Mystery Beasts of the Peak part one

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.

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Matt returns to the lair of the beasts

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.

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The perfect hiding place?

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?

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Wallabies in the 1960s, probably hiding from Jimmy Savile

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!

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Aw, Shucks! Piper the dog

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.

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I’ll be waiting for you in the woods

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.

D.W.

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Wolfson Investigates: Skellybob Wood

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!)

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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.

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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!

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Note unfortunate position of umbrella

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.

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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.

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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.

D.W.

Photos by Jen Francis of Explore Buxton