The walk across the moor had always been a favourite thing to do with our family. As a girl, I was taken on long rambles on summer evenings over the crags and windswept heather clad moorland. I suppose it was natural that I would take my own children there.
We always ended in the same place ‘The First House’. It was derelict, a mile or so along a track towards the summit of the moor. No one knew where its name originated from I suppose it was the first house as you crossed the moor from Ilkley towards the next valley.
Local legend said that a long time ago the building had been a small open air theatre. Locals would make their way on a weekend to see travelling theatre companies stage performance. It can’t have held more than fifty people but must have been wonderful on a summers evening sitting on the hillside watching performances. There were walls to three sides, an area for seats, a stage and a roof over the stage. The roof and most of the stage had collapse and there was grass and stones growing over the old stone building.
‘The First House’ was a lovely place to picnic and most times of the year we would make our way up onto the moor on a Sunday afternoon. Adults would sit chatting, enjoying a picnic. The children would play act in the ruins of the old theatre. Pirates, Princesses and wild animals were always popular in the frantic productions that took place.
My daughter Marielle is seven and Jonathon five. They would play together quite happily or on their own. Jonathon would wander around chattering, singing and dancing in his own make believe world.
Not long after Jonathon’s seventh birthday we stopped our weekend visits to the moor. At the time, I enjoyed visiting auctions. I visited with friends and often came back with some piece of furniture for the house or a box or two of bric-a-brac. One busy Friday I picked the kids up from school.
“Mummies been to the auction again children. There’s three full boxes of stuff for us to sort through when we get home,” I said as I bundled them in the car.
They were happy, a chilled evening with mummy eating pizza and sorting through her latest boxes of junk form the auction as Daddy called them. The boxes were mainly old books and maps. We hadn’t been at the house a rambling old Victorian type for long. There were bookcases still to fill, these boxes would help fill the spaces.
We took a box each and began sorting, dusting and making little piles of similar sized books. What happened next still sends a shiver down my spine
“Mummy it’s Peter, look there’s a picture of Peter in this book,” exclaimed a very excited five-year-old.
He was running around the room waving a tatty old pamphlet around. Showing his sister, the photographs on the open pages before heading over to me.
“It’s Peter, its Peter the clown look,” and he handed me the pamphlet.
The pamphlet was a short history of our town from the early part of the twentieth century. Torn and faded brown it was filled with photographs of the town and characters who live in it.
The clown in the pamphlet that Jonathon called Peter the clown was a Pierrot clown. The photographs were of a middle-aged man in a white clown suit with large black buttons buttons, white shoes with pink bows and a black cap. His face was heavily made up with white make up and he had a large black tear draw at the corner of one eye. The clowns went way back in history and were very popular in the 1800’s.
It seemed the first house on the moor had been owned in the 1850’s by a Frenchman Antoine Lecoire who specialised in the role. He managed the theatre and put on many plays and pantomimes by travelling companies. Although he was the manager and compere he always managed to find a part for himself. Antoine was well known and popular in the area. He lived in a small wooden annexe at the rear of the theatre that doubled as a store for props. It was here that he slept each night. One December evening in 1858 he was robbed and murdered in his bed. A band of travelling criminals stole his watch and the takings from the previous week’s performances.
The pamphlet quoted newspaper reports from the time that the murderers were never found. The whole town turned out for Antoine’s funeral. He was buried in the towns churchyard. The theatre never held a show again and over the years fell into disrepair.
I read the pamphlet from cover to cover, looked at the photographs and puzzled over what Jonathon had said. The children had got bored and wandered off by now to play with toys. Jonathon was in his bedroom playing with cars. I didn’t want to but had to ask him.
“Jonathon tell me about Peter the clown, you said this was his picture in the old book. Have you seen this before somewhere,” I said?
“No mummy that’s Peter well it’s not but I can’t say his name. He said to just call him Peter. It’s Pedro, Peiadro, Parrote something like that.”
“Pierrot?” I said.
“Yes, that it mummy do you know him too.”
“No darling I don’t know him I don’t think you do too, has someone shown you pictures of him before or been telling you stories about him,” I said.
“No, I do know him he dances for me and makes me laugh. He sings songs and we play games. You must have seen him too mummy, you must have seen us together.”
My heart sank, what had been quite a pleasant afternoon sorting through old book had taken an unpleasant turn.
“I have never seen him before darling, only in this old book this afternoon. Where is it that you have seen Pierrot before?”
“When we go to the old house on the moor on Sundays for our walk and picnic. He walks with me across the moor and when we go to the old house its him who I am playing with. I have such a nice time he’s a very clever and funny clown. When are we going to the moor again mummy? I want to see Peter, I like being with Peter he’s my best friend in the whole world.”