A turbulent geological past has left Cumbria in northwest England as an environment of extremes: extreme topography – and extreme mythology
Nothing so suggests mystery as a lonely tarn, its depths darkened by peat, its still surface reflecting the scree-clad corrie walls between which it’s cradled. No feeling of ‘otherness’ is more tangible than when cloud breaks over soaring granite massifs and spears of silver sunlight glint down steep, shadowy valleys.
Mystical scenes like these can be found almost anywhere in Cumbria’s Lake District. With grand mountains, endless forests and deep bodies of water, the ‘Lakes’ are well known today as a holiday destination, and thus are highly commercialised.
Towns like Keswick and Ambleside are filled with day-tripper essentials: tearooms, craft shops, restaurants. Yet beneath this skin of normality there lurks another Lake District that few know about.
Any guidebook will reveal folk stories layered with scary beings and mythical events. Local place-names – ‘Hell Gill’, ‘Great Worm Crag’ – imply sinister origins. Last autumn, while wearing my other hat as an author of ghost stories, the Lake District seemed an obvious place to commence what I’d planned to be a ‘spook tour’ of northern England.
A sinister voice
My first trip would only last two days, and it soon became clear that this wouldn’t even scratch the surface. But I had to start somewhere, and finally settled on the Central Lakes. My base was the Sawrey Hotel on Windermere’s west shore, which proved ideal, not just because of its comfortable rooms and excellent English menu, but because close by are the Heights of Claife, an area of lakeside woods haunted by a disturbing entity called the ‘Crier of Claife’.
The story goes that one night a ferryman on the opposite shore heard a strange voice calling for his services. Ignoring his colleague’s advice, the ferryman set out – and wasn’t seen again until dawn, by which time he’d gone insane. No-one really knows what the ‘Crier’ is supposed to be, though recent reports that a hooded form prowls the Claife woods suggest that it may be a spectral monk.
These days the Windermere ferry is mainly notable for its long queues of cars. But I had to use it that first morning to take the A591 north and then the A66 east to my first objective, Penrith. Here, I visited the Giant’s Grave, an ancient tomb some 15 feet long, located beside the north door to Penrith Church. It allegedly houses the remains of a fifth century giant. A man working nearby assured me the grave was once opened and colossal human bones discovered.
From Penrith, I continued east to Crackenthorpe, where I donned my walking-boots and joined the Pennine Way, climbing into the foothills of Cross Fell for a noon picnic. Cross Fell is a vast, bleak plateau rising 3000 feet above the picturesque Eden Valley. Even at mid-day, there was a brooding sense of remoteness. Skeins of ghostly mist drifted down the barren slopes. I heard bloodcurdling cries that I hoped were the mating calls of a vixen, though it was difficult not to link them with the fell’s resident horror, the barguest, a demonic dog-man, the mere sight of which is supposedly fatal. A stone cross was once erected on Cross Fell to try and lay this fiend, but I found no trace of it, nor any walker who knew its location.
My second day was more sedate. I spent it in the genteel village of Beetham, which, consisting mainly of grey limestone cottages, wouldn’t be out of place in Beatrix Potter. Above it, a narrow stair twists between high rock faces, supposedly cut by fairies. Ascend this without touching the sides, and a wish will be granted. But fail, and you invoke the cappel, a hideous boggle whose touch is death. Normally I’d laugh at such things, but an old man I chatted to over a garden wall frowned and said: “There’s no way to describe it, but you meet it and you’ll know.”
Back at the Sawrey Hotel, I reflected on my two days over a gorgeous pint of Hawkshead Gold. The banter in the snug was vintage Cumbria – gruff and good-natured, though again, when I mentioned the local spook, the laughter stopped. Of course, I’d have been more respectful of this if Lakeland folk weren’t so adept at turning eerie tales to their pecuniary advantage. That very bar is called The Claife Crier.
If you want real luxury, I recommend Aynsome Manor, Cartmel, (near Beetham), or Temple Sowerby House, near Penrith. But at a reasonably priced £89 pp for a two-night winter break, the Sawrey Hotel is great for a ‘folklore tour’ of the Central Lakes. Just don’t call for the ferry after dark. And if you do, don’t expect a reply.