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.

Quarry 2
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?

wallabies 1962
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.

Werewolf
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: Grin Low Woods

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.

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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.

Will o the Wisp

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!

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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.

D.W.