On a recent stormy night I stood beneath a tree in the Lancaster University Library and told a story. Yes, there is a real tree living in the library. And yes, we’d already heard about the library’s ghost, believed to be Elizabeth Nelson, murdered nearby 151 years ago.
These library events, organised by the indefatigable Yvonne Battle-Felton, attract a good, diverse crowd so I began my tale on an ironic note.
It might sound funny, but I’m not from here. [Other readers were from Spain, Peru, Wales, USA and elsewhere.]
I grew up 20 miles from here across in the county of Cumbria. Now I didn’t realise until recently, but Cumbria is different. It’s unique amongst the northern and central lands of England by being bordered on all sides. Conversation with Sarah Hall at Hay a couple of years ago confirmed this view. From Solway Firth down to the Kent Estuary that was my playground, the vast expanses of water that are the wild Irish Sea and ghostly Morecambe Bay surround three sides. To the East a spine of high moorland mountains, Howgill and Pennine, seal the land. Cumbria is a land apart.
From the ancient kingdom of Rheged on, Cumbria has been distinct and separate. The Romans crossed via mountain tops rather than boggy valleys. Unlike elsewhere, their road forced to fit the land not the reverse. The vikings came but left nothing but words, place-names. Malcolm IV ‘the maiden’ king claimed rule, but Cumbria was autonomous not fealty. Its rugged lands too complex to subjugate. So, neither Scotland nor really England in any meaningful way.
And perhaps neither this rational world nor that mysterious other land quite explain the lore of the county. Not the full-blown faerie of the Western neighbours Ireland and Mann, but nor the attempted rationalisation of the South. It is no surprise that this sublime land became the first home of the Romantic. In the curious domestic menage of the Wordsworths is a fearsome loyalty to land and living, that infected and tortured the outsider Coleridge too. His attempt to consider the duality of man and landscape reflected in his intimate relationships too. Domestic and Ideal did not blend as it did for William, Mary & Dorothy. He fared better than the arch-Cockney critical essayist Hazlitt though. Predating the predatory narrator of Liber Amoris, a younger Hazlitt fled, was chased from the Lakes unceremoniously and with tail between his legs. (Where, allegedly, he’d have been advised to keep it.)
Not all of this was in my tale in the library, but I held them with mention of vampires. As literature students and readers, and with at least one Gothic novelist in the crowd, they knew that Stoker didn’t create the English literary vampire. Of course they knew it came from Polidori who took more than a touch of Byron to do so.
We in the north know better. We in Cumbria tell of Thalaba the Destroyer, Bob Southey’s epic gothic poem. That’s where you’ll find the earliest vampires in English. It’s Southey, creator of Goldilocks and the Three Bears too, who Byron called Mouthy Southey which tells you how to pronounce his name. 150 odd years later the father of the man who became film director Duncan Jones, had similar debate about his stage surname. Romantic and Gothic echoes abound but always with a unique Cumbrian taste.
There was another Cumbrian writing of vampires though. Just a couple of years after Southey and a few miles north the Blind Bard of Wigton published a poem called The Vampire. John Stagg, it must be said, is deservedly neglected in comparison to his contemporaries. His work more interesting than good. Lines about ‘his gore-besmirched jaw’ are graphic Gothic but in the ‘advert’ preceding the poem Stagg shows his best and worst. Vampires, he asserts, ‘phlebotomise’ their victims but from that scientific description he moved quickly to them drawing blood by ‘suckosity’.
So driving down the M6, I was thinking: what true ghost story might I tell. I’d previously recounted experiences in the 17th century former vicarage turned hotel where I used to work. A wild gust of wind buffeted the car and i thought of Peg Sleddal’s ghostly carriage and six careering down to Crackenthorpe Hall.
Who? You may ask. Well in the winter of 1643 Elizabeth ‘Peg’ Sleddal married one Lancelot Machell of Crackenthorpe Hall. Lancelot had connection to the Clifford’s (Lady Anne et al) of nearby Brougham Castle and on his demise Peg expected a nice estate. She was angered to learn in his will, that she got only a third, and it is said that on certain September nights the howling Helm wind is her haunted carriage.
Such was belief in this, that fearful locals eventually exhumed poor Peg and reburied her in the bed of the river Eden beneath a huge slab. It didn’t appease or restrain her vengeful spirit and still she rides to Crackenthorpe.
That was my story I decided as the road snaked down that curious bifurcated stretch off Shap Fell towards the gorgeous scars of the Lune Valley. It was sometime after midnight, I sang along to the CD in the deck, my headlights lit her body by some pine trees on a bend.
Flash. A white dress, dark hair, rain-wracked on the motorway verge. Caught in the full beam glare. She stood seemingly motionless yet looking at me. You know how some portraits’ gaze follows you round the room? Even at 70mph, in the rain and dark, i was sure she watched me drive by.
I braked carefully, cautious of the wet. There were no other cars around for a moment. I expected to see her car broken down, out of petrol perhaps but nothing. Just the reflection of headlights on wet asphalt.