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!