Ginger Nuts of Horror
‘The Hollow Tree’ is a ghost story heavily inspired by an unsolved wartime murder mystery local to me – that of Bella in the Wych Elm.
On the 18th of April 1943, four lads poaching in Hagley Wood south of Birmingham found the skeletal remains of a woman hidden in the hollow trunk of an ancient elm tree. The resulting police investigation created more questions than it answered, especially when graffiti appeared in Birmingham which read ‘Who put Bella down the Wych Elm?’ and she changed from being an anonymous corpse into a woman with a name, and hence a family and identity. That identity has never been established – let alone that of her killer or killers – a situation not helped by the loss of her remains during the War. This in turn created fertile ground for several competing narratives about Bella’s life and fate.
In some she is a British double agent – a cabaret-singer-turned-spy betrayed by her wartime contacts and murdered to stop her revealing their secrets, her remains having been destroyed by MI5. In others she is a prostitute, killed by a ‘client’. The discovery of bones from one of her hands in nearby leaf-litter was clear evidence of gypsy witchcraft, proof that she had been sacrificed and her hand severed in an attempt to create a ‘hand of glory’. All of this is despite the fact that there is no evidence of gypsies or witches ever being active in the area, and the one cabaret-singer who might have fitted her description was still recording songs several years after Bella’s body was found. Given the chaos of wartime, the police did their best to find any ‘Bellas’, or variations on that name, who had been reported missing, but came up with nothing. To this day Bella’s death remains unexplained. The case is closed, officially unsolved.
The danger in writing her story was, as I saw it, of falling into the trap of trying to uncover the ‘truth’ of her death and end up with a historical murder-mystery. If that’s what you’re interested in there are any number of excellent books on the subject, picking apart the evidence for and against the various theories. Steve Punt made a particularly thorough documentary for Radio 4, and a recent independently produced short film by Thomas Lee Rutter is well worth a watch. My reason for playing fast and loose with the historical details was in an attempt to get at something deeper than a simple ‘solution’ to the mystery – something about the different people that each of us is in life and what that might mean for us in the afterlife, if there is one.
So Bella became Mary – or Marys, to be pedantic. Like most things which seemed like a good idea at the time, the central conceit of the story was straightforward enough: what if you came back from the dead but the only way you knew who you were was from the stories that the living told about you? What if those stories conflicted with each other? And what if Death came after you to take you back – except that Death didn’t know which ‘you’ it wanted?
Bella’s elm became Mary’s oak, and Hagley Wood became the Lickey Hills, near my home. The original elm was destroyed long ago and only a few people know exactly where it stood. In my story the place where the ‘Mary Oak’ once stood is better known, and serves as a kind of shrine, with the trees around the clearing decorated with ribbons, rags and trinkets. There is no rag tree in the Lickeys – at least not to my knowledge – but there is a clootie well a few miles away in St Kenelm’s pass which runs between the Clent Hills. Folkore has it that Kenelm, a Mercian prince, was murdered by an ambitious relative and his body hidden there, and that when it was discovered and disinterred a fresh-water spring burst out of his grave. That spring is now in the grounds of St Kenelm’s church, and the trees around it are decorated with ribbons, shoelaces and scraps of paper.
Scratch the ground pretty much anywhere and you’ll find the bodies of old legends, and sometimes the new myths born from their bones.
The Bella graffiti also appeared on the base of a large obelisk in a field near the woods where her remains were found. The monument was erected in the 1700s by the Sir Thomas Lyttleton, owner of the Hagley Hall Park, as part of the then-fashionable vogue for manufacturing picturesque landscapes. The lettering is refreshed from time to time, always anonymously, and is something of a macabre navigation point if you’re rambling the fields around Hagley. There is also a much larger obelisk in the Lickeys – this one raised in the 1800s to the memory of the 6th Earl of Plymouth who went by the improbable-sounding name of Other Archer Windsor, which suited as a replacement for the purposes of the story. This is the landscape where a certain Mr Tolkien lived for part of his childhood and used to ramble around, making up stories of hobbits and orcs and walking trees. It has nothing to do with ‘The Hollow Tree’ except that I think sometimes I’m being stalked by coincidences.
‘The Hollow Tree’ is published by Titan Books and released on March 13th. Please buy a copy and say nice things about it.