The Fleece Inn, Elland

The Fleece Inn — located amidst the rather incongruous surrounds of 1960s social housing at the top of Elland’s Westgate but in close proximity to both the Long Wall and Ellen Royde — is one of the most historically significant buildings in the district, not to mention one of the most haunted. The structure standing today is a classic 17th Century U-plan building which began life in approximately 1610 as a farmstead called the Great House and it is thought the remains of an even earlier dwelling may be incorporated in its fabric.

The Fleece’s reputation for hospitality stretches back to 1745 when it was still divided into three separate houses and one tenant by the name of George Readyhough provided ale for three thousand troops under General Oglethorpe who were marching to intercept Bonnie Prince Charlie on his return north. However, probably it’s most illustrious guest was Joachim Von Ribbentrop, recorded in the guestbook during the 1920s when he was employed as a travelling wine salesman, some years prior to his more infamous career as the Nazi Party’s Foreign Minister.

In 1782, prior to its conversion to an inn, the building was used as a vicarage by one Reverend Houghton, whilst after 1791 an upstairs room in the establishment was rented out to a particularly odd Nonconformist sect known as the Thumpers, who believed in praising God through jumping up and down. Their frenzied motion caused the floor to shake to such an extent that a chair in the room would also start to leap around and long after the sect had departed, that chair was said still to jump about of its own accord from time to time.

Later in the 19th Century, the Fleece gained a reputation as something of a riotous establishment. A story goes that one market day in Elland, a traveller attempted to defraud a local man who caught him out and chased the cheat back to the inn, where he was lodging. A fight ensued and one of the men was mortally wounded, his blood leaving a stain on the staircase which no amount of scrubbing could ever remove. The staircase and its grisly marking was a prominent feature in the bar for many years but sadly it was destroyed by careless workmen during renovation work in the 1980s.

However, a second memorial to the incident remains in the graveyard of Saint Mary’s Church. The vicar at the time, Rev. Christopher Atkinson, had long complained about the dissolute behaviour permitted at the Fleece by its landlord William Wooler, and so on the headstone of the murdered man, he ordered the following epitaph be inscribed: “Be warned ye thoughtless – ne’er that place frequent / Where sinners meet and revel all the night / And mix not in drunkenness and fight / Frequent it not nor its bad name know / For there lo! I received a fatal blow”.

The narrative of the murder is sometimes cited as the genesis of the Fleece’s most famous phantom, Old Leathery Coit. However, his story is strictly speaking not connected to the inn at all, but to a barn behind it which was demolished sometime in the 1960s. It is also likely that the tale of Leathery Coit, first recorded in print by Lucy Hamerton in her 1901 tome Olde Eland, has a much older provenance than the mid-1800s. The story certainly has all the characteristics of a folkloric haunting and may have been known in Elland for centuries.

Old Leathery Coit was usually described as a headless apparition in a battered leather coat, who would drive a carriage pulled by headless horses from Westgate down Church Lane and Eastgate to Old Earth and back again. At midnight, the doors of the barn behind the Fleece were said to open without human assistance and as he furiously rode out, it would create a sudden rush of wind. Hence, whenever such a gust was felt in the Westgate area during the hours of darkness, local people would comment “There goes Old Leathery Coit”.

Tag Cut, Cromwell Bottom

Prior to the completion of stretch of the Calder and Hebble Navigation canal between Elland and Brighouse in 1808, barges on the River Calder would navigate meanders by temporary “cuts”. Tag Cut at Cromwell Bottom, constructed to provide water access to Elland Stone Mill, was built in 1770 but appears never to have been used. Today, its remains form part of the Cromwell Bottom nature reserve, running just below the railway line and Strangstry Wood.

During the early 20th Century the area was a popular beauty spot but the site was forgotten for many years whilst the area was used as gravel pits and then for landfill. However, the cut still holds water and whilst it has the appearance of being stagnant, there is actually a slow flow which contributes to the diversity of wildlife habitats. It’s one of the most important sites for dragonflies in damselflies in West Yorkshire, with at least ten different species recorded, not to mention herons, kingfishers and a range of flora.

It is certainly an atmospheric place. Due to the area’s history as a landfill site – including for highly alkaline fly-ash produced by the now-demolished Elland Power Station which once stood nearby – the trees cannot put down deep roots in the shallow soil and so appear stunted and unusually contorted. Meanwhile, the water in the cut is tinted orange on account of iron oxide and clay leaching through the soil from old workings at the disused Calder Mine on the hillside above.

It is not known why the cut was never actually used. It may be that it was simply superseded by the Calder and Hebble Navigation. However, a much more sinister possibility is that the area was once haunted by an apparition called Tag, a headless ghost who drove a carriage pulled by a two-headed horse down the length of the cut from a secret passage leading to Elland New Hall. It is even reputed that a room in the hall once went by the name of Tag Chamber.

An article in the Halifax Evening Courier & Guardian dated 6th August 1938 records the experience of one woman who often stayed at New Hall in the early Nineteenth Century. One night she was so disturbed by mysterious crashes emanating from Tag Chamber that she fled the building, believing it to be the sound of Old Tag setting out on his nocturnal travels. Nothing could persuade her to sleep at New Hall again for many years.

Meanwhile, an article in the Brighouse Echo dated 29th October 1971, speculates: “Has anyone seen a headless horseman recently? There is a local legend that such a gruesome apparition can be seen on windy nights galloping past Cromwell Bottom or along Elland Lane at the bottom of Lower Edge. The most likely origin of this tradition is a bitter dispute that occurred some 600 years ago and which has become known as the Elland Feud.”

Such an origin for the tradition would be very satisfactory indeed but on closer inspection it seems unlikely. Whilst New Hall became the home of what remained of the de Eland family after the Feud through marriage to the Saviles, at the time of his murder Sir John de Eland the Younger still lived at Elland Old Hall, sited on the other bank of the Calder to Tag Cut and New Hall, and it thus seems more likely that any such apparition would be associated with Old Hall instead.

The Ghosts of Shibden Hall

Shibden Hall is one of the jewels in Halifax’s heritage crown and amongst Calderdale’s best-known tourist attractions. It is also increasingly one of the most haunted buildings in the area, although despite its antiquity, these ghost appear to be a relatively recent phenomena, unlike the hoary supernatural traditions of other venerable houses nearby in West Yorkshire such as Oakwell Hall at Gomersal or Bolling Hall near Bradford.

Occupation is recorded at the site from 1389 but the oak-timbered H-plan building standing today was originally constructed in 1420 with substantial improvements and additions being made in the 1520s and 1830s. Many have speculated that it was the model for Thrushcross Grange in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. Bronte taught at Law Hill School in Southowram in 1838 and would have been familiar with the Hall.

The hall was owned by the Lister family from 1615 until 1933, when the death of John Lister led to it being donated to the Halifax Corporation and opened as a folk museum. Its most famous occupant was Anne Lister who inherited the estate in 1826 following the death of her uncle James. During her tenure she made extensive alteration to the building and grounds but further improvements were curtailed by her death from the plague on her travels in Russia in 1840.

The reasons for Lister’s fame are numerous. Even in her own time, she was well known to be a lesbian and conducted affairs with a number of local women, whilst riding around the district in men’s clothes earned her the pejorative nickname Gentleman Jack. There was always much hostility shown towards her, with hoax marriage announcements made in the local press and reports of mobs gathering close to the house under cover of darkness.

However, she was also a formidable estate manager and landlord, investing in numerous business ventures in the area including collieries and quarries. The diaries she began keeping in 1805 from the age of 15 until her death – some of which were quite graphic in the description of her various affairs and so written in a private code – are regarded as an important primary source for 19th Century local, social and gender history.

The most prominent and enduring of Lister’s affairs was with Ann Walker, the heiress to Cliffe Hill Mansion at Lightcliffe. and the diaries record how they were “married” at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate in York. Lister left Shibden Hall to Walker in her will on the provision that she did not marry. Walker continued living in the Hall following Lister’s death until her own incarceration in an asylum in 1848. Following Walker’s death in 1854, the property reverted to the Lister family.

Walker had always suffered from mental health problems and Lister herself consulted a doctor about Walker’s mental state on several occasions. In Hauntings In Yorkshire, Stephen Wade describes Walker as the most prominent of Shibden Hall’s ghosts, her spirit haunting the red room where she barricaded herself in the years after Lister’s death and attempted to commit suicide. Upon arrival, a local constable allegedly discovered her covered in blood and surrounded by rotten food.

However, in an article for the BBC website dated 23rd October 2007, stories of a “Grey Lady” are dismissed as “just folklore” by Tony Sharpe, an attendant at the hall for twenty-six years. Instead, he relates his own experiences including an encounter at dawn with a nebulous black shape moving overhead and on several occasions the smell of pipe-smoke in the cellar and tower, thought to be an echo of the last occupant Dr. John Lister, a noted antiquarian and inveterate pipe-smoker.

There are also reports of a former curator who witnessed the spectre of a cat pass straight through her office wall; the ghost of a girl drowned in a nearby pond, who only appears in summer; and finally the manifestation of a headless coachman who drives around the grounds by night in a distinctive yellow-liveried coach made for Lord Lonsdale in the 18th Century and now on display at the Hall.

Coach Road, Lightcliffe

The Coach Road is an unsurfaced lane which runs from Wakefield Road just above St. Matthew’s Church at Lightcliffe to Hove Edge but originally it was part of the main highway linking Brighouse and Queensbury. Prior to the 1860s, it was also the principle access to the Crow Nest Estate, today a golf course but which was once the site of a substantial mansion constructed in 1775 by William Walker (who also owned High Sunderland for a time) and later owned by local mill tycoon Sir Titus Salt of Saltaire fame between 1867 and 1876. The house was abandoned after the First World War and ultimately demolished in the mid-1950s. However, the original gateposts to the house can still be seen beside the track.

Today the Coach Road is a rather lonely thoroughfare, bounded on both sides by high walls and dense foliage, especially as it descends towards the bottom of Cliffe Hill. Given its antiquity and atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that it has attracted a reputation for being haunted. The exact nature of the haunting is vague and there are no real stories attached. An article in the Brighouse Echo dated 3rd October 1986 refers to “a headless horseman and… a mysterious white lady, who both only appear while clear weather prevails after midnight”. This is the only reference to these ghosts in print but the headless horseman connection was certainly still present in the oral tradition amongst local children in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, a former resident of the area, David Van De Gevel recalls walking home one night in the summer of 1962 or 1963 from Hipperholme to his house on the Stoney Lane estate, a journey which passes the junction of Wakefield Road with the Coach Road.  As he neared the old gateposts at the entrance, he observed a faint, unearthly figure garbed in an old-fashioned cloak and hood staring directly at an adjacent high wall. Unnerved by the apparition, he departed from the scene in haste but returned some days later to verify that his sighting could not just have been a trick of the light. However, it was clear that no light fell near that spot, whilst he later discovered that in the Victorian period, the adjacent wall would have been much lower and anybody on the Coach Road could’ve looked out over it.

Headless horsemen and white ladies are both common motifs in English ghost lore but also enigmatic ones. As Owen Davies points out in “The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts”, the reason for the horseman’s missing head is often obscure and despite their ubiquity in local tradition, accounts of first-hand sightings are rare and they exist mostly as legend only. White Ladies, meanwhile, similarly tend to lack any concrete historical association or back-story. Some folklorists have suggested that based on the concentration of these apparitions at liminal zones such as watery places and connecting highways, they may represent a degraded memory of fairy lore, itself a degraded memory of pre-Christian deities. Doubtless this is fanciful in the case of the Coach Road White Lady herself but it may be how the image originally entered the popular consciousness.