The Buttercup Meadows

The tunnel
leads to Paradise.

To the buttercup meadows
where the goalposts
have no goals.

Although the bike sheds
and the mural of St Teresa
in her ecstasy are gone
her sigh lingers on.

The last gasp of a steam train
on the railway lines

The smoke no longer stains
the city walls.

I walk here like a dog
without a master

thrown by life’s curve balls

whilst he sleeps in
deep Annwn.

In the future
will I be your guide dog
or the one that went barking
into the unknown?

Dogs of Carlisle

I went to Carlisle looking for proof of the claim it was the capital of Rheged and thus the seat of Urien Rheged where Taliesin sang his praises. I was also curious about whether I’d find any traces of Gwyn ap Nudd in the context of my research into his forgotten connections with the Old North.

I didn’t find what I expected and I found many things I didn’t expect. Such is the way of the world when you venerate a god of strange dogs…


Carlisle Cathedral

P1160463 - Copy

When I got to the entrance of the grounds of Carlisle cathedral I was stopped dead in my tracks by a stunning black-backed gull with a blush of red on his yellow beak, red star-studded rims around yellow eyes and black tail feathers spotted white. It wasn’t just his colouring. I felt like I recognised him.

P1160512 - Copy

However, there was a man eating a burger on the bench beside me. It wasn’t a time for talking to gulls. I looked around the ruins of the chapter house, the fratry, the friar’s tower, and St Cuthbert’s church then approached the doors of the cathedral.

On either side were sculptures of dogs. One was thickset, heavy-jowled, mouth open as if to speak an order or breathe out a blast of wind. The other was smaller, crouched, leaner, ready to pounce with an intriguing serpent-like fork at the end of her tail. Guard dogs. They let me pass.

Inside were chapels to St Wilfrid and St Michael, statues of bishops sleeping like corpses on their tombs. In the treasury a beautiful Roman glass bowl, stones engraved with early Christian art, collections of chalices, platens, jewellery. I was most impressed by the high star-studded ceiling and the ornate artwork on the misericords.

P1160473 - Copy

Misericord means ‘mercy seat’. The monks stood for their seven daily sets of prayers hence their seats folded down. However for the elderly and infirm a small shelf was created for support. This is the origin of some wonderful art: wyverns, man-headed lions, a siren with a mirror, a woman beating a man, St Margaret of Antioch being swallowed by a dragon and eaten by a boar*. In a world where neither prayer nor craftsmanship are valued, the time and effort put into carvings to support the backsides of praying monks seem undreamable.

There was no mention anywhere of Urien Rheged or Taliesin. When I got out, the gull was waiting at the entrance. I sat on the wall and shared some crumbs from my sandwich. An old woman approached, remarked on the proximity of my ‘friend’ and told me there had not been black-backed gulls in the area until a pair nested on one of the roofs. Everyone was terrified the little grey chicks would tumble out. Yet they’re alive and well and it looks like they’re staying.


Carlisle Castle

P1160535 - Copy

Like the Cathedral, Carlisle Castle was built (in stone) in the early 12th century but was founded on an earlier site. This was known in the Romano-British period as Luguvalium ‘Strong in Lugus’ and as the capital of Civitas Carvetiorum: the territory of the Carvetii tribe (‘the deer people’). A Roman fort which housed 1000 men was built there in 73AD then another called Petriana facing it on the north bank of the Eden.

Due to its powerful defensive position near the confluence of the rivers Eden and Caldew and to Hadrian’s Wall plus its earlier status as a tribal centre (which may have become one of Nennius’ 26 cities: Cair Ligualid) scholars have conjectured it may have been the capital of Rheged.

P1160588 - Copy

I walked the walls, descended into the half-moon crescent, found the well, and the tower where Mary Queen of Scots had been kept. Descending into the basement of the keep, once a storehouse and dungeon, I read how the thirsty prisoners had been forced to lick the stones for moisture.

In that inner cell I spotted grooves in the stone, a wet glint. Water? I touched it and my finger came away damp. Like a tongue. I felt the crush of bodies, the walls closing in, said a quick prayer for those who had been imprisoned, and rushed back to the light.

P1160579 - Copy

On the first floor the Great Hall with its expansive fireplace was the kind of place you could imagine a poet performing for a King. However, once again neither Urien nor Taliesin were mentioned. Up another flight of stairs a pair of walls decorated by bored 14th C guards with drawings from coats of arms and oral tales. Engraved on the door: a huntsman and his dogs.


The Eden and Caldew

P1160604 - Copy

I walked from the castle down to the river Eden, noting the path that runs along the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The Eden would have felt peaceful if it wasn’t for policemen searching for something in snorkels which set me slightly on edge. At the spot where the Eden and Caldew meet I touched the water and saw a shoal of tiny newly hatched fish.

Up the Caldew jackdaws flocked between the trees. As I walked back through the woods I felt like I was surrounded by them every way I turned: a fairytale moment, a jackdaw on every branch, in every ear. I don’t see jackdaws in Penwortham and was enchanted by their roguish presence. At the end of the wood I found a freshly fallen feather.


Curse and Counter


Walking through the subway between the castle and city centre I came across the infamous Cursing Stone. Designed by Gordon Young and made by Andy Altman it was set in place in 2001. It is inscribed with the Curse of Carlisle, which was used against the Border Reivers by the Archbishop of Glasgow in 1525. The curse is 1069 words long. It begins:

“I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their leggs, their hands, their feet and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.”

The Cursing Stone has caused controversy because since its instalment Carlisle has suffered from a spate of bad luck including foot-and-mouth disease, floods, rising crime and unemployment and the relegation from the league of Carlise United football team.


Christians have campaigned to have it removed. I noticed behind the stone was a door engraved with a Christian prayer and a cross saying ‘blessing’: an attempt to redress the negativity of the curse? Ensuingly someone less high-minded had written beside ‘honourable’ ‘just’ ‘pure’ in permanent marker, ‘Ha ha your God is dead.’


Tullie House Museum

You could spend days in the Tullie House Museum learning about the history of Carlisle (from a hand-axe dating to 10,000BC to the modern-day) and looking at the art-work. I had only a couple of hours left so had to keep my focus on finding something relating to Urien and Taliesin.

The bottom floor was entirely dedicated to Roman Britain and included statues and altars to the Roman deities and interactive spaces where you could enter a tent or try on jewellery. I noticed a brooch featuring a hunting dog then upstairs a dog statuette from the Romano-British period. Both put me in mind of the votive hounds offered to Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens.

To my surprise I found numerous sculptures of Celtic deities: a Celtic wheel-god (Taranis?), three sets of Genii Cucullati, three sculptures of the Mother Goddesses and a dedication, a Celtic horned god, the eye-catching ram-horned head from Netherby with his deep, sunken eyes and fathomless expression. There were also altars to Hueteris, Belatucadrus, and Mars Cocidius.

I’d seen many sketched in Anne Ross’s Pagan Celtic Britain and wasn’t prepared to see them all together at once. It was overwhelming and rather peculiar seeing them packed into four cabinets; some headless, limbless, or defaced. I managed to get my act together and speak their names, those I knew, those I didn’t. Images of deities sculptured 2,000 years ago, revered, now viewed in a entirely different context.

P1160686 - Copy - Copy

The most surprising find was a cauldron. I’ve been researching the stories of the broken cauldron in British mythology for the past two years yet this was the first time I’d seen a cauldron in real life. The Bewcastle Cauldron was found during peat cutting at Black Moss, was missing its handles and coincidentally had been repaired five times by patching. Most astonishingly it was surrounded by orange lights; in ritual, I place candles around my cauldron in the same manner! Once again there was no sign of Urien or Taliesin.


A Wild Dog Chase

If I’d seen a goose I might have been able to say I’d been on a wild goose chase. However, I found myself led along my journey by a variety of strange dogs, birds (but no geese), and other bizarre creatures to the cabinet of the gods and the ‘grail’ itself: the handle-less patchwork cauldron.

A strange day out and in the non-logic of it this ‘wild dog chase’ I sense the presence of my Annuvian deity…

*I found out the correct identities of the carvings on the misericords from an obscure pamphlet called Cry Pure, Cry Pagan by Thirlie Grundy which a friend coincidentally happened to own.

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

The Black Dog of Preston

The Black Dog of PrestonI have recently been researching the legend of the black dog of Preston. The process has led me on a journey through the places it is associated with and their history. It has also brought me to consider the meaning and origin of its roles as a harbinger of death and guardian of the town’s gates.

I first came across this tale earlier in the year on a walk with local folklorist Aidan Turner-Bishop, which was organised by UCLan Pagan Society. Aidan told us that a headless black dog haunts the area between Maudlands and Marsh Lane.

St Walburge's

St Walburge’s

These locations seem significant due to their history. Maudlands receives its name from a 12th century leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, which was dissolved in 1548 and later replaced by St Walburge’s.

Preston International Hotel

Preston International Hotel

Marsh Lane was the location of a Friary belonging to the Franciscan Order, which was founded in 1260 and dissolved in 1539 and occupied the position of Preston International Hotel. The Friary gave its name to Friargate and the The Grey Friar Pub.

The Grey FriarNext to it was Ladywell, which was venerated up until the nineteenth century and is now remembered only by the street name (1). Water was piped from Ladywell to the Friary.

Ladywell - CopyThe earliest written records of the black dog I have come across are in Charles Hardwick’s Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore (1872). Firstly, ‘I remember in my youth hearing a story of a headless boggart that haunted Preston’s streets and neighbouring lanes. Its presence was often accompanied by the rattling of chains. I forget now what was its special mission. It frequently changed its form, however, but whether it appeared as a woman or a black dog, it was always headless’ (2).

And secondly, ‘This spectre hound or dog is a very common sprite in Lancashire. I remember well being terrified in my youth in Preston, by Christmas recitals of strange stories of its appearance, and the misfortune which its howling was said to forebode. The Preston black dog was without a head, which rendered the said howling still more mysterious to my youthful imagination’ (3).

A story called ‘The Black Dog of Preston’ is serialised by James Borlase in The Preston Guardian in December 1878. This story is set in 1715 during the period of the Jacobite rebellion, which led to the Battle of Preston.

Once again, it appears as a portent of death ‘several people who had been abroad late at night and alone, had caught sight of the THE BLACK DOG OF PRESTON, a headless boggart, who could howl nevertheless, and whose howl meant death, as also did its lying down upon a doorstep to someone who dwelt within that special house’ (4).

A connection between the black dog and Gallows Hill is mentioned twice. The first instance is a mock sighting of ‘the huge and hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston, a weird boggart that for centuries was famous in our town, pawing the air, swaying from side to side, and howling most lugubriously’. Here it turns out to be one of the protagonists’ servants clad in a sheepskin (5).

In the second it appears as a guardian of the dead; ‘sixteen of the lesser rebels were hanged upon Gallows Hill in chains, and there suffered to remain for many months, guarded, it is said, of a night time, by the Headless Black Dog of Preston’ (6).

English Martyrs' Church

English Martyrs’ Church

English Martyrs' Church, Gallows Hill

English Martyrs’ Church, Gallows Hill

The English Martyrs’ Church, which now stands on the summit of Gallows Hill, derives its name from these executions. The nearby street names Derwentwater Place and Lovat Road refer to Jacobites captured and killed in the rebellion. That people were hung and decapitated there is evidenced by two headless bodies found during the building of North Road, which cuts through the hill. The area is described as a ‘provincial Tyburn’ (7).

Derwentwater PlaceThe black dog is also connected to the strange phenomenon of the parting of the Ribble’s waters, which occurred in the years 1715 and 1774 and is recounted by Peter Whittle. ‘The river Ribble, in Lancashire, stood still; and for the length of three miles, there was no water, except in deep places; in about five hours it came down with a strong current, and continues to flow as usual’ (8).

As the protagonists in Borlase’s story ride double into the Ribble, down river from Walton Bridge, their horse shies, ‘it was not the water that was terrifying the horse, but a great black something, like a weed-covered rock, that seemed to be lying half in and half out of it… the thing became suddenly instinct with life, and rolling rather than moving toward them exhibited the hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston…The black dog uttered a most lugubrious howl, not withstanding its headlessness, and then waddled off; whereupon, and immediately, a most extraordinary circumstance occurred, for with a roar the river parted in twain from the Preston shore’ (9).

The river Ribble from Walton Bridge

Whilst this story is fictitious it is possible some of its elements are founded on earlier beliefs.

During the 19th century the superstition that a howling dog was a portent of death was popular. James Bowker says ‘few superstitions have a wider circle of believers in Lancashire than that which attributes to dogs the power of foretelling death and disaster’ (10). Hardwick attributes this to the dog’s delicate sense of smell, saying the capacity to scent putrid flesh ‘may have influenced the original personification of the dog as an attendant on the dead’ (11).

Contemporary writer Alby Stone suggests this superstition may relate to earlier beliefs about dogs being able to see spirits and thus forewarn of death. She adds ‘in many traditions… such creatures are not merely harbingers of death. They are both guides to and guardians of the land of the dead’ (12). In Borlase’s tale the black dog appears as a guardian of the dead on Gallows Hill and guides the protagonists across the Ribble.

It is possible to link this liminal role to the term ‘boggart,’ which Hardwick and Borlase use interchangeably with ‘black dog’. According to Brand ‘boggart’ may derive from the Northern pronunciation of ‘bar’ meaning ‘gate’ and ‘guest’ meaning ‘ghost.’ A boggart or ‘bar-guest’ is hence a ‘gate-ghost’ (13). To complicate things further ‘gate’ actually meant ‘street,’ hence Friargate. Brand says ‘Many streets are haunted by a guest, who assumes many strange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima.”’ (14).

Friargate IIThis is interesting as older maps of Preston show the town’s ‘bars.’ The bar of Friargate is located in the present day position of The Sun Hotel, not far from Marsh Lane (15).

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

This may go some way to explain the Friargate connection. The black dog may be seen as both a guardian of the physical gates of the town and the gateways between the lands of the living and dead. The former is supported by a reference on the Paranormal Database, which says ‘It is said that the town was once haunted by a headless black hound, appearing when danger threatened the town’ (16).

This idea may date back to pre-Christian beliefs. Alby Stone argues that evidence of ritual burials dating back to Bronze Age Britain suggests that dogs may have been killed and interred to serve as spirit guardians. She lists a pair of dogs buried at Flag Fen in Peterborough and another at Caldicot in Gwent (17). A recent example suggesting such practices may have continued into the medieval period and beyond is the discovery of the seven foot skeleton of Black Shuck outside Leiston Abbey (18).

At the time Bowker was writing it appears the belief in ‘foundation burials’ was current in Lancashire. He cites Rev. S. Baring Gould, ‘It was the custom to bury a dog or a boar alive under the corner-stone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the neighbourhood, and drive off any who would profane it—i.e. witches or warlocks’ (19). However, as far as I know, there is no archaeological evidence of this kind of practice in Preston.

There are other idiosyncrasies bound up with the legend that are less easy to interpret. For example how did the black dog lose its head; was it a dog beheaded as part of a ritual burial, or is it the ghost of a decapitated human?

There is also the paradox that although the boggart was supposedly laid it continues to haunt the streets of Preston. Hardwick says ‘The story went that this boggart or ghost was at length “laid” by some magical or religious ceremony in Walton Church yard. I have often thought that the story told by Weaver, a Preston antiquary, in his “Funerall Monuments,” printed in 1631, and which I have transcribed at page 149 of the “History of Preston and its Environs,” may have had some remote connection with this tradition’ (20). If the black dog was laid in 1560 as part of Dee and Kelly’s misdemeanours in Walton Churchyard,  which are referred to in Weaver’s story, how come it figures so largely in tales set in 18th to 19th C Preston?

I’ve visited Walton Churchyard and seen no obvious signs of a boggart having been laid, such as the Written Stone in Longridge (21). However, like in this legend and a tale from Clayton Hall ‘Whilst ivy climbs and holly is green, / Clayton Hall boggart shall no more be seen’ (22) there is a holly tree in the centre of the graveyard and plenty of ivy about. Holly is renown for its apotropaic function (23).

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

One possibility is that it wasn’t laid. Another is that the laying was ineffective. The Gristlehurst Boggart was reputedly laid in a hollow and assuaged with milk but still seemed to be out and about causing trouble at the time Edwin Waugh was writing (24).

Old Dog Inn

The Old Dog Inn

Aside from these stories, and the pub name The Old Dog Inn (which is tenuous as it pictures a grey coloured hound with a head) I haven’t come across any more evidence of its existence. More current accounts of paranormal activity in Lancashire refer to big cats.

Old Dog - Copy

The Old Dog

Could this be because the black dog of Preston has abandoned the city? Or could it be because nobody who has seen it or heard it howling has lived to hear the tale?..

(1) David Hunt, A History of Preston, (2009), p31-33
(2) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(3) Ibid. p172
(4) The Preston Guardian, 17th December 1887
(5) Ibid.
(6) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(8) Peter Whittle, aka Marmaduke Tulket, A topographical, statistical, & historical account of the borough of Preston, (1821), p15
(9) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(10) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire,(1878),
(11) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p174-5
(12) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p36
(13) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(14) Ibid.
(15) David Hunt, Preston Centuries of Change, (2003), p39
(17) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p41
(19) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
(20) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(21) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p105 and 107
(22) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(23) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p106
(24) Edwin Waugh, ‘Gristlehurst Boggart,’ Lancashire Sketches Vol. 2,

Black Dog

He lies beneath my bed
and skrikes through the night,
plummeting the suburb into blackness.

Dampening floodlit windows,
putting out the streetlights,
he licks my hand when I am lonely.

When I fear I cannot live he takes me
to the otherside where we enter
the secret commonwealth of Middleforth

padding along the causey past the windmill’s
constant throb, cows with swaying udders
and hens clucking in the tithe barn.

Yet on communal ground
we are still invisible outcasts
with insatiable hunger and baleful breath.

Bound here by an obscure debt we pace the causey,
sniffing for dog-bones buried by the wayside
in a ritual that once had meaning on a lightless night.

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green