by Antonia van Zandt
My new novel – Freya’s Choice – is set in the charming, picturesque and seemingly tranquil small town of Abbey St. Francis. Chocolate box thatched cottages sit alongside a meandering river. Birds of every hue sing and chirrup. The world moves at a slower place in communities like this, doesn’t it?
Well, don’t you believe it! In my small town – hardly much more than a village really – strange things happen within some of those cottages. Unnatural, spooky things. The river transforms into a raging torrent when it feels like it. A massive bird takes to the air and a new resident has moved in. One that will change everything for this peaceful little backwater.
In England there are many places like Abbey St Francis. And some of them are well haunted. Scarily well in some cases. Many of them hide deadly secrets. Oh yes, a lot can – and does – go on in the heart of rural England…
This ancient Herefordshire village is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The community that was once centred on the church of St Mary has now disappeared, although the parish itself still consists of farms and hamlets. But it appears the 9th century church is far from empty. Multiple ghostly presences remain, making it arguably the most haunted church in England.
During the post-medieval period, the village boasted a barn, several lime kilns and a thriving community but, gradually, it fell into decline. In 1861, 371 people lived and worked there, mostly farmers growing wheat, hops, apples and beans.
The church itself was closed in 1931 and lost three of its bells to a London church - St Andrew by the Wardrobe – in 1933. In 1937, the last bell was removed from the Bell Tower. Since then it has endured a chequered history. It was even bought by a pagan in the 1970s, but then sold in 2007, when a trust was created to purchase it for preservation purposes. A local archaeologist bought it in June 2009.
But this church with no bells lies far from silent. People wandering near to the building have reported hearing screams and bells ringing.
The last vicar was a Mr E. H. Archer Shepard, who is said to haunt the place. The bell that no longer exists has been heard tolling. The sound of organ music was heard playing in the church in 1919 – even though the building was no longer being used, was locked up and there was no one there. Who is responsible for these ghostly goings-on? Local people will tell you it’s the spirit of the last vicar.
But the ghosts of this church date back far longer than the twentieth century. In the 1600s, a local man called Nicholas Vaughan burned down one of the bishop’s houses and was executed for the crime. He didn’t rest in peace, but came back to haunt the Churchyard at St Mary’s where he was buried. The villagers became so frightened of this fearful ghostly presence that they dug his body up and reburied it in a silver casket. They then interred this in the brook which ran next to the church. On top of this, they placed a large stone, which can sometimes be seen to this very day, poking out of the water when the brook runs low. Silver and fresh running water – all guaranteed to quash the evil within.
A brother and sister who lived in Avenbury at the beginning of the twentieth century recounted - when they were elderly – that the large stone didn’t cover the burial casket of Nicholas Vaughan, but of a wicked woman, believed to be a witch. The villagers were so scared of what she might do to them from beyond the grave that they refused to allow her to be buried in the churchyard.
It is also said that a ghostly funeral was seen taking place in the churchyard – but the mourners had no heads. The church is also allegedly the site of Black Magic rituals, grave robbing and at least one other phantom funeral attended by ghostly monks.
Whoever said it was peaceful in the countryside?
Nothing much happens in Abbey St. Francis, but Freya’s about to change all that...
Eve Lawson is no stranger to heartbreak. Three years ago, the man of her dreams betrayed her and left her unwilling to trust anyone ever again. So when gorgeous hunky farmer, Mark Latimer, starts to take more than a casual interest in her, she is cautious and nervous of committing either her mind or her body to him. But the attraction is there, and it’s growing. All Eve needs is just a little more time.
Abbey St. Francis—a sleepy, pretty village where nothing much happens and traditional values are held true—has been Eve’s home all her life. No one suspects that the beautiful young woman who has just moved into West Lodge is anything other than a wealthy and generous benefactor. But Freya Nordstrom is not what she appears to be.
Then the mysterious stranger takes more than a passing interest in Mark, and Eve knows she has a battle on her hands. But never in her wildest dreams could Eve have imagined the nature of the forces stacked against her...
You can buy Freya’s Choice here: Amber Quill Press
And here’s a short extract:
...A loud flapping startled me. I looked up and couldn’t believe what I saw. The most massive bird I had ever seen flew past me and hovered, silhouetted against the moon. Then it flew directly toward West Lodge. I glanced back down at the cats. Their ears twitched, but nothing more. I searched the sky for the giant bird again, but it had disappeared. Could I have imagined it? Surely not. I certainly wasn’t imagining those cats or the malevolence in their eyes.
My knees buckled from my unaccustomed crouching position, but I was scared to make any rapid movement, and Freya’s cats continued to stare at me. Their eyes narrowed, as if at any moment they would pounce and tear me to shreds. But their hackles didn’t rise, they didn’t arch their backs, spit or make any of the warning gestures cats employ to let you know they’re about to strike. They just sat there, like statues. Waiting.
My knees ached and I had no choice or I would simply keel over. Slowly, I rose to my feet, wobbling with the effort, while I kept my eyes on the animals.
Their gaze traveled upward with my movement. A chill wound itself around my spine, spiraling the length of it, and I shivered.
Then, as if receiving some signal I couldn’t hear, they blinked in unison and turned away. They slunk down my path before jumping over the wall and out of sight. I continued to watch and, in the light of the streetlamp at the bottom of Freya’s drive, saw them emerge and pad slowly up her long drive. They matched each other step for step, their tails held high.
Then I saw a tall figure striding down Freya’s drive toward me. He passed the cats, apparently without acknowledging their presence. Too dark and far away to make out his features, my heart still lurched.
Mark. I could see the familiar long hair fanning his shoulders, the white shirt and dark pants. Tears pricked my eyes. At that moment, I wished with all my heart I hadn’t seen him. It couldn’t be happening again. Surely he wouldn’t betray me as John had. After all he’d said to me. And I’d believed every word.
So Freya had been telling the truth. Somewhere along the line she’d made his acquaintance, and now I knew why he hadn’t answered his phone. He’d been with her.
I told myself to calm down. There could be a hundred innocent explanations for his visit. But unless I asked him, I wouldn’t know. I hurried down my path and opened the gate.
“Mark! Hi!” I hoped I sounded nonchalant, but a note of desperation had crept into my voice.
He reached the end of her drive and turned left. He was directly opposite me now, in shadows, on the other side of the lane. Any second and he would cross over.
He must have heard me, but not a flicker. He never broke his stride. Just carried on walking, farther down the lane, away from me, while I stood and watched him, my insides turning to mush in dismayed disbelief...
Antonia van Zandt has been writing since someone stuck a pencil in her hand at the age of around five. Sick of finding their wallpaper covered in scribbles, her parents relented and bought her an exercise book. This was the beginning of a trend. At the age of nine she progressed to her first typewriter, and can now spend hours happily tapping away at her keyboard while all around her descends into chaos. She has recently made the transition from writing erotica to paranormal adventure, with some pretty heavyweight Norse gods thrown in for good measure. She adores cats, fine wine and dramatic scenery. ‘Freya’s Choice’ is her first novel for Amber Quill.
You can connect with Antonia here:
Antonia van Zandt