Grinlow in Buxton continues to be my local supernatural hotspot with this photo, kindly sent in by a nice man called Kevin. Visiting for the day, Kevin took this shot of his daughter on the approach to Solomon’s Temple, a Victorian folly that crowns Grinlow’s highest point. Not a particularly unusual image until you spot the monk-like figures behind the tree in the background. After noticing the spectral photo bombers, Kevin searched the web and found my original post about sinister figures at Grinlow. The ascent through the woods to Solomon’s Temple is a popular walk but Kevin mentioned that there wasn’t anyone else around at the time. At least, no one that belongs to this world.
If the photo wasn’t creepy enough, it is a lesser known fact that Grinlow was actually an ancient burial site. As the skull in the local museum will testify, the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is a Bronze Age barrow that contained the remains of a man. The word low is an old English word meaning barrow or burial mound. However, this is only significant if you subscribe to the belief that ghosts are the lingering spirits of the deceased. I’ve never been terribly convinced, especially after my conversation with seasoned ghost hunter Wesley H. Downes although I remain open-minded.
Anyone who has lived in the Peak District in the UK usually has a creepy story to tell about the place. Being a national park, the Peak has miles of wilderness, drenched in history and atmosphere.
Professional musician Matt Swindells now lives in San Francisco in the USA but he was brought up in Whaley Bridge, a small town on the western edge of the Peak. Whilst taking his dog, Toddy, for a walk one day in the early 1990s, Matt suddenly stumbled upon some wildlife that could hardly be described as indigenous. During a recent visit, he was kind enough to take me back to the location of his disturbing and unforgettable encounter.
Matt and Toddy were crossing a field that borders an old abandoned quarry; a fairly common feature in this landscape. Gazing down into the quarry, Matt was shocked to see a group of “Alsatian-sized” cats lounging around amongst the rocks. It was hard to determine their exact breed but Matt recalls that the cats were coloured differently and appeared well-fed and content; their tails “swishing around”. Unlike domestic cats, they had very pronounced scapulas or shoulder blades. He watched the creatures for five long minutes, fascinated and scarcely able to believe his eyes. Usually eager to give chase, Toddy was clearly distressed or as Matt describes him; “in survival mode”. More out of concern for his canine companion rather than himself, Matt decided to beat a hasty retreat.
Despite repeat visits, Matt never saw the mystery moggies again. Upon viewing the old quarry for myself, I certainly found the scenario easy to imagine. A few hares bolted from cover upon our arrival, providing an instant answer to what such large carnivores might include in their diet. The place seemed good shelter from the elements too and remote enough to stay hidden from humans, with the exception of the occasional plucky dog walker.
Although Matt’s story is outlandish, a quick search of the internet will tell you that sightings of big cats in these parts are far from unknown. My own Aunty and Uncle witnessed an enormous black cat crossing a field more recently. The creature was walking towards King Sterndale Hall in the heart of the Peak and they noted its distinctive feline gait and tail. What disturbs me is that my Uncle is a native; a pragmatic type who was raised on a Derbyshire farm. In other words, he is not prone to flights of fancy or in danger of misidentifying an animal.
The Park Authority officially denies the existence of big cats despite the fact that people have confessed to releasing them into the wild back in the 1970s when laws on keeping animals changed. On the nearby border of Staffordshire, in a place called The Roaches, a variety of beasts were set free from a private menagerie and survived for some time, most notably a colony of wallabies. Bearing this in mind, is an itinerant group of feline predators an impossible stretch of the imagination?
Oddly enough, big black mystery animals of The Peak are not exclusively cats. Chicago-born tattoo artist and musician Jori Lakars had a frightening confrontation with a different kind of monster in Grinlow Woods, Buxton.
Jori was walking her puppy, Piper, for the first ever time. They were on the path up to Solomon’s Temple, above Poole’s Cavern, when a huge black dog came bolting towards them. Not unusual until you consider that the brute’s eyes were blazing red! Afraid they were under attack, Jori scooped Piper up in her arms, but the demonic hound just ran past. Nevertheless, Jori was understandably stunned:
I stood there shaking for a minute, thinking that his owner would be by shortly and I could mention he/she should keep a beast like that on a lead, but there was no one. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones in the woods at the time; we didn’t see a soul except for the beastie. I haven’t seen it since, and quite glad for it! I do get some funny looks when I recount the tale, people think I’m making the red eyes up, but I swear I saw them. Not looked much into the history of the demon dog, but if there really is a legend, it’s definitely what I saw!
Not commonly associated with Buxton but unearthly black dogs have been reported around the British Isles for centuries, usually going by the name of Black Shuck. Did Jori come face to face with a legend? It was certainly one hell of a first walk for poor little Piper. Grinlow Woods in Buxton does keep cropping up as the location of curious encounters and I’m starting to get very suspicious about the place. I even have a couple of my own incidents that you can read about HERE.
If big cats and big dogs were not enough, there are werewolves in the Peak District too, if you delve deep enough. In 1925, writer Charles Hoy Fort (as in The Fortean Times ) felt the need to mention events that occurred in Edale, in the north of the Peak, in his book Lo!
London Daily Express, Oct.14 1925 – the district of Edale, Derbyshire. Something “black in colour and of enormous size” was slaughtering sheep at night and “leaving the carcasses strewn about with legs, shoulders, and heads torn off; broken backs and pieces of flesh ripped off.” Many hunting parties had gone out but had been unable to track the animal. “People in many places refuse to leave their homes after dark, and keep their children safe in the house.” If something had mysteriously appeared, it then quite mysteriously disappeared.
Considering the predatory big cats, red-eyed Shucks and untidy werewolves, the next time you’re out for a walk in these parts and you hear something rustle in the bushes behind you, you might want to quicken your pace!
If you have a tale to tell of your own mystery beast of the Peak, please get in touch, and I may feature it in part two.
It’s been just over a year since I wrote a blog about my strange encounters in Grinlow Woods in Buxton in the UK. During that time, a few people have contacted me with more information. It’s slightly more comforting to know that the procession of cloaked figures that I saw in the woods were witnessed by other people and not just a figment of my imagination. Infact, someone got in touch to say that their parents even knew the group. Apparently, witches’ covens and satanic cults were all the rage back in the 1990s. I guess folks had to invent their own entertainment, pre-internet.
Just as one incident gets explained away, another one crops up that isn’t so easy to rationalise. My next post features another queer tale from the supernatural hotspot that is Grinlow Woods! I hope you can join me.
One of the creepiest spots in my hometown of Buxton, Derbyshire is also one of the most mysterious. Overlooking the northern edge of the town is a damaged Bronze Age burial mound called Fairfield Low. You could be forgiven for missing it; despite occupying one of the highest points in Buxton, it is encircled by a thick crown of trees on private farm land. Some locals are aware of its existence but know it as Skeleton Wood or Skellybob Wood (whatever a skellybob is!)
Local antiquarian Micah Salt excavated Fairfield Low in 1895 on the night before Halloween. He discovered human remains, noting that the sight had been previously disturbed, probably by lime burners. The skull now sits on the desk in the town museum’s Boyd Dawkins study. It belonged to a man who died in middle age. It seems likely that Micah Salt’s morbid discovery is the culprit for the location’s eerie nickname.
Intrigued, I set off to investigate the sinister place for myself. The summer of 2015 has been generally cold and wet in these parts, hardly like a summer at all. As you can see by my companion’s photographs, it was my good fortune to enjoy an uncommonly warm and sunny day.
Most of modern-day Fairfield is a vast labyrinth-like housing estate and it is easy to get lost unless you know your way around. Quizzing several residents as to the whereabouts of Fairfield Low did not help. As I’ve already mentioned, they call it Skellybob Wood. I focused my attention on the trees on the highest hill, rising above the multitude of rooftops. Finding it was not impossible. Getting to it was a different matter!
Stumbling onto the right path was sheer luck. There are no sign posts and the first part winds its way round the back of a large industrial estate and through a maze of allotments. Here we encountered an elderly lady who had heard of Fairfield Low but by this point we were in its shadow. The lady was perturbed by the gun I was carrying. I explained that it was actually an umbrella.
There is no public access to Skeleton Wood and by climbing a couple of walls, we were technically trespassing (apologies to the owner). The cows that know the wood as home did not seem particularly impressed that we were there. One bovine occupant in particular had the most intimidating stare I’ve ever seen on an animal; so much so that we felt compelled to circumvent it. Even when we reached the tree line, we discovered further resentment from a group of tracksuited teenagers who were loitering around in the wood.
Despite the opposition, I was pleased to find myself in the footsteps of Micah Salt, on top of what was clearly a burial mound. The ancient tomb is so well hidden by the trees, it is impossible to see it until the final ten metres of the climb. There is a deep gouge into the hillock. Whether this is the product of Salt’s excavation, the work of lime burners or a more supernatural disturbance is unclear. Skeleton Wood certainly has a very tangible and peculiar atmosphere. The warmth of the sun is replaced by a chilly breeze that gently rustles the leaves. The trees are old and twisted and command a solemn reverence, like graves in a churchyard.
We felt no need to linger but before departing, I noted the unfamiliar view out towards Dove Holes. Dotted around the landscape are several other mounds that looked suspiciously man-made. The Neolithic henge called The Bull Ring is in that direction too. It strikes me that there was a lot of activity in this area thousands of years ago. The hills and dales evidently resonated with significance for our ancient ancestors. Standing here, I can’t help but wonder who they were and what they would think now, looking upon the sprawl of Fairfield estate. In Skeleton Wood, their ghosts linger, whispering forgotten secrets amongst the trees.
It’s not every day you get to meet a real-life ghost hunter, especially one with a career as distinguished as Wesley H. Downes. In fact, given that Wesley’s investigations span seventy years and include cases as infamous as Borley Rectory and the Enfield Poltergeist, you are more likely to encounter an actual ghost.
Behind an unassuming suburb of Macclesfield, Cheshire, England, lies Wesley’s HQ. Despite being 91 years old, the author keeps himself busy collecting and collating strange reports from all four corners of the land. Before I visited him on a rainy July afternoon, Wesley had discovered no fewer than twenty stories from Staffordshire. Apprehensive about meeting a man with so much knowledge and experience of the murky world of the supernatural, I was surprised to discover a kindly gentleman with a beaming smile, robust chuckle and a glint in his eye that suggests few regrets. With uncanny prediction, Wesley immediately caught me off guard by passing me a piece he had written on The Phantom Werewolf of Derbyshire; a story from my own turf, the facts of which have eluded me for a while.
How It All Started
Like many people, Wesley’s fascination with the paranormal began with a personal experience he found difficult to explain. After the second world war In 1946, when he was just 22 years old, Wesley had been demobbed from serving in the Royal Air Force. Returning home to the Essex village of Ardleigh to live with his parents who ran a general store, Wesley would unwittingly discover his first phantom:
At breakfast one morning, my mother said that she needed some items for the shop from the wholesaler’s. I immediately offered to go and get them and getting my bicycle out of the shed, I set off. When I arrived at the warehouse they were preparing to close at mid-day for the weekend but nevertheless they got my order together and put it into four paper carrier bags. There were no such things as plastic bags in those days. I hung the bags on each side of the handlebars and steadily headed for home.
I had gone about two miles along the A604 Harwich Road as far as Parsons Heath and was just approaching the bridge over the railway when I suddenly spotted a figure briskly walking on the opposite side of the road in my direction. As the figure got closer, I recognised it as being one of my old school chums who I thought had been killed in the war. I called out to him but he took no notice and continued on his way. I turned around in the road and came up behind him and again called out his name; again no response. So I pulled up beside him and went to slap him on the shoulder with my left hand – to my surprise it went straight through him and he disappeared before my very eyes. I was so shocked that I fell off my bike, splitting some of the carrier bags and scattering the goods over the road.
Some minutes later, recovering from the shock, I picked up the spilled groceries and put them into the bags as best as I could and slowly made my way home. With some difficulty, I explained to my mother what had happened and she was of the opinion that my school friend had been killed early in the war and suggested that I should have my dinner and then go into the village and have a word with his mother.
Arriving at her house, I went to the front door and knocked, after a couple of minutes the door opened and she stood there staring at me. Suddenly she said “Wesley, after all these years, come in, what brings you here?” Slowly I told her and she burst into tears and told me that her son had been killed in 1944 during the D Day landings in France and that day; June 6th was the anniversary of his death. I could plainly see how upset she was, so I made an excuse to leave rather than upset her any further and rode off home.
I thought that was the end of the story but a couple of weeks later I was in the back garden when my mother called out to me that there were two men in the shop who would like a word with me. They introduced themselves as reporters from the local newspaper and said that they had heard of my experience and related what they knew. Their story was basically correct and asked if I could take them to the spot where it all happened.
The following weekend a full report was published in the local newspaper giving Wesley full credit and not long after that, he was invited to talk at the Ghost Club where his story was given a standing ovation. His life had changed forever. Wesley has remained a lifelong member of the world-wide organisation, embarking on countless investigations and recounting them like the seasoned storyteller that he is, unhurried and eloquent.
What It Takes to be a Ghost Hunter
From Borley Rectory on the border of Essex and Suffolk to Chingle Hall in Lancashire, Wesley investigates famous haunted houses by spending a night there. Where most of us would hurry across the shadow of a spooky mansion, Wesley is inside, hitting the hay. I asked him if he was ever frightened and he just laughed. I mentioned the BBC’s recent dramatisation of the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, where an innocent family were terrorised by a malevolent spirit in a North London Council House. I was astonished when Wesley told me that he had spent the night there. Only a week before his visit, one of the children been thrown out of bed by the entity, propelling the story into the Daily Mail. Wesley hastened to add that he didn’t actually experience anything but admitted that the house had a very bad feeling about it.
One of Wesley’s most disturbing encounters was when he stayed in the infamous room 11 at Old Hall Hotel in Sandbach, Cheshire. Known as the honeymoon suite, guests have reported furniture being moved in the middle of the night and the apparition of an elderly woman sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. Wesley’s stopover makes the tale no less unsettling. At 2am, whilst reading a book, Wesley noticed the rocking chair in the room had started to rock slightly. There was the pungent aroma of cigar smoke in which Wesley, being a non-smoker noticed straight away. The next morning whilst taking a bath, he endured the feeling of being pushed down, learning afterwards that a woman had been drowned in there. Personally, I think the rocking chair would have been enough for me. Television programme Most Haunted went on to do an episode at Old Hall and used Wesley as an advisor. “Derek Acorah! Brilliant medium but one hell of a showman!” he chuckles.
The Nature of Things that go Bump in the Night
After swapping a few more tales, I asked the seasoned ghost hunter the inevitable question; what is a ghost? Despite his wealth of experience, Wesley has no catch-all answer. There are many theories but not one that explains all the thousands of incidents reported around the world. If ghosts are lingering spirits of the deceased, why are there phantom cars, trains and aeroplanes?
My favourite hypothesis has always been the “stone tape” theory; that ghosts are recordings, incidents somehow trapped in time and replayed when conditions are right. Of course, Wesley is familiar with this explanation but asked me “then how come some ghosts interact with you?” A good point.
There is also a school of thought that suggests certain locations can make people hallucinate, perhaps due to a powerful magnetic field or some other environmental state that science is yet to clarify. It seems odd to me that most reports of ghosts also include descriptions of feeling cold or the temperature dropping. Wesley conceded that certain individuals seem to be more receptive to sightings than others and cited an occasion at Borley Rectory when one of his companions could see a monk crossing the road but another could not. Could it be that a ghost is not a mystery of the afterlife but one of the human mind?
Ghost stories date back hundreds of years and it may be hundreds more before we have a better understanding of what is actually happening. Wesley seems content with just being able to tell a good yarn.
The Downes Archive
Wesley is not a lone crusader against the creatures of the night, his son Barry also takes a keen interest. In a curious turn of fate, Barry also experienced an event that he could not explain during his formative years. Initially content to leave the ghost-hunting to his dad to concentrate on a serious career in law, Barry found himself bewildered after a private sitting with famous medium Nora Blackwood. During what Barry describes as a “stream of information” the medium told him details about himself and predicted his future with unnerving accuracy. After that, Barry became less sure of the world around him and, like Wesley, has adopted an open mind.
Barry contributed his own theory to the discussion of the nature of things that go bump in the night; that of alternative universes or dimensions. He finds it curious how some entities seem to be attached to a certain place, perhaps a location where the walls between worlds have become thin. Although it sounds like a crackpot theory, the existence of parallel universes is something that is being taken seriously in modern physics. The purpose of the Large Hadron Collider experiment in Switzerland is to learn more about the physical laws of space. Consider that most ghosts are reported as having a vague shape or as being intangible. Could it be that a ghost is not a vision of the past but one of the future or an event taking place in a world adjacent to our own?
Barry is heir to Wesley’s archive of reports from across the country. From haunted police stations to headless horsemen, the impressive collection of miscellany is filed neatly by county. Whilst most of us are concerned with the commonplace and the everyday, Wesley and Barry tread paths others fear to tread. To me, the Downes archive is testimony to their efforts and reflects the rich and eccentric folklore of Great Britain.
When I go on holiday, I like to go and look at some weird stuff. Luckily, the capital city of Italy offers ample opportunity. My first port of call was the Capuchin Museum and Crypt. In a quieter part of the city with a small admission fee, the museum explains the history of the Capuchin monks and their charitable work around the world. Cappuccino coffee is named after the colour of their robes (so now you know). The exhibits include everything from a flagellant’s whip to a Caravaggio painting. Descending downstairs to the crypt, in the footsteps of the Marquis de Sade no less, the place gets decidedly more peculiar; in the depths are several small chapels decorated with the bones of over 4,000 monks. Even the lightshades are made of monk. Looking a little bit like a set from a 1970s Hammer Horror film, the bone-coated chapels are alarming, baffling and surprisingly warm. However, the shrines are meant to reinforce the transient nature of physical existence, rather than scare the beejesus out of anyone, and they are endorsed by the Catholic church (if that counts for anything).
Regrettably, the museum does not allow its visitors to take photographs of the interior. The no-photo regulation is to preserve the exhibits, I imagine, but it was actually quite refreshing to visit a tourist attraction that didn’t have crowds of people assaulting it with cameras. If you’re curious, there are plenty of photos and videos already on the web.
Venturing back on to Rome’s more well-beaten tourist track, my companion and I took a tour of the Colosseum by night. Alhough expensive, we found it worth every euro: Our Italian guide, Gabriel, was passionate about the history of Rome and led us through several other ancient sites on the way, including the Forum, which is almost as impressive as the mighty amphitheatre itself. Just as the sun began to sink, our small party entered the destination with a quiet and reverential excitement. We wandered out in to the vast arena, gaping around with a collective wow! Apparently, exploring the Colosseum after all the daytime crowds have gone is worth the fee alone, but Gabriel was allowed to take us below the arena, where the animals, slaves, gladiators, et al would have awaited their doom, hundreds of years ago. He asked us to imagine the horror and the suffering; the blood and the sweat and the excrement. My fellow tourists were noticeably appalled. I loved it.
If you want weird Rome, it’s hard to beat the insanity that is the Vatican. A separate state in itself, the scale of the Pope’s gaff has to be seen to be believed. It’s hard to take it all in as you’re herded through the various chambers and chapels like cattle, gawking at each vast Michelangelo and Raphael fresco before being pushed on to the next (up close, the painting is a bit ropey in places, maybe that’s why you’re not allowed to look at it for long). In the Sistine chapel, talking is not allowed and I was amused to watch the little Italian guards reprimanding those who found shutting up for a few minutes too much of a challenge. To me, it seemed like a heck of a lot of fuss over some bloke named Jesus but perhaps I’m being flippant.
I urge you to go see these sights for yourself if you don’t mind taking your life in to your hands every time you cross the road.
I have some very special blogs in the pipeline so watch this space!
Although my collection of short stories Hidden Places on Earth is largely fictional, some of it is based on real-life. Some peculiar experiences of my own have inspired me and two of these happened in the same place: Grin Low Woods in Buxton, Derbyshire. It seems like a good place to commence a series of intrepid reports called Wolfson Investigates.
To provide those unfamiliar with the area some context, Grin Low Woods fringe the town of Buxton in the county of Derbyshire in the UK. Home to a spectacular limestone show cave called Poole’s Cavern and a Victorian folly known as Solomon’s Temple, it is popular with tourists and locals alike. Nowadays, it is well cared for by the Buxton Civic Association. 25 years ago, when I was a young man, it was considerably wilder and untamed. Being that awkward age of 16/17 years old when you are somewhere between a child and an adult, the woods were a sanctuary for me and my friends. We could get drunk and mess around and if the local police turned up, as they often did, we could escape into the dark realm of the trees. It was there, one night, when we saw it.
My pals and I were astonished to see a ghostly globe of light dancing among the tree tops. We watched it as it bounced around playfully for a few minutes before vanishing into the gloom. It left us scratching our heads in bemusement. Little did we know that we were witnessing a rare but notorious phenomenon. In the UK, it is commonly called a Will o’ the Wisp or a Jack o’ Lantern but different cultures have their own names for them. They are usually seen in swamps or marshland and, in some myths, are believed to have a malevolent intelligence; luring unwary travellers from the road into dangerous bogs. A more scientific theory suggests that globes of fire are formed by escaping gas. Our Will o’ the Wisp was out of place in the woods but, in hindsight, I wonder if the deep limestone caves beneath them create a similar geological process. I did not think too much of the incident until some years later when I mentioned it to a friend. He retold the tale to his dad, who lives in a house at the bottom of the woods. Apparently, he went pale. He had seen one too!
My second experience was less of a mystery, but no less disturbing. During the same period of nocturnal, teenage rambles, my peers and I were surprised to find that we were not the only group in Grin Low Woods at night. Following the main path up to Solomon’s Temple, we saw a long procession of cloaked and hooded figures, carrying flaming torches. They must have seen us too but gave no indication. They merely continued walking in eerie silence. We followed them for a while, frightened yet fascinated. The hooded assembly mounted the Low, free of the treeline to conduct a pagan ceremony on the hills. We finally lost our nerve and fled back through the trees. We noted the solitary bus parked near Poole’s Cavern at the bottom. At least the witches had arrived by conventional method!
I often walk in those woods but it is a long time since I have seen anything strange there. However, those early experiences still linger in my mind and I would still think twice before going there at night alone. If you have a similar exploit or an interesting theory on mine, I would love to hear from you. You can message Darcus Wolfson via Twitter or Facebook using the links at the top of the page.