Shade or Shadow?

The ghost of an old woman who walks Woody Bay in North Devon has been seen on more than one occasion, but does an old photograph prove her existence? Woody Bay lies on the North Devon coast not far from Lynmouth. The bay is most easily reached by taking the Martinhoe turning off the A39 Barnstaple road. The narrow road from Lynton through the stunning Valley of the Rocks and Lee Bay will also get you there but beware, as a horse-drawn coach and at least one car have plunged several hundred feet from the narrow cliff road to the rocks below. The steeply winding road down from the National Trust car park ends at a cottage, though a footpath carries on to a rocky beach and a magnificent hanging waterfall.

Sir Robert’s Path, leading up over Inkerman Bridge, is named after Sir Robert Chichester who lived at the time of King James I. Old family papers discovered in the 19th century refer to the somewhat infamous Sir Robert. ‘The old mansion of Crosscomb in the parish of Martinhoe, is said to have once been the seat of Sir Robert Chichester, of whose crimes and supernatural appearances after death, many traditions are still preserved among the older peasants’. His ghost is said to haunt the base of the cliffs where he is cursed to weave a rope out of sand, in order to haul his carriage up the path named after him. An impossible task of course, but there are far worse places than Woody Bay to spend eternity!

The path is also nicknamed ‘the ghost path’ but nothing to do with Sir Robert it seems. Two young couples staying at Martinhoe Manor in Woody Bay in the 1980s had spent a pleasant evening at the Woody Bay Hotel and were returning in the dark along Sir Robert’s Path. Having just passed Inkerman Bridge the two young ladies were walking ahead when they were both tapped on the back. Assuming it was their partners trying to scare them, they ignored it the first time. The second time it happened they both turned around but instead of their partners they were faced with what they described as a green, glowing hooded figure. The girls screamed and ran. By the time the men caught up there was no sign of what they described as a ‘ghostly monk’. Naturally, they were very shaken up by the experience which they described in detail to George, the manager of Martinhoe Manor at the time. Now of course they could have simply made the whole thing up for devilment, except that one of the couples cut their holiday short and promptly left the following day.

A close up of a snow covered ground

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Figure 1.

The photograph (figure 1) was taken in the mid-1980s before the days of digital cameras and photo editing. Near the centre of the photograph a form can be made out which bears a striking resemblance to an old woman in a long dress holding a shawl around her shoulders. She appears to be crossing the path from a little walled garden on the right. The position of the figure is clearly shown in the drawing (figure 2).

A close up of a logo

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Figure 2

The figure could be put down to prevailing lighting conditions or the shadows of bushes. However, according to Harriet Bridle’s book, Woody Bay, ‘individually and on two separate occasions’ visitors to Martinhoe Manor have witnessed the apparition of an old lady dressed in grey, passing through the wall below the cottage at exactly the same spot as the figure in the photograph. One of the witnesses, a retired nurse not prone to flights of fancy, enquired whether there had been a door or gate in the wall there at one time. There may well have been as the present cottage is a refurbished combination of two 18th century fishermen’s cottages which had fallen derelict by the 1930s, so it seems very likely that there have been major alterations to the site over the years.

How can we be sure that it is not a real person on the path? The photograph was taken by the author on the last day of a week’s holiday in October. There was nobody else on the path that afternoon and no sign of anything unusual in the viewfinder. It was not until the film was developed that the figure became apparent. Is she a shade or just a shadow? If indeed a shade, we shall probably never know who the old lady is or why she still walks in Woody Bay.

First published in Fortean Times