Early in the sixteenth century, a young man by the name of Simon Bell had just finished a long watch in his post as under-steward at Kendal Castle. It was quiet – painfully quiet – and Simon decided he needed company, and entertainment. He took a horse and rode up to Ambleside, where he met with friends and enjoyed a few welcome beers.
It was late by the time Simon set off for home, but he made good speed until he reached a cross-roads near Staveley, when his horse came to a halt and refused all efforts to move him. Simon heard noises around him and looked to see a procession of people ‘all below the middle stature’ who ‘came along the by-road as if their clog-soles had been purposely made of felt’1. Simon’s first thought that this could be a band of Scots, fleeing the recent ‘Battle of Flodden Field2, although if he had thought that there would be any about, he wouldn’t have left the castle in the first place. He hid in the nearby scrub.
The procession carried on trooping past silently in a seemingly endless line, until one of the troopers noticed Simon. He was struck dumb, and, imagining he was to be robbed, thrust his purse towards the man. It was at this point that Simon noticed the horns… the tail… and the cloven feet.
Simon passed out.
When Simon awoke, the procession and his horse had gone. He had no choice but to walk the long route back to the castle, arriving at midday. His friends interrogated him, and teased him for being a drunk; he protested otherwise. There were no troops abroad, and Simon’s own horse turned up at the castle gates later that day. It was a priest who first suggested that Simon had met some faeries, and the company were amused, and – because this was an age when such things weren’t entirely disbelieved – just a little put out.
And so it might have ended, if Simon hadn’t collapsed and died later that night.
The month that followed saw cattle murrain in Cumbria, and the crops were spoiled by mildew. There were heavy storms, sudden deaths, and a Scottish raid. This, said Simon’s associates, was evidence of the faeries’ displeasure.
Things get spooky when you take a map and look for the crossroads at Staveley. The intersecting road runs from Wakebarrow, The Howe and Underbarrow to Elfhowe. ‘Howe’ and ‘barrow’ are both words that denote a hill or mound that was believed to be an ancient burial site, and they are often associated with ghosts, elves and faeries.
The word, ‘elf’ is of German/Norse origin and denotes a supernatural being. They weren’t much like our idea of a pixie-hatted garden gnome, or – please, no! – Tinkerbell. They were man-like and man-size; some were good, and some were bad, and they often lived in hills. Cumbria also has an Elf Hall, Elva Plain, Elva Hill and Elva stone circle (‘elva’ being derived from ‘alfar’, which is the plural). Whilst the origin of elves is Germanic, and faeries are Celtic, the two became intermingled as centuries passed.
So, is this a story of a drunken man, seeing a band of soldiers retreating from Flodden, letting his imagination run riot as he passed the ancient burial site? This would be the simplest explanation.
What makes this story interesting is a comparison with the 18th-century story of the ghostly procession of Souther Fell. There were many witnesses to this over several years, and they attested that the procession left no sign on the ground, as would be expected from the horses and carriages they had seen. People speculated that it could have been some sort of mirage, creating an image of troop movements over the border in Scotland; the problem is that the earliest sighting pre-dates the Jacobite rebellion. There really is no explanation for this case.
In the Staveley story, it’s emphasised that there shouldn’t have been troops in the area, and the account says that they trod silently, leaving no mark – just like Souther Fell.
There are stories of supernatural processions near burial mounds across northern Europe. Sometimes, as at Souther Fell, they are attributed to ghosts. At other times, as at Staveley, to faeries, or, looking at the map, elves. There are also records throughout the ages of ghostly hunts, variously attributed to Herne the Hunter, King Herla, the ‘Wild Hunt’ ‘Gabriel Hounds’, Gwyn ap Nudd and the sidhe.
Whatever your conclusion, there’s no doubt that people in the north have been seeing these processions for a very long time.
- This account quoted from Legends of Westmorland and the Lake District, Anon (1868). The joy of this book is that it was written before romantic off comers started to dissect and embroider local folklore. The account is attributed to a man at Kendal Castle, speaking in 1533.
- To save you looking it up, the Battle of Flodden Field took place near Branxton in Northumberland on 9th September, 1513. The loss of life was horrendous, particularly for the Scots.