Friday, 16 December 2016

The Waterside Boggle

Esthwaite Water - picture by Mark Kent

CHRISTMAS - the traditional time for joy, laughter, blazing log fires... and ghosts. In Celtic tradition, midwinter - with its long nights - was the time when the world of the living and the world of the dead were at their closest. This gave rise to the idea that it was the season was when ghosts and spectres could walk among us. 

It's on Christmas Eve that Scrooge's ghosts come knocking. And I remember as a child, Christmas Eve was always when the BBC showed its late-night MR James' horror story. So here's one haunting tale from Cumbria to scare you on your way to bed. In fact, not just any old boggle, dobbie, fetch or boggledeboo. This is easily the scariest ghost story I've come across in my researches into Cumbrian folklore.

HS Cowper. Credit: Lakeland Arts Trust
It's to be found in the very dry papers of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, although variants of it have appeared in other books since. The story is told by 19th century antiquary and collector, Henry Swainson Cowper - usually just known as 'HS' Cowper - and relates to Claife Poorhouse which stood on the banks of Esthwaite Water. This small tarn stands in the south of the county near Coniston, in what would have been at one time north Lancashire rather than Cumbria.

From the outset, it should be stated that this stretch of road by the Poorhouse had a long and fearful reputation for being haunted and I will talk later of some of the other ghosts reputedly seen there in the dark hours. It was generally referred to as The Waterside Boggle and HS Cowper writes that "in most cases the apparition is sighted by a night pedestrian, and when approached, suddenly and silently disappears". While researching this boggle (a Cumberland term for a type of ghost) Cowper was told about a woman still living who had actually spoken with the ghost. "Of course I interviewed her at once," he wrote. She was now elderly and somewhat of a cripple - the result of an accident in the Coniston copper mines where she had worked - but he assures us she was "yet intellectually perfectly vigorous". 

Her encounter had taken place some 30 years previously (ie about 1860). At the time she was living with - and nursing -  her mother at the poorhouse. In the neighbourhood at that time was, she said, a wicked chap called 'S' who had a terrible quarrel with one Roger Dugdale. This feud led to a fight one night as Roger was landing his boat near the poorhouse. 'S' was the victor, succeeding in drowning Roger in the lake. Such an event obviously caused a stir in the community but since the woman did not know the men it was no more than scandalous gossip to her.

But events took an unexpected turn one evening when the woman and her mother were sat in their rooms. She was surprised to see a man walk into the house - a man unusually dressed in his best Sunday clothes. The woman recalled: "He held out his hand to me, and said something but I didn't catch what it was. I had no idea who he was and took his hand. It was as cold as ice. He went to the mantel and struck a light with some matches." 

The mysterious visitor then turned round and left as abruptly as he had arrived. The mother then turned to her daughter and said: "Bairn - whatever have you done. That was Roger Dugdale."

The daughter had never met the murder victim so had no cause to recognise his ghost. She told Cowper, "I was almost dead with terror." Her mother tried to reassure her, saying that he would never come again "as he's been spoken with and touched" but it's clear the encounter had left a permanent effect on the daughter.

But what had the wandering soul said? Had he uttered the name of his killer? Sadly, the daughter had been unable to distinguish any words. And why was he dressed in his Sunday best? It's unclear what he was wearing on the day of his murder. And why should his ghost go to the poorhouse? So many questions and sadly so few answers.

There was one final twist in the tale. When the daughter went back to the mantel no matches had been struck, despite her clear recollection that this is what the figure had done.

There seems little doubt this was a sincere account of a 'real' event. It's not your usual ghost story and it sends a shiver down my spine each time I read it. I have only edited it slightly for clarity and the full version is available online on the CWAAS archives. Cowper refers to a number of the other supernatural experiences people had at this spot by Esthwaite Water but I'll leave you with just one:

"One of the vicars of the parish used to tell his friends how, walking one night from Sawrey, he was approaching the poorhouse when he observed an old lady in old fashioned bonnet walking before him. it was early in spring, and there had been a snow shower so that the road was all white. The vicar trudged along till he was abreast of the figure, and then, thinking she was probably a parishioner, he bade her 'good-night' as he passed. As there was no reply he turned to see who this unsociable old body was. To his horror, under the wide-brimmed bonnet, he saw a death-like countenance with goggle eyes, which gleamed like colour glass with a light behind them. The apparition then suddenly disappeared through a gap in the wall. The vicar, astounded, went up to the wall, but no trace of the figure could be seen. He then looked back along the road which he had come. the moon was bright, and he noticed  a strange thing: The snow bore only the tracks of one pair of feet, and those were his own."

Sweet dreams - and merry Christmas.

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