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Saturday, 04 July 2015

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Ghostly goings-on in our quiet backwaters

WITH Halloween approaching, it’s a good time to delve into the files and discover some of the more mysterious happenings from Cumbria’s past....

Turned to stone: Long Meg and her daughters, near Little Salkeld

The sleepy village of Lamplugh is a source of great interest to historians and antiquarians. It also has quite an alarming record for being a centre of witchcraft in olden days.

In a list of Deaths claiming to come from the Register of the Parish of Lamplugh from 1 January 1656 to 1st January 1663, a surprising number of these were ascribed to most peculiar occurrences. Some of these are as follows:

‘Crossed in love’;

‘took cold sleeping at Church’ (eleven people);

‘frightened to death by fairies’ (four people);


‘led into a horse pond by a “will of the w(h)isp”’ (a phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night on marshy ground, thought to

result from the combustion of marsh gases.)

The records also show rather more unusual deaths, such as: ‘knocked on the head at a cockfight’, ‘climbing a crow’s nest’, ‘choked with eating barley’, ‘broke his neck robbing a hen roost’ (one man), one man ‘knocked on ye head with a quart bottle’.

And a sign of the cruel times in which these people lived: ‘seven persons hanged for clipping and coyning’ (paring and counterfeiting currency), ‘three old women drowned after trial for witchcraft’ – presumably they suffered the usual fate of a ducking stool.

In Brigham, not far from Lamplugh, a phantom of a hanged man was seen by a farmer, with a rope around his neck – head lolling and tongue protruding. The appearance of this apparition was believed to lie in the fact that, in 1757, Joseph Wilson, the local hangman had become depressed at his job and had killed himself by jumping from the Cocker Bridge into the river. He had been buried in the local churchyard, a stonemason having carved a noose on his gravestone, and the apparition was believed to be that of his last victim. Over a century later, in 1860, the local sexton unearthed the hangman’s skull and deposited it in Wilson’s former house. No sightings of the ‘hanged man’ were reported thereafter.

In Tebay, near Kendal, there once lived a lady, Mary Baynes, who enjoyed the title of the ‘Witch of Tebay’. She died in 1811 at the age of 90 and is reputed to have prophesied that ‘fiery, horseless carriages’ would speed over the nearby Loups Fell. Needless to say, she was held in great suspicion – even fear – by her neighbours on account of this and other prophecies. Consequently, she was blamed for everything that went wrong in her local community.

Her neighbours claimed that Mary ‘withered and died’ at the precise moment that a number of eggs she had ‘bewitched’ were fried in boiling fat.

Her prophecy about the ‘fiery, horseless carriages’, did come true however. The London to Glasgow Railway Line crosses Loups Fell.

Hardly a case of witchcraft – more an ability of sorts to see into the future; or intelligent guesswork at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but this was hardly the preserve of a simple countrywoman. The first railway development was the Stockton to Darlington railway scheme which was opened only in 1825, 14 years after the death of Mary Baynes.

Long Meg, the Bronze Age Circle North of Penrith, is the third largest stone circle in Britain and originally consisted of an estimated 70 stones. It dates from around 2,000-900 BC. These stones have now been reduced to 59 of which only 27 are still standing. The stones are known as Long Meg and her daughters, who were believed to be a coven of witches. While holding their sabat, a 13th century Scottish wizard, one Michael Scott, came across them and turned them to stone. That spell would only be broken – and the witches freed – when someone counted the stones more than once and reached the same total both times, this apparently being impossible to do. Other tales are associated with the stones, one being that, should Long Meg ever be broken, it (she) would run red with blood. There is one recorded instance of a local landowner attempting to remove some of the stones (the daughters) for use as milestones. Shortly after starting this work, on a clear, sunny day, violent storms broke out and the workmen were forced to abandon their work and flee for their lives. No-one ever attempted this again.

Swinside, located five miles north of Millom, is another stone circle, again with the legend that the stones can not be counted accurately twice in succession. Legend has it that the site had once been chosen for a church but, each time the foundations began to be laid, the day’s labours were destroyed by the devil, the foundations being buried under the soil. After a while the workers gave up and the church was built elsewhere.

Fiddleback Farm, near Wigton: Many people have passed this unusually designed building at the roadside on the A595 from Carlisle to Whitehaven. It was built about 300 years ago, in the shape of a fiddle, by an eccentric land-owner. During renovations a few years ago, the skeleton of a cat was uncovered above one of the entrances. Apparently, this was an old custom as a cat was interred in such a place in order to keep witches out.

The Green Man: are found throughout the country, though, for some reason, only rarely in Cumbria. These stone carvings are generally recognised as benign and cheerful – even noble. However, in Cumbria, where they are few and far between, they are viewed as figures of evil. They can be found on the following Churches: Crosby Garret, Cartmel and Gosforth Churches and carved in the capitals of pillars in the nave of Carlisle Cathedral. One of special interest can be found in the Cathedral Treasury; there, a roof-boss dating back to the 15th century, depicts a Green Man with a squint. A squint was, at one time, viewed as the ‘evil eye’, being proof of possession of a witch’s power to cast spells. An even better example of an (evil) Green Man can be found at the Parish Church of Preston Patrick, near Kendal. Carved on the corbell – a representation in stone of a basket of flowers – is a humanoid Green Man, with prominent brow ridges and cheek-bones, a ‘bruiser’s’ nose and thick lips. On one side, emerging from its tail, is a fiend with tongue extended (a symbol of lying); and, on the other side, a spray of foliage comes out of the mouth and, on the end of it, there is an owl with a cloven hoof, clearly an indication of the devil.

At Lowther Church, near Penrith, there is also a Green Man on a capital of a 12th Century pier. This one is depicted as a fiend with stubby horns and extended tongue, with foliage issuing from its mouth.

Presumably, the vines and foliage are meant to symbolise fertility, as the Green Man was recognised, in pre-Christian days, as a symbol of such. In fact, these symbols were adopted in part by the Christian church to symbolise resurrection. Perhaps the interpretation in Cumbria of the Green Man being viewed as a figure of evil is because paganism remained rooted in Cumbria for much longer than other parts of the country.

So, even with the humorous celebration of Halloween we are still, after all, not too far removed from the superstitions of our forebears.


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