Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:11 am
It is a wild, wind-blown, rain-lashed winter’s night. A spectral horse gallops up to the moss-covered ruins of old Wycoller Hall, the rider a man dressed in early 17th century fashion He slides swiftly from the saddle, enters the house and dashes up long-vanished stairs. A door is flung open. Terrified shrieks pierce the pitch black; gradually, the screams subside into groans. Finally, silence closes in once more on the darkness.
Wycoller Hall, in the picturesque village of Wycoller near Colne, is reputed to be one of Lancashire’s haunted hotspots, along with various castles, pubs, hills, houses, hospitals and theatres. The above story allegedly features a former resident of the Hall, a Squire Cunliffe, who, having ridden hard across the moors, arrives home to find his wife in the arms of another. In a rage, he beats her to death with his riding crop. The story doesn’t mention what happened to the lover. The more common – and I think less plausible – tale is that Cunliffe was fox hunting (at night, as you do), the fox runs into the hall and up the stairs to Mrs Cunliffe’s boudoir, followed by Cunliffe, his hounds – and presumably, the rest of the hunt. It must have been quite crowded. His wife, somewhat perturbed, begins to scream; Cunliffe, finding this reaction entirely unreasonable, raises his riding crop – seemingly as a prelude to striking her into silence – and the poor woman died of fright. Sorry, we don’t know what happened to the fox.
The spectral horseman is said to appear once a year, on a suitable evening. However, Wycoller Hall has another ghost, a Lady in Black, also referred to as Black Bess, or Old Bess. Bess wears a long, black, silk dress and appears near the Hall’s enormous fireplace, as well as outside on the old Pack Horse Bridge. She says nothing, just gazes at those who see her – and disappears. No one knows who she is – or was, in life. Could she be an apparition of the wife of the spectral horseman? Another story is that a Cunliffe married a woman in the West Indies, regretted it, and threw her overboard on the voyage home; Black Bess is searching for the man who cruelly murdered her.
Supernatural sensations will never be far from a place like Wycoller Hall. It is a shady ruin, whose gloomy green stones may well hold remembrances of long-ago events, only to replay them in twilight times, when winds blow through empty frames, dead leaves eddy in unseen corners and every shadow threatens. It is said to have been the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. The Brontë sisters apparently often walked the seven or so miles across the moors from their home in Haworth. Who is to say their shades do not also dwell in the places they visited? Charlotte describes Ferndean as “uninhabited and unfurnished, with the exception of some two or three rooms fitted up for the accommodation of the squire when he went there in the season to shoot.” This matches the likely condition of Wycoller Hall in the 1810s, a building that dates from the 1550s, came into ownership of the Cunliffe family by marriage in the early 17th century, was improved and then fell into disrepair when the last owner, Henry Owen Cunliffe, fell into debt. When he died, in the hall in 1818, the Wycoller estate was sold to pay his creditors and many of the hall’s fixtures and building materials were used elsewhere. A long, slow, decay set in.
There are more tales of weird Wycoller. I have read that a courting couple from Burnley heard what they thought was a coach and horses pass through them in their parked car, accompanied by an intense, bone-piercing, cold. Hardly the evening they had hoped for, I imagine. We should also mention Guytrash Padfoot, just in case you come across him. ‘Trash’ is an enormous spectral hound with large, saucer-like, eyes whose very presence in the lanes around the village is, or was, said to herald a death. Best avoided, then.
A (nicer) bit about Wycoller
I do hope the supernatural stuff doesn’t put you off Wycoller. It is well worth a visit – but it almost didn’t make it into the 21st century. Once upon a time, Wycoller made a tidy living from sheep and wool. Just before the Industrial Revolution, most households were involved in weaving. Above the village is Tenter Field – named for the tenterhooks that were used to stretch out cloth to dry it. But handlooms could not compete with power looms and factories. So, between 1820 and 1871, the population fell from around 350 to 107 as folk migrated to surrounding towns in search of work. Then, in 1890, the Colne Water Corporation announced plans to build a reservoir in the valley and bought 200 acres of the Wycoller farmers’ best land. Their traditional livelihoods impossible, their way of life gone, the population drifted away even more. In the event, underground water reserves were discovered and the reservoir plan never came to fruition. It was too late for Wycoller, though, which (appropriately) became something of a ghost town, largely uninhabited, a state that existed well into the 1960s.
However, in 1948, ‘The Friends of Wycoller’ was established to try to conserve the hall and the village. The next milestone was in 1973, when Lancashire County Council decided to buy the land from the Water Board and turn it into a country park. More preservation work was carried out on Wycoller Hall. The village’s wonderful 17th century aisled barn, once used to store wool, was converted into a visitor centre, and a craft centre and tearoom was established. People have returned, living in beautifully renovated old cottages. Wycoller is now a highly desirable place to live, much photographed, and much visited. It is closed to outside traffic, so does not get full of parked cars. Aside from its wraiths and what-nots, it is known for its country park – and for the bridges across the Wycoller Beck. The bridges include three ancient ones: a twin-arched 15th century packhorse bridge, a simple clapper bridge and the single-slabbed ‘Clam Bridge’ which some believe to be Neolithic and possibly 6000 years old. The effect of centuries of traffic over the packhorse bridge can be appreciated from the deeply worn stones. The clapper bridge used to be badly eroded, too, with a deep grove on its surface; but it is said a local farmer chiselled it flat after his daughter had a fatal accident.
A short walk from Wycoller along on a sunken lane known as the Old Coach Road takes you past a vaccary wall. This dates from medieval times, before sheep farming became popular, when the area specialised in rearing cattle – ‘vaccary’ derives from the French vache for cow and the walls were built to keep the cattle penned. I have never seen one before, but apparently there are several examples in the area. The walk takes you uphill to the Atom, which is a modern art installation known as a panopticon, allowing those inside to observe without being seen. And very interesting it is too. I think it looks like a space ship.
But, let us end with a special thought for Halloween. Wycoller seems to be one of those places that attracts the paranormal. Yet, everywhere is surrounded by and is a product of its past. Look around you. Who’s to say a phantom isn’t reading this over your shoulder, right now?