Mist rises from the bottom of the Devil’s Punch Bowl; cracks in the earth’s crust allowing mysterious wreaths to be sent up from the underworld, enticing the wicked or at least the adventurous into Lucifer’s lair, making the god-fearing wary. Travellers of centuries past dreaded this as a place of evil spirits; more realistically, a place where highwaymen would lie in wait along the road to Portsmouth.
Its tarmac broken up, the old A road has been returned to nature. After just a few months it is grassing over. The road’s former path makes an avenue of the trees on either side, stretching into the distance. Heather seed has been scattered all along its route, and no doubt soon the gorse and bracken will make inroads too. Before long, but for its linear path, you might never know that you were looking along what had been a road for the best part of two centuries.
On Gibbet Hill, a memorial stone marks the spot where in 1786 a sailor was killed and where later – their eyes for his – his murderers were hanged. On the face of it, the story recounts what seems to be the vicious, senseless killing of a generous man, but perhaps when his fellow seafarers met with him over a game of dice in the Red Lion in Thursley, the sailor revealed himself to be such a vile, boastful and deceitful human being that, out of pocket, the three murderers resolved to go after him and take back their money. But then they overstepped the mark, and violently did him in, there on the hill where the following year they would hang. One wonders what music if any played in the heads of those men as each was brought in chains before his noose; how their heartbeats must have quickened. But perhaps the music in their heads or the hymn to which they gave their voices steadied them a little in the last few moments before their life essence sank into the cracks at the bottom of the diabolical depression.
On a brighter day I remember sitting at one of the picnic tables outside the Punch Bowl café, playing hangman with my daughter. We both enjoy the conjunction of the wordplay and the little cartoon of death that emerges from my pen or hers as chosen letters fall short of the word in question. Sometimes I throw her by including a Z; ‘blaze’ or ‘zebra’ or ‘crazy’; sometimes her spelling lets her down and bamboozles me in the process. ‘Bamboozle’; that’ll hang her man when we play again.
Not far from the café stands Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s now derelict and long-fought over house. Famously he and his wife came out to live where three counties meet because of the allegedly Swiss-like nature of the air round here. Now that the cars have been taken underground – through a tunnel under Satan’s cup itself – it’s possible to breath something vaguely resembling fresh air again.
It being an apparently open and shut case, I don’t recall that Conan Doyle ever made a Sherlock Holmes adventure out of the story on his doorstep, although Dickens mentions the murder in Nicholas Nickleby. But the forensic geology first espoused in A study in scarlet of the type of sand, clay or soil on the shoes of a perpetrator tying him to a crime must have been reinforced as he walked the paths of the Punch Bowl. And having walked them myself, often alone, I know how easy it is to spook a mystery story out of yourself there.