A Haunting above Thornthwaite: A Cumbrian Ghost Story

Sunshine on Barf. Stop being childish, that’s the name of the hill.

I am a changed man. It’s not the cuts, breaks and scrapes, nor is it the scars that will undoubtedly mark my flesh for the remainder of my days. It is my understanding of the world around me, my vision, if you will, that has altered. My world has suddenly become a much darker place, but it is a strange kind of darkness in which I see far more than I ever did before.

It began a couple of weeks ago with a short holiday to the Lake District, where I stayed in the small village of Thornthwaite under the shadow of a hill called Barf.

Go ahead, laugh. I did too, at first. But that is the name, honest. Part of the reason I stayed there was because I found it funny. And to make the jest even better, next to the drive up to the cottage where I was staying, I found this tree:

A very happy tree. How was I to know that trees can feel schadenfreude?

By the time I arrived at the cottage, it was already late afternoon. I was eager to get out and about amongst the hills and trees, however, so I quickly unpacked, grabbed the dog and headed up the trail that started right behind the cottage. I knew there was only about an hour-and-a-half of daylight left but I planned on just a short hike before coming back for dinner.

The walk was steep but lovely. Following Beckstones Gill (a gill is a small stream), the dog and I headed up a cut that separates Barf from Seat Howe. The path was covered in scots pine, moss and a surprisingly wide range of fungus, and I lingered perhaps a little too long to take a few photos.

Yellow staghorn growing on a fallen scots pine next to Beckstones Gill

As a result, as we got higher up the hillside, it began to get dark under the trees. I wasn’t worried, though, as I could still see sunshine on the hills across the far side of the valley. It is a pity I didn’t stop to think that those brightly lit fells faced west towards the setting sun, while my own shadowed vale looked east towards the coming night.

Evening: a view from Beckstones Gill towards Skiddaw.

I don’t know why I didn’t turn around then and there. I have enough experience of the outdoors to know how dark woods can be at night and I knew there would be plenty of time to climb the trail the next day. But I was too eager to see what lay around the next bend and over the next ledge.

So when at last I turned to retrace my steps, the path below was black. While light still lingered in the sky above, beneath the trees, night had come. Had it been level ground, I could have followed the sound of the gill and worked my way home. But the hillside was steep and moss and bracken covered rotted wood and bits of broken slate that had fallen from higher on the hillside, making the footing too treacherous to trust in the dark. So, hoping for a little more light, I crossed the stream and made for the open slopes on the far side.

Once I came out from under the trees, it was immediately obvious why the trail had avoided the open ground. This side of Barf was fiendish mix of loose scree and low crags, with heather covering every inch of ground that was stable enough to put a foot on. (For those of you unfamiliar with it, heather is a tough, woody plant. It does not provide good footing.) I wasn’t too worried, though, as it is fairly easy to move downhill on scree. The only problem is ensuring that you don’t start a mini landslide and lose control.

Carefully, I began to pick my way down the slope, steering away from nasty drops over crags and using clumps of heather to slow my descent. I could see much better under the open sky but, even so, the shadows made it difficult to discern loose rock from solid footing and I had to focus all of my attention on the ground around me.

Which explains why I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it–the Bishop of Barf.

“The Bishop of Barf?” you say. “Do you really expect me to believe this?”

Yes, I do. The story goes like this: In 1783, the Bishop of Derry, having had a few pints, made a drunken bet that he could ride his horse up the steepest side of Barf. It didn’t go well. Both the bishop and his horse fell and the white rock marks the spot where both of them died.

The Bishop of Barf . Local legend says it shines white because the Keswick Mountain Rescue team gives it a whitewash every year. I know better.
Photo by David Gruar  CC BY-SA 2.0

Of course, I ‘knew’ that this story was false, that the Bishop of Derry at that time lived for another twenty years or so and died somewhere in Italy. I also ‘knew’ that the locals in the area whitewash the stone every year to make it shine bright in the moonlight, thus lending ‘atmosphere’ to the area and bringing in more tourists and their money.

But being so close to the Bishop, seeing it hold on to the last glow of the twilight sky, well, there was a kind of magic in that, even if it was just paint. I couldn’t help but smile, couldn’t help but reach out to…

There was a sudden screeching behind me and a horrendous clattering amongst the stones, as though a great beast were lashing out in pain and agony. I whirled about but, before I could see what was happening, my feet slipped out from under me. The loose slate shifted and gave way, sliding down the hillside and carrying me with it. I had lost control and was heading straight for a sheer drop.

I don’t remember anything for a while after that. I woke sometime in the night with my dog sitting on top of both me (he does that) and my two broken ribs (as I found out later at hospital). It was my cry of pain that led the mountain rescue team to me. I suppose I should thank my dog for saving my life, though it’s not exactly how Lassie would have done it.

Dogs love Barf

That, however, is not the end of the story, for, as I said, I am a changed man. My vision has grown darker.

Last weekend, I took the dog for a walk. We went to a spot in the countryside near my home, a disused quarry which is now a nature reserve and a favourite place for both of us. It just so happens that, next to our usual path, lies an ancient barrow.

It may not look like much to your eyes but the slight rise in the ground near the middle of the photo is a neolithic long barrow.

Passing this spot, the sun seemed to dim, as though hidden by cloud. Stranger, though, was the rustling and scraping of the leaves and branches of the nearby blackthorn hedge. It sounded like the bushes were actually singing. And the grasses in the field, they seemed to bend away from my feet, clearing a path straight towards the barrow. As for the barrow itself, that slight rise in the field that, until now, had been all but impreceptible, it shone in the half-light like a candle-lit window in winter, promising warmth and welcome to all who entered.

It was hard to resist. To be honest, I didn’t resist. It was only the dog that, once again, saved me. He saw a rabbit run across the path, took chase and nearly yanked me off my feet when his lead hit its limit. And when, having gained control of the beast, I looked back at the barrow, the vision was gone. All was as it should be.

What worries me is, what will happen next time? I can hear you saying, “Next time? Are you an idiot? Don’t go back there!” But even if I follow your advice, consider this: Britain is an ancient place. Barrows and Bishops litter the land. Corpse roads cross every field and fell. I can see them, shining in the dark. Everywhere. And though I have felt how sharp their tooth and claw can be, still the fey light draws me.

What curse is this, that makes me long for the thing that will destroy me?

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