The Headless Hound of Toothill Hall

Set in extensive grounds at the junction of Toothill Lane and Huddersfield Road, a building was first recorded at Toothill Hall in the 16th Century and the Toothill family as early as the 1300s. The name of the area derives from the Old English for “look-out hill”, suggesting human activity had existed there since before the Norman Conquest. It certainly makes a fine site for a watch post, commanding extensive views up and down the lower Calder valley. Although it seems likely that the Toothill family were the founders of the Hall, it has been occupied by a diverse succession of people over the centuries and the current edifice was constructed by Quaker philanthropist Thomas Firth in 1823 and later, divided into two in 1957.

In Legends and Traditions of Huddersfield and Its District, Philip Ahier recounts a curious legend associated with Toothill Hall and the surrounding area. He was told that during the English Civil Wars, it was home to a young cavalier who was in love with a daughter of Newhouse Hall, located just over a mile away on the other side of Felgreave Wood at Sheepridge. This girl, Sybil Brooke, was held to be a great beauty and had many suitors in the locality, but only the cavalier of Toothill found his affections reciprocated. However, her father did not approve of the match, despite also supporting the Royalist cause in the Civil Wars, and so forbade the lovers from meeting, confining his daughter to the Hall.

Nonetheless, the young cavalier was determined and devised a means by which he and his beau could communicate still. He would attach a message to the neck of his hound, who then sped through the woods by moonlight to be met by Sybil at the kitchen window of Newhouse Hall. The girl would then send him back to his master with a message in return. This method proved successful for a period of time, but one fateful night the hound discovered not Sybil Brooke at the kitchen window, but her enraged father. Such was his anger, he took his sword and with a single blow, cleaved the dog’s head from its body, slicing the letter it carried in two in the process. The hound then turned tail and scampered headless through the woods.

Upon hearing of the fate of his faithful messenger, the Toothill cavalier is supposed to have been so incensed that he changed sides in the Civil Wars, swearing his allegiance to Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, just to spite the Newhouse patriarch. Meanwhile, on moonlit nights in autumn, the apparition of a headless hound is still said to roam through Felgrave Wood and back to Toothill Hall. Anybody who witnesses this phantom is supposed to suffer grave misfortune. This aspect of the legend has much in common with the widespread “black dog” motif in English folklore, known variously as black shuck, barguest, guytrash and skriker. Hence, it may be that the story was grafted on to explain a much older folkloric tradition in the area.

A variation on the legend appears in the mid-19th Century, when a phantom dog with the head and beard of a man was believed to haunt Felgreave Wood (today bisected by the A641 between Bradley Bar and Huddersfield). A woman named Elizabeth Haigh is reported to have fallen into a deep swoon upon witnessing the monstrosity and was not found until the following morning. Ahier suggests that the origin of this adaptation may lie in Felgreave Wood’s reputation at the time for plentiful game, especially pheasant and hare. The gamekeepers probably traded on the existing legend to deter poachers, and to reinforce it further may have taken to donning furs and crawling on all fours through the undergrowth.

Although Newhouse Hall lies firmly within Kirklees and the Colne Valley and so beyond the remit of this site, due to its connection with the Toothill legend it seems worth recounting here that the Hall also has its fair share of ghosts. Following the brutal intervention of her father, tradition claims that Sybil Brooke lost her reason and pined away in the upper rooms of the house, which her ghost still stalks to this day. Maids in the 19th Century claimed to hear the rustle of silk along the corridors at night and one often complained of being “clutched by an unseen hand”. Meanwhile, in one particular bed in an upper chamber, guests were often disturbed by a thing that crouched heavily on the legs of the sleeper, only to disappear as soon as a light was kindled.

Alien Big Cats

Although they are not necessarily a new phenomena, alien big cats have only really become a significant thread in British folklore in the last thirty years, thanks to high profile flaps such as the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. “Alien” in this instance refers, of course, not to any extraterrestrial origin, but simply to a species that is not native to the local habitat. Arguably, even the domestic cat is an alien species in Britain but they are well-established, whilst the term “alien big cat” is primarily used to denote large predatory felines such as pumas, panthers or even cryptozoological specimens which have somehow escaped scientific attention over the centuries.

There is no proven evidence of the existence of such animals anywhere in the British Isles. Occasionally, big cats do escape from captivity and roam the countryside but they are rarely at large for long. However, supporters of the alien big cat hypothesis argue that the creatures are the issue of former pets released into the wild following the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act, but many scientists argue that the climate and potential breeding pool would be insufficient to sustain a stable population of big cats in the British countryside for any length of time. Nonetheless, sightings persist and perhaps more tellingly, the mysterious mutilation of pets and livestock.

On October 29th 2005, the Halifax Evening Courier reported a spate of such sightings across the Calderdale region, including two witness reports dating from August of that year of a beast with yellow eyes in the area near Cunnery Wood, above Shibden Hall. Calderdale Council Countryside Officer, Edward Ashman opined, “I’ve never seen one myself and I haven’t seen any deer carcasses, which I would expect to find. But there could be a big cat living around here. People do buy wild animals, realise they can’t handle them and then release them into the countryside. Big cats naturally cover a large geographical area, so it’s possible it could be the same animal seen in different parts of Calderdale.”

Several days after this, on November 1st, the Courier printed the testimony of Geoffrey Horrocks-Taylor, who farms land only four hundred yards from Cunnery Wood and who claimed to have recently discovered one of his ewes mutilated in the night. Mr. Horrocks-Taylor said, “We went out at eight-thirty the next morning and we knew something was up. The magpies and crows were all there but they could not have eaten that much. The whole rear right leg had been eaten away. It went right to the bone. It was horrible. We couldn’t understand how it happened. One dog couldn’t have done that. Two dogs couldn’t have done that… I think it is possible it might be something like a big cat.”

Several months later on March 6th 2006 there followed an article relating the experience of former president of the Shibden Valley Society, David Horrocks-Taylor (note the name), describing a sighting around Christmas 2005. He says, “This looked like a cat. It was reclining like a cat and it was the size of a big dog. It followed me with its eyes. I went home to get my binoculars and camera. When I got back it had disappeared. It looked like a big cat to me but without documentary evidence I can’t really say it was not my eyes or my imagination deceiving me.” The sighting occurred on Simm Carr Lane, further up the valley from Cunnery Wood, across a main road and residential area at Stump Cross.

Whilst the Shibden Valley would certainly be as good a territory as any for a big cat loose in the Calderdale region, with wide tracts of open countryside and woodland in which to lurk, not to mention a plentiful food supply in the flocks of sheep and herds of deer which roam the hillsides. However, it seems very curious that following the initial sighting in August 2005, that subsequent accounts both come from men with the same surname, Horrocks-Taylor. A little research reveals that both men were members of the Shibden Valley Society. Would it be cynical to suggest that the mutilation and Christmas sighting were a hoax cooked up for the amusement of the Horrocks-Taylors?

Perhaps not. In May 2011, another “cat flap” broke out in the pages of the Evening Courier, with the newspaper rather luridly dubbing the phenomenon the “Catbeast”. The initial sighting came from nineteen year old Lightcliffe resident Sean McGeady whilst walking his dog along Nunlea Royd towards Bentley Avenue, in the incongruous surroundings of the Stoney Lane housing estate. The creature appeared to be heading for a nearby park. He told the newspaper: “It appeared too fast, large and lean to be a dog, cat or fox… It appeared to have a light brown colouration, lighter than a fox. It looked very lean and muscular, and was perhaps the size of a lynx”.

Sean McGeady’s sighting prompted a spate of people from across Calderdale coming forward to inform the Courier of their own experiences. What was striking, however, was the disparity between accounts. One woman referred to witnessing a creature resembling a “puma-like black cat… about the size of a large German shepherd dog” near Elland, whilst another man described encountering something like a cougar in the vicinity of Queensbury. It seems that these sightings are of a different animal to that seen by Sean McGeady in Lightcliffe. If there really are big cats living wild in the Calderdale region, there must be a variety of different breeds.

Published in: on September 10, 2010 at 19:40  Comments (4)  
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The Long Wall Mouse, Elland

Elland is particularly rich in archaic folklore, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its history extends much further back than that of its upstart neighbour, Brighouse. The town is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and at that time was a more substantial settlement than even Halifax or Huddersfield, whilst it remained a centre of the woolen industry until its decline in the mid-20th Century. Westgate, at the top of the town, is amongst its oldest quarters and there is a great concentration of strange stories here. The tale of the Long Wall Mouse is surely the very strangest.

Long Wall is the road which runs from the top of Westgate towards West Vale, proceeding beneath the louring eponymous wall. The story of the Long Wall Mouse is first recorded in Lucy Hamerton’s 1901 tome Olde Eland in which she recounts the experience of a Dr. Hiley who once witnessed the creature, describing it as the giant and silent apparition of a white mouse. Although the Mouse never attacked anybody, it was thought that anybody who saw it would meet with some misfortune shorty thereafter and locals always avoided Long Wall during the hours of darkness.

Animal ghosts of this nature are quite rare in the English tradition. One of the few comparisons must be “a small white animal, with eyes large as saucers” which caused a sensation in Baldock, Herefordshire in 1878. There are also similarities to the Baum Rabbit, whose appearances in the 1870s often startled pedestrians walking by St. Mary’s churchyard in Rochdale at night and which proved immune to gun shot and pellets. Then there’s the bizarre case of Gef the Talking Mongoose, who haunted a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man during the 1930s.

Arguably, the Long Wall Mouse bears closest relation to the black dog spectres which are a familiar trope in English folklore. They are often found at similarly haunted liminal zones such as highways after dark and portended misfortune or death. West Yorkshire is replete with such manifestations by a variety of names including barguest, guytrash or skriker. Sometimes these apparitions could apparently adopt a number of different guises. For instance, the Holden Rag which haunted Cliviger between Todmorden and Burnley, was also believed to manifest as a shred of a white linen hanging from a thorn bush.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 09:52  Comments (2)  
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The Clifton Dragon

Prior to the construction of the M62 in the 1970s, where it scythes through Hartshead Moor there once stood a hamlet by the name of Blakelaw, the only surviving evidence of which is Blakelaw Lane which runs between Clifton and Hartshead, crossing the motorway as it goes, and which presumably once passed through Blakelaw itself.

In his chronicle The Story of the Ancient Parish of Hartshead-cum-Clifton, the Reverend Harold Pobjoy relates that whilst he was vicar at St. Peter’s Church in Hartshead between 1925 and 1930, he was told by a parishioner that a copse on the rise to the north of Blakelaw was once thought to have been home to a terrible dragon which menaced the area many generations ago.

The settlement of Blakelaw appears in the Domesday Book under the name of Blakhlawe and in an attempt to corroborate the tale of the dragon, Pobjoy suggests that this may have been a corruption of the Old English “Dracanhlawe” – meaning Mound of the Dragon – which if true would suggest that the story had a very old provenance indeed.

As well as being mentioned in the Domesday Book, the antiquity of the area is manifest in the presence of the Walton Cross at Windy Bank nearby. It is the base of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross or way-marker (the name is recorded on old documents as “wagestan” meaning “way-stone”) dating from the 10th Century.

Dragons were certainly a major component of the Anglo-Saxon world-view, with winged dragons known as “drakes”, an example of which makes a memorable appearance in the contemporary poem Beowulf. The English landscape is full of place-names with a dragonish derivation such as Drakeholes and Drakelaw, the similarities of which to Blakelaw are obvious.

However, using place name derivations to account for local legends is a risky business and Pobjoy’s suggestion is by no means certain. In the arguably definitive source on this subject Place Names of the West Riding, edited by A.H. Smith and published in 1961, the derivation is given as “Blachelana” which has the more prosaic meaning “black hill”.

Published in: on March 18, 2010 at 13:25  Leave a Comment  
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