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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Archaic Stone Heads

These distinctive stone carvings of the human head can be found distributed throughout the South Pennines and represent a unique centuries-old tradition, the exact origins and purposes of which has been the subject of considerable debate amongst folklorists and historians since the custom was first noticed by academia in the mid-20th Century. Lying at the very heart of the region, Calderdale is especially abundant in such images with approximately 150 documented and whilst the upper valley tends to be richer (as is so often the case), prominent manifestations of the art have been recorded on a building at Pinnar Lane in Southowram, on the gateway at Coley Hall and in a courtyard at Shibden Hall, whilst free-standing examples have been uncovered at Shibden, Greetland, Brighouse and Elland.

These carvings have been dubbed “archaic heads” by folklorist John Billingsley (who has written extensively on the subject) to distinguish them from the more obviously representational and finely worked “Classical” head. Archaic stone heads are primarily features of vernacular architecture and whilst they vary in style most appear to be rather coarsely rendered, although this is often a case of deliberate stylisation rather than any lack of skill on the part of the sculptor. Typically, the face is circular or ovoid with relatively flat features, whilst a triangular nose is carved in relief continuous with the eye ridges. Eyes tend to be amygdaliform and lentoid; the mouth a slit or “cigarette hole” lacking lips or teeth. Other characteristics such as the representation of facial hair are occasionally found, whilst some instances are janiform or tri-cephalic.

Common locations to find archaic stone heads on buildings include above doorways and windows and on chimneys, gables and eaves. They are also found on gateways and bridges, occasionally built into field-walls and sometimes buried, especially in the case of the free-standing examples. Their precise function has been the subject of much speculation, but it is generally thought that they are associated with pre-modern concepts of liminality, as they are so often found at threshold locations. As such, they act as boundary guardians and mediators, a physical representation of a tutelary spirit. The fact that many such carvings are found in positions where they are difficult to see supports the theory that they were primarily “magical” devices rather than decorative motifs.

The phenomenon of archaic stone heads first came to public attention in the 1970s when the Director of Bradford Museums Service Sidney Jackson mounted an exhibition of examples he had collected during his tenure. By the time of his death, he had catalogue over 600 instances. Jackson himself dubbed the carvings “Celtic” stone heads, whilst noted Celtic scholar Dr. Anne Ross proclaimed the exhibition represented evidence of a remarkable continuity of tradition in the South Pennines. However, the Celtic designation has been the source of some controversy since Jackson’s exhibition. Certainly Celtic cultures are known to have venerated the image of the head, similarly believing it to possess an apotropaic function and some of the examples uncovered in the region may indeed date to the Iron Age or Romano-British period.

Other examples, however, are much more recent and the tradition was still thriving in Calderdale and surrounding areas up until the 19th Century. Whether this is evidence of a surviving Celtic tradition in the South Pennines as Anne Ross suggests is hard to assess. Some historians such as Ronald Hutton have entirely dismissed the idea of survivals of this nature and antiquity, asserting that many traditions dubbed Celtic by mid-20th Century folklorists are unlikely to be older than the late medieval period. If this hypothesis is correct, then the archaic head represents not a uniquely Celtic icon but one that has arisen in the folk tradition of many different periods and cultures, suggesting a commonality in the collective human psyche which some find just as interesting.

On the other hand, historians base their findings purely on documentary evidence, whilst the whole crux of the folklorists’ arguments is that the oral tradition may have preserved beliefs for centuries before they were written down. Moreover, if archaic stone heads were an isolated phenomenon, then the Celtic theory might not seem so feasible. But the South Pennines is an area teeming with customs for which a Celtic origin can at least be suggested from well-dressing to sacred stones, and there are numerous examples of that other manifestation of head-lore, the screaming skull. It is also relevant that until the 7th Century AD the region formed the heart of Elmet, the last surviving Celtic kingdom in England and that prior to the Industrial Revolution, the area was profoundly isolated from outside influences.

Further support is lent by the justification for the carvings offered by local residents. Some carvings were thought to represent an individual who’d died during the construction of the building on which the image is found, and it has been suggested that this echoes the Celtic practice of foundation sacrifice to ensure the “luck” of the dwelling. A more common explanation is that heads were carved on the building to ward off evil spirits and whilst this is a rather simplistic interpretation of the heads’ liminal tutelary role, it suggests a persistence of the apotropaic function in the local folk memory. As late as 1971 the landlord of the Old Sun Inn in Haworth was advised by one of his regulars to place a carved stone head above the doorway to lay a ghost which was supposedly haunting the establishment.

Ultimately, it will be impossible to “prove” whether such a belief system could have survived for over two thousand years and arguably, it is most prudent to adopt towards the question an attitude of what the poet John Keats called negative capability, whereby you entertain all possible theories without feeling the need to settle on any definitive answer. However, when all the various factors are accounted for, the possibility of an enduring Celtic tradition does not seem so unlikely. There can be no doubt that the design of archaic heads known to date from the 17th Century is remarkably similar to those of heads known to date from the Iron Age, whilst their ritual function has much in common with certain types of magical, pre-modern thinking which were especially characteristic of Celtic culture.

Copyright Kai Roberts

Horley Green Spa, Shibden

In a small copse on the flanks of the Shibden Valley, no great distance from the Godley Cutting, stands an incongruous building with a Classical facade and some forty yards above it, a three-storey Georgian-style edifice. These structures are the legacy of a spa resort popular in the 18th and 19th Century which exploited a natural mineral spring in the hillside, known as one of the strongest in the country. A variety of medicinal benefits were claimed for it and it’s recorded that people travelled from miles around to take the waters.

The spa house itself was built circa 1780 by landowner James Drake (although it is interesting to speculate whether its use for healing had an older provenance as a holy well). Local physicians such as Dr. Robert Alexander would recommend its use to treat a range of complaints including diabetes, poor circulation and digestive complaints. Such was draw of the resort, Upper Spa House had to be constructed around a decade later to accommodate the growing number of visitors coming from across the north of England.

Dr. Thomas Garnett of Harrogate visited the establishment in 1790 and subsequently published the pamphlet “Experiments and Observations on the Horley Green Spa, near Halifax” in which he observed, “The Horley Green water is quite pellucid – sparkles when poured out of one glass into another – and has a sharp, aluminous, styptic taste, not unlike ink. The taste is not unpleasant when the water is taken from the springhead and drank immediately; but if taken only a few yards from the source its taste is more disagreeable”.

The popularity of the spa in the late 18th Century was clearly short-lived and it had apparently fallen into dereliction by 1840. However, the Victorian craze for hydrotherapy led to its restoration in 1840 by Dr. William Alexander, grandson of its earlier champion Dr. Robert Alexander. The reopened spa also included a bath-house for full immersion in the waters, enclosing the spring in a trough 14 x 12 feet long and 3.5 feet deep. The floor of the trough was flagged, beneath which there was a course of cobbles to further aid filtration.

Alexander published his own pamphlet titled “The Horley Green mineral water: its new chemical analysis and medicinal uses”, in which he somewhat unsurprisingly declared “I unhesitatingly affirm that the Horley Green Spa possesses a very strong claim to be regarded as a powerful tonic and chalybeate”. Analysis of the water at the time found it held a constant temperate of 48.5°F and contained “carbonic acid gas, nitrogen, sulphate of iron, sulphate of lime, sulphate of magnesia, chloride of calcium and aluminium”.

It is not recorded how many years the site operated under William Alexander’s guidance but inevitably, the spa fell into dereliction again once modern medicine had largely discredited the efficacy of hydrotherapy treatments. The building was restored sometime in the late 20th Century as a domestic residence, despite containing a limited number of rooms. The spring itself was discovered choked with stones but owner Philip Reid stated his intention to maintain the spa, albeit for historical rather than commercial purposes.

Published in: on April 24, 2010 at 13:37  Comments (2)  
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High Sunderland, Shibden

A vast castellated edifice festooned with grotesque carvings, perched high atop a hillside overlooking the Shibden Valley, High Sunderland must have been an imposing sight. It was surely one of the most remarkable buildings in Calderdale. Descriptions and surviving photographs of the hall make it seem the very epitome of the Gothic mansion so it is hardly a surprise that ghost stories attached themselves to such a place. Indeed, every rambling pile in the valley has probably had a good haunting attached to it at some stage in its history. But aside from the idiosyncrasy of the building itself, High Sunderland and its spectre are significant in having most likely been the inspiration for not only the eponymous dwelling in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights but also one of the most memorable episodes in the novel (a degree of verisimilitude entirely lacked by the better-known candidate, Top Withens).

A house is first recorded at High Sunderland in 1274 and the Sunderland family not long after that. The elaborate façade which so dominated the valley was probably an older medieval timber-framed structure encased in stone, completed in either 1587 for Richard Sunderland or in 1629 for his grandson Abraham. This building was justly famed for its crenellations and ornately carved stonework, including a veritable bestiary of grotesques and numerous Latin inscriptions. One such engraving over the south door bore the legend, “This place hates negligence, loves peace, punishes crimes, observes laws, honours virtuous persons”; whilst another over a window on the south front read “May the Almighty grant that the lineage of Sunderland may quietly inhabit this seat, and maintain the rights of their ancestors free from strife until an ant drink up the waters of the sea, and a tortoise walk around the whole world”.

Despite such entreaties, the history of the hall was not a particularly happy one. It slipped from possession of the Sunderland family in 1646 during the Civil Wars when the Parliamentary forces imposed a decimation tax on Langdale Sunderland for his role fighting for the Royalists as Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle, forcing him to sell the family estates. Over the centuries it passed through a succession of owners and by the early 20th Century it had been divided into separate tenements. During the 1940s mining activity in the area caused substantial subsidence and the house was declared unsafe. The owner at the time attempted to sell it to both the Halifax Corporation and the Bronte Society, but the cost of repair was estimated to be greater than the value of the property itself and so it was demolished in 1951, a sad end for such a singular and significant building.

High Sunderland’s Wuthering Heights connection dates to 1838, when Emily Brontë found work as a teacher at Law Hill School in Southowram, little over a mile from where High Sunderland stood. Although Emily’s time at Law Hill was not a happy one, it seems she was fond of the landscape – which had much in common with her beloved Haworth – and would often ride around the district, making it certain that High Sunderland was known to her. In the opening chapter of her famous novel, when Mr. Lockwood first approaches Wuthering Heights, he observes “a quantity of grotesque carvings lavished over the front…a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys above the principal door,” a description which perfectly corresponds to the doorway at High Sunderland. It has also been ascertained that the floor-plan of the building had much in common with Brontë’s portrayal of the interior layout of Wuthering Heights.

If the correspondence between the floor plan of the real and imaginary building was indeed more than a coincidence that suggests Emily must have been a guest at High Sunderland on at least one occasion. Doubtless on just such a visit she would’ve been regaled with the ghost story, later recorded by R. Thurston Hopkins in his 1953 volume, Ghosts Over England. It tells how anybody sleeping in a certain room in the hall would awake in the dead of night to hear footsteps along the corridor outside and a fumbling at the door. Once the door had proved secure, the rattle of the handle would be followed some moments later by a tap at the window and if a person was brave enough to look out, they would see a disembodied hand rap against the glass several times before a peal of hideous laughter was heard. It was said the hand had once belonged to an “estimable and virtuous lady” unjustly accused of infidelity by her husband, who had then cut off the appendage in a fit of jealousy.

The story bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Lockwood’s ghostly dream in Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights, when unable to return to his home at Thrushcross Grange due to a storm, he is forced to spend the night at Wuthering Heights. “I heard also the fir-bough repeat its teasing sound… it annoyed me so much that I resolved to silence it, if possible; and I thought I rose and endeavoured to unhasp the casement. The hook was soldered into the staple… ‘I must stop it, nevertheless!’ I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me. I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, ‘Let me in — let me in!’ ‘Who are you?’ I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself.  ‘Catherine Linton,’ it replied shiveringly.”

The fields and lanes in the vicinity of High Sunderland in the hours around midnight were also reputed to be the haunt of a phantom white horse. A reference to this in the Evening Courier in April 1973, along with speculation that the apparition was largely folkloric and had not been seen by anybody in living memory, prompted a response from a Robert Whitehead of Illingworth who believed that he and his wife might have witnessed it twenty years previously when they had been walking home one night along Claremount Road towards Godley Bridge. He claims they saw a white horse running down the middle of the road and fearing that it could prove a danger to traffic, contacted the police. However, despite the squad car taking little time to arrive and proceeding to conduct a thorough search of the surrounding streets, Mr. Whitehead recalls that the horse was never found, having apparently vanished into thin air.

Scout Hall, Shibden Valley

An ancient and gaunt building situated on the western slopes of the upper Shibden valley, Scout Hall is exactly the sort of building you expect to come with a ghost story attached. Although there has been a building on the site since the early 14th Century, the current structure was erected by notorious local clothier John Mitchell in 1681. Three stories high and a riot of different architectural styles, it is said to have 52 windows (one for each week of the year) and 365 panes (one for each day). Yet despite being one of the most aesthetically interesting buildings in the area, it has been uninhabited for many years. In the 1959 West Riding edition of his Buildings of England series, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “a half-derelict place in the deserted English countryside” and it currently appears on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register.

John Mitchell was certainly a curious character. A gentleman silk-merchant, he was known to organise horse races on the nearby moors and was fond of hunting, as a bas-relief above the main entrance of the Hall attests. He would often disappear for several days on end, only to be discovered asleep in some cosy thicket in the hills and hence he dubbed himself as “hedge baronet”. He was clearly also a hedonistic sort, riling the outspoken Non-Comformist preacher Oliver Heywood, who wrote in his diary, “Mr. John Mitchell of Scowt, the last week of Christmas to season his New House kept open house, entertaining all-comers, had fearful ranting work, drinking healths freely, had forty-three dishes at once, I have scarce heard the like in our parts, his wife was a musician. Lord put a stop.”

Heywood’s wish was granted when Mitchell died at the young age of 37. The man had been obsessed with building flying machines, and boasted that he would one day “fly with the steadiness and velocity of an eagle”. Local tradition records that he was killed in just such a flight attempt from a nearby hill. In Ghosts Over England, R. Thurston Hopkins writes that a phantom flying machine is still sometimes said to be observed overhead in the Shibden valley, followed by a resounding clangour, much like some “heavy contraption falling from a great height on rocks”. Meanwhile, several previous tenants of the Hall have complained of witnessing strange shapes drifting through the rooms and have been disturbed by uncanny noises in the night. In its current state, you can well believe it.

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 17:02  Comments (11)  
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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.