Driving past Thirlmere these days, you wouldn’t suspect that it was anything other than an attractive valley in the central Lake District. But this area is associated with a long list of peculiar and spooky stories going back hundreds of years.
Before the valley was flooded at the end of the 19th century to create Thirlmere reservoir, it looked very different. Instead of a large lake with a steeply-sloping shore, there was a ribbon of water, comprising two skinny lakes connected at a narrow neck by an ancient wooden structure commonly referred to as the ‘Celtic bridge’. On the eastern side of the bridge stood Dalehead Hall – now a hotel – and on the western side, Armboth House.
The story goes that the daughter of Armboth House was due to be married on November 1st, but just as the house’s servants were setting the tables for the following day’s wedding breakfast, the bride was found drowned. Locals suspected that the culprit was the dead girl’s fiance. We don’t know if the death was proved to be murder, and we don’t know what, if anything, happened to the man. But after this the valley was never the same again, as the supernatural power of the tragedy seems to have attracted other phenomena at Halloween, the anniversary of the event. WT Palmer wrote in 1908,
‘ …on a certain night all the fugitive spirits whose bodies were destroyed in unavenged crimes assembled at Armboth House – bodies without heads, the skulls of Culgarth with no bodies, a phantom army and many weird shapes, the windows were alight with corpse candles, chains clank in corridors and there are eternal shriekings.’
And that wasn’t all of it. Harriet Martineau, writing in 1855, said,
‘Lights are seen there at night, people say, and the bells ring; and just as the bells set off ringing, a large dog is seen swimming across the lake. The plates and dishes clatter; and the table is spread by unseen hands… On a bright moonlit night, the spectator who looks towards it from a distance of 2 or 3 miles sees the light reflected from its windows into the lake, and, when a slight fog gives a reddish hue to the light, the whole night easily be taken for an illumination of a great mansion. And this mansion seems to vanish as you approach – being no mansion, but a small house lying in a nook, and overshadowed by a hill’.
I suspect that the original story of the drowned girl is older than generally credited. For one, if a murder had been suspected just two hundred years ago, there would have been evidence of it. And secondly, the Jackson family of Armboth House is well documented from their arrival at the end of the 16th century to their departure at the end of the 19th. We know the Jackson family tree, and yet we have no name for our victim; we also know that the Jacksons bought a house there, rather than building one from scratch. Perhaps the drowned girl belonged to the previous family, who sold up after her death.
The swimming ghostly dog sounds very much like the Cumbrian Cappel. This flame-eyed creature is commonly linked to death, and, surprisingly for a faerie animal, can swim. The skulls of Culgarth mentioned by Palmer are a well-documented ghostly phenomenon from a hall not far away from Thirlmere. There are a number of candidates for a phantom army, but the Souther Fell incident is the most famous. These last two stories are datable to the mid 18th century, telling us when the story started to grow to encompass many of Cumbria’s most popular spooks.
The ghostly goings-on aren’t confined to the western side of the lake. Just over the old bridge at Dalehead Hall, where the Leathes family lived from the late 16th century, there are more. A man who was murdered by robbers on the road above haunts the road, as does the suspect in the crime, who fled to live in caves nearby. In the 19th century, John Richardson, a local schoolmaster, reported sightings of boggles – a sort of shape-shifting goblin – and columns of fire that didn’t burn the ground.
The column of fire at Dalehead made me wonder if there is a connection to the spectral lights reported in the lake on the Armboth side. Before the valley was flooded, it had a reputation for being very wet, with lots of mosses and bog plants; the old road, whilst lower than the current one, was not on the valley bottom but slightly up the slope. Like most Cumbrian valleys, it has the flat-bottomed ‘u’ shape carved out by ancient glaciers and any local knows that narrow waterfalls readily appear on the valley sides after even moderate rainfall; it makes infinite sense that the valley floor would have been very marshy. We also know that the water by the Celtic bridge between Armboth and Dalehead was very shallow, because it was usual for packhorses to ford the river rather than go over the bridge.
Waterlogged ground is prone to ‘ignis fatuus’ or ‘will o’ the wisps’, which are strange flickering, dancing lights. These are now known to be a result of gases produced by decaying matter, which spontaneously combust on exposure to the air. I can well believe that the valley was very prone to this phenomenon.
It’s also not unusual for blooms of bright, lime-green-coloured ‘blue-green algae’ (cyanobacteria) to accumulate on Cumbria’s lakes in the autumn after a warm and dry summer. The shallow waters by Armboth would have been prime candidates for algae, and at the very time of year that the lights are supposed to appear.
But before you all come charging along to Thirlmere to witness these mysterious lights and ghostly happenings at Halloween, I have to disappoint you. Armboth House disappeared under the new reservoir in 1894, and there have been no further sightings of strange lights, glowing mansions, ghostly wedding preparations and spectral black dogs. It seems our drowned girl has finally gone to her rest, and taken all her ghostly friends with her.
Boggles, though… that’s another matter!
A Complete Guide to the English Lakes by Harriet Martineau, 1855
The English Lakes by WT Palmer and A Heaton Cooper, 1901
The Lake Counties by WG Collingwood, 1902
A Description of the English Lakes by Jonathan Otley, 1823
Lore of the Lake County by FJ Carruthers, 1975
Highways and Byways in the Lake District by Arthur Bradley, 1919
Dalehead Hall Hotel, http://www.daleheadhall.co.uk/History.asp
See Alan Cleaver’s site, Strange Britain, for boggles.