The old stone bridge which even to this day gives the picturesque town of Hebden Bridge its name had been built to allow pack horses to cross the river in all weathers without having to hazard the ford. Crossing the stream in this way would have been unpleasantly damp at best and downright dangerous when the winter melt-water was in full flow.
In those days, the Hebden Bridge sat on an important trade route conveying the wool from the surrounding farmers markets, from the sheep on the hillsides and dales hereabouts, to the mills in Salford and Rochdale. The local history tells us that the stone bridge replaced an even earlier wooden structure, but this pile of masonry has ever after stood firm on this site, conveying across the river wayfarer and pack animal alike.
Wider and more modern crossings have been constructed in subsequent centuries, carrying contemporary road traffic and the railway line. Nowadays, the old bridge is just a historical relic, carefully preserved and rarely used except by the occasional pedestrian. Of course there have been numerous repairs to the masonry over the centuries; even so, the stonework is in remarkably good condition given its age.
The crossing and its surroundings were the site of a battle during the English Civil war in 1643, and both ford and bridge had seen, no doubt, its share of deaths under emotional and gory circumstances. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that the structure of the bridge was repeatedly reported to be haunted.
The present-day town centre nearby boasts many pubs and eating-houses, and even the odd nightclub, all housed in stone-built buildings often more than a hundred years old. The cobbled streets around the old bridge were always deserted after dark, even the most drunken of revellers somehow avoiding the vicinity of the crossing automatically. In an effort to boost the popularity of the inns and restaurants amongst locals and tourists alike, the town council had recently installed modern high-pressure sodium street lighting in this area, but even the light from the new streetlamps seemed to be somehow swallowed up by the dark stonework and shadows of the buildings and alleyways.
A few years ago, I was a member of a local group of student paranormal investigators known as the Sceptics. We were an official University Society, in receipt of an extremely modest grant of funds from the Student Union. Most of the members were regular readers of alternative magazines such as the Skeptical Enquirer and we prided ourselves on debunking, on paper at least, reports of hauntings, crop circles and unidentified flying objects. We had been asked by the local newspaper (inevitably called the Hebden Bridge Times) to investigate the stories of the haunted bridge and, it was strongly implied, debunk this particular myth.
A few volunteers from the Sceptics formed a little team to take this enquiry forward. The core of this team included Martin, a short and round-shouldered man with a strong and frequently unintelligible Mancunian accent who was studying Economics and always put me in mind of an angry gerbil. Nigel was a Geology student who wore his blond hair short and spiky and who walked with a permanent limp - a relic, I was given to understand, of a spelunking accident the previous year. Then there was myself - an undergraduate in the Physics Department, and a product of both the English Grammar school system and atheist parents.
Our de facto leader was Tony, who was not actually a student any more but had recently joined the academic staff in the Computing Department. Despite his youth, he was a university academic of the Old School. He habitually wore baggy trousers which gave him a slight resemblance to a younger Charlie Chaplin, with a worn but well-ironed shirt with a collar and tie under a V-neck pullover of a plain and indeterminate rustic shade.
I met Tony when I first joined the Sceptics and I went along to introduce myself. I found him sitting in his office with the lights off, in a chair by the window carefully positioned to catch the dim natural light from the overcast sky. He had a notebook and fountain-pen in hand, and appeared to be staring pensively out of the window at the pedestrians in the streets below.
"How can you work in this light?" I burst out as I entered.
Tony looked up, slightly defiantly.
"I'll have you know," he replied, "That William Shakespeare produced his greatest works in conditions like this."
"Ah," I retorted, "No wonder he couldn't spell."
After an introduction like that, we could not but help becoming good friends.
This little band of geeks and anoraks set about a little research on the side, rapidly assembling a review of such history on the old bridge that was available online, or that could be dug up from the archives of the newspaper. Our researches turned up no information of a definite sighting of any ghost or spectre but just a persistent expression, in vague terms and in many reports, that there was something out of the ordinary about the location.
Undeterred, the team planned an investigative approach: an overnight vigil equipped with modern electronic cameras selected or adapted for low-light operations, digital sound recorders and torches. We also intended to keep detailed notes and records throughout the night.
So it was not long afterwards, on a cold November evening already dark and misty, Tony parked his old car in the near-deserted market-place car park not far from the bridge. We piled out of the vehicle and collected our baggage from the boot. We must have looked almost indistinguishable in the near-darkness, muffled up in dark-coloured anoraks and woolly hats against the chill, with gloves and heavy boots to keep our extremities warm. We gathered our cameras and Thermos flasks, and strode off towards the bridge.
As we approached, I got the strangest feeling, almost of dread, as we got closer - a distinct sinking sensation in the stomach making me feel listless and utterly miserable, somehow wallowing in contemplation of my own mortality. Afterwards, back at the University, when we dissected the evening, I discovered that we all felt something similar, entirely inexplicable in the cold light of day, but enough to have steered us away, in any direction at all, rather than towards the bridge itself.
It seemed to get colder and darker as we approached. I think we were all shivering by the time we had gathered in the centre of the bridge, despite our heavyweight clothing, and we found ourselves all standing rather closer to each other than would normally be socially comfortable for a group of rather shy blokes.
It was a strange night, full of half-heard whispers in the mist and curious shadows in the lamplight. Sometimes there was a sense of movement, something caught in the corner of the eye, but before anyone could turn around or focus a camera, whatever the cause of the movement was gone.
We shot hundreds of still pictures, but later close examination showed the only things visible were mist and stonework, and the occasional darkened form of one of the team silhouetted against the masonry by the street lighting.