Sterne Bridge, Copley

This location is somewhat beyond the usual remit for this website; however, I wrote the piece for my forthcoming book, Haunted Halifax & District, but was ultimately unable to include it due to the constraints of the word-limit. Therefore I am publishing it here so that my efforts were not wasted. And Copley isn’t that far beyond the lower reaches of the valley.

For centuries, a wooden bridge of this name carried Hollas Lane across the River Calder at the site of an ancient ford. It was named after the landowners, the Sterne family of nearby Wood Hall. Between 1724 and 1730, the young Laurence Sterne, resided at this house in the care of his uncle, whilst attending a local grammar school; he was later to find fame as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in nine volumes from 1759 and now widely regarded as the “first modern novel”. There is record of “a secret chamber and a tradition concerning a ghostly visitor” at Wood Hall, but unfortunately further details have not yet come to light.

Sadly, Sterne Bridge was rebuilt in concrete in 1914 and again in 2012, on a much larger scale, to carry a new road as part of Calderdale Council’s controversial Copley Valley regeneration scheme. Whatever associations this Brutalist edifice might conjure, it is unlikely that Romantic verse is amongst them. Nonetheless, William Wordsworth immortalised a tradition connected with Sterne Bridge in the poem Lucy Gray, composed in 1799 and published the following year in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s literary heir, Matthew Arnold, described the work as “a beautiful success”, whilst the influential critic, A.C. Bradley, thought it showed a “visionary touch”.

The poem describes the last hours of Lucy Gray, a sweet and solitary child who was sent by her father to light her mother home on a snowy December afternoon. But as she descended from the moors, she was overtaken by a blizzard and never met her mother in the town, nor returned home that night. The following day, her parents began a frantic search of the route she would’ve taken; they found her footprints, still faintly visible in the snow, and tracked them down the hillside, to the middle of a wooden bridge where they abruptly disappeared. Wordsworth ends the poem with a characteristically Romantic flourish, suggesting that Lucy’s spirit still haunts that fateful crossing:

“Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.
“O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.”

Although Wordsworth does not mention any locations in the poem itself, he later appended a note stating, “It was founded on circumstances told me by my sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered by a snowstorm”. It is likely that Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, heard the story as a child living in Halifax. Following the death of their mother in 1778, William was sent to boarding school, whilst Dorothy was entrusted to the care of their mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Threlkeld, who live over a draper’s shop in Southgate. Although she left in 1786, she referred to Halifax as “that dear place which I shall ever consider as my home” and returned to visit “Aunt Betsy” several times over the years. William even accompanied her on one visit in 1807, when they stayed at Mill House in Triangle.

The fact that the setting of Lucy Gray is so closely associated with Sterne Bridge locally suggests the oral tradition which Dorothy Wordsworth communicated to her brother endured in Halifax for many years, independently of the poem. Of course, we might wonder if Lucy’s ghost was part of that tradition, or if it was just a typically Romantic flourish to round off the work. In his later note, Wordsworth adds that Lucy’s body was subsequently discovered in a canal lock nearby, which tends to support the former possibility: a life tragically cut short was often a candidate for post-mortem return in folk-eschatology. Even if it was Wordsworth’s invention, it clearly fed back into the local tradition, as one source mentions “vigils mounted by local residents” at the bridge on wintry December nights.

Copyright Alexander P. Kapp and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.