If you have crossed the River Farrow to the hamlet of Keywell this week, you will have noticed the flowers left there just at the middle of the bridge. There are always flowers at this particular time of the year, a sad tradition that has never quite been forgotten. It was over one hundred years ago this month, young Isabelle Graham was to be wed to John Truitt. A young couple looking forward to building a future together. The bridge over the River Farrow, Belle’s Bridge, is named for Isabelle, not to mark the happy occasion of her nuptials but rather her untimely demise, for it was on the very morning of her wedding she never made it across the bridge to St. Hildegard’s to make her vows.
Brides are usually all aflutter with their wedding preparations so no one thought anything was amiss when Isabelle did not show up quite on time. As the minutes ticked away, people began to talk amongst themselves that perhaps she had changed her mind or worse, something had prevented her from getting to the church.
Earlier in the week, Isabelle had made arrangements to go to her friend Ellen’s house in Amberliegh on the morning of her wedding, dress there and walk to the church with her father. On the morning of the wedding, Belle’s uncle James Graham knocked upon Ellen’s door informing her he had had a message from Isabelle asking if he would walk her down the aisle as her dear father had fallen ill. But Isabelle hadn’t shown up at Ellen’s to dress. Together Ellen and James Graham walked the short distance over the bridge to Keywell where they found Thomas Graham unconscious in bed and no sign of Belle.
James Graham went and quietly told the vicar what had transpired and having been to his brother's house could not say what had become of the girl. It wasn’t until later that day that someone spotted Belle's hat in the tree by the bridge which lead to the grim discovery of her body below on the bank of the River Farrow.
To this day the truth has not been uncovered.
Surely someone must have even the smallest of clues?
We lead into a legend, with a well rounded account of a grandmothers tale, through the hearing of a small child.
We offer you what has become
"The Legend of Belle's Bridge"
When the days draw in we all spend more time indoors close to the fire. Ladies read or sew and chat as they stitch, while the men tend to talk and the children amuse themselves playing. During these evenings, when I was a girl, I listened to my grandmother chatting, sometimes in hushed tones and it was those conversations I was most interested in. Always a curious child I’d sit quietly playing and later stitching and my ears would prick up when the conversation turned to subjects not meant for the young. Sometimes it was just a single sentence other times more. Over the years I came to know a lot more about the village and its inhabitants. My grandmother, I suspect, was curious by nature too and so she talked about these things often. That is how it came to be with me. I always wanted to know more, and to my folly I found out more one winter’s evening.
My mother was very distracted by her flock of ducks which had been slowing falling with disease. She was proud of her ducks so when this illness struck she was beside herself with worry trying to find the root of the problem and save the remaining handful of ducks before they too succumbed to this dreadful disease. During this time, when she would sit by the fire stitching with my grandmother, her distraction with the ducks played a big part in my education about a good many things in the village and its history. For on one occasion, my mother did not shush my grandmother telling her not to speak of such things and I learned a new story to add to what I knew of Amberleigh’s history.
Granny began by saying she’d put flowers on Belle’s Bridge as she always does at this time of the year, flowers from her own garden and with a small prayer, she lays them at the side of the bridge where poor Isabelle’s life tragically ended. I’d heard Granny mention doing this before and I knew Isabelle Graham had fallen to her death on her wedding day, but no more detail than that. Without my mother’s usual interference, Granny continued to talk in a low voice, staring into the fire as if she were looking back in time, watching this terrible scene unfold.
I sat rigidly in my chair, trying not to make the slightest sound or movement that would jar my mother back into the conversation so she could stop my grandmother before she finished the tale. That night I heard about the day Isabelle Graham was found laying dead at the foot of the toll bridge on her wedding day.
Granny, was transfixed, her stitching forgotten as she began talking about her grandmother, a friend of Isabelle, whose name was Ellen. Ellen Porter, Isabelle Graham and John Truitt were all close friends, as close as siblings, always together. It was only natural that John should marry one of the girls and he chose Isabelle. They began walking out when she was just 15 years of age. Ellen of course felt left out when they began their courtship and just one year later when the banns were read at church, she tried to share in their joy but knew when they married, she would be on her own as they would be making their home and settling into married life just as she hoped to do one day. Her happiness for them was bittersweet as it signalled the end of their carefree childhood days.
On the day Isabelle and John were to be wed, Isabelle would come to Ellen, whose family lived on the high street in town near to the church and from there she and her father would walk to the church for the ceremony. This way her dress would not get dusty on the walk over the bridge from Keywell. Tis true, it was only a short walk from the Hamlet but Ellen insisted Isabelle should not take any chances on ruining her best dress as rain could come at any time and with it mud and puddles. So, it was agreed, Ellen would help Isabelle dress and for Isabelle, whose mother had only just died two years ago, it was a welcome invitation to share the joy of this day with her best friend.
Granny looked down at her stitching and closed her eyes for a moment before continuing. She seemed to take a deep breath before she spoke the next words. Her great-uncle, who was also an admirer of Isabelle, muttered about that fateful day for many years afterwards. No one ever found the reason for Isabelle’s death and it tormented him. He thought her memory should be laid to rest and not have this terrible uncertainty hanging over it. Granny repeated Uncle Morton’s words twice as if to give them deeper meaning. “It was a peculiar morning. It was a peculiar morning” Ellen was up before dawn getting things ready. She tidied the sitting room and lit the fire so there was warmth when Isabelle arrived, even though it was hours before time. She sat at the table and then jumped when Morton, her brother, entered the room. She stood and said she must go and feed the chickens and dashed from the room. Morton thought it odd that Ellen should be so jittery when it wasn’t she who was marrying. He poked the fire, and got his coat and boots on to go and take care of the horses. It was a quiet morning with the sun just rising over the morning mist. The ground was dewy and his breath hung in the air. He pulled his collar up and his cap down over his ears as he walked to the stables rubbing his hands to warm them. The cat yawned and stretched as he unlatched the door then followed him inside hoping to find a warm spot within to nap. As he worked, he thought of the day’s tasks, wondering if John Truitt was coming to the house too before going to the church. He hadn’t thought of it before now and as best man he should sort it out so there was no confusion.
Morton left the stables in search of Ellen but she was not with the chickens. They were pecking greedily at the ground, the sun becoming more evident which allowed him to see they’d been fed, but there was no sign of Ellen. Sighing he went back to finish in the stable thinking he’d speak to her at the house. Three quarters of an hour later while he warmed his hands by the fire in the sitting room Ellen burst into the room, then stopped short seeing him and composed herself. Morton turned to speak to her about the morning’s events confirming that John would first come to the house and the two of them would walk to the church before Isabelle arrived to dress. As he spoke, Morton noticed Ellen’s hair was slightly dishevelled and she seemed a little breathless but simply attributed that to the fact that girls were always over anxious about these things.
Shortly afterwards, John rapped at the door and together he and Morton made their way to the church laughing and talking. The rest of the family had already arisen for the day and were each doing their chores, one by one dressing for church and leaving Ellen alone to wait for Belle. Ellen sat with a cup of tea when she heard a knock on the door. Opening it she discovered James Graham standing there saying he’d received word earlier advising him to meet Belle at Ellen Porter’s house before the ceremony as her father was ill. Together they waited and when it began to be apparent that Belle was going to be late, they decided to walk over to Keywell to see what was causing the delay.
There was no answer to their knock at the door. James Graham opened the door and entered finding the house quiet and very still. His brother was in bed, oblivious to everything. James turned to see Ellen looking for something. A note, she told him. As he turned back to his brother, he thought he witnessed her put something into her pocket. Ellen called out that perhaps Isabelle had taken a different path and they’d missed her and she was at her house and she dashed away up the garden path to the road. When he caught up to her she seemed a bit distracted but chattered on saying they must get back to her house so the wedding wasn’t delayed any further, and yet Belle still hadn’t arrived.
It was at this time James Graham quietly spoke to the vicar and John Truitt. The men were organized into a search party and off they went leaving the ladies at church to pray. Three hours later, Geoffrey Coyne called out to the other men saying he’d spotted a hat in the tree by the bridge that didn’t look as if it had been there very long and that was how the grim discovery of Isabelle’s lifeless body was discovered on the muddy bank of the River Farrow below.
Mother seemed to suddenly realise she’d been daydreaming only to hear Granny speaking in a strained voice, saying Morton always had a bad feeling about the events of that morning. Mother began to frantically shush Granny then. To this day, no one really knows what truly happened to Isabelle Graham on the day she was to be wed. I still lay flowers on the bridge at this time of the year; for this story is not only one of Amberleigh, but also of my family. John Truitt and Ellen Porter are my great-great-great-grandparents.
Throughout all of history, rumour and innuendo span the wide gap of a long ago happening of factual truth. Naturally things would be twisted, they may not have heard everything quite correctly, we all know how our youthful minds alter the truth of a matter when there is wide speculation following legendary tragic news. No blame can be issued as to the confusion or mistaken truth, and the interpretation of the hearing is always greatly exaggerated into far more mysterious circumstances than that of the actual truth.
What happened on that fateful day? How did Isabelle Graham fall from the bridge?
Was it an accident? Was she pushed? Did she jump?
The true story unfolds as follows:-
On the evening prior to her wedding, Isabelle Graham was all of a flutter, so excited with Joie de Vivre of matrimony on the morrow. St. Hildegard was her place of worship and the church in which her nuptials would be spoken. She felt thrilled and a little nervous blush rose to her cheeks. John Truitt was to be her husband. He had paid her court for a 12 month now and during the last Autumn Harvest Celebration had procured a handsome position working for the Viscount Comely in Amberleigh as an under-gardener to tend the gardens of Comely Manor. John had proven his worth to her father, Thomas Graham, loyalty to his daughter and as he had always preferred this lad, he approved the match.
Isabelle cut a small slice of carrot & parsnip pie, but had no stomach for it, then poured herself a horn of warm ale, and sipped as she went through her toilette in her mind, that she would undertake at her best friend Ellen's cottage, in the neighbouring Amberleigh village. The bridal attire that would be laid upon the straw mattress, every piece in the waiting position of adornment.
Beside her own cot, draped over the dower chest, she had stacked her wedding garments in neat folds & wrapped in a large shawl. She would carry this to Ellen's tomorrow. Her best hand embroidered petticoat, clean linen shift, stays, that she had spent most of the year, adding a final decoration. Its stomacher had been well worn, the darning so neatly done that one could barely tell, so now with new ribbons Belle had bought especially, looked almost like new, to her it seemed. Her pair of sleeves were from her mother's chest, bequested to her on her deathbed, and in turn, inheritance from a grandparent. Incredible, beautiful embroidered with ornate pomegranates and strawberries with little beetles and butterflies and snails. She would have Ellen help her dress, & pull up the chemise through it, and tie the points on to her shoulders of her stays. The metal tags hanging so gracefully. Oh, how she longed for the night to be over, so she could take comfort in chatter with her dear friend to help her settle herself. Tomorrow she would be wife!
She was very concerned though, with the state of health of her dear papa, who now had a raging fever and had not taken on any liquid, in the last few hours as his throat pained him so, and had not improved. He was in fact lying in a state of restlessness on his cot, his brow so hot to the touch. The previous night shivering with cold yet his nightshirt drenched in perspiration. He had been muttering in delirium most of the day, and now coughed much, which heaved his large frame up, as he tried to fend it off.
The colour of his face worried her deeply. At 10 of the night, he had awoke, startling her, uttered in a parched voice that he feared he may not make the walk to the church dearest Belle, as his legs would not hold him. She allayed his worries and told him Uncle James will help, she just knew he would. With this news, Thomas, slid into a fitful slumber, mind eased somewhat.
As the night wore on to midnight, the bride to be, dared not not sleep in her cot, how could she when her father needed her so. Thomas’ coughs had lessened, but his fever got no better. She feared for him & sat upon padded milk stool, & lay her head upon his chest as he seemed to be aware she was aiding his rest with her presence. Occasionally patting her hand.
She felt somewhat comforted even if he was not presently himself. Soon dreaming of her beloved John,
Isabelle fell asleep.
A shiver of coldness swept over her delicate slight shoulders & descended down her back which disturbed the brides slumber. Her brow damp with hair affixed like it was pinned there. Belle found it difficult to raise her head, barely opening her eyes was all she could do at this moment. Her jaw ached and there was a strange thick feeling at the back of her throat, she put it down to perhaps snoring from such an odd attitude of sleep. At last she roused herself upright and straightened her hair, her scalp hurt to touch it as though some unseen hand had pulled and twisted it fiercely, while her neck had the deepest crick. Belle carefully reached out feeling her fathers forehead, his appearance had gained a strange green tinge to the skin. His breathing shallow. The sky outside was overcast and yet the birds were in full chorus, so pretty she thought. Wondering what the hour could be, she recalled her long awaited day! This would not do! There are things to be done. And she alone must accomplish them.
Trembling somewhat that she put down to nerves, she set about trying to relight the embers that lay in the grate under a half burnt log. Using tinderbox and flint to strike a spark, her hands shook so that it took her at least 7 attempts, til finally it had caught upon the dry leaves and twigs, & the fireplace was aflame. Belle then set about the cottage re-organising her fathers bedclothes and plumping his small pillow. She poured some kettle water that was just warm, and bathed his brow then repeated the action with her own.
Belle saw to it that some water passed her fathers lips. That should see him until I return later.
When Isabelle took a mouthful herself it caught in her throat and revealed the most atrocious of pains, as though she had crushed rocks inside the back of it. I cannot swallow! I cannot swallow! Hands why are you shaking so?
Her neck catching at her reaction. Ow…. She cowered.
In the short distance up at the Mill there in Keywell, the sound of a donkey braying told her that the Millers son, was leaving with his usual load of ground flour for the bakery in Amberleigh and neighbouring Bexford… so it must be 9 of the clock! If she would hurry she shall catch the millers boy, and made her way teetering upon unsteady feet, a little step at a time, out her door and into the road. As the cart approached her cottage, the noise of solid cartwheel upon dry dirt road,was this morning alarming to her ears. She hailed the young lad to stop for a moment, with a wave and he halted the wooden cart.
He congratulated her on her wedding day, she responded in a thick voice that sounded foreign to her, then asked would he be so kind as to let James Graham know, that her father was poorly, and if her uncle would call into Ellen's at 11 of the clock to escort her to the church. The lad said he was late in getting away anyway this morning, got the house name in his mind, and he would do so straight away Miss Graham and wished her all the best. With cart wheels grinding onto small rocks in the road, it became unbearable to her ears and she fled awkwardly inside, shutting the door.
Isabelle was aware she was not herself and there was a desperation to each movement that made no sense in her mind. She tried to hurry her actions into moving quicker, but her body had taken on a shuddering affliction that she could not control. The headache, her brow was heavy and hot, and she just needed to lay her head down, just for a moment. Not yet Isabelle, she told herself. It is past 9, and on the heels to 10 of the clock… we must be at Ellen's now! Gather your things, come on girl, hurry. Picking up the pockets and tying them around her waist, she then bundled the cloth with her wedding garments within, then wrapping her fathers very long thick shawl about her shoulders and halfheartedly tucked into her waist band, the ends dangling to the ground. Remembering her bonnet at the last moment, she popped it on her head, without tying the ribbon beneath her chin. She bent down and kissed her papa on his forehead, then made her way out of the cottage and along the short road to Amberleigh. She could see the spire of St. Hildegard's and felt more settled.
Isabelle Graham felt a strange sensation take over her awareness, as she trotted and felt as though her head was raised high above her ears. She coughed noisily, painfully quacking and her thoughts became surreal, how strange she decided, she felt rather like a duck. She could not feel her legs as the feet seemingly slapped and pounded the road and yet she felt every single step judder through her whole body and deeply into her head. She felt nausea descend upon her, and desperately wanted to sit down and close her eyes, but alas there was no where but the ground, until the bridge… Yes the bridge will do perfectly. Staggering now, as her gait became more & more ungainly, awkward with the load she carried, it seemed ever so heavy for her small thin arms, more so with every step forward. And she only had a little way to go. Finally reaching the edge of the bridge Isabelle reached out with her load settled atop of the side as she clung to the waist high stone wall and lay her head upon it. Belle rested for a good few minutes, her breath becoming quickened and laboured by the minute. She felt so tired. So thankful to have reached such cool salvation. “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel …” she croaked singing aloud, unaware she was doing so, throwing her hat in the air with no knowledge of it. Then her mind snapped back as she saw it snagged in a tree lower down… JOHN….she caught her breath in a half cough….. . WAITING….. I must go to him… Then sucking in her breath fell into a coughing fit like a rabid dog barking, silently screaming in her head from the pain it caused down inside her tortured throat. Her parcel shifted from her sudden attack and tipped forward now laying dangerously over the edge. Belle reached forward as her body convulsed again in a coughing spasm, this time as she did so, the precious cargo she carried swung free of the stone support and it pulled her arm downwards, she reached over with her other arm to stabilize but it merely pulled her forwards, she pitched over the wall of the bridge falling to the base of the stone peers. She knew not what hit her. Overcome with a crushing rush of noise in her blooded ears, severe dizziness of her broken head, contorted body and then no thing ….. utter pure ethereal love washed her mind, the words again somewhere in the background as in a choir in full voice… Rejoice! Rejoice!…………………….. she fell into a deathly stillness.