Bawming the Thorn in Appleton, Cheshire

Bateman, Robert, 1842-1922; Appleton Thorn

Photo credit: Warrington Museum & Art Gallery

‘Bawming the Thorn’ is a lovely traditional ceremony held at Appleton each year. The term ‘bawming’ comes from the old English word ‘bawm’ which means to adorn or anoint. The ‘thorn’ is a whitethorn tree, a variety of hawthorn. The ceremony has been through many forms in its centuries of existence but today’s version is largely based on the 19th century event where the village’s children decorated the tree with flowers and ribbons and danced around it. They would then take part in a variety of games and, of course, a feast.

The tradition fell out of fashion for a while, having degenerated from a lovely ritual into a rowdy affair, but was resurrected in the 1970s by the Primary School’s headmaster, Bob Jones. In older days the ceremony was always held on June 29th, St. Peter’s day, but now, for the sake of convenience, it happens on the Saturday closest to Midsummer’s Day. Modern festivities include a climbing wall, a fairground and stalls selling everything from fudge to make-up and greetings cards.

The actual ceremony of Bawming the Thorn, however, has much older roots. The hawthorn tree is said to be a descendant of the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The original Holy Thorn is said to have been brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea, the man who arranged for Jesus’ burial. He planted his staff in the ground on Wearyall Hill, where it took root and grew into a thorn tree. Cuttings from the tree were taken to many places in the British Isles. The original Appleton thorn was brought by local crusader knight Adam de Dutton, in 1178.

Today’s tree is a replacement but is still revered, protected by railings in its special place near the church. Its sacred nature comes from the belief that Jesus’ crown of thorns was made from this very tree. It was however, regarded as very unlucky to bring blossom from this tree into the house, because to do so would be inviting death to follow. Indeed, the blossom was said to have the smell of death about it. In fact, it has been discovered that the chemical trimethylamine, contained in the scent of the blossom, is also one of the chemicals emitted by a body after death so this old belief does have a basis in fact.

On a cheerier note, a long-standing Cheshire May Day custom was to hang a bunch of May blossom outside one’s sweetheart’s house. It was also considered entirely appropriate for brides to wear May blossom in their hair. This may well derive from the ancient Celtic belief that hawthorn signifies love and protection. The hawthorn was regarded as a sacred tree long before Christianity came to these shores.

Hawthorn trees are traditionally home to fairies, who act as their guardians. The 13th century poet and mystic Thomas the Rhymer wrote that the fairy Queen had appeared to him at a hawthorn tree and took him into her own fairyland, where he spent a short time – or so he thought. When he emerged, he found that seven whole years had passed. Those who believed in fairies would not allow a hawthorn tree to be destroyed, for fear of retribution.

Taking all this magic into account, the ceremony of Bawming the Thorn suddenly takes on new significance. A group of children from the local school process to the Appleton Thorn, which has already been dressed with red ribbons. The children carry flowers and wear matching red and white outfits, with two of them taking on the roles of Sir Adam de Dutton and his page. Once they are all gathered at the tree, Sir Adam pronounces, “I, Adam de Dutton, raise this thorn, on this morn in Appleton Thorn.” The rest of the children then reverently lay their flowers at the base of the tree. A choir, dressed in black and red, now starts to sing the traditional bawming song and the children dance, in pairs, around the tree. The song, written by Mr. Egerton-Warburton, is sung to the tune of ‘Bonnie Dundee’.

The Maypole in spring merry maidens adorn, Our midsummer May-Day means Bawming the Thorn. On her garlanded throne sits the May Queen alone, Here each Appleton lad has a Queen of his own.

(Chorus) Up with fresh garlands this Midsummer morn, Up with red ribbons on Appleton Thorn. Come lasses and lads to the Thorn Tree today To Bawm it and shout as ye Bawm it, Hooray!

The oak in its strength is the pride of the wood, The birch bears a twig that made naughty boys good, But there grows not a tree which in splendour can vie With our thorn tree when Bawmed in the month of July.


Kissing under the rose is when nobody sees, You may under the mistletoe kiss when you please; But no kiss can be sweet as that stolen one be Which is snatched from a sweetheart when Bawming the Tree.


Ye Appleton Lads I can promise you this; When her lips you have pressed with a true lover’s kiss, Wooed her and won her and made her your bride, Thenceforth shall she ne’er be a thorn in your side.


So long as this Thorn Tree o’ershadows the ground, May sweethearts to Bawm it in plenty be found. And a thousand years hence when tis gone and is dead, May there stand here a Thorn to be Bawmed in its stead.


The author of this song was Rowland Egerton-Warburton (1804–1891) of Arley Hall. He also commissioned the painting in the image illustrating this article, in 1880.

Another, earlier song, was written by Dr Egerton Leigh (1702 – 1760) an Anglican clergyman based at High Legh and author of many ballads based on local legends.

(Chorus) Bawm the old Thorn, At peep of dawn, This happy morn, Bawm the Thorn.

Hasten lads and lassies all, Here together neighbours call; Let the trumpet’s brazen tongue Summon all, both old and young.


 Years, years ago thy shade hath seen Our grand-dames dancing on the green. Hath seen our sires as wee things play And while the summer hours away.


Branches of thy fragrant May, By love-sick swain, at break of day Have oft been hung at maiden’s door, With Nature’s gems bespangled o’er.


Here vows of love have oft been made By fond youth whispering in thy shade; Oft hath the evening breeze I wiss Mixed with the murmur of a kiss.


Thy ruby stores (to childhood’s eye So beautiful), when winter’s nigh, Tempt startled field-fares to thy tree. By hunger tamed, to feast on thee.


Slowly beneath thy boughs hath past When earth to earth returns at last As generations melt away. The weeping funeral array.


But to-day away with sorrow. Nought shall grieve us till tomorrow: With dance and feast and village lay We’ll celebrate our bawming day.


Clip the hawthorn, scatter flowers, Rob for this the brightest bowers; Urge on the dance and wassail – say We will, we will be mad today.


Finally, let’s not forget the traditional home of merriment, the local pub, the Thorn Inn, which was also commemorated in verse…

As long as you’re sober you’re safe at the Thorn, But if drunk overnight it will prick you next morn. May the lord of the manor who planted it thrive, May the wenches who bawm it all speedily wive; May the old ‘neath its shadow in comfort repose, And Appleton flourish as long as it grows.


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Walton Hall, Warrington

Walton_Hall,_Cheshire By Peter I. Vardy - Own work, Public Domain,

Walton Hall, on Walton Lea Road, was built between 1836 and 1838 and is a Grade II listed building. The Greenall family bought the estate in 1814, their wealth the result of the family brewing business founded by Thomas Greenall in 1762. Thomas was a hard-working businessman who had also ventured into other areas such as spinning, coal mining and nail making, but brewing was his most successful business. By 1800, Thomas’ three sons were also involved in the brewery business but by 1817 only Edward remained.

Edward Greenall bought the Walton estate and built the Hall, which then passed to Gilbert, his son. Gilbert continued to run the brewery business but also served as a Conservative MP for three decades –  a service which earned him his peerage. Walton Hall next passed to his son, also Gilbert, better known as Lord Daresbury, who ran the estate as an agricultural venture and hosted the Walton Agricultural Show each year. Lord Daresbury’s wife was largely responsible for laying out the Hall’s magnificent gardens which were often open to the public.

Lady Daresbury (Frances Eliza Griffith) died in 1953 but, according to rumour, she continues to haunt Walton Hall, her beloved home. I’m not sure how accurate this is, because Walton Hall was sold to Warrington Borough Council just after the Second World War and both the Hall and the gardens were then open to the public. Would Lady Daresbury have remained in residence? Perhaps her ghost simply preferred to haunt the home she had loved so much during her life.

The legend of Lady Daresbury’s demise, however, says that she died in the bathroom adjoining her bedroom. Some of the visitors touring the house have found those rooms very unwelcoming and are left with the impression that they are unwanted intruders. Lady Daresbury has also been seen standing at the top of the staircase and some visitors say they have felt unsteady on that staircase, as if someone was deliberately pushing them, in the hope that they might fall.

There is no doubt that Lady Daresbury would have known how to project a commanding presence; as well as handling a large household of servants, she also employed twenty-six gardeners and no doubt would have expected excellent work from her work-force. It stands to reason that if she objected to people invading her private rooms, she would make her presence unequivocally felt.

However, it is interesting that an early mention of a haunting at Walton Hall dates from June 1915, when a young couple were rudely awoken by their bedroom door noisily opening and then slamming shut again. When they mentioned this the next morning, they were told that an old lady haunted that room. This was clearly not Lady Frances Eliza Daresbury, who lived until 1953.

Lady Daresbury aside, Walton Hall is also said to be haunted by ghostly children who are heard running through the hall or playing in rooms which are then found to be empty. One specific child, known as Alice, is said to have been a former resident of the Hall who died there before she was fully grown.

An unidentified male ghost haunts the function room and spectral servants have been seen in various locations. Some rooms are studiously avoided by today’s staff, who have known objects in them to move and are certain that even when they are alone in these rooms, there is something otherworldly in there with them…

Over the years, several teams of ghost-hunters have spent the night at Walton Hall. In 2008, a group of staff from Deeside College stayed overnight to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society. A newspaper report of that event (which raised a healthy £700) described the hauntings a little differently to modern reports, saying that Lady Daresbury’s ghost was often seen standing at her bedroom window, looking out at the gardens. Also, staff had reported hearing a woman crying on that upper floor but, when they investigated, all the rooms were empty. TV’s popular series ‘Most Haunted’ also came to Walton Hall in 2016. There are certainly no signs that Walton Hall’s haunted reputation is fading away.

I came across an entertaining fact whilst researching Walton Hall – it has nothing to do with ghosts but the urge to include it here was irresistible. Walton Hall and its gardens now house a variety of exotic creatures and one of the first of these, many years ago, was a parrot called Polly who was well-known for her bad language. She had, allegedly, learned all these awful words from her owner, Lady Daresbury!

Image By Peter I. Vardy – Public Domain-
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The Winwick Pig


On the exterior of St. Oswald’s Church in Winwick, Warrington, are two figures representing St. Oswald and St. Antony. Just to the side of St. Antony’s foot is another little carving, worn with time, which some believe to be a lion, the emblem of a local family, the Gerards. Such is the sensible history.

Others believe that the carving is not a lion at all, but a pig. Why? Well, there are three explanations to choose from. The first says that it is associated with St. Antony, who gave up a life of degeneracy in order to become a Christian. The pig, regarded as a filthy creature, represents the degenerate life which St. Antony trampled underfoot.

The second explanation is that the pig is in memory of the annual ‘tithe pig’ which made regular tours of the village in search of food. The pig wore a little bell around its neck and parishioners, on hearing the bell, would offer up anything they could spare. In due course, the fattened pig would be slaughtered and shared out amongst the poorest families.

The third explanation, though, carries all the hallmarks of a true English folkloric story and is, for that reason, my favourite.

It is said that St. Oswald died here, in battle, in the year 642. When it was decided to build a church in his honour, the chosen location was a little distance away from the small hill on which he had died. Builders and stone-masons were hired, materials were acquired and work on the foundations of the church commenced but, each morning, the stones were found to have been moved to the little hill nearby. Finally, a night-watchman was appointed. When morning came he had a truly remarkable tale to tell, about a huge unearthly pig who had appeared amidst the stones. The pig, he said, had picked up the stones one by one and carried them to the small hill – the precise site of St. Oswald’s death – where he deposited them. Hearing this, the superstitious builders felt they had no choice but to build the church where it now stands and the stonemasons added a carving of the pig so all would remember him.

St. Oswald’s Church is not the only church about which such a tale is told. Time and again we hear legends of supernatural forces influencing the siting of churches, with their foundations being moved night after night until the builders give in and follow these determined instructions. Usually, the spot is chosen by fairies or the Devil. Other influencers are rare but not unknown – in Leyland the culprit was a huge ghostly cat – but the legend of Winwick’s church is, to my knowledge, the only one to mention a pig.

Quite why this story is told so often, in so many villages and towns at great distances from each other, is not a question which can be easily answered. However, it is a fact that many early Christian churches were built on the sites of earlier, pagan, religious buildings. Perhaps, then, the real answer to the mystery of these moving churches is that when the builders chose the wrong spot, local people quietly put them right and blamed supernatural forces which could not be questioned.

As an afterthought, it’s also worth noting that in Winwick, folklore mentions the squealing noise the ghostly pig made, describing it thus; “Wee-wick”. It is said that this how Winwick came by its name. Of course.

Image: Colin Park.

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Alderman Hill and Alphin Pike

Alphin Pike geograph-2599838-by-Michael-Fox.jpg

Alphin Pike

These high points near Saddleworth (near Manchester) were named after the two giants who made their homes there; Alphin and Alderman. They were friendly with each other at first, until they both fell in love with Rimmon, a water nymph who lived in Chew Brook in the valley beneath them. Unfortunately, Rimmon preferred Alphin and this angered Alderman so much that the two giants began to argue loudly and eventually started throwing boulders at each other. This is why the landscape here is covered with enormous boulders, which have stayed where they fell when the giants fought.

The fight ended when one of Alderman’s boulders found its mark and Alphin was killed. Rimmon also died, grief-stricken at her lover’s death. Alphin and Rimmon are said to be buried together, somewhere on Alphin Pike.

Coincidentally, there is a rocky outcrop near another Manchester, in New Hampshire (US) which is called Rock Rimmon and which has a legend concerning a young Indian girl who was forbidden to marry the man she loved. She threw herself to her death from Rock Rimmon.

Also on Alderman Hill is a long fissure with a deep hole at both ends. It is said that a dog once followed a fox into one of these holes one day… and never came back.

Alderman Hill

Alderman Hill

© Copyright Michael Fox and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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The Davenport Arms, Woodford

Davenport Arms

This charming 18th century red-brick pub on Chester Road is more commonly referred to as ‘The Thief’s Neck’. This nickname refers to the insignia on the coat of arms of the Davenport family, which include a representation of a man with a rope around his neck. The Davenports were foresters to the King, that is, game-wardens for the forests of Leek and Macclesfield. As such, they had the power to punish poachers by hanging them.

Some say that a regular ‘court’ was held in the pub and offending poachers were hung from a tree close by. One tale associated with the pub and this awful practice tells of a young boy who was sentenced to hanging for unlawfully killing a deer. He was duly prepared with a hood over his head whilst the hangman was called to do his duty. Only when the boy was dead, taken down from the tree and his hood removed did the hangman realise that the poor boy was his own son.

A ghost story is also associated with one bedroom in the pub, whose atmosphere has caused distress to more than one resident. One man who stayed there explained how he had undressed ready for bed and hung his suit in the cupboard but once in bed he felt very uneasy. He could not explain why, except that he knew the cupboard itself had something to do with his discomfort. He even got out of bed and checked inside the cupboard but found nothing there apart from his suit.

The following morning, the landlord enquired if he had enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep and did not seem at all surprised when the answer was in the negative. The man then listened in shock to the landlord’s story about a maid who has worked here in the last century and who, it was believed, had been murdered. Her body had been hidden in that cupboard, where it had remained for some time.

Image cc-by-sa/2.0 – © David
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A Series of Terrible Events at Winstanley Hall


Winstanley Hall, in Wigan, was built by the Winstanley family who had owned the land here since at least the 13th century. The oldest part of the present hall was built in the middle of the 15th century. Other wings were added in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1855, Winstanley Hall was the scene of a series of terrible events involving the estate manager, Thomas Shortrede and his wife. Mrs Shortrede was found dead, apparently drowned, in a well on the estate. When it came to light that her husband had been unfaithful, it became obvious that Mrs Shortrede had taken her own life when she discovered the affair.

Thomas Shortrede’s lover was Mrs Atherton, wife of the mason who also lived on the Winstanley Estate. As the story of the death and her own infidelity spread, Mrs Atherton could not bear the scandal and her partial responsibility for Mrs Shortrede’s death, so she then took her own life by hanging herself.

Finally, Thomas Shortrede was publicly shamed in church the following Sunday by Canon Howard St. George and he found this so unbearable that he also lost interest in living and shot himself. The court investigating his death recorded an ‘open verdict’.

Naturally, Winstanley Hall is haunted and the string of deaths in 1855 are said to be responsible – although, as none of those involved actually lived in the hall, it is unclear how they could cause the shadowy figures seen at the deserted windows of the building.

There is also one ghost which is unconnected to the scandalous murders; the ghost of a white pony called Dick. The pony belonged to Squire Banks and died in 1841. He was clearly a favourite as he was buried close to the hall and his grave can still be seen. A ghostly coach drawn by a white pony has sometimes been reported in the grounds of Winstanley Hall.

cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Andy
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Strange and Haunted Trees


Folklore Thursday’s theme for today is ‘Trees’ – I had no problem finding several remarkable trees in Lancashire and it was delightful to have a reason to gather them all together. Enjoy!

There are several hills around Carnforth; indeed the main street of the village is very steep. One hill on the north side of the canal was once known as Moothaw, a derivation of Moot Hall, for it is said that in ancient times it was a meeting-place for the local Saxon law court. On this hill there was also a magic tree. It was known as the ‘Shrew Tree’, because shrews and field-mice were habitually incarcerated within it as offerings to the spirit of the tree. This sacrificial act imbued the tree with magical properties so that a small twig could bring about healing in diseased cattle. It is recorded that the tree was ‘fed’ at regular intervals.

At Caton, standing next to the ancient Fish Stones, on which medieval monks from Cockersand Abbey would sell their catch, is a tree which is, unusually, a protected monument. Its age is all too readily obvious from its battered state and shrunken size, but that is forgivable as that plaque on it says it dates from ‘the time of the Druids’. The place where the Oak stands is the original settlement of Caton, a Norse name from Kati Ton. Modern Caton is on the other side of the Artle Beck.

A white lady has sometimes been seen on the road approaching this ancient place. Some drivers have been known to believe they have hit the woman, only to jump from their cars to investigate and find no trace of her at all.

In Chipping, Wolf House was so plagued by numerous boggarts that the local priest was called to turn them all out. The last boggart was laid under a yew tree by the gate of the farm with strict instructions that he should remain there until Chipping Brook ran dry. So seriously did local farmers take these instructions that they redirected field drains into the brook so that it would never run dry, even in the driest seasons. And when the yew tree was felled by a storm, it was replaced by a new yew sapling within hours.

Many years ago, the verger of Grindleton Church told how two boys had reported hearing fairy music in West Clough Woods, near Cat Steps, and had then seen little people dancing amongst the trees. The verger believed them because he had seen the fairies himself. Their coats had been green, their caps red.

Hurstwood’s boggart was either a black dog or a piece of white linen, depending on which version of the story is believed. It may have been this same boggart who is reported to have pulled the bedclothes off one family and which was often seen in an old yew tree, dressed in white. Hoggarth’s Cross is close to where the boggart was eventually ‘laid’, after it had promised never to cause trouble again as long as the stream through Holden Clough kept flowing.

In Melling, many, many years ago, throngs of people flocked to inspect a certain sycamore tree, as it had been reported far and wide that the sap exuding from the bark had fashioned itself into the form of a man’s face. What’s more, the face was recognised as a man by the name of Palmer, who had been buried without a coffin and was using this method to make his anger known. The contemporary report ends by noting that ‘inns in the area reaped a rich harvest…’

In Staining, the story of Staining Hall’s boggart seems to stem from the time of the Jacobite Rebellions, when many hundreds of brave men lost their lives fighting for their beliefs. The story says that a Scotsman was cruelly killed near Staining Hall and buried near a tree, in the vicinity of the old moat.

The ghost of the old Scotsman was seen many times over several centuries, a sad and forlorn figure wandering around the area, but as time passed his shade grew less distinct and appeared less often until finally it disappeared entirely. However, his memory was kept alive by the tree which marked the site of his burial, which perfumed the soil around it with the unmistakable smell of thyme. In those days, thyme was also believed to ease the passing of the dying and so was used to fragrance coffins. It was also carried by warriors as it was believed to magically impart courage – but the legend gives another reason for the scent at the Scotsman’s grave. It is said that his wife was travelling from Scotland to be by his side and he desperately tried to stay alive until she arrived. With his dying breath, he called out, ‘Time! Give me time!’

Image: Melanie Warren 2015
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Bryn Hall and the Holy Hand

Bryn Hall Ashton-in-Makerfield

Bryn Hall, in Ashton-in-Makerfield, is well-known for the legend of the Holy Hand which was kept here for decades, reverently wrapped in a white silk bag. This hand was a relic of martyred priest Father Arrowsmith, who was killed in 1628 because he was of the Catholic faith.

Edmund Arrowsmith,whose given name was Bryan, was born in Haydock in 1585. He assumed his new name when he was confirmed; Edmund was the name of a favourite uncle. He trained as a Catholic priest on the continent before returning to England to fulfil his mission, settling in Brindle. The Blue Anchor pub in Brindle was the centre of his network for the landlord was a sympathiser and those requiring Father Arrowsmith’s services could call for him there.

All was well until Father Arrowsmith discovered that the landlord’s son had married a first cousin and, compounding the heresy, the marriage had been performed by a Protestant. Incensed, Father Arrowsmith told the boy that the marriage must not be consummated until Rome had pronounced the union valid in the eyes of God. This was enough for the boy to betray Father Arrowsmith‘s Roman Catholic faith to the authorities, who sent soldiers to arrest him. Warned of his impending capture, Father Arrowsmith rode quickly through Brindle but was captured when his horse refused to jump a ditch on Brindle Moss.

Father Arrowsmith was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle and condemned to death. He was executed in August, 1628. In time, he would be beatified and after his death, many relics of the Saint made their way to churches for preservation. It is said that just before his death he begged the attending clergy to preserve his right hand, promising that it would have the power to effect miraculous cures.

The ‘Holy Hand’ was first preserved by Father Arrowsmith’s family, who cared for it for many years at Bryn Hall and later at Garswood. Pilgrims who came secretly to touch the hand claimed it had miraculous powers of healing and as this legend spread, the fame of the Holy Hand grew. People claimed relief from all kinds of maladies and even impending death and it was one of these cases which, in 1736, became the Holy Hand’s first accepted miracle. Young Thomas Hawarden had a persistent fever and had gradually lost the use of his limbs, being unable to walk or even stand. His mother drew the Holy Hand up and down Thomas’ back, reciting a prayer all the time, until at last Thomas declared that he thought he could stand up – and he promptly did so.

Another miracle cure is in the records; that of Mary Fletcher, who was cured of convulsions in 1768. She had suffered dreadfully and was confined to bed, her Doctor saying there was nothing more to be done for her. The Holy Hand was brought to her bedside by her brother and Mary prayed to it sincerely whilst it was applied to her body. The very next day, Mary was up and about again, helping her siblings with the housework and the baking.

These cures were formally witnessed by gentry and by priests. One priest, who had witnessed Mary Fletcher’s cure, had need of the Holy Hand himself when he had a life-threatening disease of his throat. He was cured with a single touch of the miraculous relic. As late as 1872, miraculous cures were still being reported. A destitute woman from Wigan called Catherine Collins, who had been forced to enter the workhouse because she was too sick to make her own way in the world, was cured of paralysis by the Holy Hand. This cure was reported in the Daily News.

However, there are also stories which illustrate how irritated the servants at Bryn Hall must have been by the constant stream of hopeful sickly pilgrims, because they fashioned a large wooden hand, with which to beat those they judged unworthy of the real thing!

The miracles attributed to the Holy Hand led to Father Arrowsmith being ratified as a saint in 1929. His Holy Hand is still renowned for its powers of healing.

It is also said of Father Arrowsmith that he cursed one of the sheriffs who attended his execution, a member of the Kenyon family, because he would not grant a small favour before he was killed. Father Arrowsmith promised that although the Kenyon family would have heirs, they would all be crippled and infirm. According to the story, this was indeed the fate of the Kenyons…

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Bowdon Church and the Mummy’s Hand


There’s a Victorian tale about a Bowdon lady who visited Egypt and brought home a gruesome souvenir; a mummy’s hand. She displayed it proudly in her drawing-room under a glass dome and it was, no doubt, an intriguing conversation piece.

Unfortunately, the real owner of the hand clearly disapproved of its new resting-place and the Victorian lady suffered bad dreams, night after night, until she was quite ill through lack of sleep. Finally, she decided she must be rid of the ghastly object and so, one night, when the rest of Bowdon was in bed, she carried the mummified hand through the town to the old churchyard and reverently dug a small grave for it, with a spoon.

The hand’s original owner must have been satisfied with this attempt at a decent burial, for the Victorian lady rested well after that. And as far as anyone knows, the mummy’s hand rests in Bowdon churchyard still.

Image Copyright David Long and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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The Tale of Fox Robin


St Peter’s Church, Westleigh

In Westleigh, Greater Manchester, Fox Robin is a well-known name. Fox Robin was a farmer and Fox Robin Fold was his farm; the land was bought in recent years by Westleigh High School and is now the site of art rooms, language rooms and a humanities department. The old farmhouse which once stood here is all but forgotten, but the name is remembered in the name of one of the new buildings; Fox Robin Building.

Fox Robin himself was a crotchety old farmer; he was bad-tempered, selfish and not without his violent side, if the stories are to be believed. For there are plenty of stories.

The only visitors Fox Robin allowed to visit him were Widow Peggy Farrington and her son Roger and that was only because Peggy was his housekeeper and Roger his farm servant. Fox Robin had never married and his only relations were cousins and half-cousins whom he never saw, having long ago upset them all one way or another. He knew, though, that they would soon rally round if they heard he was dead, for he was sure they were waiting impatiently to inherit his house and whatever riches he had managed to tuck away.

One day, Fox Robin brought home a coffin and laid himself out in it, on his bed. Finding him thus, Peggy sent young Roger running to call for his cousins. A funeral was quickly arranged and the burial carried out and back to Fox Robin’s house came all the cousins, intent on searching the place for hidden treasure. They were no sooner inside the house, however, than they all ran away again – for there was old Fox Robin himself, sitting by the fire smoking his pipe. The coffin they had buried had been full of nothing but stones.

Within a year Fox Robin did actually, really, die and young Roger called the cousins together again. This time the cousins made sure Fox Robin was really dead, nailed his coffin shut themselves and kept watch over it until it was safely buried in the churchyard. Back they went to the house, sure that this time the place and all its contents were theirs for the taking. Not so! A lawyer met them at the door and informed them that Fox Robin had left all his land and possessions to young Roger and his mother – unless any of the cousins could raise enough money to pay off the mortgage. The mortgage was three hundred pounds, which was far beyond their reach. And so the cousins inherited nothing.

However, the fact remained that the hefty mortgage must still be settled. How could young Roger and his mother be expected to manage it? Manage it they did, with the help of Fox Robin’s ghost, who appeared to Roger several times before he realised that maybe he should not simply run away, but watch the ghost carefully. The ghostly Fox Robin led young Roger to a particular old oak tree and pointed to it meaningfully. Roger dug down to the roots and there he found a great box, which he carried home. When Roger and his mother Peggy opened the box, they found it was full of gold pieces. It was Fox Robin’s treasure, which he had so carefully hidden from his grasping cousins. Roger and his mother were easily able to settle the mortgage and they lived in the farmhouse for the rest of their lives.

A slightly different version of the story of Fox Robin and his treasure tells how he dug his own grave, intending to bury his treasure there, thus keeping it away from his relatives. He worked for so long that he fell asleep in the deep hole and was discovered by the innkeeper, who immediately ran to tell everyone he knew that Fox Robin was dead. Then he ran swiftly back to the open grave, where Fox Robin strangled him and buried him, along with the treasure, in the grave. The villagers who came to the churchyard saw nothing but a filled-in grave, but they believed Fox Robin was there under the mound of earth. When Fox Robin walked into the Inn, therefore, everyone ran away, sure they were seeing his ghost!

After his death, Fox Robin’s ghost continued to be seen, sometimes, walking the paths from the Inn to his farmhouse. It was said that he was also to blame for the state of some of the villagers, who, after spending all evening in the Inn, arrived home rolling drunk and covered in grass stains and scratches. It was all the fault of Fox Robin’s ghost, they said, who had dragged them through a hedge, backwards.

Whilst researching this story, another Fox Robin Fold came to light – in Pontefract in Yorkshire. This is quite a coincidence as Fox Robin is hardly a common name – I wonder if similar stories are attached to that place?

This article was first published on 2017.
Posted in Local Legends, Manchester, Uncategorized | 1 Comment