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A Sighting of Will O' the Wisp

A glowing orb of light in the tree canopy of an eerie mist-filled woodland

One night, we saw a weird, glowing light in the forest. It’s taken a bit of time to process and make sense of it, but we wanted to share the story here.

Never heard of a will o' the wisp? We explain more fully further down, but you can also see a quick explanation here.

As Tolkien once said, 'Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.'

You know you hear those tales about staying out of the woods at night? What follows is a true story. It’s a bit of a read but I think you'll be glad you did when you get to the end. Sometimes, experiences can only be described as falling outside the realms of normality and it’s like you’re being given a glimpse into another world.

We had some time to kill between running errands one evening, so headed up to a high-spot overlooking the forest while we waited. It was a couple of hours after sunset and we hoped to see some wildlife that would normally get scared off during daylight.

There were road blocks on some of the lanes because of tree felling so, apart from us, the carpark was completely deserted and this viewpoint was just ours for tonight. It’s next to an old holloway, a prehistoric trackway, and the area is littered with ancient burial mounds and the remains of occupation from the Iron Age, Roman and Saxon times. This place is old.

We stopped the van and stepped out, taking in the view ahead of us. Grassy downland sloped gently towards the forest’s edge at the bottom of the hill where weak moonlight bounced off a layer of low-lying mist. Ahead, the whole woods was laid out for us to see - a large expanse of dark forest with jagged treetops visible against the slightly lighter skyline.

Andy had brought a high powered torch to shine into the edges of the woods to see if any eyes lit up from the wildlife. It’s always amazing to shine a light into darkness and see the eyes of rabbits, deer, or hares shining back at you. Tonight though, there was nothing which is incredibly unusual. We could only hear distant tawny owls calling every now and again, and see the occasional silent, dark shape glide in front of us. The place felt a little uneasy, watchful.

Nearby on my left, there was an occasional creak of something rubbing, like a hanging sign being swayed by the wind. We know that patch inside out and there’s nothing there to make that noise. Besides, there wasn’t even a breeze. Andy joked about it being a ghostly gibbet*, and actually, that's exactly what it did sound like. There are often strange things at the woods. You sort of learn not to question it too much, and just accept things for what they are. I didn't really feel spooked, just a bit aware of it – particularly as the sound was centred at an ancient crossroads.

Sitting in the van, we listened for sounds of wildlife. Even the owls had quietened and everything became still. We sat in the silence until, suddenly, a wind whipped up from behind us from out of nowhere through the trees. As soon as it had started, it was gone. It felt odd, like something passing through. Then, back to quiet.

With our eyes tuned into the dark we sat looking over the woodland. There was a strange noise to the right, like an animal calling, but nothing recognisable. The sound was followed by snapping branches. We know most woodland animal calls but have no idea what this was. So, we just kept cool about that too. Yes, we said … probably just some kind of owl ...

Andy shone his torch in the direction of the sounds, only for it to go dead straight away. It had had brand new batteries that evening, and had been working perfectly when we first arrived. It’s never failed before (or since for that matter). So, the odd feeling stayed.

There were a couple of dim lights on the horizon in the distance and over to the right was a tiny section of far away road with occasional glimpses of tiny headlights or the red of tail lights briefly showing. The main view ahead was literally just darkness.

As we stared into the blackness a small light came into view near the treetops. It looked reminiscent of a glow worm, or an ember from a fire that persists into the night sky, only brighter. It moved in one direction, kind of higgledy-piggledy, and made its way slowly but with purpose.

It started from nowhere in the woods, just appeared on the left within our field of view and slowly moved to the right. Strangely, it appeared to be broadly following the route of an old trackway which only exists today in disjointed fragments of paths, and tell-tale lines of trees marching through modern day fields. The light followed the route smoothly for a while, and then stopped. When it stopped, it seemed to glow brighter.

It was unusual because it was constant and unobscured, not broken like it would be if it was carried by a walker, but high up like it was floating just above the treetops. The way it stayed constant made it seem certain it was a lot higher than the paths in the woods or it would have been obscured by the trees. This was bright, and close. It was within the area of the woodland, but not on the ground …

It was staying in one spot now. As I stared at it, I began to realise that it looked as if it was moving in a different way, swaying. I doubted myself at first because there were so few points of reference against the blank black darkness of the trees. Were my eyes playing tricks? I looked at it a little closer. Minutes passed. No doubt about it, it was swaying. I saw Andy reach for his glasses, and knew he was watching it too. We looked at each other. “That’s a bit weird …”

The movements looked strange, and I began to wonder more about the source of it, running through possibilities in my mind. I dismissed it being attached to a building and besides, in that direction there are only farms much further away, and on much lower ground. This was high, pretty much at the same level as us, parked up on the hill. Could it be a person carrying a torch? No. It simply wasn't moving in the right way, and besides, it was unwaveringly pointing towards us. It didn’t change angle, or dim. It just didn't fit.

We both agreed it was swaying. A big slow sway, in a large arc of several metres at least. As we stared at it, it continued swaying from left to right, right to left, left to right, like a pendulum. Rhythmic. It made no sense. Although the light looked very powerful, it wasn't illuminating anything at all. It itself was highly visible and impossible to miss, but it wasn’t illuminating any branches surrounding it, a trunk below it, or any other trees around it. There was nothing showing but the light itself.

It was a light that drew you in because it couldn't be explained away. Mesmerising. We both know these woods really well, at all times of the day and night, on the paths and further off-track. We know the terrain and the tall trees - Douglas firs, scots pine, beech and oaks. Even during the winter the path can't be seen from where we were, but the tree tops can. This light was definitely at tree canopy height, yet not suspended from the trees.

As time went on, nothing changed. We watched it for nearly half an hour. The light just continued to sway and shine unabated until, eventually, time dictated that we needed to get back on our way. Andy switched on the engine and the headlights ready to move and, almost instantly, the light was extinguished. There was no dimming, no hesitation - it was simply on, and then it was off. Bizarre. It was as if the connection had been severed and the moment was over.

We drove down the lane to the far end, following the edge of the woodland for nearly a mile, then turned round and drove back past where we’d been parked, and on towards our destination. As we passed the trees, especially at the area of the carpark, we looked for the light but there was simply nothing at all.

You have to remember that the area where we live has seen a lot of history, from far back in time, the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages. The Roman occupation, the Saxons and onwards. This area has been touched by many souls, much has occurred and I get the feeling not all was recorded in history. Over thousands of years many feet have trodden a path along these old tracks, and sometimes things get left behind.

The further back in time we look, the more we find that the physical "seen" landscape overlapped with the spiritual, magickal landscape. They weren't separate as we see them through our scientific gaze today, but overlaid and intertwined. Things which are seen as paranormal and strange today, were once known to be fact. Who’s to say they’re not? The only explanation we can come to is that the light over the woods was a will o’ the wisp.

Just as people in the past accepted that spirits dwelled within stones, and dragons slumbered inside hills, they were also aware that will o’ the wisps lived in hollows in the land (as written by Welsh poet Dafydd Ap Gwilym in 1340). There's no reason to think that the people before them thought any differently - if anything, my guess would be that the further back in time we look, the stronger the understanding of the unseen landscape. Sometimes otherworldly things still linger and show themselves …

Will o’ the wisp is the most commonly used name given to mysterious or ghostly lights seen at night which look like a small flame from a lantern, or a ball of light. The name of will o’ the wisp comes from the Saxon word wile for fraud, trick, or deceit, and the Swedish word wisp, meaning a small lit bundle of tinder. So, literally, the trickster flame. There are some associations with the Fae, and sometimes the lights are said to be carried by the Elves.

The lights are often associated with bogs and marshes, and are explained away as phosphorescence caused by gases from decaying plants in marshy areas, but what we saw was not marsh gas. There was nothing subtle about this light – it was strong and clear.

There are many tales about will o’ the wisp in British folklore, often as a malicious character and, over time, much folklore has become attached to the legend throughout Britain. In the book British Goblins, the author, Wirt Sykes recounts a Welsh tale, referring to the will o’ the wisp by its Welsh name of Pwca. A peasant travelling home one night, spots a bright light travelling ahead of him. The light is a lantern, carried by a “dusky little figure”. He follows the light for several miles and then suddenly finds himself standing at the edge of a chasm with a roaring torrent of water below him. As he reaches the edge of the chasm, the lantern-bearer leaps over the gap, laughing maliciously as he does, and blows out the light, leaving the poor traveller lost and in the dark.

There are a few other tales though which tell of a more prosperous fate. Some stories tell of the will o’ the wisp being the guardian of treasure and leading those brave enough to follow it to certain riches.

The lights often bear a regional name, from Will o’ the Wikes (Norfolk) and Will the Smith (Shropshire) to Pinket (Worcestershire), Hinky Punk (Somerset & Devon), Spunkies (Lowland Scotland), and an unusual one, Joan the Wad (Cornwall & Somerset). Other names are lantern-related: The Hobby Lantern (Hertfordshire & East Anglia), Peg-a-Lantern (Lancashire), Jack-a-Lantern (The West Country), and finally, The Lantern Man (East Anglia). The Lantern Man was a fearsome figure for many a small child.

What are your thoughts on it? Have you ever seen a will o’ the wisp?

*gibbet and gallows are terms used synonymously to describe a structure used to execute criminals by hanging them. The body is sometimes left hanging as a warning or deterrent to others.

Will o' the wisp is an eerie light seen hovering or floating at night, often in holloways, on woodland paths, moors and similar places.

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