Edwin Waugh & the Gristlehurst Boggart

Edwin Waugh, the 19th-century dialect writer and poet from Rochdale, was a frequent visitor to Heywood and was well aware of the ways of the people there, and he wrote about them as well as anybody ever did. Waugh’s dialect writings are something of an acquired taste, as they are practically written in another language, but his descriptive powers were always evocative. He spent one summer afternoon in the early 1850s visiting Heywood Hall and the nearby woods, and was convinced by a friend to join him for a ramble up to Gristlehurst to the north. This quiet place, situated in Birtle off the Bury and Rochdale Old Road, is bounded to the north by Ashworth Moor and Knowl Hill, and to the east by Simpson Clough, a two-mile wooded ravine running to the hills. The two men took the scenic route and arrived in the meadows of Gristlehurst in the late afternoon. They were enjoying themselves examining some of the ancient farmhouses there when they met an old weaver...
‘A hale old man, bare-headed, and in his shirt-sleeves, leaned against the door cheek, with his arms folded.  He was short and broad-set, with fresh complexion and bright eyes; and his firm full features and stalwart figure bespoke a life of healthy habits. He wore new fustian breeches, tied with black silk ribbon at the knees. Leaning there, and looking calmly over the fields in the twilight, he eyed us earnestly, as country-folk do when strangers wander into their lonely corners. The soft summer evening was sinking beautifully on the quiet landscape, which stretches along the base of Ashworth Moor. The old man’s countenance had more of country simplicity than force of character in it; yet he was very comely to look upon, and seemed a natural part of the landscape around him; and the hour and the man together, somehow, brought to my mind a graphic line in the Book of Genesis, about Isaac going out ‘to meditate in the field at eventide.’[i] 
They talked for a while as the old man told them in his thick accent about the history of the few old buildings around them. After a while his wife wandered down the lane and joined them...
‘She was a strong-built and portly old woman, taller than her husband; and her light-complexioned face beamed with health and simplicity. The evening was mild and still, and the old woman wore no bonnet, nor even the usual kerchief on her head. Her cap and apron were white as new snow, and all her attire looked sound and sweet, though of homely cut and quality. I knew, somehow, that the clothes she wore were scented with lavender or such-like herbs, which country-folk lay at the bottom of the ‘kist,’ for the sake of the aroma which they impart to their clothing. And no king’s linen could be more wholesomely perfumed. Give me a well-washed shirt, bleached on a country hedge, and scented with country herbs!’
Edwin Waugh.

As early sunset crept up on them, the old man was rambling on when he casually pointed out the spot, in a little hollow by a bend in the lane where an ash tree stood, where the ‘Gerzlehus’ Boggart’ was buried. This suddenly sparked Waugh’s waning interest. He examined the old man’s face for any sign of insincerity, but that face was apparently ‘as solemn as an unlettered gravestone’. Waugh later wrote their conversation in local dialect form, which translated into modern English went along these lines:
‘Grizlehurst Boggart!’ said I, looking towards the place once more.

‘Ay,’ replied he. ’That’s where it was laid laid low; and quite a job it was. You probably haven’t heard of it before.’

The old woman now took up the story, with more earnestness even than her husband.

‘It’s a good while since it was laid; and there was a cock buried with it, with a stake driven through it. It wasn’t settled with little effort, I’ll guarantee you.’

‘And do you really think, then,’ said I, ‘that this place has been haunted by a boggart?’

‘Has been, - be fair!’ replied she. ’It is now! You would soon find it out, too, if you lived up on the spot. It would make your hair stand up on end, either with one prank or another. There’s not too many folk that like to go down there alone, after daylight, I can tell you!’

‘But, if it’s laid and buried,’ replied I, ‘it surely doesn’t trouble you now.’

‘Oh, well,’ said the old woman, ‘if it doesn’t, it doesn’t; so there needs no more. I know some folk will not believe such things. There is some that will believe nothing at all, if it isn’t driven into them by force, but this is a different case, mind you. Never name it; those that have to deal with it know what it is; but those that know nothing about it, - why, it’s like something and nothing talking to them about it...
‘Well, well, but stop,’ said the old man. ’You’re saying that it doesn’t trouble us now. Why, it isn’t about a fortnight since the farmer’s wife at the end there heard something in the dead time of the night; and who was almost thrown out of her bed, too, beside, - so then.’

‘Ay,’ said the old woman, ‘such work as that’s scary in the night time... And they never could find it out. But I would know what it was in a minute. The farmer’s wife and me were talking it over again, yesterday; and she says says that ever since it happened she gets quite afraid as soon as it draws toward the edge of dark, if there’s nobody in the house but herself... Well, and one windy night, - as I was sitting by the fire, - I heard something like a-’

Here the old man interrupted her: ‘It’s no use folk telling me that they don’t believe such like things,’ said he, seeming not to notice his wife’s story. ‘It’s no use telling me they don’t believe it! The pranks that are played about this place, at times, would scare any soul alive that you tell!’

‘Never name it!’ said she. ‘I know whether they would or not! One night, as I was sitting by myself’ -’

Her husband interposed again, with an abstracted air: ‘Unyolking the horses, and turning carts and things over in the deep night-time, and shifting stuff up and down when folk are in bed, - it’s rather fearsome, you know. But then, I know, there isn’t any sense in wasting breath with telling such things to some folk... It’s no worse fertilising with sand and draining with cinders.’

‘And it’s buried over there,’ said I.

‘Ay,’ replied he, ‘just in the hollow where the ash tree is. That used to be the old road to Rochdale, when I was a lad.’

‘Do you never think of delving the ground up?’ said I.

‘Delve! no!’ answered he. ‘I wouldn’t delve there!’
The old woman broke in again: ‘No, he’ll not there, - not if I know it! No other man will dare lay a finger upon that clod. Joseph Fenton’s[iii] a very bold chap; and he’s roughened everything up around this countryside, almost; but he dare not touch the Gristlehurst Boggart, for his skin! And he’s a clever man, too, mind you!’

Waugh wrote that, ‘It was useless attempting to unsettle the superstitions of this primitive pair. They were too far gone’. The old woman correctly suspected the visitors did not believe her, and the subject was dropped rather sharpish.
'The Boggart' (P.J. Lynch)

Although some of the activities blamed on the boggart could just as easily be blamed on a ghost, the boggart was something physical that could apparently be caught, killed and buried. What actually was buried there at Gristlehurst is not known, but the practice of burying a bird with a boggart was linked by folklore historian Charles Hardwick to a ‘lingering remnant of the ancient and almost universal superstition that the soul departeth from the body in the form of a bird’. Hardwick wrote of another burial superstition, this time about the Hothersall Hall boggart, which was:
‘understood to have been ‘laid’ under the roots of a large laurel tree, at the end of the house, and will not be able to molest the family so long as that tree exists. It is a common opinion in that part of the country that the roots have to be moistened with milk on certain occasions, in order to prolong its existence, and also to preserve the power of the spell under which the goblin is laid.’
The Gristlehurst Boggart had been buried under an ash tree, which along with the rowan tree in the folklore of centuries past had been invested with mythical properties and possessed irresistible power over ‘witches, fairies, and other imps of darkness’.

After chatting further with the old couple about this and that, Waugh and his friend headed back through the woods to Heywood. Waugh had previously spent a lot of time listening to country stories of ‘boggarts, and goblins, and fairies’, but had never heard of the Gristlehurst Boggart. He thought about the old couple later that night:
‘By this time I knew that in remote country houses the song of the cricket and the ticking of the clock were beginning to be distinctly heard, and that in many a solitary cottage these were now almost the only sounds astir, except the moody night wind sighing around, and making every crevice into a voice of mystic import to superstitious listeners, while perhaps the rustle of the trees blended with the dreamy ripple of some neighbouring brooklet. The shades of night would by this time have fallen upon the haunted homesteads of Grizlehurst, and in the folds of that dusky robe would have brought to the old cottagers their usual fears, filled with - Shaping fantasies, that apprehend, More than cool reason ever comprehends; - and I could imagine the good old pair creeping off to repose, and covering up their eyes more carefully than usual from the goblin-people gloom, after the talk we had with them about Grizlehurst Boggart.’
Waugh noted that boggarts were not as common as they used to be in southern Lancashire because, ‘as the cotton trade arose, boggarts, and fairies, and feeorin’ of all kinds began to flee away from the clatter of the shuttles’.[ix] However, the local landscape in places like Birtle have not changed too much since that time, and if there is still a bend in Gristlehurst Lane, by a little hollow and a very old ash tree, maybe there lies the grave of the Gristlehurst Boggart.

(You can read an update from 1886 on the notorious 'Gristlehurst Boggart' right here).

The land around Cheesden Brook, north of Birtle, near Heywood. (Alexander Kapp)

Cuckoo Nare, Birtle, 2011. (Neil Clifton)

Gristlehurst Lane, running between Top o'th' Wood and Birtle, 2008. (Michael Ely)

   References   

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