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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Gamel and the Goblins – St Chad’s Church, Rochdale

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Long ago, when the Saxons inhabited this land, a man called Gamel (about whom several stories are told) chose a place by the River Roche to build a church. By nightfall he and his workmen had laid the foundations but in the morning the stones were found some distance away, on top of the hill across the river.

Gamel had all the stones moved back and that night ordered that some of the men should watch the site till daybreak, to make sure the stones stayed where they had been placed. The men, however, suspected that the stones had been moved by the devil, or at the very least by the devil’s servants, and so they were very unwilling to volunteer to stay there all night. Their fears were justified, because the men who stayed actually witnessed the stones again being moved – by creatures they described as goblins. Undoubtedly, those goblins were doing the devil’s work.

Gamel realised he had no choice, then, but to build his church where the devil’s goblins decreed it should be, at the very top of the hill. So this is the reason why, every Sunday, the congregation heading for their weekly services had to climb a hundred and twenty-four steps to do so.

Interestingly, in the porch of the old church is a list of vicars through the centuries. Included in this list is one Geoffrey, Dean of Whalley. It is believed that Geoffrey was the great-great-grandson of Gamel himself.

Image © Copyright John Lord and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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A Dream Of Murder in Bolton

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At the very beginning of the 19th century, a murder was solved by a dream and the story was vouched for by a very trustworthy source, the Reverend H. Alexander, pictured above, a prominent man of the cloth.

A man called Horrocks was found beaten to death and many months passed with no clue as to who his murderer might have been. Then, one night, a close friend of Horrocks had a dream in which, he said, God had revealed that a man by the name of Samuel Longwith was the culprit. Horrocks’ friend knew of Longwith, although they were barely acquainted with each other and had spoken on only a handful of occasions – but it was only a dream.

Next morning, after having the same dream again, he decided to travel to Bolton at once and see the magistrate, who refused to take him seriously. However, no more than a few minutes after leaving the magistrate, Horrocks’ friend met Longwith in the street. Longwith was not surprised to be greeted by him as they were, after all, acquainted and he agreed to accompany him to a public house for a drink. Once there, Horrocks’ friend cornered him and badgered him into talking about Horrocks’ death until he gave himself away by insisting that he had not been the one to strike the fatal blow…

This was enough for Horrocks’ friend to be taken seriously by the authorities. Longwith was arrested and he confessed to the robbery of Horrocks along with two compatriots and of being complicit in Horrocks’ murder. He was executed. And all because of a dream.

 Image courtesy of the very wonderful http://www.old-picture.com
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That’s Lancashire TV…

As it’s Hallowe’en season, my local TV station, That’s Lancashire TV, asked me to their studio for an interview. I imagined this would be a short piece, talking about my book and the fact that I was going to be at Waterstones in Preston the following weekend. Nope – this turned out to be an entire hour-long programme, just me, talking about my obsession.

This post is a little self-indulgent – I didn’t see the broadcast show myself and had to wait until it was loaded onto That’s Lancashire’s youtube channel, which finally happened today. So, for my own archiving purposes, here are links to the four quarters of the programme, featuring me and Lancashire Folk. Note the fake spider behind my head which seems to have its heart set on getting into my hair…

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

 

 

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How to Buy the Book!

Amazon.co.uk, who ‘lost’ my book recently, now have it available again.  You can also order from Book Depository very easily.

However, you can order directly from the distributor, Gazelle Books, and the link below will take you directly to the book’s page. Just click the ‘Add to Basket’ button beneath the cover image.

http://tinyurl.com/ojtxc4h

Also, enter the promo Code GAZFOLK1 when prompted and you’ll qualify for a 20% discount!

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Radcliffe Tower and the sad tale of Fair Ellen

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Radcliffe Tower, on Church Street, is all that remains of a manor house built in 1403. It once had two towers and a moat but most of it was demolished in the 19th century. The remaining tower is now, fortunately, a protected site.

An old ballad tells the story of Fair Ellen who lived here and who was killed on the orders of her stepmother, who was racked with jealousy because her new husband loved his daughter so much. She then had some of Ellen cooked in a pie and served it to her father, claiming the meat was venison. A simple scullery boy had witnessed all this; indeed, he had been so distressed that he had begged to be killed in Ellen’s place, but the jealous stepmother would not change her mind.

When Ellen’s father was served with the grisly pie, he said he would not eat until his beautiful daughter Ellen had joined them at the table. The jealous stepmother had guessed that this might happen and explained Ellen’s absence by saying she had gone to live in a nunnery. Ellen’s father believed this tale, unlikely though it was, and was grief-stricken at the loss of his beloved daughter. He swore that he would not eat again until she was restored to him.

Ellen’s father kept to his word and refused to eat, for days and weeks. At last, the simple scullery boy confessed everything to Ellen’s father, including the fact that he had offered his own life in exchange for Fair Ellen’s. Ellen’s father was so incensed that he caused his wicked wife to be burned at the stake for her evil deed, and took the scullery boy as his legal son and heir.

Whilst this legend is almost certainly fictitious, it was memorialised in a popular ballad and so became believed as fact. A family tombstone, made of purest white alabaster and showing a medieval knight and his lady, in the church at Radcliffe, was said to show Ellen’s father and his unfortunate daughter, the whiteness of the stone representing the pure innocence of the pair. The memorial became badly chipped because of the many superstitious people who came to break off a small piece, in the belief that it would bring luck or perhaps effect miraculous cures. The damage was so great that the stone eventually had to be removed and placed beneath the floor of the church, to prevent it being destroyed entirely. When enough time had passed for the superstition to have waned, it was retrieved and rehomed in the chancel.

Today, Radcliffe Tower is said to be haunted by a black dog which, for some reason, is said to be connected to Fair Ellen. If it exists at all, it probably has a story all its own…

© Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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