A REGION OF CONTRASTS
The Cheshire Plain, with its intriguing mix of industry and lush green countryside, is a suitable gateway to an area that has much to offer those who come in search of history and mystery. Spooky former textile mills and factories are to be found in towns such as Macclesfield and Stalybridge. Yet, just a few miles away there are timbered Elizabethan manor houses and sturdy castles, all with more than a few residents ghosts to chill the blood.
Head north through Greater Manchester and Lancashire and you pass through landscapes that were changed forever by the industrial age, and yet exposed moorlands and fertile farmlands are also to be found here.
Move further north still, and you almost slide into the Lake District, where you soon feel the stresses and strains of the modern world begin to seep away as you find yourself confronted by the awesome splendour of nature. Protected by its high mountains, Cumbria managed to hold on to its Celtic roots long after the Anglo Saxons has conquered the rest of the region, and, in consequence, some chilling legends and intriguing superstitions are to be found here.
The ghost stories of the North West are as varied as the scenic backcloth against which they have been played out, and there is a vast array of lore and legend to keep the psychically curious engaged.
SOME NORTH WEST GHOST STORIES
The earliest record of habitation on the site is 1335 when William de Radcliffe built the great hall which is a typical Lancashire fortified manor house.
In the 16th Century the hall passed by marriage to the Barton family and it was during the tenure of Robert Barton (1524 – 1580) that the hall achieved its paranormal notoriety.
As Mary 1st attempted to restore England to the Catholic faith using fire and the sword, the Reverend George Marsh was brought to Smithill’s Hall to account for his refusal to recant his Protestant Faith and embrace the Catholic religion being foisted on her subjects by the notorious persecutions of the Queen "Bloody Mary."
Throughout the interrogation, which is believed to have taken place in the "Green Room," George Marsh remained steadfast in his beliefs until, exasperated, he rushed out the room and down the stairs, where he stamped his foot so hard upon the floor that its imprint is still visible today, and cried "if I am true to my faith, god shall leave his mark."
Marsh was later tried for Heresy and burnt at the stake at Spittle-Boughton near Chester on April 24th 1555.
But reverberations from those long ago events still echo around this old and atmospheric house with its rough timber-beamed interior, uneven floors and stone fireplaces.
The ghost of George Marsh has been seen gliding across the Green room and disappearing through a wall whilst the footprint now preserved beneath a metal plate bears a dark stain which is said to turn red and sticky each April 24th.
The Fairy Steps, Beetham
An uphill walk through the peaceful woods above the Lakeland village of Beetham brings you to a tranquil little grotto where a narrow passage squeezes between two sheer rock faces via a flight of natural stone stairs known as the "Fairy Steps."
It used to be common knowledge in the village that this was the domain of fairies and that if you make a wish as you descend the tiny steps and you complete the descent without touching the rocky sides then your wish will come true.
Sadly, only someone whose stature matches that of a fairy stands any chance of accomplishing the impossible feat and those who attempt it would be better employed keeping a keen eye peeled for the other inhabitant of this picturesque spot a demon dog known as "the Cappel" whose fiery eyes and twisted snarl strike terror into the hearts of those who encounter him at his rocky lair in the fading light of day.
The steps, incidentally, are situated on one Lakeland's corpse trails, along which the coffins of those who died in more remote and inaccessible wildernesses of the neighbourhood, would be carried for burial in the nearby churchyard.
Several of the iron rings through which ropes were threaded to haul the coffins up the sheer rock face are still visible in this peaceful and idyllic haunt.
The tiny village of Renwick possesses a small and uneventful church in which can be found an intriguing explanatory announcement that tells of a supernatural connection.
The village is lonely and isolated perched on the edge of desolate moor land by what is poetically named "Fiends Fell."
Although the church is an ancient foundation a sad notice inside the tiny church laments, "our little church is bare now, it has been burnt and ravaged through many centuries of border warfare but it is beautiful to our eyes. To the casual visitor the village is bleak. Take a walk along the byways it is the most beautiful parish in the country."
Inside the tranquil though uneventful little church is a type written announcement that informs in unsteady lettering the reason why the villagers in this remote and isolated spot are called "Renwick Bats."
By 1733 the church had fallen into disrepair and it was decided to rebuild it. As the workmen were demolishing the building a hideous creature suddenly flew at them from the foundations which they immediately recognised as a cockatrice.
This mythical creature was said to be a four legged cock with a crown, the tale of a serpent ending in a hook and huge pinions. Its gaze was believed to be fatal or, according to Chaucer it "sleeth folk by the venim of his sighte."
The workmen, naturally, were terrified by the sudden appearance and, when the creature suddenly rose up before them, they downed tools and ran for their lives.
All, that is, except John Tallantire who, took the branch of a rowan tree (long believed to be a protection against witchcraft and diverse other evils) and fought the beast, managing to kill it.
In so doing he earned for himself the gratitude of the parish and for his heirs "his estate was enfranchised.. forever."
Over the years the story has been toned down with the beast being subsequently described as a giant bat, hence the epithet "Renwick bats" falling upon the descendents of the 18th century villagers.
It is these descendents who speak in hushed tones of a huge black, bat like flying figure that has been seen flying about the village on "certain evenings" and others who may not see it have sensed its evil presence as a cold chill passes over them and a faint shadow flickers across them.
The sullen dome of Pendle Hill broods aloof and alone, its stark and cracked facade dominating the surrounding countryside.
Dark fissures and sinister ravines scar its lean slopes which are oft enveloped in swirling mists that roll across its bleak yet strangely enchanting summit. It is an ethereal landscape steeped in legend, a place of dark deeds and haunting history.
In its shadow nestles the tiny village of Newchurch around which in the 17th century centred one of the areas most shameful albeit fascinating episodes - the Pendle Witches.
That witchcraft has long been a much feared aspect of local life is aptly demonstrated when you gaze upon the sturdy tower of St Mary’s Church where carved into the stone work is a peculiar oval shape said to be "the eye of God, "which reputedly protects the village from the malicious glance of witches. And the story of the Pendle Witches is an intricate part of local history tinged with folklore.
It hinged initially around two local families led by two old ladies named Demdike and Chattox. The locals needed no convincing that the two were witches and possessed special powers. They were both feared and reviled in equal measure.
In March 1612 Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, put a curse upon an itinerant tailor who had refused to sell her some pins.
When the unfortunate man was rendered paralysed Alizon was brought before the authorities and confessed to witchcraft. Furthermore she also implicated both Demdike and Chattox the former of whom confessed to evil deeds in April 1612 and told how the devil would enter her and suck out her blood leaving her "stark mad."
The three were sent to Lancaster Castle to await their trial and a witch-hunt promptly began in the area which resulted in seven more "witches" languishing in the Castle gaol. These included Alice Nutter, a gentle woman of high breeding who lived at nearby Roughlee Hall.
Demdike died in prison but the others were tried for witchcraft and found guilty despite the judge admitting that he was "moved by the ruin of so many poor creatures at one time."
The Pendle witches were hanged on Lancaster Moor and the supposed tomb of Alice Nutter can still be seen in St Mary's Churchyard.
With such a history of intrigue and injustice the area cries out to be haunted and the inhabitants from beyond the grave do not disappoint.
In a field just outside the village there lies a toppled stone near which the sorrowful wraith of a young girl has been sighted weeping, it is said, for her lover, a soldier who went to a long ago war from which he never returned.
In the village itself is a delightfully idiosyncratic little shop called "Witches Galore," which is run by charismatic Maureen Stopforth who has often felt an unseen presence moving through the premises and has sensed a female form standing by the wall to an adjoining property.
When the elderly lady who lived next door died, her daughter a pragmatic business woman and magistrate to boot came to clear the premises and told Maureen matter of factly that her mother's "visitor" had called.
She went on to explain how her mother had often seen the sad shade of the girl drifting from across the upper rooms of her house and disappearing through the wall that connected to Maureen's property.
The grim, grey walls of this turreted Lakeland Castle have been home to twenty seven successive generations of the Strickland family.
In Medieval times an owner of the castle is reputed to have had a wife whose beauty was the talk of the neighbourhood.
So consumed by jealousy was he , that when he went off to fight in Scotland, he locked his wife in her room and told his servants that there would be serious consequences should they release her before his return.
Heeding his instructions to the letter, the servants ignored the pleadings and ranting of their unfortunate mistress and allowed her to starve to death.
Her ghostly screams are said to echo through the rooms and corridors of the castle begging for release from the awful sentence that has, apparently, proved eternal and kept her death pangs and pleadings sounding throughout the castle and echoing down the centuries.
An early Lakeland guide describes Levens Park as "the sweetest spot that fancy can imagine," a description which still holds true today.
Gazing upon its magnificent Tudor frontage, it is hard to imagine that anyone could wish harm upon this picturesque manor house but a curse is said to have hung over it since the early years of the 18th century when a dishevelled gypsy woman arrived at the door of the house seeking a meagre portion of any form of sustenance.
Her begging fell upon death ears and she was sent away empty handed into the cold of the Lakeland winter.
Soon afterwards she lay dying from cold and hunger. But, as she slipped into the grip of exposure, she summoned up what little energy remained and spat a curse upon the occupants of Levens Hall. There would, she said, be no male heir born to the family until a white fawn should be born in the park and the River Kent cease flowing.
And so it proved for the generations came and went but no male heir was born the estate instead passing from uncle to nephew or brother to cousin.
Then, during a particularly harsh winter in 1895, the river froze over, one of the Parks Deer gave birth to a white fawn and a son, Alan Desmond Bagot, was born to the household thus ending the curse.
But the sinister wraith of the gypsy woman still wanders the grounds and corridors of Levens Hall and has appeared to several members of the family, including the families then seven year old daughter who came across the "grey lady" in the house in 1954.
She is sometimes accompanied on her lonely perambulations by a ghostly little black dog, who on occasion makes solitary appearances skipping playfully before visitors as they ascend the stairs only to disappear without trace when he reaches their room or more unnerving, appearing so close to the feet of the halls visitors that they all but overbalance in their desperate attempts to avoid stepping on him whereupon he simply vanishes into thin air.
Long Meg and Her Daughters
The loneliness of the location coupled with the eerie bleakness of the surrounding hills not to mention the leaning writhing stone figure of Long Meg herself, casts a strange spell upon the landscape and generates an aura of spine tingling foreboding that hangs heavy in the air about this impressive and sizeable stone circle.
Or, as Wordsworth put it:-
"A weight of awe, not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past
When first I saw that family forlorn"
Dating from the Bronze age local legend has attributed an awesome reputation to this ragged collection of standing stones associating them with Black Magic rituals and.
The stones, it is whispered in this locale, were once flesh and blood , witches whose Sabbath celebrations were rudely interrupted by the famed 13th century wizard Michael Scott of Balwearie when he turned them all to stone.
Here on this desolate and lonely windswept plateau the petrified sisterhood must remain until such time as someone succeeds in counting their number accurately or, failing that, should manage to count the same number of stones twice.
And, should anyone dare mistreat or attempt to damage any of the stones, the powers that lie dormant within them will be awakened and those foolhardy enough to continue with their disrespect will be dissuaded.
This happened to Captain Lacy, an 18th Century landowner, who used explosives in an attempt to dislodge and remove Meg and her daughters.
Within moments of the work commencing their arose a ferocious storm of driving rain and pounding hail accompanied by the worst thunder and lightning the district had witnessed in living memory.
The workmen became so terrified that they fled the site fearing for their lives whereupon the tempest ceased and the stones were left to age in peace as they do today and will, no doubt continue to do so for hundreds if not thousands more years.