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Peakland spooklights

David Clarke

Compact of unctuous vapour, which the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round
Kindled through agitation to a flame,
Which oft, they say, some evil spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads th’amaz’d night-wanderer from his way,
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool,
There swallow’d up and lost, from succour far . . .

John Milton Paradise Lost

Strange lights in the sky hovering over rocky crags, dancing over wooded valleys, playing tag with each other, leading walkers astray. Ghostly rays and beams, will o’the wisp or ‘foolish fire’ in British folklore, have become transformed into Unidentified Flying Objects or Flying Saucers as the Industrial Revolution moves into the space age. Phil Reeder (1986) notes that accounts of will o’the wisp in scientific and popular literature were common towards the end of the last century, but these have decreased at the same time reports of UFOs have increased!

The appearance of mysterious lights above marshland gave scientists a ready explanation during the age of reason. Methane and other marsh gases, they said, created by rotting vegetable and animal matter bubbling up through the bogs, when ignited could produce wispy flames and balls of fire which flit about and, when carried by air currents, startle unsuspecting rustics. Newton connected marsh gas with the ignis fatuus in 1730, and the theory held good for a number of centuries. In 1980 Dr Alan Mills at Leicester University’s Department of Geology decided to scrutinise the evidence and found it wanting (Mills 1980). Using laboratory conditions he consistently failed to reproduce a will o’the wisp type flame using methane, phosphene and other substances suspected as contributors to the chemical soup in marshland. What is more, he could not find any other natural spark which could ignite gasses produced from rotting vegetable matter. Whatever the will o’the wisp was, he concluded, it was not a product of marsh and their gas. And he also ruled out other natural electrical phenomena, like St Elmo’s fire, ball lightning and luminous insects as having any part in the production of the phenomenon.

Few of the reports of spooklights I have collected, especially those from the Peak District, come from marshy areas but rather from mountains and rocky gritstone uplands. The rapid, playful movements of the lights which people see, and their longevity, suggest they are possessed of some kind of low order intelligence, or react to subtle changes in the air, magnetic field or environment which are not obvious to the human observer. In folklore the will o’the wisp often appears as mischievous fairy or evil spirit who misleads travellers from their safe paths into treacherous bogs, a motif well known on Dartmoor where persons who become victims of the lights are said to have been ‘pixie-led’. Turner, writing in 1901, described a region of marshland near Longnor in the upper part of the River Dove, where at twilight ‘there is a flickering light to be seen moving as one moves . . . it has given rise to many tales of belated travellers having been beguiled by it and led into the swamp, where their bodies remain, and from whence their “boggarts” arise at night to caper and dance all over the countryside, to the terror of the inhabitants.’

The Earthlights Theory

Methane exiting from the surface of the marsh would be expected to burn, if ignited, as a flickering, fixed flame, but would hardly move through the air or against a prevailing wind. The marsh gas explanation for spooklights has been superseded by others, some fanciful and others plausible. Popular at the moment is the ‘earthlights’ theory which is a convincing connection between lights and the faulted geology of the regions in which they appear. Although no clear production mechanism has yet been discovered which scientists are entirely happy with, the theory suggests the lights are the product of a build up of electrical charge in areas of geological stress. Rather than being directly caused by earthquakes or tremors, the lights are symptoms of the earth’s internal traumas, springing into life as electrons are slowly released into the air and possibly through the water table as strain waxes and wanes in zones of geological faulting. (Brookesmith and Devereux 1997).

Well-known spooklights

Explanations have come and gone, but the lights remain with us. Attached to particular places in the landscape, they appear and disappear and have become so well known that folklore gives them their own names, or places they are seen regularly are named in their honour. In the High Peak of Derbyshire, there are the well-known Longdendale Lights, better known as the Devil’s Bonfires to residents of the valley. Some believe their appearances over the centuries gave rise to the name Shining Clough, one of the craggy mountain ridges where they love to frolic. Then there is a hill known as the Lantern Pike, ten miles to the south-west above the village of Hayfield. Peggy wi’th’ Lantern was a frequent visitor here, say the old tales, swinging her lamp on the summit of the hill on dark nights. Another light gave its name to Meg o’th’ Lantern Lane, shown on an old tithe map to the south side of the River Derwent near Derby [1].

The traditional explanation, and one I have met with wherever I go in the countryside, is the lights are spirits. Whether they be michievous sprites bent on leading travellers astray, fairies, genius locii or elementals who live in the sky, like the Gaelic Sluagh - that is how the old tradition sees them. A parallel motif is the light or lights as omens of death or disaster, a strong belief in Ireland, Scotland and Wales where the corpse candle tradition features prominently in folk tradition. Liz Linahan (1995) records a story of this genre from Whitwell in Derbyshire, where the appearance of a ‘fairy death lantern’ guides a man lost in the blizzard of 1947 to safety of the cottage where his elderly mother lies dying.

A number of similar stories are found from the caverns and mines of the Peak District and the neighbouring South Yorkshire and North Nottinghamshire coalfield. Here much neglected mining folklore is rich with accounts of lights in pit tunnels which warn of impending disaster, or lights which haunt mines where disasters have claimed lives (Linahan 1994: 81). Much of this shades into ghostlore, where the lights become the ghostly lamps on miners’ helmets, or in the case of the Longdendale Lights on Bleaklow they are the burning torches carried by Roman soldiers who tramp across the moor every year on the night of the first full moon in spring. On the Staffordshire moors, a dim blue light is said to haunt a hillside near Rushton where the ghost of a murdered woman was laid by traditional methods (Clarke 1991: 65)

Another mining tradition is the ‘fiery drake’, an eerie ball of flame known to lead miners in the Peak. The appearance of this light was said to lead miners to the richest ores, a tradition which suggests links with West Country mining traditions recorded by Paul Devereux. In the Peak District lights are known to frequent stone circles, burial mounds, rivers, caves and rocky crags. Wayne Anthony Boylan (1997) mentions lights seen around Outcrops at Lunter Rocks, above Winster, in the White Peak, and at Harborough Rocks near Brassington, and Liz Linahan (1995: 85) mentions a ‘fairy tree’ on Whitwell Moor, where lights are seen to gather.

There are also lights reported on Stanton Moor, and around the Neolithic megaliths of the Bridestones, a burial chamber, near Congleton (Doug Pickford, pers. comm.). Coincidentally, both of these locations are locations where UFO ‘abduction’ events allegedly occurred, which involve the manifestation of light phenomena before a mystical vision (Pickford 1994: 99-102). Then there are the lights which dance on barrows. Cauldon Low, a notorious fairy haunt in the Staffordshire Moorlands is certainly one of these, but there are others in Monsal Dale, the Weaver Hills, and Chris Fletcher (1993) mentions another spooklight which follows a path between a burial mound called Saxons Lowe near Tittensor and a farm in the same county. Writer Alan Garner, drawing on traditional lore from his Alderley Edge home, mentions another barrow haunted by lights on the Cheshire side of the Peak in his 1968 novel The Moon of Gomrath.

All these motifs neatly fit both the earthlight and spirit theories, as we can surmise that ancient man saw these phenomena too and could have built shrines or holy places to honour the earth spirit which manifested as a ghostly light. Wayne Anthony (1997) mentions a local sighting of a strange blue light which emerged from nearby woods and hovered above the Nine Stones Close circle on Harthill Moor. A nineteenth century writer described the circle as a place where local fairies were known to dance and ‘hold high jubilee’. And we know similar accounts are on record from elsewhere including one good eyewitness report from 1919 of lights hovering within the Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria (Devereux 1989: 77-8).

Dovedale double

Although ghostlights figure strongly in folklore motifs, there are many interesting contemporary eyewitness accounts of their activities. Some of them come from people who see lights in a notorious area haunted by these phenomena but are unaware that others have seen lights there before. A young man called Oliver Rowlands contacted me back in 1994 to describe his encounters with lights which haunt the beautiful limestone valley of the River Dove at Dovedale in the White Peak. At the time he was unaware of Turner’s account and those of others I have collected from this area. Thousands of people visit this Staffordshire beauty spot during the summer to walk along the river, cross the stepping stones and scale Thorpe Cloud which towers above the valley. But how many are there after dark when, according to Mr Rowlands, strange lights dance above the river?

According to the account, the initial experience took place in March 1993 when Oliver was a final year student at Derby University, and living in Ecclesall, Staffordshire. One night, accompanied by a friend called Steve Ashall, he decided to go for a late night drive into the Derbyshire peaks after college. Stopping the car in the carpark at Dovedale they went for a walk by the river towards the well-known Stepping Stones. As they got closer to these stones, two ‘very bright white lights’ caught their attention. Both approximately the same size, they were perfectly round and lit up the surrounding area although they threw no beam at all. Making no noise, they danced in perfect symmetry, both following the other or one moving right as the other moved left. The pair estimated they were between 10 and 100 feet above the river and about double the width of the river away from them. ‘They were moving up and down in crazy patterns far too quickly for them to be the lights of a motorbike; anyway, there would be no chance of a vehicle of any type moving up and down the cliff so quickly or with such turns of speed,’ explained Oliver. ‘The experience, which lasted about three minutes, left us speechless. Then we started talking and questioned what it could be. There was something quite eerie about it. We eventually decided to turn towards the car again, and we too frightened to look back, but just kept walking and eventually broke into a run.’

The following day the pair met with ridicule when they told family and friends at college. But in September that year, Oliver returned with another college friend called Dean Atkins to the valley, this time at 7pm, just after darkness had fallen. They walked two miles past the Stepping Stones, climbed a hill beyond a chain of limestone caves and sat watching the valley from a point high above the river valley. ‘To be honest, I thought that to see such an occurrence once would seem a miracle, but twice?’, he writes. ‘But sure enough, one light (much larger than the previous one) made its appearance from trees to our left, looking back along the river, towards the car park. It seemed to rise, and wobble along before disappearing into the trees. This was below us and again we heard no sound. Later we saw another light, whilst on foot heading back towards the car. Again, it was a large sphere of light, white in appearance.’

At the end of his account, Oliver asks: ‘Can rivers or water emit strange gasses? And if so how can they dance and chase each other in perfect symmetry at speed. Are they ghosts or spirits? I don’t know, but if I could film them then perhaps the peculiar pattern to their dance can be unravelled to reveal some particular meaning, code or language. . .’

Longdendale Lights

Like the luminous phantoms which haunt the river Dove, the Longdendale Lights have been around for countless centuries and the darn things just won’t go away. Teacher and musician Sean Wood lives in an isolated grey stone building whose lounge window fronts directly onto the carriageway of the busy trans-Pennine Woodhead pass high up in the Dark Peak of north Derbyshire. The stark forbidding gritstone north face of Bleaklow - which faces his home to the south - are where Sean and his family have seen pulsating blobs of light which cavort above the fells. ‘Quite simply, there are bright lights which appear at the top end of Longdendale - there’s no doubt they exist but what they are I just have no idea,’ he told me. He was pointing towards Shining Clough, a rugged desolate mountain ridge which at nearly 2,000 feet above sea level dominates the southern horizon outside his home at the head of the valley. Sean and his family first saw the lights there in 1982, the year he moved to aptly-named Bleak House.

‘It was about 9.30 on a November evening, when I walked into one of the front rooms at Bleak House to chastise someone for shining a torch through our window,’ Sean explained. ‘Of course there was no torch, nor indeed any person outside. However, the light filled the room with a chilly, moonlike glow. ‘The effect was heightened by the lack of street lighting at this altitude and when I went outside to investigate I saw a large pulsating ball of light directly above the house, and not too far from the aptly named Shining Clough. With the hair on the back of my neck bristling I went to telephone my near neighbours at the Crowden Youth Hostel. Guess what? They were outside watching the light in the sky too.’

This was just the first in a long series of unexplained luminous interludes which have plagued valley residents for as long as memory can stretch. ‘Two years after that I saw it again, beneath the skyline. In all I’ve seen them more than 30 times over the 16 years I have been living here,’ said Sean. ‘One of the times it was very very big, and between 50 and 70ft from the ridge, it was pulsing again and then stopping, moving back and forth and up and down. I’ve also seen three lights together, much smaller and together, like in a string, moving in an arch. I’ve seen these a few times, and the big ones a few times. There’s no doubt about the fact there are lights out there on those moors.’ Sean Wood is just one of dozens of Longdendale residents who have experienced the phantom lights which haunt Bleaklow mountain and the Woodhead pass which runs below it. Jean Whitehead, the previous owner of Bleak House, saw similar lights hovering over the mountains and reservoirs. Nearly everyone who has lived in the upper part of the valley has either seen or knows someone who has seen them. The lights are just one strand of a rich tapestry of stories and legends associated with Bleaklow - a dark, high rocky plateau covered by a thick layer of peat and heather. The lights are so well-known they have become part of the folklore of the region, just another aspect of the ‘Otherness’ of the valley (see also Clarke and Roberts 1996).

The Devil’s Bonfires

Stories about them go back generations, and in tales handed down through the generations they became associated with the devil, hence their local name, the Devil’s Bonfires. One resident remembers how back in the 1950s his granny would point towards Torside Castle and Glossop Low from their home in Old Glossop and mention ‘the lights’ which flickered and hovered above the Devil’s Elbow. Ten years later, as a volunteer in the local mountain rescue team, he heard about them again when motorists began to report lights resembling distress flares hovering above the moors (John Taylor, pers. comm.)

In tradition, the Devil’s Bonfires were said to hover around a mysterious mound near the summit of Bleaklow known as Torside Castle. Archaeologists believe the mound dates from the Bronze Age, others believe it is a natural lump of mud and rock left in a wake of the glaciers which once cut through the valley. Another tradition links the lights with phantom legions of Roman soldiers who are said to march along the Devil’s Dyke, a Roman road lining the fort at Glossop with the Hope Valley in the east. ‘Devil’ names crop up frequently in this part of the hills, adding to its eerie reputation. Many folktales are concentrated in the area of the Devil’s Elbow, a dangerous bend in the Glossop to Woodhead road above a deep cutting known as Ogden Clough. In folklore the Elbow was a dangerous boundary between the inhabited valley and the moor - a frightening place haunted by burning lights, the fairy folk and the Dark Lad or T’Owd Lad, the local name for the devil or horned one.

In the 1960s, the new Peak District National Park authority built the first youth hostel at Crowden, not far from Woodhead. The hostel was designed to provide an overnight stop for walkers braving the first leg of the newly-opened long distance Pennine Way footpath which crosses Longdendale on its route north into West Yorkshire. It did not take long before visitors and wardens based at the hostel and surrounding cottages soon began to see beams and pulsating balls of coloured lights racing along the rocky gritstone crags on the remote western face of Bleaklow, along Bramah Edge and Shining Clough. On occasions police and rescue teams turned out to search the craggy heights but found nothing. Then one fine summer’s night in July 1970, teacher Barbara Drabble, who was at that time married to Peak Park warden Ken Drabble, was driving home to Crowden past the youth hostel when she suddenly passed through an invisible curtain which led into the Twilight Zone. It was, she told me ten years ago, ‘a brilliant blue light’. It lit up ‘all the bottom half of the mountain, all the railway, the reservoirs and about a two mile stretch of road.’ The lights lasted several minutes and did not resemble daylight. It was ‘brighter, clearer and harsher’ and as Barbara drove into it she felt intensely cold, a sensation which caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand on end as if it had been affected by an electrical charge. ‘It was just all over the whole valley lighting up, with perfect clarity, every single feature. It was certainly bright enough to drive without lights, and I can remember the clarity with which I could see the contour of the stone walling and the features on either side of the hills beside the road. The drive must have taken about five minutes and when I parked, or more accurately hurriedly abandoned, the car on arriving home it had an icy sheen and felt cold” [2].

Barbara was so intrigued that she made a point of visiting local farmers, asking them what they knew about the light. They shuffled uncomfortably when put on the spot by an outsider, and kept what they knew to themselves. ‘I drew a blank from everyone but their attitude made me feel they did see something,’ she said. But one year later, more than a dozen people staying at Crowden Youth Hostel including the warden, Joyce Buckley, were dazzled by the same or a similar brilliant light which shined in through the windows. ‘At first I thought it might be car headlights, but it reappeared on top of Bleaklow and no car can get up there,’ said Mrs Buckley, who now lives in Manchester. ‘It lasted three minutes, 25 seconds and was very powerful.’

The warden was so concerned about the light she called out a Mountain Rescue Search party, led by Mrs Drabble’s husband Ken. He led a team who searched the moor in vain, and said afterwards: ‘When we got to the top there was nothing - no trace of people, lights or even a fire.’ What is more, Ken and the team searched the tops carrying big gas-powered searchlights whose reflectors were the size of a dustbin lid. But high up on the moor, the lightbeams thrown out by the searchlight looked like a twinkling candle to the people below in the Youth Hostel. The mystery light, they said, had filled the whole valley with its radiance. Discussing the events of that night for a TV reconstruction in 1996, Mr Drabble, now a senior Peak Park official, told me: ‘I did not think someone was playing a trick. There were 15 people at the hostel that night and they did see something, and I would not disagree that it was something very mysterious.’ [3]

After the sighting from Crowden Hostel, Barbara once again asked local farmers what they knew, and although reluctant to talk at first, eventually they admitted they were familiar with the lights and had been for generations. ‘One of them said they had known it to freeze young lambs when it came early in the year,’ explained Barbara. ‘Also someone said it had been coming for generations but never so close together as two years, usually about thirty or even fifty years in between. They were still reluctant to discuss it.’

Can spooklights be explained away?

The most common description in recent years is of a string of moving lights which have been mistaken for ramblers lost on the mountains. Others have seen balls of light and searchlight beams. These phenomena have been seen right along the 15 mile mountain ridge south of the valley, from Torside Castle and Bramah Edge on the west, to Shining Clough which overlooks Sean Wood’s home at the head of the valley. So persistent have these reports become that the voluntary Mountain Rescue team have turned out from their Glossop base on numerous occasions when lights and ‘flares’ have been spotted, only to find the lights fade away like a will o’the wisp as they approach. The rescue team’s Commander, engineer Phil Shaw, became fascinated by the lights when he spotted a mystery beam of light on the mountain 15 years ago, and now keeps a log of sightings. ‘Between them, the seven mountain rescue teams in the Peak are called out once a year by people who see lights in the hills and assume someone is in trouble,’ he told me [4]. ‘This has been going on for at least 20 years but no one has ever been found. The reports have become so regular that the police no longer pass on reports of mystery lights to us unless they feel it is a genuine sighting of a red distress flare.’

Jim Exton, of the National Grid, has heard the stories and rules out the pylons which criss cross the valley bottom as having any connection with the lights. He says ‘arcing and sparking’ could be visible in wet weather and polluted air conditions, but the glow caused by it would be very difficult to spot from ground level. Scientist Dr Neil Charman, who has specialised in the study of ball lightning at Manchester University, rules this out as an explanation because it is so rare and due to the long duration involved in some of the reports from the valley. He has pointed towards the will o’the wisp as a more likely explanation, But as we have seen, what is a will o’the wisp? Police and mountain rescue personnel point out that the entire Bleaklow plateau is on a major international flightpath for air traffic landing at Manchester Airport in the west, and it is quite possible that aircraft landing lights could be responsible for some of the UFO-type sightings of moving lights from the region. Others may have mistaken the flashing beacon of the giant Holme Moss TV transmitter to the north of the valley as a mystery light source when there have been unusual weather conditions at work. But none of these theories explain the range of unusual light phenomena witnessed in the valley, or the traditional accounts of lights on the hills before the arrival of aeroplanes, pylons and other man-made sources of electricity.

To Wright Cooper, whose family have farmed the valley slopes at Tintwistle, near Woodhead, for more than four centuries, all the fuss about the lights is just ‘something and nothing’. The Coopers have known about them for donkey’s years, as he puts it. ‘Today there is all this talk about flying saucers but people were seeing these lights above the Devil’s Elbow way back in my grandfather’s day,’ he said. ‘Only back then it was put down to the devil or witchcraft, today it’s all aliens and UFOs.’

Notes:

1: Derbyshire Notes and Queries, Derbyshire Advertiser & Mercury Vol.10 No.505.
2: Barbara’s first hand account of her experience initially appeared in Peak Park News summer 1972; a more detailed account was transcribed by the author in 1988, and Barbara appeared on Strange But True: The Mystery of Dark Peak on the ITV network, November 1, 1996.
3: Interview with Ken Drabble, April 1996.
4: Personal communication from Phil Shaw, 1990.

References:

ANTHONY, W., 1997, Haunted Derbyshire, Beeston Books.
BROOKESMITH, Peter and Paul DEVEREUX, 1997, UFOs and UFOlogy, Blandford.
CLARKE, D., Ghosts and legends of the Peak District, Jarrold.
CLARKE, D. and Andy ROBERTS, 1996, Twilight of the Celtic Gods, Blandford.
DEVEREUX, P., 1989, Earthlights revelation, Blandford.
FLETCHER, C., 1993, letter, Mercian Mysteries, No.17.
LINAHAN, L., 1995, More pit ghosts, padfeet and poltergeists King’s England Press.
MILLS, A.A., 1980, 'Will o’the wisp', Chemistry in Britain, 16, pp 69–72.
PICKFORD, D., 1994, Staffordshire: Its magic and mystery, Sigma.
REEDER, P., 1986, ‘Will o’the wisp’, Northern Earth Mysteries No.30, pp 4–10.
TURNER, William, 1901, Romances of the Peak, London.

Originally published in At the Edge No.10 1998.


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