The Dragon of Marton Mere

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Two miles east of Blackpool lies a lake called Marton Mere which was born when the Ice Age reshaped the land leaving a glacial boulder, a huge ball of ice thousands of years old. This melted a kettle hole and in the melt water a dragon formed serpentine, curious, luxuriating in her freedom to swim and lap at the thawing earth after enduring her icy bonds.

When the first people came and paddled out on animal skin coracles they were aware of the stillness of that depth. As they fished with bone hooks within a panorama of reeds and bulrushes amidst piping calls of wetland birds they often thought they glimpsed an eye beneath, a flash of shimmery skin, wondered if it was a giant pike, something more reptilian.

The dragon knew if she appeared in their reality she’d undo their minds and landscape. So she entered the dreams of one of the young fishermen as a beautiful woman, taught him how to charm the fish and gift back to their spirits who swam thick where the real ones roved.

In turn he taught his people what she taught him and he became well-respected within his tribe. She often asked for personal gifts: shells, bone ornaments, joints of meat, to maintain that he acknowledged the source of his wisdom. Before he died he told his people about the lady of the mere and asked for his body to be deposited in its midst.

A tradition arose that when the person who served the lady died she entered the dreams of the next. So she did until a time of change. Her current fisherwoman was awkward and unpopular and had a tough message to deliver. An era of heavy rain approached when the lady would take her true form and devour their village.

The fisherwoman stammered but spoke the truth bravely. Her people did not believe her. It was their village, their mere, they’d lived beside it for generations. A group who secretly wanted rid of the lady’s influence so they could take control knocked the fisherwoman out in her sleep, took her out on a coracle to the middle of the mere, slit her throat and threw her into the dark water. An angry wind of dragon’s breath blew them back across the mere. A tidal wave overturned their coracle. Beneath it they drowned. Rain poured from dark clouds.

The next morning a young man leapt from his sleeping pallet, half-naked, clutching his dishevelled hair “they killed her! I saw them kill her! Behind them a dragon rose up. A dragon. A huge beautiful monstrous dragon with caves for eyes and the skin of a pike and a parade of winds leaping from her nostrils. She’s going to kill us.”

He ran from his dwelling and threw himself to his knees at the end of the jetty uttering a stream of incoherent words. Following through torrential rain his tribe saw the coracle floating in the distance like an empty tortoiseshell. Floodwaters rushed toward their village.

They could get no more sense from the young man. Recalling the tradition of retaining the lady’s favour with gifts, they collected together their finest bronze spears and axes, took them to the end of the jetty and cast them into the mere with prayers of placation.

Still the waters rose. As waves washed over the young man’s knees he suddenly shouted “leave! Go to the ridge: one day it will be Marton. Your offerings have saved everyone but he who saw the dragon.”

All the warriors could not drag him from where he stuck to the platform. With deep regret they left him and departed to the ridge where Great Marton now stands, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and watched the mere devour their village.

Afterward it became an ill omen to dream of the lady or worse the dragon. Those who saw her, daring not to admit it to their people, either served her privately, left, or lost their minds.

When the Romans arrived they left the inhabitants of Marton and the mere well alone. Contrastingly the Culdee monks (who settled at the site later known as Kilgrimol) were astonished by the stupidity of their refusal to fish in the abundant mere, farm the surrounding landscape or allow anyone else to. So they decided to create a story stupid enough to fool them.

Drawing on the rumours of people making offerings of meat to the dragon they came up with the idea a monk hid a spring in a side of bacon disguised as a gift and threw it into her maw. Its rushing waters forced her jaws open and drowned her. She sunk to the bottom of the mere and was never seen again.

In spite of the logical inconsistency of the drowning of a water dragon some of Marton’s people were fooled. They wanted desperately to live in a world that was safe and governed by one God who gifted his monks with power over dragons.

Fishing on the mere gained in popularity and rights were highly contested. Farmers began to work the land but, in spite of God’s omnipotence, it was frequently inundated by flood water and plagued by disappearances of cows, sheep and pigs. Whispers of a dragon continued.

In the 18th century a decision was made by the majority of Marton’s people to drain the mere. Main Dyke was deepened and widened sluicing all but a fragment of those ominous waters which gave birth to the dragon away into the river Wyre.

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During the digging two coracles and bronze axes and spearheads were unearthed: an uneasy reminder of the legend. The people consoled themselves that with the dyke draining the mere like a severed vein pulse by pulse the dragon would be too weak to return.

Although Marton Mere has been drained its kettle hole remains and the dragon lives on. In spring and summer water lilies do not grow above her lair. After the M55 was built a driver swore he saw a crocodile heading across the lanes to the mere.

A new village of holiday homes lies perilously close to the water’s edge. It is said the dragon haunts the dreams of those who sleep there and waits for the one who will share her message.

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*This story is based on the archaeology, history and folklore of Marton Mere, much of which is covered in Nick Moor’s extensive on-going project on the history of Blackpool and the Fylde: http://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/#!pdf/c1e71

The Edge of the Dark

‘as ‘th’ edge o’ dark’ threw its weird glamour over the scene, boggarts and phantoms would begin to creep about to the music of the unearthly voices heard in every sough and sigh of the wandering wind…’
– James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire

This landscape has only just been claimed and in its deepest knowing holds the memory of the edge of the dark. The majority of Lancashire’s towns and fields developed where thick shaggy mosses, carr and marsh held rule. Its people lived on the edge of darkness, the edge of unknowable waters, the edge of the otherworld.

Is this existence on the edge the source of its legends? Its fairy lanes and dells, boggart bridges, cloughs and holes, its headless phantoms and saucer-eyed spectral hounds?

How far do these stories stretch back in the minds of its people? Are they the creation of an industrial age that sought to banish darkness and uncertainty with city walls yet built a new hell in its abominable mills: its Dickensian fairy palaces as the wilderness outside grew wilder?

Are they based on the wildening of tales always strange yet homely: of the household boggart whose help might be bought with butter or milk but whose wrath could estrange a family; of fay whose magic could curse or cure; of water spirits who gave of themselves and their secrets but only at great sacrifice?

Could these stories signal an endemic relationship with the otherworld stretching back through centuries? Through Anglo-Saxon boggarts and barguests to the arcane myths of Britain to the repository of stories about ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ in Welsh mythology and beyond to a near forgotten oral tradition? All hinge upon the cusp of thisworld and the otherworld: the edge of the dark.

In Welsh mythology the otherworld is known as Annwn: the not-world, the deep. It is the beyond of adventure, the locus of alterity. Its landscapes are unstill, its deities and monsters have many faces. It is a source of beauty and terror, of awe, of Awen, the divine inspiration quested by the bards and awenyddion who crossed the edge of the dark to explore its depths.

The ways between the worlds are fraught with danger. Safe passage is only granted at a cost. Those who return from the otherworld are never the same. Thus they shroud themselves in the cowl of the edge of the dark.

Those who live on the edge see our precarious reign over the land and its myths is illusory. Tower blocks and elaborate street lamps are ephemeral as Dickens’ fairy palaces. Electric lighting is no defence against the edge of the dark, which seeps in because its memories are deeper than us, its darkness more permeating than headlights.

These memories evoke intense loss and mourning. Yearning for the fluting wetland birds, bog oaks, reeds, rushes, and hoofed and pawed animals of the wild quagmire we banished. For the fairies and boggarts we dare not believe in. For the gods of the otherworld who haunt the edge of the dark with pawing steeds and sniffing dogs whilst we seal ourselves in a not-world that is not Annwn choosing to occupy tiny lamp lit portions of thisworld beyond the bog’s rushy melodies.

Immersed in false light we neither perceive the people of thisworld nor Annwn until the rain pours down, the marshland rises up, and the weird glamour of the edge of the dark undoes all security as the deepest memories of our land and its legendary reality return.

Greencroft Valley

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke

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.

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Penwortham Fairy Funeral

Penwortham Fairy Funeral is a legend based around Castle Hill, a site of religious and formerly military importance in my home town. The first part of this article presents the original version and its later developments in the context of their placement in the landscape. The second will discuss its origin and meaning within the context of British foklore.

The Fairy Funeral receives its first known mention in James Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878). A cow-doctor and younger man called Robin are walking home by moonlight from a farmhouse at the foot of Castle Hill to Longton. They climb the hill and pass through St Mary’s graveyard. As they make their exit the clock tolls midnight. They walk down a track to the Lodge, where they hear a passing bell. The gate of the Lodge swings open and a little figure wearing dark clothing and a red cap steps into the avenue chanting. He is followed by a cavalcade of similar figures carrying a coffin and singing a requiem.

The coffin is open. Robin looks inside and sees his miniature corpse, dewy and pale. The procession continues into the graveyard followed by the men. Driven by dread, Robin reaches out and touches the leading fairy. The cavalcade vanishes and a storm sweeps in. Driven mad by the scene, a month later Robin falls to his death from a haystack and is buried in the graveyard where he had seen the funeral of his double take place (1).

Fairy Funeral 1

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

A later version appears to have been passed down by word of mouth. Eli Robinson and Giley Leatherbarrow are walking home from the Black Horse pub in Preston. Having consumed too many Thwaites bitters they decide to take a short cut through Penwortham Wood, which lies on the east slope of Castle Hill. Following the mud track, which is known in the locality as Fairy Lane, they catch sight of the procession. Eli sees the face in the coffin is his own. When he gets home, Eli’s missus refuses to believe he saw a fairy funeral, thinking instead that Thwaites’s ale will be death of him. A month later he is dead. In this version it is uncertain whether he falls from a haystack or takes his own life (2).

Fairy Funeral 2

Current map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

Whilst the characters, background and location change, the core myth- a young man sees the double of his corpse borne by a fairy funeral procession and dies within a month- remains the same.

St Mary's Church, PenworthamThe legend can be seen as rooted in the funeral traditions of the township. The earliest known burial at St Mary’s Church is a 12th century crusader. Although there are no more gravestones until 1682, recent excavations uncovered a Rawstorne family crypt and large number of unnamed bodies whose graves had been built over during an extension of the church. Local historian David Hunt believes everybody who lived in Penwortham would have been buried at St Mary’s and suspects many of the uncovered bodies were victims of the 1631 plague (3). The graveyard was expanded greatly during the 18th century and as plaques for cremations exist well into the 21st century, I assume it is still in use.

Stone Cross, Church AvenueThe name Church Avenue is suggestive of a processional route. Half way along is a stone cross, replacing a more ancient pedestal (on the map below), which may have been a marker. South of Church Avenue is the site of St Mary’s Well, which was attributed healing powers but dried up at the end of the 19th century before being built over by the A59. Leading to the well from Middleforth was a pilgrim’s path which may also have been part of the route.

Processional Route

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

The position of the current War Memorial suggests the route has continuing connections with ancestral remembrance.

Penwortham War Memorial

I suspect the reason the location of the legend changed was due to houses being built along Church Avenue in the early part of the 20th century. A secular perspective might assume people stopped associating the well lit avenue and its modern housing with the spectral procession, which in the original version travelled along a dark, tree lined mud road. Contrastingly, those who believe in fairies might argue that when the road and houses were built the fairies were either forced to move or made a decision to hold their funerals elsewhere.

Church Avenue

Anybody who has visited Fairy Lane will know it is an enchanted place. Ash and sycamore are decked with ivy and the ground is thick with moss and rich with fern and hart’s tongue. Every spring the woodland is carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. The trees lining the lane are gnarled and fay and it’s easy to see why it might be associated with fairies, or why the fairies might have chosen it is an alternative location for their processions.

Faery Lane, Spring

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The origin of Penwortham Fairy Funeral can be partially derived from the landscape and local funeral traditions. However this does not explain why the men saw fairies, as opposed to ghosts or other spectres, or the portentous aspect of the legend. Locating it within the context of British folklore has helped me gain a better understanding.

Prior to Saxon settlement, the inhabitants were part of a culture who spoke Cumbric, a British language close to the Welsh Cymric (4). This is shown in the etymology of ‘Penwortham’. According to Alan Crosby the ‘Pen’ element is a British word meaning ‘prominent headland.’ ‘Worth’ is Old English and means ‘enclosed settlement’. ‘Ham’ is Old English for ‘land within the bend of a river’ (5). An older spelling of Penwortham found in the Domesday Book is ‘Peneverdant.’ Rev. Thornber says ‘the old name of Penwortham is of British origin, thus – Peneverdant is formed of three words – pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water.’ (6) East of Penwortham is Walton-le-dale. Walton is Old English for ‘the settlement of the Welsh’ (ie. native Britons).

Paul Devereux says that associations between fairies and funeral processions are common in Welsh mythology. He cites Edmund Jones ‘It was said of Welsh fairies “very often they appeared in the form of Funeral before the death of many persons, with a Bier, and a Black Cloth, in the midst of a company, about it, on every side, before and after it”… it was “past all dispute that they infallibly foreknew the time of Men’s death.”’ (7)

The term ‘fairy’ derives from the Latin ‘fatum,’ which means fate. Their Welsh name is ‘the Tylwyth Teg,’ the fair tribe or family (8). Implicit are physical qualities and a capacity to deal in ‘fairness.’ Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire and other collections of British folklore which depict people’s interactions with fairies, be they helpful sprites or malevolent boggarts, show the survival of a belief they play an active role in the determination of human fate.

In Burnley in Lancashire there is a similar legend. Captain Robert Parker of Extwistle Hall is walking home from a Jacobite meeting. He hides and by moonlight sees his name etched in brass on the coffin. He takes this as a warning not to support the Jacobites and backs out of the 1715 uprising (9) thus escaping imprisonment. However in 1717 he and two of his daughters are seriously injured in an accident in the hall involving gun powder. Parker dies from his injuries a month later (10).

Other fairy funeral legends include the following: In Gwent a man witnesses a fairy funeral procession approaching down a mountain toward ‘Abergeeg, or Lanithel church.’ He hides behind a wall and as the funeral passes steals a black veil from the bier, which he finds to be made of an ‘exceeding fine Stuff… very light’ (11). In Cornwall a man witnesses the funeral of a fairy queen. As the fairies bury her their shriek of lament is so alarming he joins in. Hearing his voice the fairies depart in panic, piercing him with sharp instruments as they fly away (12). The London based poet William Blake also claims to have witnessed a fairy funeral (13).

Although the consequences of witnessing these funerals are not as dire or fortuitous as the Lancashire cases it is clear the fairies are seen as real and that interacting with them has a real effect on human lives. The man from Gwent steals an actual cloth. The Cornish man is physically injured. Whilst Blake is not harmed he claims to have died several times during his lifetime and his poetry certainly displays the visionary quality of Faery.

Whilst our secular worldview attempts to eliminate beliefs unproved by reason or science they continue to be evidenced by arts and folklore and in personal experiences with the fairy races themselves. Penwortham Fairy Funeral is only one example of relations between humanity and Faery. I wonder whether there as many stories as there are incidences of contact with fairies?

Fairy Lane, Spring 2014

(1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL
(2) http://everything2.com/title/The+Fairy+Funeral
(3) http://www.srtt.co.uk/2012/12/the-archaeology-of-penwortham-a-talk-by-david-hunt-2/
(4) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p96
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past (1988), p14
(6) Rev. W. Thornber, ‘The Castle Hill of Penwortham,’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 1856/7, p66
(7) Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2003), p135
(8) T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore (1930), p51
(9)http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/lookingback/8452575.Bag_a_boggart__but_don___t_give_it_gifts_/?ref=rss
(10) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p97
(11) http://www.blaenau-gwent.gov.uk/8037.asp
(12) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/efft/efft22.htm
(13) Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (2002), p197

Lancashire Boggarts

Boggart, Faery Ring TarotBoggarts are a type of spirit found in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In The Lancashire Dictionary Alan Crosby defines a boggart as a ‘ghost, sprite, evil spirit or feeorin.’ He says ‘there was scarcely an old house or a lonely valley which did not have its terrifying tales of creatures which roamed, shrieked and caused havoc – though most do not appear to have been especially malevolent, and some were just a nuisance.’ (1)

There are numerous boggart sites and tales in Lancashire. An old farmhouse in Boggart’s Hole Clough in Blackley was haunted by a creature with ‘a small shrill voice’ ‘like a baby’s penny trumpet’ who played tricks on the residents and their children. Having decided to leave, as they made their departure they heard the shrill voice say “ay, ay neighbour, we’re flitting you see.” Realising wherever they went the boggart would follow they turned back. (2)

The boggart of Barcroft Hall in Burnley was reputedly ‘a helpful little fellow’ until given a pair of clogs. After this he caused trouble, breaking pots and pans, making animals sick and lame, preventing the cows from milking and in a grand finale putting the farmer’s prize bull on the roof. Fed up of his tricks the farmer decided to leave. Crossing a small bridge he heard a voice call from beneath “stop while I’ve tied my clogs, and I’ll go with you!” The farmer resigned to go back.’ (3)

A story called ‘Hanging t’Boggart’ is set at the Boggart Houses in Hindley Green. A boggart with ‘aw mi mosses dreighed up’ appears as a man to Sammy. The man tells Sammy he can hang him, if he can hang Sammy afterward. Presuming the man will die, Sammy garrottes him. Leaving the body he finds the man sitting comfortably at his table ready to complete his part of the bargain. After Sammy’s corpse is found his acquaintances see ‘a big, black shape, mauling about the houses after dark.’ After a ‘terrible struggle’ accompanied by ‘spitting, hissing and other noises which sounded like curses in a foreign language’ they think they have hung the boggart to discover a big black cat in its place the following day. (4)

Other sites include Boggart’s Hole in Bolton and Boggart Bridge in Burnley, where the cost of crossing is a living thing or one’s soul. Clegg Hall hosts a boggart chamber and is haunted by a phantom boy, who was killed by his wicked uncle. Boggarts have been laid at Towneley Hall and Hothersall Hall. In Joseph Delaney’s recent series of Lancashire based children’s books The Wardstone Chronicles boggarts travel down leys wreaking havoc and the Spook’s household boggart manifests as a gigantic ginger cat.

In contemporary poetry boggarts appear as grander more primal elemental beings. In Seamus Heaney’s ‘Bog Queen’ a female boggart lies between turf and demesne wearing a black glacier for a sash, her breasts moraines, her diadem of gemstones dropping ‘in the peat floe / like the bearings of history.’ ‘Barbered / and stripped / by a turfcutter’s spade’ she rises ‘from the dark, / hacked bone, skull-ware, / frayed stitches, tufts, / small gleams on the bank.’ (5)

In ‘Milesian Encounter on the Sligachan’ Ted Hughes describes his intimations of what might have been ‘a Gruagach of the Sligachan! / Some boggart up from a crack in the granite!’

‘Eerie how you know when it’s coming –
So I felt it now, my blood
Prickling and thickening, altering
With an ushering-in of chills, a weird onset
As if mountains were pushing mountains higher
Behind me, to crowd over my shoulder-

Then the pool lifted a travelling bulge
And grabbed the tip of my heart nerve and crashed.’ (6)

These stories and poems show boggarts are intimately connected with ancient mosslands and ravines, farmhouses and their residents. They are spirits of place old as the lowland raised level peat bogs which once covered the majority of Lancashire, of which less than one percent remains. As the mosslands have been drained, cut for turves and enclosed for farming their spirits have been displaced into houses, attaching themselves to the families who farm the land.

Some are benign until treated in the wrong way whilst others are more sinister, instigating pacts based on exchanges of life for life. Bog bodies found in peat such as the Lindow Man as well as offerings such as axes, palstaves and spearheads (7) suggest the mosslands and / or their spirits were treated as deities with whom sacrificial exchanges once took place. What the stories continue to show is that when reciprocal relationships between families and the land, and perhaps within families themselves are damaged boggarts become troublesome.

In the urban mythology of today boggarts have been replaced by poltergeists, which fit better with contemporary theories about the paranormal. However I believe that throughout the landscape they remain, dried out forms stretching through the earth beneath our dwellings, appearing as helpful house sprites, stalking shadows or cats without names. And I believe it is possible, with due care, to form relationships with them.

(1) Alan Crosby, The Lancashire Dictionary, (Smith Settle, 2000), p26. Feeorin is a Lancashire word for fairy.
(2) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (The History Press, 2010), p101
(3) http://www.ormerod.uk.net/History/Barcroft/barcroft_boggart.htm
(4) http://www.hindleygreenra.com/oldfacts.htm
(5) http://inwardboundpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2006/08/198-bog-queen-seamus-heaney.html
(6) Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, (Faber and Faber, 2003), p655. The creature turns out to be a salmon.
(7) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008), p159

The picture of the boggart is from The Faery Ring Tarot.

Penwortham Moss

Boggart:

Long grew the meadow grass, warm glowed the sun
Soft blew the breeze on the gold twitching fronds.
Seedy slight fescue in scattering throngs,
Dog’s tail and cat’s tail, rye grass and fox tail,
Cowslip and clover, sorrel and brome.

Lazy bright days for the faeries above
Skipping through splendour with pink petal wands
Light as the seeds and floating like cloth,
Whispering to flowers and enchanting the hours,
Whilst we fester beneath, shut out and cut off.

This field, now houses, was part of the moss.
The meadow belonged to the beasts of the bog.
A quagmire of paradise, bountiful haunt.
Sphagnum and fen sedge, sundew and star sedge,
Woundwort and dropwort, lizards and frogs.

Thick claggy peat soaked as full as a sponge,
Pools of deep water with bottomless grounds,
Dragonflies glitzed rippling spangling rounds.
We sat in, we soaked in, gloried and gloamed in,
‘til they drained it with ditches and sowed it with crops.

Now we dwell in the doom dark deep
Deprived of pool and moss and peat,
The corner and cranny we crookedly keep
Dried out and wasted, fates wangled, frustrated
‘til the land is returned to the bog and it’s beasts.

Dobbie

Full moon breaks the rushes,
quivering lips soft whiskered brush the water,
hair line trail traces black velvet muzzle
which moistens, smacks and laps,
heavy glug of oesophagus
tugs water to the bowels of a dread black creature.
The beast drinks deep, shaggy hide
long and twitching skirts agile cloven feet.
His saucer red eyes hold star glow infernal.
Head raised dripping, he speaks a gargling tale
of strangled marshes, dried out mosslands,
shrunken brooks and pools abandoned,
eternal thirst his cruel domain and an endless lust for riders
to sink beneath the skin of a world unintelligible
to one deep as peat and old as the glaciers.
His lips close slapping. His burning eyes blink.
With a fish-like leap he slips below the water.