This happened a few years ago when I was travelling through the UK. It probably has a perfectly rational explanation, but still – who really knows? I can promise that at least it is true, and it makes a great campfire story for me to use.
My husband and I spent a couple of nights camping in a wonderful field on a property in Wiltshire with a group of English friends who camp there each year to celebrate Halloween. It was great fun, with nothing more alarming than the occasional carved pumpkin and mask.
The field was marvellous, with huge old trees in each corner and an actual on-site cold water tap, which seemed the ultimate in luxury! Because there were quite a few of us camping, we dug a trench some distance away from our campsite and set up a nice neat seat-and-shelter amenity with the added bonus of a beautiful green English countryside outlook – very pleasant.
Of course, to get to this at night we had to take our lanterns or torches and make our way carefully across the hummocky field, then delicately scout for signs of a glimmering light to establish if there was already somebody inside.
On this particular night I took my itsy-bitsy torch and trooped alone across the paddock. It was a lovely cold but clear night, I could see all the stars. Of course, the facilities were occupied when I got there so I stood a little way away, turned off my torch to save batteries and waited.
At one point I found myself watching a coil of smoke that seemed to have drifted across from the distant campsite. It was quite a pretty sight, against the darkness of the paddock.
After a while, I began to notice that the smoke hadn't dissipated. It was roughly human-height and seemed to be keeping a relatively consistent shape. I thought that was kind of amusing – but all at once I realised that it seemed to be accompanied by a distant clanking noise, and furthermore – there was not much of a breeze.
Of course, as soon as I realised these things all the buried childhood fears came flooding back and I felt a real chill. I froze, watching the column of smoke drift past and vanish behind the amenity tent.
When the occupant suddenly emerged from the amenity with his lantern, I jumped out of my skin! But the light brought me back to my senses and while I made use of the facilities (with my torch turned on, of course) I berated myself for being such a silly.
Really, the sight of a white transparent figure accompanied by the standard childrens-book ‘clanking chains’ noise was way too tacky to even start to take seriously. In fact, I decided, I had probably seen smoke from the campfires and heard somebody putting the tin kettle onto the metal fire-hook. My imagination had evidently provided all the rest. I decided not to tell anybody how nervous I had been, it would just be embarrassing.
This is quite probably the case. I don't know how smoke is likely to travel in a light breeze and for all I know it is quite possible for a column of smoke to drift for a great distance without dissipating.
What makes this my best true campfire story is what happened later.
While we were sitting around the fire later that night I asked one of the regular campers how they managed to find such a great field for their festivities. He replied that the field was owned by a nice old fellow who would allow them to camp there each year. ‘He was a lovely old guy’ the camper told me, laughing. ‘He used to come over occasionally and check out how we were going. He was a bit of an alcoholic and he used to wander around the field clutching his bottle, and accompanied by his pet billy goat. We always knew he was around because we could hear the goat’s bell clanking.’
‘He died recently,’ one of the other campers added. ‘We miss him. You know, I like to think that he is still around, checking up on us like he used to.’