Fairies in Sacks – Poachers Beware!

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In his book Welsh Folklore, published in 1887, Elias Owen mentions the following story from Llandrillo in Denbighshire:

Nearby was a little valley called Cwm Pennant, after the river which ran through it, and the valley was believed to be the home of fairies. One day, two men were otter-hunting in this valley when they saw a little red creature run across a field and hide in some tree roots on the riverbank. They were doubtful that this was an otter, as to their knowledge otters were never red, so they decided to catch the animal alive, so they could examine it. One of them covered one hole under the tree roots with a sack, whilst the other poked a stick down another hole, until at last something rushed out of the first hole and was caught in the sack.

The men began to carry the sack home but were very surprised when they heard a little voice saying “My mother is calling for me; oh, my mother is calling for me!” In their surprise they dropped the sack and out of it came a little man, dressed in red – obviously a fairy – and he ran away.

I was thrilled to read this tale, because a very similar story can be found in Lancashire – in two different places. The first story is set in Hoghton, in an area where the old and well-used rabbit warrens were once home to many fairies. Once there were two poachers who knew this area well, but they had been caught poaching once too often and their dogs and their nets had been taken from them. Undeterred, they went rabbit-hunting again, with only a ferret and a couple of sacks in which to store their booty. They knew the best place to hunt and so it wasn’t long before their ferret had rooted out the inhabitants of a warren and with their sacks over the entrance holes, it was a simple job to catch their quarry. However, they could not see exactly what they had caught.

They were walking home, with the sacks slung over their shoulders, when one of them heard a voice from his sack calling out, ‘Dick, wheer artta?’ At once another voice called out from the other sack; ‘In a sack, on a back, riding up Hoghton Brow!’  Shocked, the poachers dropped their sacks and ran away.

Next day, they retraced their steps and found their abandoned sacks, neatly folded by the side of the road. And that was the end of their poaching days; the sacks were used for potatoes and the men went back to earning an honest living with their weaving looms.

And here’s the same story, set in Barley. A pair of poachers once caught a couple of fairies. One night, they had crept to a rabbit warren, put their sacks over the rabbit holes and left them there until they could tell by the feel that they had caught something. They tied the necks of their sacks, slung them over their backs and set off for home. Walking back up the steep hill to Barley, they remarked to each other on the noise their catches were making and then were even more astonished when the squeaking noises coming from their sacks turned into little voices! One voice called out, ‘Where arta? Where arta?’ And the other answered, ‘Here I am, in a sack, going over Barley Brow!’ The poachers dropped their sacks and ran.

Isn’t that marvellous? I am quite used to finding the same story told in towns which are just a few miles apart, but to find this one in Lancashire and then hundreds of miles away in Wales, brings me great delight. I can only hope you find it just as interesting!

Image Melanie Warren all rights reserved.
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Weir… and perhaps a witch…

Weir, Bacup

In Weir, an area of Bacup, there was once a young woman who was married to an old man and dissatisfied with her lot. When night came she would steal away from her husband’s bed and go wandering, but where she went was a mystery.

A neighbouring farmer was suffering nightly visitations from someone – or something – that would overturn milk cans and steal the cream. One night he stayed awake with his son, determined to catch the thief. In the early hours of the morning, a black cat crept in through a window and the farmer and his son attacked it energetically with pots and pans. At last the cat, battered and bruised, managed to escape.

Next morning, the old man made no comment as he watched his young wife bathing her cuts and bruises. He had a feeling she would never be wandering abroad at night again.

© Copyright robert wade and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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A Boggart Did It – Proved In Court!

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In 1869, a court in Blackburn pronounced, amazingly, that a boggart had been responsible for breaking numerous windows in the Union Buildings. A respectable-looking man called George Hindle had been accused and taken to court. The court heard how windows had been broken by stones every night for several weeks, to the great expense of the residents. The disturbance had been so bad that a reward was offered to anyone who could reveal the assailant, who had always vanished before he could be spotted.

Finally, George Hindle was arrested by PC Livesey, who had been instructed to keep the buildings under constant watch. His evidence was that he had seen Hindle go into his brother-in-law’s house, from where he sent a stone flying at the opposite house. A moment later, Hindle came out of the house and picked up the stone again. However, that was the only point at which the Constable could say he had actually seen Hindle with a stone in his hand – not actually in the act of throwing it, but with it in his hand.

Hindle vehemently protested his innocence. He said that the stone had been in his hand because the Constable had asked people to collect the offending stones and give them to him as evidence. He said that, despite his innocence, he would rather pay the costs of the broken windows than be standing where he was that day; in court. In his defence, it was pointed out that the reward money had been doubled by the prisoner himself and, moreover, windows in his own house had been broken by the mysterious stone-thrower. Also, since Hindle had been in custody, more windows had been broken. Witnesses were also brought forward who said that they had been standing with Hindle when stones had come through their own windows – it could not have been he; it must have been a boggart.

Incredibly, the end result of this court case – which caused much laughter in the court-room – was that the magistrate had no recourse but to pronounce that a boggart had indeed been responsible for breaking the dozens of windows! George Hindle was released without charge.

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Bramall Hall – Moved by the Fairies!

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Bramall Hall, on Hall Road in Bramhall, is several centuries old. Parts of the building date from the late 1590s. A short distance from the hall is Crow Holt Wood and this, so the legend says, is where the builders originally intended the hall to stand. However, night after night the foundations were moved by fairies until the builders had no alternative but to build the hall where it now stands. It is surprising to find this folk-legend attached to Bramall Hall; such stories usually feature churches, not residential buildings. It is also odd to see it attached to a relatively recent building when such legends usually date from the 11th or 12th century. The prosaic truth is that Crow Holt Wood was the site of an earlier hall – ditches have been found which indicate an ancient moat, which must have encircled a building.

The legend about fairies may be a recent invention, but what of the tradition which says that Bramall Hall is visited each New Year’s Eve by the Red Rider; a ghost clad in a red cape, on horseback? He is said to be the ghost of a real horseman who visited the hall in the 1630s. He was given food and shelter but next morning he had disappeared, leaving the owner, William Davenport, dead on the floor.

An old ballad tells of another ghost who haunts one of the bedrooms here; Alice, or the Maid of Bramall Hall. She was eagerly awaiting the return of her lover from Spain, so was naturally horrified when his horse arrived at the hall without a rider. Her lover’s body was soon discovered in Macclesfield Forest, murdered by highwaymen, and when his body was brought to the hall Alice broke down in grief. She mourned him until she died and still haunts the room where she eventually gave up her life.

An alternative story about Bramall Hall’s female ghost says she is Dame Dorothy Davenport, wife of the above-mentioned William, the original builder of the hall. Her bedroom is so badly haunted that it has earned the sobriquet of The Ghost Room. Visitors to this room sometimes hear rustling skirts or feel a hand on their shoulder – at least one visitor has even heard a voice saying ‘Hello’. A shadowy woman has also been seen in the Plaster Room, passing through the wall into the Withdrawing Room next door.

So many ghosts in one building! And there’s also something lovely outside; on the oldest part of the building, on the oldest part of exterior masonry, is a green man.

Image © Copyright Bob Abell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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Blackley Hall and Old Shay’s Ghost

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Blackley Hall was a large and ancient manor house dating from Tudor times but by 1760 it was no longer used as one large family home. Separate parts of it were rented out by the Scholes family, who owned it. The building, which stood where the Rochdale and Middleton roads now cross, was torn down around 1815 but even though it cannot be visited, its story is included because the ghost who haunted there was so famous.

Early in the 18th century there was a rumour that the lately deceased wife of one of the tenants, Mrs Shay, had been murdered and the assumption was that her husband, Old Shay, was her murderer. Soon it was also rumoured that the ghost of ‘Old Shay’s wife’, as she was commonly known, was haunting the hall, rattling crockery and door handles and walking the rooms at night accompanied by her small black dog.

One of the tenants of Blackley Hall was Mr Nicolson, a schoolmaster, who ran a school in part of the hall and lived there in a room himself. He was the first to report having seen the ghost but in the years that followed many people living nearby claimed to have seen Old Shay’s wife, both in the hall and outside in the grounds. The reports continued until 1815, when the hall was sold to a Mr Grant, who demolished the whole of the dilapidated building in order to erect a print shop. This business passed from hand to hand but never prospered and in 1839, the print shop itself was demolished.

Old Shay’s wife was never seen again… but she was certainly blamed for other hauntings as time went on.

In 1852, the Manchester Courier carried a story about an ‘extraordinary superstition’ at Blackley, describing how the village people believed Old Shay’s ghost had taken up residence in a very old building next to the White Lion pub. The Whitehead family had lived there for almost a year but during the last six weeks they had been troubled by strange noises; a clucking hen, or a far-off train whistle and, in particular, a screaming sound which occurred whenever anyone stood on a specific flagstone in the kitchen. This noise was so disturbing that Mr Whitehead felt compelled to uproot the flagstone and start digging – and several feet down he discovered a large jug, which turned out to be filled with quicklime and bones. Naturally, the bones were assumed to be human.

As neighbours heard about the disturbances, they offered theories to explain the jug full of bones, some suggesting it must have been the hidden remains of a murder victim but most assuming that the ghost of Old Shay’s wife must have taken up residence in the house. Indeed, a certain Mr Horrox, who had once lived in the house, said that he had twice seen the ghost of a woman. Other neighbours contributed similar stories and some said that the house had been haunted for many decades.

Spurred on by the beliefs of his neighbours, Mr Whitehead continued to dig up his floor, even removing the cellar steps in the process until a very large hole had been excavated measuring some sixteen feet long and five feet deep. Despite his herculean efforts, nothing more was found. However, the unearthly disturbances continued, including one occasion when a boiling kettle was moved from the fire to the middle of the room and left on the floor.

The story spread abroad and someone even called in an astrologer from Manchester, who brought his crystal ball and magical texts, but his ‘investigation’ served no purpose other than the entertainment of the many curious onlookers.

Oddly, the newspaper report stated that Mr Whitehead himself was not at all frightened by the occurrences and was determined to find an explanation for them. However, that did not dissuade the neighbours who still claimed that it was surely all the work of a boggart, or Old Shay’s wife herself.

The report ends by commenting that the story was attracting visitors to Blackley from far and wide, and local pubs were making a fortune…

Image Courtesy Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/manchester/22.html
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The Grey Lady of Astley Hospital

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The building known as Astley Hospital, on Ley Road in Astley, is in fact an ancient manor house; the inscription on the lintel informs us that it was erected in 1650, by the Mort family. It was built on the site of an earlier hall and was originally called Dam House, after the nearby dam which powered a corn mill. In 1893 the building became a hospital and when the hospital closed in 1994, a Heritage Trust was formed to preserve the building for use as a community centre.

The gardens surrounding the community centre are open to the public. They are also haunted by a Grey Lady; Anne Mort, of Dam House. Anne’s family was rich, influential and Catholic, so her father was outraged when he discovered that Anne had become romantically involved with James Speakman, a young labourer who lived with his family in an untidy cottage nearby. James was clearly not a suitable match for Anne and her father forbade the pair to meet, but nothing he said could turn the young lovers away from each other. They continued to meet in secret, walking the paths that crossed the moss around Dam House, until Anne’s father decided he must take more drastic action. He went to James’ father and arranged to move the whole family to another of his estates, in Lymm, well away from Dam House. James was not informed until the last minute and when Anne went to find out why she had not heard from him, she found the cottage empty.

Anne never forgave her father and never forgot her love for James; she walked to his old home every day and wandered the paths they had walked together, gradually losing her mind. She died of her grief when she was only eighteen.

Now, Anne Mort is more commonly known as the Grey Lady, who walks in the grounds of Astley Hospital and the many paths and lanes nearby. She has been seen near the canal, around the old Leigh Grammar School and crossing Marsland Green. Those who have seen her – including a selection of burly workmen – say that she glides along, casting her eyes from side to side as if searching for someone. We know, of course, that the one she seeks is James Speakman, her true love.

Image © Copyright Julian Graham and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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Manchester Folk…

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The manuscript of my next book, Manchester Folk, is finally with the publisher and compiling this new collection has been a joy. Apart from discovering magical places I didn’t previously know existed, it’s been very interesting to see how similar the Manchester and Lancashire canons of stories are – and, sometimes, how different.

Greater Manchester, a modern county delineated in 1972, encompasses areas which in earlier times belonged to the counties surrounding it; Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire. However, the fact that it is a ‘modern’ county deflects attention from its ancient origins, for some towns and villages show evidence of being occupied in the Iron Age. The Celtic tribe known as the Brigantes certainly settled in the areas around Wigan and Stretford and the Romans built substantial forts at Castlefield in Manchester and Castleshaw in Saddleworth.

Many of the folkloric tales and ghost stories within the Greater Manchester area reflect its ancient history. The area covers almost three hundred square miles and has a population of around 2.8 million; one of the most populated areas in the whole of Britain, yet surrounding it are swathes of moors and fells where spectral horsemen roam and ancient monuments and stones can be found. Stories are told of how these massive stones were thrown to their current sites by Robin Hood or by giants engaged in terrible fights.

Within the urban areas, traces of history can easily be found in the hearts of the villages swallowed up by progress and now regarded simply as districts of Manchester. Venture down a side-street in Chorlton and an ancient churchyard comes to light, next to an equally ancient church and, nearby, a pub which has four centuries of history behind it. Visit Chadkirk, a tiny hamlet hidden away in the suburban sprawl of Stockport, and you will find a holy well dedicated to St. Chad which is still cared for and beautifully decorated with flowers every July. Many glorious Tudor mansions are now buried in housing estates instead of their original lawned and wooded grounds; Ordsall Hall is a prime example. Explore all this history and you will find a satisfying catalogue of legends and tales, some mythical but some, no doubt, based on fact.

As most of Greater Manchester was originally within the old county boundary of Lancashire, one might expect that its folklore and its stories of ghosts would be similar to those of its parent county. Indeed, they are – but with some interesting differences. Using as a reference the first book in this series, Lancashire Folk, we find that ghost stories are as common in Greater Manchester as they are in Lancashire. However, in Greater Manchester there are over sixty instances of ghosts seen outdoors, compared to only thirty in Lancashire. Why this should be, only the ghosts know. Carvings of green men and tales of boggarts are just as common in both areas, as are tales of buried treasure but there are far fewer stories about fairies or the devil, whilst tales featuring trees or water do not appear at all.

The most notable difference between the two areas is that Greater Manchester boasts more stories about giants. Once upon a time the existence of giants was undoubted because who else could have built stone circles? They were said to have been responsible for the positions of certain stones in Stretford and Worsley, having thrown them there from great distances away. A giant in Bredbury was known for throwing stones at his enemies and a tragic tale of unrequited love in Saddleworth features two giants throwing stones at each other. Tarquin, the giant of Manchester Castle who was defeated by Sir Lancelot du Lac, features in a carving in the Chetham School. One Worsley giant was not really a giant at all but earned the nickname through his many heroic deeds and eventually died in a battle against a serpent (dragon), so we can forgive him his misleading nickname.

In Greater Manchester, stories of witches are less folkloric in nature than in Lancashire; there are more historical reports of women tried as witches and released for lack of real evidence. There are also several records of well-respected wise-women or men who were useful to their local communities and left strictly alone by the authorities. As for the Devil, there are some tales but not as many as in Lancashire. Interestingly, the story told about schoolboys raising the Devil at Blackburn Hall in Bury is very similar to that at the Old Grammar School in Middleton – and is almost the same as the story set at three different places in Lancashire!

I expect that Manchester Folk will be available to buy later this year or early in 2018 – there is a lengthy editing and re-editing routine to be played out between my publisher and myself which is both hard work and a joy, as my editor loves to read these stories and tales. She is my first audience, and a valued one. I am now beginning work on my next collection; Yorkshire? Or Cumbria?  Time will tell!

Image – Folly at Rivington – Melanie Warren 2016
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