Tales of Ghosts in the Lakes
Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome wrote stories and created characters that have become part of the culture of this part of the lakes. Tales of adventures on sunny days, of breezy picnics by the lake, friendships and laughter. But some stories are much much older, these are stories of love and loss of violent actions with fatal consequence of madness, despair and death, these stories, centuries old, have been passed from generation to generation and have been around so long they are now part of the soil, the water the rocks and the air. At this time of year these stories seem somehow closer to the surface. Maybe it’s the cold still autumn mornings when the mist hangs low over the lake, deadening the background noise, allowing disembodied voices animal and human to reach out through the enveloping grey. Maybe it was the earth tremor last night; that noise and the shaking woke me suddenly with a bright blinding light and a searing pain down my spine and I have had the mother of all headaches ever since.
Windermere Ferry early morning
And this is how I start my normal daily commute into work as a countryside Ranger on my trusty iron horse, a journey I’ve made a thousand times before, but this morning it feels somehow different, otherworldly, I have a sick feeling in my stomach and feel so damn cold. A mile along the lakeshore cutting my way through the mist , the sound of the Windermere car ferry, creaking and groaning as it pulls itself along on metal chains. I am reminded of the ferry disaster of 1597. A wedding party 45 strong returning from Far Sawrey cram themselves onto the ferry which was in those days just a large rowing boat . The outward journey in calm waters, full of laughter and merriment turned to disaster on their return as the winds picked up the wedding party high on drink but low on balance, capsized the boat and 38 people drowned . The biggest loss of life that this lake has seen. Since then people have reported seeing faces in these murky waters and swimmers have felt hands grabbing their ankles trying to drag them under to join the wedding party. These are probably just reflections and submerged weeds, but his morning through the mist the buoys that surround the islands look eerily like floating lifeless bodies .
Onward and up ferry hill to the church at Far Sawrey, the late flowering devils bit scabious scattered on the grassy road verges. Chattering crows gather on the wall watching me pass by like they’re waiting for something to happen. Through the Sawreys and along the side of Esthwaite Water this is always the coldest part of the ride in, this morning it is icy cold I look out across the water towards the Devils Gallop. In medieval times when Hawkshead was the main market town in south Lakeland the packhorse men would spur the horses on double-quick along this lonely stretch of road trying to keep one step ahead of old nick. Through the mists I hear the sound of hooves and a sudden snort of some large hidden beast on the other side of the hedge gets the adrenaline racing and I put my foot down on the pedals just that bit faster.
Approaching Priests Pot, a small circular tarn on the edge of Hawkshead village past the site of the gibbet . This was an upright wooden post with a projecting arm for hanging the bodies of executed criminals. A bit like a giant bird feeder, it acted as a blunt warning to the packhorse men approaching the village, with its 14 public houses, to behave themselves when they got paid or as a reminder as they were leaving that they may have got away with it this time but next time they might not be as lucky. Riding through the village the speed camera on the corner shouts 13 at me in bright red numbers (why is it always 13) is it trying to tell me something?
Riding out of the village my nerves on edge not warming up at all I look to my right to Latterbarrow and Claife Heights my thoughts inevitably stray to the Crier of Claife the ghost that has haunted the Heights since they were the property of Furness Abbey. There was apparently a house of ill repute on Claife heights where women would provide ‘refreshment ‘ to the weary packhorse men. A young monk sent by the Abbey to save these women from a life of sin, fell in love with one of them, but his advances were spurned and the rejection eventually sent him mad, he died love lorn and lost on the heights. His restless spirit wandered the heights for years wailing into the night. One foggy winters evening the ferry men based at Ferry Nab heard a desperate call from across the lake, “ferryman , ferry man" The ferryman set off into the mist a single lamp on the prow of the boat lighting the way. After some considerable time the boat eventually drifted back across the lake, with no passenger, no light and the ferryman wide eyed with terror, struck dumb by whatever unspeakable horror that he had witnessed. Well, that was enough for the locals and they quickly engaged two priests with ‘bell, book and candle' to exorcise the ghost’s spirit to a remote quarry on the heights. If you listen carefully some nights you can still hear strange noises probably just the screech of an owl, the cry of a fox or the bark of young stag.
Claife Under a blood red sky
Climbing up Hawkshead Hill ,out of the mist now the ghost of the mad monk seems to be fading, but the late rising sun offers no heat and has cast a deep bloody hue over everything, the silent ghostly figure of a barn owl sweeps low across the field to my left. It is folklore that these owls carry the souls of the recently departed I look back to see Claife under a blood red sky, and it looks most peculiar. Up ahead I can see a black figure crouched over something in the middle of the road is that a shadow or... As I get closer the figure stands up and breaks apart, exploding in ten different directions at the same time, the sound of a cape? No it’s the sound of wings flapping as a murder of carrion crows disperse into the trees above, not wanting to move too far from what was interesting them lying on the tarmac. What was interesting them is a mass of blood and bone and entrails, road kill of some description. Feeling bad enough I can’t bear to look too closely so I cycle on and the pain in my back and the cold are just getting worse.
I finally reach the crossroads at High Cross and now have an easy descent, freewheeling down to our Ranger base in Coniston. The base is very quiet, unusually quiet for a workday, I walk into the kitchen area and on the table lying open on pages 7 and 8 is the most recent edition of the Westmorland Gazette and my eye is drawn to a short article ‘National Trust Ranger killed in early morning traffic accident ‘gripped by a crushing fear and understanding, the cold and the pain intensify, the room starts shaking and then suddenly the pain and the cold disappear along with the colour, the light, the sound… When you are walking the paths and lanes of South Lakeland if you feel a sudden unexplained rush of wind passing by or the squealing of brakes when no bike is around to be seen , it might just be me on my way into work again...ghostrider.
Paul Farrington (1963-2013). National Trust Ranger, South Lakes