The Claife Crier: Windermere’s famous spook

The Claife Crier has to be the best-known spook in the Lake District, and, as is commonly pointed out, the only ghost named on an OS map. Sadly, neither he nor his residence are listed on my modern road map but still… here’s the story.

Claife Heights copyright Stephen Dawson

Claife Heights copyright Stephen Dawson

A long time ago, a monk from Furness Abbey, whose job was to save the souls of immoral women, fell for one of his clients. He followed her back to Claife Heights on the western shores of Windermere, but she rejected him. He took this badly, spent a lot of time wailing, and finally dropped dead. But didn’t stop wailing.

The ferrymen who operated the Windermere boat service from Ferry Nab to Sawrey learned to ignore calls for transport from the western side of the lake after dark, as it was probably just the monk complaining again. Then one day a new recruit decided this was bunkum and crossed the lake to pick up the fare. The new ferryman returned the following morning, stark raving mad, and died a couple of days later without telling anyone what he’d seen.

Now this was a tad upsetting for the boatmen, so they called on the monks who lived on Lady Holme, an island on Windermere. The monk popped on-shore with his bell and bible, and confined the spook to the old quarry at Claife Heights, ‘until men should walk dryshod across the lake’. He’s still there, and still wailing. Or so you’ll be told if you visit the Claife Crier Bar, or take a pint of Claife Crier beer… you get the picture.

All of this should have taken place some considerable time ago, given the monks. Furness Abbey was founded in 1123 and dissolved in 1537, but it seems likely that the Crier would have come from their nearby Hawkshead Hall site (now part of Hawkshead Court House). The Abbey gave up the Hawkshead site in the 12th century, so that could give a date between 1123 and 1200.

Lady Holme, the island on Windermere, was indeed home to monks for a time1. A chantry – a chapel devoted to prayers for the souls of its founders – was established by a local lord and manned by two monks from Segden Hermitage at Berwick-upon-Tweed. The earliest mention of the monks at Lady Holme is 1272, and the latest date could be around 1350 when it appears that their parent hermitage closed. The ferry point at Sawrey has, presumably, been there since Sawrey became Sawrey in the mid 14th century, adding weight to a date of c.1350 for the Crier’s exorcism.

Perhaps this date explains why a Cistercian monk from Furness Abbey came to be exorcised by an Augustinian monk from Lady Holme; it was a couple of hundred years after the Crier expired, and the Abbey didn’t accept the story. But the dates seem too tight for comfort, and it’s awfully convenient for the tourist trade that the Crier was only partly exorcised, so he could continue to haunt in a cheerfully-slightly-scary-but-not-a-threat-to-business way.

Wodan's wilde Jagd by FW Heine
Wodan’s wilde Jagd by FW Heine

So, what’s this all about? There’s no doubt that Windermere is one of those places in the Lake District where you get odd sounds. The wind can howl in the woods on the western bank, by Claife Heights, and those that have witnessed the lake when frozen say the ice creaks and groans quite loudly as it cracks and moves with the water underneath.

Wordsworth, writing The Prelude in the first half of the 19th century2, attributed the noise to the Wild Hunt, or Gabriel Hounds2. Similar stories are common; there’s Herne the Hunter in Windsor Great Park,  Gwyn Ap Nudd and his hounds at Glastonbury, Woden’s Hunt in Europe or faery processions everywhere; the tale of phantom, or even demonic, hunters galloping across night skies is common throughout northern Europe. As the tourist trade expanded rapidly during Wordsworth’s lifetime – which he disliked immensely! – I suspect that this is the last record of what people used to say before the Claife Crier story was put together with scraps of history and the odd ‘bump in the night’ story.

Harriet Martineau, who published A Complete Guide to the English Lakes in 1855, may be the first detailed written version of the story; she says the exorcism took place on Christmas Day during the Reformation. But the key for me is WG Collingwood, who wrote The Lake Counties in 1902. He spent much of his 1860s childhood in the Windermere area, and he could not remember the Crier’s story, although he was fascinated by all local folklore. He said, ‘The legend of the Crier of Claife… seems to be hardly a genuine folk tale in the form it is usually given… I remember a vague story about a phantom boat’. 3

The mid 19th century is a water-shed period in Cumbrian folklore; before that date, we get vivid accounts of tales that can be traced back to ancient times (see Need Fires, Eveling, and possibly even The Ghosts of Souther Fell), and after that date, we hear conspicuously romanticised, and sometimes christianised, stories that don’t ring true for Cumbria. And as for Claife Heights, the Claife Crier’s residence? I’ve been told that the place is indeed eerie after dark, but then that’s the case with most unpopulated lakeside woods!

© Diane McIlmoyle 20.05.11

  1. J Charles Fox, The Hermits and Anchorites of England
  2. Wordsworth, The Prelude, which he wrote and re-wrote between 1799 and 1850.
  3. The ‘phantom boat’ is a reference to a boat which sank with all 47 passengers in 1635.
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7 thoughts on “The Claife Crier: Windermere’s famous spook

  1. We have a tale in New Mexico called La Llorona,(The Wailer) that features the wailing of a distraught mother. Legend has it that she drowned her children because she wanted to be with her lover, then killed herself when her lover rejected her. Because she killed her children she wasn’t allowed into Heaven so is condemned to wander the earth, wailing. Some parallels but with a gender reversal. In both cases punishment for succumbing to the weaknesses of the flesh. It seems the attraction to ghost stories is eternal.

    • Funnily enough, I read a novel a couple of weeks ago which included the La Lloruna legend – what a coincidence! In the book, at least, it said that when she was distant, her cries were loud, and you knew she was getting closer when her cries grew quieter. Exactly the same thing is said about the Wild Hunt. You just feel that some universal elements have filtered down the millenia and turned up differently dressed in each culture.

  2. Very well written and researched! I’m knuckling down to some research for my second ebook about the ghosts and legends of Britain and the Claife Crier story certainly caught my eye. You’ve explained it all fantastically, thank you!

  3. Pingback: The Cumbrian Halloween round-up! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

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