For me, Valentine's Day is not just a time for cards and flowers. I grew up in the West Midlands and every Valentine's Day, the local T.V. (ATV Today, we had it on before Crossroads) had a feature about the gruesome murder of of Charles Walton up on Meon Hill, just outside Stratford-on-Avon. Walton was killed in 1945 but the case was unsolved and had overtones of witchcraft. Enough to fascinate my brother and me (we were both fans of Dennis Wheatley) and to stick in my head.
The details of the murder were, indeed, bizarre. Walton was murdered on 14th February, a significant date in itself, but associated by the old calendar with the Celtic Festival of Imbolc. He was an old man, in his seventies, and out on the hill hedging and ditching. He was a farm labourer, living in a little cottage in the small village of Lower Quinton. When he didn't come back for his dinner, his niece went to look for him. She found him with his throat slashed with his own bill hook which was still embedded in his neck. He was pinned to the bank by a two pronged pitch fork and a large cross had been carved into his chest. It looked very like a ritual murder and Walton had a reputation for witch craft. The only thing that was missing from his body was an old tin watch. He was rumoured to carry a scrying mirror, a piece of mica, in the back of it which he used to overlook people and ill wish them.
Whatever the motives, the locals shut up like clams and eventually the famed Fabian of the Yard was brought in to try and crack the case. He never did, It was his only unsolved murder. It was said that he came back every year to walk the hill, re-visit the site, go for a pint in the pub and remind the villagers that he had not forgotten. He always believed that they knew the perpetrator but held to a code of silence. The village of Lower Quinton, which lies beneath the hill, is a small place, a few farms and a collection of cottages clustered round a green and a pub, the College Arms. It must have been quite isolated back in 1945 and, even now, it often seems eerily deserted. It's rare to see anyone about and it is still impossible to find anyone willing to talk about the case.
On one of Fabian's visits, he encountered a black dog. When he asked a boy if he had seen the beast, the child ran away. Later that day, a black dog was found hanging in a tree. This might just have been an incident of macabre cruelty, perhaps to warn him, but there were long associations with black dogs in the area. Walton himself was known to have encountered a black dog nine times in his youth. After the last occasion, he learnt that his sister had died. These black dogs were not regarded as ordinary hounds, but manifestations of the Barghest and the other black dogs of British Folklore. Meon Hill was said to be hunted over by the Cwn Annwn, the spectral hounds of the Mabinogion; another legend says it was the Yell Hounds, the Devil's Dandy Dogs, following Herne the Hunter, harrying the souls of the unshriven down to hell. Meon Hill itself is rumoured to be the haunt of fairies - and of witches who still gather there. It is a place regarded with superstition, even dread, by some living thereabouts. There are those will not walk on the hill in the daytime, let alone at night.
The stories are many and odd and exert a fascination. I've revisited the place several times in fiction. The first time was with Colour Her Dead, now long out of print. I changed the name of the hill, the village beneath it, the details of the case, but kept the unsolved nature of the crime. What interested me was the missing watch. With so much time elapsing, I began thinking: what if it turned up in a junk shop somewhere - in nearby Stratford, say? Put there by someone clearing somebody's effects with no idea that this is vital clue to an unsolved murder. What could happen then? So are books born. I changed the victim to a child and the watch to a handful of beads found in a junk shop by 17 year old Jude who likes to make her own jewellery. It has been out of print for ages, but I was pretty proud of Colour Her Dead. Very Ruth Rendell, even though I say it myself.
The next time Meon got a mention was in The Fool's Girl. Shakespeare coming home on May Day, after Beltane. I took a bit of poetic licence, but the hill is visible for miles around and he might just have been able to see it from the old road between Stratford and Oxford. He would certainly have known it and its reputation. The hill even appears in my new book, This Is Not Forgiveness, under the guise of Beldon Hill, casting its spell, exerting its powerful natural magic in a whole new way.