2 February, 2017
I first told a version of this to my daughters, and two of their friends, over candlelight at a sleepover one night. And then I refined it in time for the 2017 Earth Hour, where it has become a tradition for us to tell spooky stories.
The Guides first saw Jill, the Windmill up on the South Downs, near the village of Pyecombe, as they came over a long ridge that once formed part of an ancient hilltop fort. “Right girls!”, barked Mikayla, the Patrol leader: “work together to clear a spot where we can form camp.” Sure enough, an hour or so later, the girls had pitched all the tents. Some of them were even busy preparing a fire.
“Evening!” said Mikayla to an old man in a very old-fashioned flat cap, who was out walking his terrier. “Isn’t this a beautiful spot!” she breezed, happily. “It is, mostly” mumbled the man. “What’s the matter with it?” asked Mikayla, surprised by the man’s surly manner: “It looks perfect to me!” she exclaimed. “Well, normally it is, that’s for sure,” replied the old man, “But you shouldn’t camp ‘ere tonight,” he cautioned, glancing sideways at Mikayla. “Why not?” she asked, puzzled. “Well, tonight is the night of the hauntings and no one in their right mind chooses to camp somewhere haunted.” “The hauntings?” asked Mikayla, a little worried. “That’s right,” said the old man. “The story goes that the Millwright of this ‘ere windmill denied three vagabond women some bread. The trouble is, they were witches, so they cursed his soul so that it couldn’t break free of its earthly chains and so it’s doomed to wander ‘round here ‘till someone gives it some food. On the last full moon before harvest, the Millwright’s restless spirit comes by ‘ere and tries to frighten people into feeding him so he can escape. But he’s too bloody good at it, so most people scarper fast as they can, and never come close to feeding him. And then there’s some who he’s just driven right off into madness.” The old man cast a cautionary glance at Mikayla: “Like I said, I’d camp somewhere else, if I were you.” And with that, he scuttled off, calling his dog after him.
Mikayla watched the man go until he vanished out of sight: “Well he was a ball of fun!” she thought, a little bemused by the story. “Ghosts! I ask you, some people are full of it!” She considered the old man’s story for a few moments more until her psyche decided to banish the tale to the outer regions of her mind. Then she returned to the girls at the campfire, where she began supervising dinner. Soon enough, eggs, beans and sausages were being gulped down greedily. Then they had hot chocolate and marshmallows. When everything was cleared away, Mikayla got out her guitar: “Any requests?” she asked. “Wonderwall! Run! Good Riddance!” the girls demanded. By now, they all knew the songs Mikayla could play and they all knew the words, too. “Okay,” said Mikayla, playing an E Minor 7 chord: “Today is gonna be the day…” When the songs ended, Mikayla curtsied extravagantly, to a mixture of boos, laughter and a ripple of applause.
Then Mikayla decided to put a dark twist on the evening: “Who knows any ghost stories?” she asked. “Nobody? Then here’s one I was told earlier.” And with a few dramatic embellishments, she recounted the tale told by the old man. Afterwards, silence reigned as the girls considered the spooky story and where they were about to sleep. Then one brave girl decided to speak up: “So how does the Millwright frighten people?” she asked, not entirely certain that she wanted to hear, really. “The old man never told me that,” said Mikayla, thoughtfully. Then, realising she needed to lighten the mood, she looked up brightly and laughed: “Listen; he was just trying to frighten us,” she told them. “And by the look on some of your faces, he succeeded!” Mikayla exclaimed. She chuckled again: “Now come on girls; bedtime! There’s no such thing as ghosts!”
The camp was deadly silent when it began. “Crash!” went all the pots as they fell from the tables. The girls, quiet moments before, sat bolt upright at the noise. “What on earth was that?” thought Mikayla, climbing out of her tent and noting all the plates on the floor. “Must have been a fox,” she resolved, walking over to the mess. “Don’t worry, girls!” she called out: “Just some of the local animals trying to help us set up breakfast!” The sound of laughter reassured Mikayla. “We’ll sort it out in the morning. Now come on, sleep!”
As she started walking back to her tent, Mikayla realised, by the creaking of the spinning hub, that the sails of the windmill had begun turning, slowly. “How strange,” she puzzled: “there’s no wind!” And then she noticed something even stranger: “White footprints?” She bent down to take a closer look: “Flour?” The story of the Millwright rushed into Mikayla’s reality, but then she realised that the footprints led right into her tent! Mikayla raced back to where she was camped and willed herself to peak inside. And as she did, an icy breeze pushed past her face and a cold shiver curled down her spine. Mikayla froze.
To her great relief, when Mikayla recovered her poise and began examining her tent, there was no ghostly Millwright to be seen. However, her bag had been turned inside out and her clothes were strewn everywhere. A thin dusting of flour coated everything. Fortunately, you don’t get to be Patrol Leader in the Girl Guides without being a practical woman, and Mikayla was just so. “I’m not having it!” she determined: “That was no ghost!” So she called the Police. Now, Mikayla was also blessed with a fair degree of common sense, so while recounting the tale, she left out some of the weirder aspects of the night and concentrated on the fact that while she had been away from her tent, someone had rifled through her belongings. Which is weird enough, when you think hard enough about it, but not, perhaps, otherworldly. “There’s nothing but a few biscuits missing,” she told the operator: “so it’s probably just some tramp. The thing is, I have a group of young girls up here, so I’d be grateful if you could send someone up just to look around and make sure we’re safe.” Soon enough, the Police arrived at the camp. They had even made an arrest! It was the old man! “We found this chap snooping around suspiciously behind the old mill there,” the Police Constable told Mikayla. “He was up here earlier!” she replied, shocked: “He told me a silly tale about this place being haunted by a Millwright! He must’ve been trying to spook us so he could come back up here and steal our stuff!” exclaimed Mikayla. “Makes a good deal of sense to me, Miss” replied the Constable. “But the story’s true!” pleaded the old man: “There’s plenty up ‘ere who’ve been driven mad by the antics on this ‘ere full moon night! I was only up ‘ere to make sure the girls were okay,” said the old man, finally. “Enough!” barked the Constable: “You can continue your story back at the station!” And with that, the old man was bundled into the back of the Police car, which soon drove away and vanished out of sight.
A relieved Mikayla cleaned up her tent as best she could, climbed back into her sleeping bag and closed her tired eyes. “What a strange night!” she considered, relieved it was all over. Then she noticed the creak of the mill’s sails, which had begun spinning again. “A breeze must’ve got up,” she thought, reassuringly. At which, she promptly fell fast asleep.
“Miss! Miss, wake up! You have to see this!” Mikayla climbed out of her tent, sleepily. “What is it, girls?” she asked, stretching. The girls circled ‘round, gawping at the side of Mikayla’s tent. One of them pointed, stiffly; the words “Feed Me!” were daubed on the canvas. And on the floor was one of the camp’s bowls, filled with flour, in which the word “Bread!” was scrawled. Fear coursed through Mikayla, but realising her audience, she took a deep breath and quickly regained composure: “Just someone playing a prank, girls.” she told them, feigning good-cheer. “Now come on; time to break up camp! We have a long walk ahead of us!”
Once the girls started packing, Mikayla phoned the Police. “Look, I think the old man was telling the truth after all. Well, perhaps not the bit about the Millwright, but I don’t believe that he was responsible for rifling though my tent because some odd things happened after he got arrested,” she said. “I’m sorry, Miss,” came the reply: “but we have no record of you calling last night, and no record of any arrest.” Mikayla was dumbstruck. “But a police car arrived and took the old man away!” cried Mikayla, confused. “No. I’m sorry Miss. But no police car drove up to the windmill last night, and we did not make any arrest.” Mikayla was silent for a good while, as she tried to make sense of the revelation. Then, finally: “I’m sorry to waste your time,” she said: “I must have dreamt it.”
After the camping trip, Mikayla (still ever-so-slightly freaked out by her experience), went to her local library to do some research. With the help of a Librarian, she managed to find a beautiful 19th Century leather bound Millwright’s Day Book. It was a beautifully inscribed diary of the workings of the Jill windmill. An entry for one particular Millwright caught her attention; Jesse Pumphrey, who serviced Jill between 1822 and 1835. The book told Mikayla that he was paid “four shillings a week and meat, drink and lodgings were found for both him and his faithful terrier.” Mikayla gasped. Then she found a book called ‘Clayton Windmills,’ that retold the history of the mill near Pyecombe. And there, on the final page, was a grainy still photograph, taken in 1835, of the Millwright Jesse Pumphrey in a flat cap. His terrier was sat to heel. It was the spitting image of the old man! “My God!” exclaimed a frightened Mikayla. A chill traveled down her spine. She then found a book called ‘Ghosts of Sussex,’ and sure enough, there was the tale of the Millwright and the three witches, just as she had been told it on that full moon night. But there was more. Every story was accompanied by a witness account. The Millwright’s was given by a lady called Agnes, who, apparently, had been driven to madness and had given her story from a Sussex Psychiatric Hospital. “Everywhere I went,” began Agnes: “the old man followed, begging for food. I’d see him with a bowl on the street and worse, he’d often knock on my door. At least, I think that was him. I’d never actually meet him there, but he’d leave his bowl on my doorstep. It can’t have been anyone else.” The author of ‘Ghosts of Sussex,’ then told how Agnes had to be led away, sobbing, frightened out of her whits.
Mikayla, too, was close to tears as she left the library. She walked home utterly terrified and didn’t notice the man begging on the street corner. “Any food, Miss?” asked the beggar. Mikayla looked down in horror at an old man, with a flat cap and a terrier sat by his side. She raced away from the apparition and home, more afraid than she’d ever been. And then, came the knock. Sobbing with fear, she opened the front door, only to find no one there. Instead, on her doorstep, was a bowl full of flour in which was scrawled the word: ‘Bread!’…
The Millwright by Steve Huckle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://glowkeeper.github.io/assets/stories/TheMillwright/.