For years a ghost light haunted a remote Yorkshire Dales village’s road. Was it the ghost of a murdered woman or something stranger?
In the late 1930s, there were numerous reports of ghost light annually appearing on the outskirts of Coverdale village in North Yorkshire. Interviewing Mr J. Pickersgill, a Middleham butcher (just a few miles away from Coverdale), a Yorkshire Post journalist was told,
I have seen it two or three times. You pull up at the side of the road which is narrow, expecting a car to pass you. It doesn’t come and as soon as you start again, the light goes out and there is nothing on the road. Nearly everybody in the dale has seen it. There is a man at West Scrafton who has seen it more than anybody, and he is puzzled. It has been seen for years on this road but not always on the same stretch.
The road from Coverdale to West Scrafton, between the hamlets of Caldbergh and East Scrafton is where the ghost light was most reported. And although not mentioned at the time, the road has an urban legend, or ghost attached to it.
13th Century Coverham Abbey on the banks of the River Cover was founded by Monks from Northern France, the ‘white canons’, monks who wore white habits. While expecting peace in the area, this was not to be, with Scots attacking the abbey in 1318, and two hundred years later, Henry VIII had the abbey stripped of its treasures, and importantly its roof.
Connected with the Abbey and between Caldbergh and East Scrafton are the ruins of a chapel dedicated to Saints Simon and Jude. Founded by Ranulph Pigot in 1328, it was a chapel of ease for Coverham Abbey. It is believed that at one time it also served as a hermitage and even in 1582 it was described as a ‘ruined chapel’ and used as an alehouse.
The Ghost in the Black Shawl
It is in this liminal space between the Abbey and St Simon’s that stories linger of a poor, beautiful girl who was murdered by her rich lover when he thought she loved another. A similar trope to my nearest ghost, ‘Sarkless Kitty’, the ghost of a young woman who drowned while meeting her lover, St Simon’s chapel sits next to the River Cover, so again similarities with Kitty.
The story had been around in the Dale for a couple of hundred years, how a poor but beautiful girl, who wore a black lace shawl, had fallen in love with the son of the squire and met him on many a dark night while their respective parents slept. One dreadful day, however, a girl who also fancied the job of Mrs Future Squire put a spanner in the works and told the lad that his girlfriend was playing footsie with someone else. Overcome with jealousy and rage he waited for his lover that night, blunt instrument in hand, and did her in, before hauling her still-warm body up to the moor and dumping it in a shallow grave.From Mysterious Britain
Strangely in the 1950s, local peat diggers found a corpse in a shallow grave – and it was wrapped in a black lace shawl further confirming the local urban legend. Is the murdered girl ghost also responsible for the ‘ghost light’ appearances? There is no doubt if there is a folk memory of over two hundred years that the area is haunted by a girl murdered at night, that somehow when the interaction between the unusual (whether misidentification, hallucination or the otherworld) occurs then this might be the archetypal imagery created. Maybe the ghost girl is a manifestation of the ghost light and vice versa.
Just Marsh Gas?
During the sightings, a local police officer based in Middleham told the journalist he hadn’t seen anything unusual in the area. He believed that the explanation for the sightings was the escape of marsh gas based on his sightings of the ghost light.
“The gas is phosphorescent, at a distance I have seen it, looking exactly like a lantern being carried at knee or hip heights by someone on rough ground. The movement is caused by the wind.”
If the murdered girl was meeting her lover at night, did she carry a lantern that night – as the sceptical policeman described?
The Ghost Light Returns
Two years later after the first reports, the ghost light was reported again to the Yorkshire Post. ‘Late of Friday night, a dale contractor, Mr W Brown of West Scrafton was driving a motor-lorry to his home…he noticed a brilliant beam of light on the road in front of him. Mr Brown thought it was an approaching motor-car.’
The road is very narrow at this point and he stopped the lorry to allow the supposed motor car to pass. He waited for some time, but the light came no nearer. Then he went slowly forward, as he got nearer the light suddenly disappeared in the road, leaving no trace.
Interestingly they mention that the light is connected in some way with the ruin of a chapel, known as St Simon’s, which stands in the fields near the point where the light appears.
I found this ghost story captivating; we have several key signposts in the story that follow the typical haunt field theory. Firstly, the ‘ghost’ and ‘ghost light’ are appearing on parish boundaries. My research into road ghosts and the work of Jeremy Harte, shows that over 80% of road ghosts such as phantom hitchhikers, single road-side hauntings etc are usually seen on the boundaries of a particular parish. This defies explanation because most boundaries are not signposted – therefore the witness would not know if they were passing these areas (but does the ghost?)
We also then have a remote area that is rich in both historical and ghostly legends. St Simon’s may be the centre of the hauntings in the area, but the ‘black shawl ghost’ is seen wandering the boundaries of nearby Cotescue Park wherein 1993 one of Britain’s largest coin hoards was discovered. Again, a link between ghosts and treasure.
Can I provide an explanation of what the locals were witnessing? No, but I shouldn’t. I find it interesting that the sceptical policeman inadvertently describes what could be the ghost, and yet believes marsh gas is responsible. There is no doubt that there could be any number of reasons of why or what they saw in Coverdale in the 1930s and since, but knowing the area, I look forward to visiting and having a ramble to St Simon’s looking for the lady in a black shawl.
Leeds Mercury February 6th 1939
Yorkshire Post February 12th 1937