat cries for attention from spoilt brats, although extensive research into The Courier archives conjures up a curious pattern: following each article concerning a disappearance to ‘the dell’, not only is there never any follow-up to the reappearance, reporting something like the findings of a police investigation, but the responsible journalist’s name becomes conspicuously absent from the paper a few issues later. Attempts to contact Mr Ben Evans, the journalist who had covered the Sophie Wager story, were answered by The Courier’s receptionist with the unsettling information that Mr Evans had recently left the paper for a job with Sainsbury’s Homebase. This is in fact hardly incomprehensible, considering the number of young transitory journalists who pass through local papers all over the country, and also that The Courier office is such a dispiriting Georgian cell that Homebase would probably feel like Rio in comparison.
Deeper research into county history at Warwick Public Library does however present a further curiosity: the only recorded place-name in the area associated with a ‘dell’ appears to be ‘Lucy Dell’, a small village that lies somewhere on the North-side bank of the Avon, among the old oaks and bluebells a little East of Stratford. However, ask any Warwickshire indigent if they have passed through, or even heard of Lucy Dell and chances are that they will just stare at you blankly. The history of the village, not to mention it’s precise whereabouts, appears shrouded in mystery. The name can be found in the Domesday Book, which states its vague riverside location in the Avon valley, reports a population of 14, and values it at a pricey 200 pence without an obvious explanation. An old Warwickshire rhyme entitled “Midland Maids”, circa 1400 and still sung within some of the more rustic pubs of the county, also features the place, in the somewhat risqué line:
“I put me head down in Lucy’s dell,
Where fairies and all delights do dwell”
It would seem that Lucy Dell has somehow maintained isolation from the present day. No roadmap or atlas seem to have the village marked. Inquires made to the West Midlands police, Royal Mail, BT, Stratford library, and the various gas, water and electricity companies covering the county all amounted to complete ignorance. Enquires made to Warwickshire County Council were met with bewildering incompetence, as did attempts to utilise the new directory enquires services. Phone calls to local historians ended uniformly and abruptly as they hung up at the very mention of the village. It is apparently impossible to either talk to any Lucy Dell resident or locate it in order to visit and shed some light onto the issue.
There are, however, just enough modern references to convince one that the village does exist. The most recent (from a report found during a search on the Department for Transport’s website) concerns a planned Stratford bypass being rerouted in 1989 due to protest from Lucy Dell villagers, though the exact nature of their protest is not disclosed. There is also a Courier article from 1981 concerning USAF fighters being scrambled from RAF Molesworth one night, following reports of amassed lights above the Avon valley close to Lucy Dell but the F-16s reportedly encountered nothing and chalked it up to Cold War paranoia.
More extensive research can reveal yet more. A variant of the name Lucy (a word derived from the Latin for “light”) interestingly pops up in the Roman records preserved in nearby Alcester, which includes one account of the god Mercury appearing before a Roman patrol (a surprisingly routine event) and advising them not to enter the woods belonging to ‘the lucinda’, presumably referring to a local individual. The account also implies a flat refusal from collaborating native Britons to go anywhere near the valley, sticking to the high ground of Warwick. Also, while there is hardly an abundance of references for Lucy Dell, Warwickshire folklore is littered with references to a place bearing the name ‘Lull Dell’, said to be hidden deep in the woods of the Avon valley and always mentioned within the context of strange lights, pagan activity, a spectral black dog named ‘The Grim’, vanishing infants, crop failures, farm boys driven mad or even werewolves.
The stories all amount to fairly common English fairytales but the most intriguing references can be found in Barnet P. Levack’s The King from the Crib (1968), a biography of James I (and VI). In 1604, King James was said to have passed through the vicinity of the Avon valley and forced by a sudden deluge to shelter for the night in a village close by. James subsequently mentioned a “Lul Del” constantly in countless personal letters thereafter, right up until his death in 1625, allegedly in a most vitriolic manner following the deaths of his son Prince Henry and wife Queen Anne. One of his final letters, written mere hours before his death, is said to be pages upon pages of the repeated phrase:
“I was luld down into her del,
Where I drank deple from her wel”
Rumour, according to Levack, has it that James constantly pestered William Shakespeare about the area (who was also said to curse the place-name for somehow ruining one of his best plays) until his passing in 1616, going so far as to habitually burst into Shakespeare’s London residence at night, royal guard in tow, raving about his vivid nightmares, and, even more unbelievably, once drunkenly confided to a chambermaid that Queen Elizabeth had forgiven Shakespeare for his part in the ill-fated Essex Rebellion because of a courtly fear of where he was from. Naturally, there is no documented evidence at all to support any of this.
So, is the fabled Lull Well actually the elusive Lucy Dell? It’s difficult to say, as they are equally as inexplicable but one would suspect the village of Lucy Dell to have simply derived its name from lore, as do countless other English villages, and continue to radiate its mythical heat into the subconscious minds of those around it throughout history. This is somehow creating a problem: The contact number for the Wager family, as printed by The Courier, has been disconnected and no Wager family listed in the phonebook claim to have a Sophie; no local branch of Sainsbury’s Homebase claim to employ any Ben Evans; the police evidently have no record of an entire village community; e-mails to the office of James Plaskitt, MP for Leamington and Warwick, go unanswered; the Avon woods remain untouched as protected land, yet neither the National Trust, English Heritage or the British Tourist Authority admit to any conservation in the area; and next summer, another random family may face seven days in Hell from the misuse of folklore by ungrateful offspring.
For your diligent correspondent, only one possibly productive course of action presents itself: a trek through the Avon woods, in search of Lucy Dell, packing plenty of silver bullets and weasel brains, to dispel its myth and naturalise its irrational fever once and for all.
The game’s afoot.