Preface to ‘Lancashire Folk’

In 1899, when Andrew Lang wrote his ‘Book of Dreams and Ghosts’, he stated that an apparition, a ghost, was simply a hallucination. His book set out much evidence supporting his opinion and, of course, he is probably correct. There is no such thing as a fairy; there are no ghosts; the Devil does not pay personal visits. However, Lang’s scepticism did not prevent him enjoying these tales of ghosts, in the same way that he loved the folk-tales which inspired his series of ‘Fairy’ books; many of my generation will fondly remember happy childhood hours engrossed in these lovely books of stories, whose origins are clearly set in British folklore. There is something in the human psyche which loves these tales of ghosts and witches, boggarts and fairies.

Of course, Lancashire has more than enough reason to tell tales of witchcraft, as it saw the execution of many so-called witches in the 17th century. There are historical accounts, of course, but there are also many folk-tales of local witches, elderly Mothers who suddenly become apprised of wisdom and miraculous powers which they use to trick the unwary. In most cases the unwary often deserve to be tricked, because they are guilty of infidelity or cruelty to those beneath them. These folk-tales are amusing and even heartening, with their unequivocal message that goodness wins out in the end.

The same can be said of the many tales of the Devil in Lancashire. Most of them tell of a common man or woman tricking the Devil, the innate intelligence of the village school-teacher or the humble tailor winning out against all the Devil’s evil thought and action. These stories make it abundantly clear that the Devil is not as clever as he thinks – and also that he is remarkably clumsy, considering he is a supernatural being. Something about these folk-tales makes us smile and they persist because people love them.

As for ghost stories, many of them are so old they are folk-tales in themselves, passed down the ages by word of mouth and doubtless elaborated in the process, as if in a game of Chinese Whispers. But that does not mean such tales should be discarded, for where there is smoke there is fire and once the smoke has died away one can often find a real event in local history which is responsible for the folk-tale and is, in itself, just as interesting. For instance, many of the most romantic and tragic stories have their origins in the 16th century, when the Reformation led to the persecution and deaths of many Catholic priests and recusant civilians who refused to give up their Popish ways. The stories have been embellished and may not be strictly factual, but they have their basis, at least, in fact. Even very modern stories quickly become embroidered and it can easily be seen how they might become the folk-tales of the future.

It seems there is hardly a town or a village in Lancashire that does not have a tale or two of a haunted house, a sad spirit grieving for a lost love or a boggart causing trouble. The word ‘boggart’ is a Northern term similar to ‘bogey-man’, used to describe any troublesome invisible being. The locations of these stories vary from houses and farms to great halls and manors, from ancient castles to modern-day factories and shops. Some ghostly experiences even take place out of doors. Some of the tales are very old indeed, some are very modern. Some are repeated down generations, some are reported quite factually in newspapers and thus preserved for posterity, even if the author of the piece cannot resist adding a line of two of ridicule. Sometimes a later report will report that a natural explanation has been discovered; the White Lady was a scrap of white curtain left in the empty ‘haunted’ house, moving in the breeze, the sound of music simply the wind through a broken window pane. There are quite a few stories amongst these pages which are explained as perfectly natural events, misconstrued by superstitious percipients, but that will not prevent them from entering into local folklore.

The interesting thing about folk-tales of all kinds is that similar tales can often be found in different locations. The tale of the Devil being raised through a floor by unwary schoolboys is told about two separate grammar schools, at Burnley and at Clitheroe, whilst a very similar tale is told about two threshers in Blackburn. Where such a tale appears in the following pages, reference is made to other occurrences. Such tales often can not be claimed as purely Lancastrian, as they also occur in other counties. In some cases, the tales can even be found in other lands, far, far away. Asking which story came first is often a useless task – I prefer to believe that they simply have always been.

Folk-tales often centre around ancient monuments which, before modern excavations, were known about only through folk-memory. Many such sites, with their evocative names, were known as burial places long before archaeologists became involved and pronounced them to be so. Even without excavations, local people had always revered them as places of the ancestors and told tales of protective boggarts, or even buried treasure. The Devil himself was given credit for some cairns – although he had generally dropped the stones by accident because, as we have heard, he was not as clever as he thought. Standing stones, their real purpose long forgotten, were still regarded with awe and imbued with magical powers by those who spoke of them. Some stones were said to move when no-one was there to see; some turned over at midnight; some travelled to a nearby holy well to drink.

In time, legends and folk-tales also attached themselves to more modern stones; stone crosses which are truly ancient, their carved illustrations dating from six, seven, eight centuries ago. They can be seen not only in churchyards but also in marketplaces and alongside roads, far from either church or market. Those in churchyards did not mark anyone’s final resting-place, although they did sometimes commemorate a saint; they were used instead for preaching, sometimes before the accompanying church had been built. Roadside crosses were sometimes boundary markers for Abbey lands but they also had the purpose of reminding passers-by that Christ died on the Cross for them. They were often used as resting-places for a coffin when the bearers had a particularly long walk to the Church and thus became known as ‘coffin stones’. Prayers would be said here while the coffin rested. Market crosses were used for general proclamations, as well as announcements of punishments to be handed out to miscreants of all kinds. Thus the crosses would be in close proximity to whipping-posts, pillories and stocks.

These crosses, with boulders for their bases, have stood in their places since very ancient days and, with a little knowledge, the wonderful carvings upon them can be seen to represent both pagan and Christian mythology. It is no wonder, then, that legends and stories have grown up around some of the crosses themselves. Many of Lancashire’s crosses do not survive, but often their bases do remain and still carry the name of ‘cross’. Even these boulders are regarded as holy, or magical.

Many crosses also marked the sites of holy wells or springs, placed there when these wells were given Christian saints’ names in an attempt to move the people away from their pagan worship of nature. Such wells and springs had always been valued for their miraculous properties; some were reputed never to dry up and so were valuable resources; others had wonderful healing abilities, being known variously for their effects on eyesight, weak limbs, or sickness. Before the saints claimed them, these springs were known to be the haunts of fairies and water-sprites, who could be helpful or harmful depending upon one’s reverence. Gifts would be left; coins, flowers or pins (which were a valuable commodity). Wishes would often be made and some wells were particularly known for their efficacy in granting these wishes.

It is understandable that sources of fresh, clean water were so important to our early ancestors, for water is a necessity for life. Village life often centred around the village well. This was surely also understood by the early Christians who chose to build their churches close to springs and wells already revered in the locality – and also why they chose to use the water to perform Christian baptisms. But the addition of saints’ names to these pagan places did little to halt the pagan beliefs and rituals, which continued to be observed for centuries after Christianity imagined it had cast them out.

Within these pages I have listed many of Lancashire’s ancient monuments, holy wells and crosses, as long as I could find a legend attached to them. Some of the haunted pubs listed here have changed their names, or may no longer exist; I make no apology for this as it’s an impossible task to keep track of such changes in these fast-moving times. I have recorded every folk-tale discovered in over thirty years of research. I have also included every ghost story I have heard, whether the detail is rich or scant. Some of my readers may be able to fill in the details and I will be pleased to hear from them. I am well aware that my readers may know of other ancient sites and more ghostly tales; often such stories are known only in the immediate locality and are not otherwise recorded.

My reader will find some familiar stories here, but also some new ones which have lain hidden away in dusty books for decades – sometimes, centuries. To the reader, then, I wish the same joy I experienced when finding these particular stories for the first time.

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