Tolney Picnic

By 5th August 2008No Comments

I like Sneinton, it’s got character, and it’s not a bad place to live. It has shops, takeaways, and pubs and is even on a regular bus route to town. But, when the sun begins to shine it can be a dusty canyon and the need to escape to greener places begins to fill my mind. I’m not complaining, because we have got Colwick Woods nearby and there’s a landscaped area around Green’s Mill which is nice enough in itself but sometimes I yearn for more of an open space.

It was such a time last May when the sun was unusually hot. I suggested that we should load the car and take a run out to Newark, perhaps somewhere by the Trent, and have an old fashioned, lazy picnic. Ellie was very receptive to the idea and immediately volunteered to nip out to the shops to buy crusty rolls, cheese, cold meats, and something to drink.

The sun was shining brightly as we drove up Sneinton Dale over Parkdale and through Post Office Square. We had decided to take the scenic route and drove out through Burton Joyce and Lowdham. We turned off at Thurgarton then passed the little tea-rooms near Bleasby, where people were basking in the sun. They sipped their tea and ate dainty sandwiches, whilst black and white cows grazed in the adjacent field, flicking their tails to ward off the flies. Then on we drove through Fiskerton and Averham, catching glimpses of the silver Trent as we rumbled on towards Newark.

We parked the car in a little lane, climbed over a gate and carried the picnic and tartan blanket to a quiet spot where the River Devon flows into the Trent. The only noise we could hear was the gentle gurgling of water, bumble bees droning softly, and the occasional song of a happy blackbird. Ellie looked beautiful, as though she was completely at peace with the world. She was lying on her back, with her hands behind her head, gazing at the sky and sighing contentedly, and I began to wonder if the time was ripe for me to ask Ellie Denton to become Ellie Scott. Suddenly, she sat upright. Her countenance changed, the contented look faded away to be replaced by a worried, almost frightened, expression. She shouted, “My God Richard, those screams. There’s someone in the river, they’re drowning.” I could hear nothing, absolutely nothing at all, but Ellie was already on her feet running towards the river. She turned momentarily, “Richard! For God’s sake, Richard we have to help them. Hurry, please hurry.”

It was eerie. I could hear nothing but the peaceful sound of bees, birds, and the gentle lapping of water; disturbed only by Ellie’s distressed shouts. There was clearly something wrong and I followed Ellie as fast as I could. By the time I caught up with her, she was standing on a grassy bank overlooking the river and just staring blankly down into the calm water. Her face was ashen, her shoulders began to shake, tears streamed down her face, and she sobbed “I heard them Rick. I heard their screams. They were drowning, men and women, screaming and drowning and shouting for help”.

I turned Ellie gently towards me and put my arms around her; “There’s nothing here Ellie, not a ripple”. I could feel her body shaking and could taste the salt of her tears as I softly kissed her cheek and tried to console her. Ellie lifted her head and looked directly at me, “I heard them Rick”. Her voice was calmer now, and she had stopped crying. “I wasn’t dreaming Rick, I didn’t imagine it, I heard people screaming.” She paused for a moment, then continued “And they were calling our names.” I laughed spontaneously “Oh! Come on Ellie. This is a joke. Hearing ghostly voices is one thing, but calling our names is stretching things a bit too far”. Ellie glared and pushed me firmly away. She looked pale and afraid, and spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. “No joke Richard. I don’t hear voices. This is no joke,” and she walked back to where the remains of our picnic were providing a rare treat to a host of wasps, ants, and mosquitoes. Ellie sat down on the blanket. She drew her knees up under her chin and clasped her hands tightly around her shins. She wasn’t sulking, but seemed to be deep in thought. Eventually, she looked directly at me. She didn’t speak, but just raised both eyebrows and cocked her head slightly to one side. It was a look that I knew well, and it meant “Well, Richard Scott, what have you got to say for yourself?” I smiled weakly “Sorry Ellie, I didn’t mean to laugh, but you must admit…” She cut my sentence short “Yes! I admit it sounds strange, but that’s because it was strange. Strange things are, well, strange aren’t they?” She smiled bravely back at me in a ‘let’s be friends’ sort of way and continued “so are you going to listen to what I heard?” I nodded.

Oblivious to the marauding insects Ellie began “I was just lying here, perfectly happy, enjoying the sun. I was very relaxed but not at all drowsy, so I wasn’t dreaming. At first, I thought I could hear people laughing, mainly women’s voices. That was quite nice and just added to the atmosphere, and I didn’t think much about it at all. But then, it seemed as if the same women who had been laughing just a moment before had begun screaming in panic. Not just one or two, but all of them, that was what was so alarming. Then I distinctly heard the words ‘help us’ and ‘drowning’, mainly in women’s voices but also one or two men, and the sound was definitely coming from over by the river. As I ran towards the river I could hear a woman’s voice clearly calling ‘Richard, for love Richard, help me’ and a man’s voice replied just as clearly ‘ Reach Ellen, reach, give me your hand Ellen.’ Almost at that same moment I arrived at the riverbank and the sounds stopped, and as you saw there was no one there, no thing, nothing in the river at all and nothing more to be heard. That’s all Richard, I can’t explain it, but I heard it as clearly as I have ever heard anything in my life.” Ellie began to shake again and I could see the tears beginning to well up in her eyes. She looked so sad and afraid. She hugged her knees more tightly and spoke softly and deliberately as she held back her tears. “Something, something bad, happened here Rick. I mean something really dreadful. I just know it did, I can feel it. You know that I don’t believe in the supernatural, but those voices were so real, and so tragic.” Ellie stood up abruptly, “I want to go home Rick, away from this sad, sad place, now please.” She could control her emotions no longer and began to sob, as the tears streamed down her beautiful, but ashen, cheeks.

For some time afterwards, Ellie was quiet and withdrawn. So much so, that I began to really worry about her. Her personality began to change, and her one topic of conversation was the voices she heard at Newark. I suggested she should talk to her doctor, or perhaps a psychic, but she simply refused, saying, “I know what I heard Rick. I know something bad happened there, but I don’t know what.” I knew that I had to try to find out if anything tragic had ever happened at our picnic spot. It was the only way I could help Ellie; so, I decided to put my research skills to the test.

I spent hours scanning the archives of the Evening Post. Mine became a well-known face in the local studies section of the City Library, but with no clues, no leads, and no success. Until, that is, a student friend suggested that the Coroner’s records might be a more appropriate source, as any tragic death, such as drowning, would be recorded. Her suggestion came with a potentially de-motivating warning. “It won’t be easy Rick. You don’t know if any thing actually happened. If any thing happened, you have no idea when. And, and this is the whammy, Coroner’s records go back as far as the thirteenth century.”

Last week I sat in the Nottinghamshire Archives Office and stared in stunned silence at the printed page before me. I felt a shiver run through the whole of my body, my heart began to pound and I felt like crying as Ellie had cried that day at Newark. I knew then exactly what dreadful event Ellie had heard during our picnic in Tolney field.

Author’s comment. So what was it that Rick Scott read which disturbed him so?

It is of factual historical record, that on the 20th of May in the year 1510, near where the River Devon joins the River Trent, nine young women and three young men were drowned whilst attempting to cross the River Devon in a boat. They were going to Tolney field to pick flowers and bilberries. Among the dead were a Richard Skotte and an Ellen Denton.

Paddy Slevin

Author Paddy Slevin

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