“Hark! Peace! It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it.”
I first noticed the building one day as I was late meeting a friend; I had taken a wrong turn, and arrogantly believing I knew the journey off by heart, I had turned off the sat-nav and subsequently gone the wrong way. I trailed the coast path for some time, veering down small country roads flanked by fields, following the road set by the old Cornish stone walls. Up ahead, a small dilapidated building came into view. Its grey outline stark against the crisp autumn sky. I drove on, my eyes veering between the stone carcass and the road ahead, assessing it as I did so and coming to a hopeful conclusion.
Days later, the building had succeeded in infiltrating itself into my conscious and soon I felt myself drawn back to the desolate space. I waited until an hour or so before sunset before taking the same journey, but this time the mistake was deliberate.
I was ghost hunting.
I pulled into the layby I had subconsciously made a mental note of and stepped out of the car into the bitter eastern wind blowing in from the coast. The bleak edifice sat at the top of a valley surrounded by fields and separated by hedgerows of bramble and gorse. I watched as the South Devon cattle who occupied the field made their way towards the upper corner of the pasture and imagined burying my fingers into their thick, auburn fur and how warm it would be; I cursed myself for not bringing gloves. I scaled the wobbly gate, half clinging to the post to make sure I didn’t topple over as my feet landed in dust and twists of wool; white wisps dirtied by the muddy ground, stretched around small patches of nettles.
The building was a contradiction in itself; ethereal but stoic. Most of the walls had collapsed, leaving only the skeleton standing. I wandered around the dilapidation, taking stock of the thick stone structure and black slate roof, or at least, what was left of it. It had collapsed on one side, revealing the wooden eaves, the broken planks projecting up to the heavens. The small food store had been blocked off; a concrete wall erected where the entry would once have been, meaning there was no option of getting inside except by a small window near the top of one wall – which made it all the more promising. I wandered around a second time, looking for access, running my hands along the rugged surface. At the oldest part of the wall, the stone had slightly crumbled leaving a small hole at eye height. I pressed my face up against the cold granite and peered through the gap. Inside it was dark, but a thin shaft of light highlighted a small portion of the back wall. In the dusky evening light, I could only just make out the darkened stone with white splatters dashed across it, the sign of life I had hoped for.
I decided I needed to hide and spotted a small space in the hedgerow, slightly pushing my way in, trying to blend in with the landscape. The sound of a stonechat chirruped somewhere near my head as I wrapped my coat tighter around me and pulled my collar up against the wind.
Watching barn owls is an honour. They are listed as a ‘Conservation Concern’ as daytime surveys have noted a 63% decline in sighting, but to really understand how the barn owl behaves, you need to see it at night, when the bird is in its prime. But the truth is we don’t really know how the barn owl population is doing.
As I waited, it grew darker; an inky blot bled its way across the canvas sky making the outline of the druid-sickle moon glow. Just as the world began to think about settling into sleep, a pale apparition appeared at the tiny window, almost glowing in the fading light. It sat for a time in the little frame, softly shaking itself at one point, a waterfall of ruffling feathers falling from head to tail.
Finally, the bird launched, a few flaps of its powerful wings before it glided elegantly. The last of the evening light shone through its outstretched wings, highlighting the gilded cloak which covered its ivory robes. Its legs dangled ungainly momentarily as the bird got into its stride, before being tucked up and into position, poised. It soared masterfully, a silent assassin.
I watched it as it traversed over the road and into the neighbouring fields, a spectre set to strike fear into the hearts of those it hunted, shooting only joy into mine. As the bird began to disappear from view, the night finally taking hold, it called out a fleeting farewell.
The rasping cry rung out into the black.