The wind, the demons, and the ghost

Is it true that every pleasure has its price? Certainly, it’s not unusual for people to assume that if you live in Cumbria, your life out-of-season must be made a misery by the weather. It’s true, it rains a lot – that’s where the lakes come from! – but up here on the east Fellside (the Cumbrian side of the Pennines), we have another little trial. The Helm Wind.

Helm bar over Cross Fell c.D McIlmoyle

Helm bar over Cross Fell c.D McIlmoyle

Whilst plenty of folks across eastern Cumbria claim to get the Helm Wind, in fact, they don’t. The whole area can get a fairly strong north-east wind, but only a little strip about 20 miles long and two or three miles wide, extending from about Renwick to Warcop, actually gets it. This is a wind that roars incessantly for two or three days at a time, blowing over walkers and sheep, ripping roofs off, tearing up trees and burning leaves into blackened, scorched rolls.

It’s caused by the landscape. The NNE wind hits the Pennines at a right angle and then tips sharply down the 600m incline towards the Eden Valley. It picks up speed until it reaches the first line of villages then suddenly puffs itself out. It can be strong enough to push an unbraked tractor backwards up here, and calm and beautiful at the next village, four miles down the hill. You can actually see this wind; it forms a cloud cap, called the helm bar, which sits not on the mountain range but just above it. It’s visible from at least twenty miles away in all directions.

I’m sure you want the stats, eh? The record for highest wind speeds in England has been recorded right here, thanks to the whopping great weather station at the top of Great Dun Fell (that’s the big round thing you can see from a distance). On 15th Jan, 1968, it was 134mph. On 8th Jan, 2005, it was 128mph. I know. I was there. And this year? 112mph on 5th Jan. My roof blew off. Yesterday, it reached 74mph.

The extraordinarily-detailed The Anatomy of the Helm Wind, by David Uttley1 (who lived in my village), reports that there are no clear accounts of the Helm Wind before the 17th century, but then, I suppose the little-travelled locals probably assumed that everywhere had one, and no one else bothered to visit this remote area. But the locals did tell their own stories.

‘…Cross Fell… was formerly called Fiend’s Fell, from evil Spirits which are said in former Times to have haunted the Top of this Mountain; and continued their Haunts and Nocturnal Vagaries upon it, until St. Austin, as is said, erected a Cross and built an Altar upon it, whereon he offered the Holy Eucharist, by which he countercharm’d those Hellish Fiends, and broke their Haunts,’ said the Reverend Robinson, vicar of Ousby, in 1709. 2

I’m not entirely sure why the reverend told this tale, given that the evidence suggests that St Austin (St Augustine) didn’t succeed.

View from the East Fellside towards the Lake District

View from the East Fellside towards the Lake District

Down in Crackenthorpe, they tell another story. The Helm Wind, they say, is the ghost of Peg Sleddal, or Peg Sneddle, or Meg Sleddale, driving a coach and horses along the road between Appleby and Crackenthorpe Hall, where she lived.

I feel somewhat sorry for Peg/Meg. For a start, that’s not her name: she was called Elizabeth. She was Elizabeth Sleddale, daughter of Thomas, from Penrith, and she married ‘Lanclot Maichell’ at St. Andrew’s Church in Penrith on 30th November, 1643. Lancelot Machell, to give him the usual spelling, was from an ancient family who lived at Crackenthorpe Hall and served the Cliffords of Appleby Castle for centuries. Lancelot became Mayor of Appleby and the couple had three children, Hugh, Thomas and Susan.

It was Lancelot’s will that caused all the trouble. Elizabeth was made executrix, but found to her horror that she was to inherit a third share (with Thomas and Susan) of Lancelot’s possessions – excluding the house, the furniture, the silver, the family bible, the valuable portraits, Lancelot’s best clothes and much of the money.

Peg/Elizabeth’s revenge was to haunt the Machell family. As well as the demonic-coach riding, she appeared at an oak tree near Crackenthorpe when one of the Machells was about to die. The locals’ response was to exhume Peg/Elizabeth’s body, dig a hole in the Eden river-bed, roll her into it, and place a large granite boulder above it. This treatment includes two things intended to keep an unquiet spirit down – running water, and fixing the body to the earth.

This seems to have had as little effect as St. Augustine and his exorcism, as Peg/Elizabeth’s ghost is still said to haunt Crackenthorpe Hall once a year, and the Helm Wind still blows.3

Today’s wind speed is 48mph.

 © Diane McIlmoyle 26.04.12

Great Dun Fell’s weather reports and wind speed can be seen here: http://www.weathercast.co.uk/world-weather/weather-stations/obsid/3227.html

  1. The Anatomy of the Helm Wind by David Uttley (1998)
  2. As above, page 59.
  3. Peg Sleddal’s story can be found in many places but there is a good account in Laurie Kemp’s The Ghosts of Cumbria (2005), pp51-57 and it also features in David Uttley, as above, pp 102-5.
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21 thoughts on “The wind, the demons, and the ghost

    • I like the story better than the weather! Around here they boast that we have ‘the only named wind in Britain’, which some seem to think is impressive… not quite the Mistral 😉

      Thanks for coming over!

  1. This makes me feel that Ambleside is positively balmy…. I do have trouble convincing people that it doesn’t always rain in the Lakes and that the changing weather it what gives the area its incredible beauty and moods. Now I also know the origin of your facebook statuses – you live in the windiest place in England!

    • Ambleside really is positively balmy, you’re right! The Helm Wind does look very dramatic, but best viewed from a few miles down the hill.

      I was here in January 2005 when the winds reached 128mph – this was the same night that Carlisle flooded and half a million trees blew down in the Lake District. The wind blew the rain between the (invisible) joins between the panels of my wooden front door, and between the lead and glass of my neighbour’s windows. The roaring sound is unmistakeable – and this is when I start making those panicked Facebook statuses!

      I should add that the Helm ‘normally’ only blows perhaps once in January, a couple of times in May, and once or twice in November. We’re not walking at an angle all year round!

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

      • Thanks so much for the ‘normal’ occurrences of the Helm. Don’t know how I missed this comment the first time I visited this post.

        Being an accidental American whose Cumbrian-born grandfather apparently had never been told of his parents’ experiences with the Helm before they brought their young family to Kansas, I’d also never heard of it until recently while doing research for a tale in which the Helm works quite nicely as the reason the main character didn’t know she’d entered a time portal near St. Andrews in Penrith. (Please forgive that run-on sentence! Whew!) Anyway, the scene had to take place during a time of the year when the Helm wouldn’t *normally* be blowing.

        Thanks again,
        Joanna ;D

        • I wouldn’t worry too much about the ‘normally’ – we do get it outside those times as this Spring illustrated rather well! I would add, though, that it doesn’t reach as far as Penrith itself – Penrith is about 8 miles from the mountains and the helm only extends 2 or 3 miles or so. You can actually see it from Penrith, though – a cloud cap is visible on the mountain top.

          The best old phrase I’ve heard about the helm is that it ‘blews t’nibs of a geuse’ (blows the beaks off geese!).

          The book sounds great – good luck with it 🙂

          • Diane, I forgot to add that my heroine knows the wind itself doesn’t reach Penrith, but I’ve read that it can be *heard* there. It was a roaring noise that she first mistook for the Helm, then remembered it was the “wrong” time of year. As for “normally”, over on this side of the Pond, late spring and summer are “normally” tornado season, when in fact they’ve occurred in each and every month, and not necessarily in “Tornado Alley” (the Midwest states). The helm is fascinating in that it only occurs in a very specific area, an area that happens to be where my Savage and Sowerby ancestors lived for centuries. Which makes it even odder that I’d never heard of it until a couple of months ago!

          • Brilliant 🙂 I’m not sure if it can be heard in Penrith, but it’s certainly a very distinctive sound.

            The house I live in was built by James Savage, a blacksmith, in 1847. His wife carried on living here after his death and opened a little shop. Their gravestone is the first in the graveyard at St. Luke’s church in Ousby. There’s a medieval effigy there, which some people hope is a Templar knight, too – you know that the village of Temple Sowerby was a Templar estate, I guess?

            I’ve a post on the medieval effigy at the church here

            The world is smaller than we think 🙂

          • Diane, in reply to your comment of 14 Aug 2012, a small world indeed! Alas, “your” James Savage was born at Carlisle and isn’t one of mine (unless he’s descended from a generation I’ve not gotten back to yet), but his wife Sarah was born at Temple Sowerby. And yes, I have heard of it and its connection to the Templars, but have found no connection between T.S. and my Sowerbys. My heroine at some point, however, would’ve heard (and experienced) the Helm while visiting Savage-Sowerby relatives or their ancestral digs at Milburn, Skirwith, Blencarn and Long Marton. My Savages also lived for decades at Bolton, but Bolton being on the other side of the Eden would (like Penrith) be “too far” west to be directly affected by the Helm.

          • Ha! Got to laugh there – yes, they’re the people that lived in my house. I can’t help you with either Savages or Sowerbys beyond that – at the moment at least – although there are still Sowerbys in the fell bottom villages.

            Thanks for coming over!

  2. Hi Elizabeth! – some servants and his daughter-in-law got the money, another servant got his best clothes, and his son Hugh and grandson Lancelot got the rest. In some senses, not perhaps so different from other families, assuming Hugh let his mum stay on in the house.

    There’s no contemporary record that I know that says she was hacked off by this – the rest is all ‘tradition’. The coach and horses story looks very much early 19thc to me (certainly I can’t imagine a big carriage on the back lanes hereabouts in the 17th c), and maybe a lot of the rest is, too.

    As I said, I do feel quite bad for poor old Elizabeth, especially if the re-burial in the Eden stuff is true.

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  4. I’ve never heard of the Helm wind. It’s very interesting. I certainly must visit Ousby, that place seems to crop up a lot!

    • Hi Carol – it crops up for two reasons! One, it’s on the Maiden Way, a Roman route over the mountains from Kirkby Thore to Hadrian’s Wall, and had medieval settlement thereafter and secondly… I live nearby 🙂

      Funnily enough, the Helm was blowing last night, but ‘only’ at about 40mph or so 😉

      Thanks for coming over!

  5. Very interesting! Researching the Machell history. Am a descendant of the Machells. My great-great-great Grandfather was a Richard D Machell who came
    to Canada and settled around what is now Aurora Ontario. Trying to research how Richard was connected to the Machells who resided in Crackenthorpe. Does anyone have some info?? greatly appreciated!!

    • Hello Doug – I’m not an expert on the Machells, but if you look you will find out plenty about their history hereabouts. They had lived on the Crackenthorpe Hall estate for a long time by the time of Peg Sleddal et al – the estate was originally (from around the Norman conquest) in the hands of the Threlkeld family, whose line ended in three daughters: I’m guessing that the Machells are descended from one of those daughters. They had long been stewards to the Cliffords (the earls of Cumberland) of Appleby Castle and I think they are buried at Long Marton church (Long Marton is another fellside village not far from Appleby).

      You’ve probably found this link to Crackenthorpe the village, with a bit on the house: http://www.visitcumbria.com/pen/crackenthorpe.htm
      And here, if this link works, is a Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society’s paper on the Machells: http://memory.loc.gov/service/gdc/scd0001/2007/20070601066ma/20070601066ma.pdf
      I suspect they probably also get a good airing in Nicholson & Burn’s History of Westmorland and Cumberland – an antiquarian book which is available in digitised format online for free, but I can’t remember where I got my copy from. It’s quite a dry old tome, so I’d recommend checking if you’re in it before looking for a fascimile to buy (originals are rare and expensive).

      I also have in the back of my head a note to see if the Machells are in fact a line of the Marshalls whose spelling has gone awry. I think I remember marshalls (a job title) to William the Conqueror settling around here, and that may be them. Not sure, though. I’ll let you check that one out 🙂

      Good luck with it all, and I hope you post it all online when you’ve done it 🙂

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

  7. I remember them terrible winds in January 2005, I had to do a lot of work on roofs around amble side, I never seen anything like it in my life the amount of damage it had done.

    • Hello Kevin – yes, I remember those high winds. I was living on the lower fellside at the time – the date that the current windspeed record was set, at Great Dun Fell. Of course there was horrendous weather across the county at the same time; half a million trees came down across Cumbria and, of course, it coincided with the Jan 8th floods in Carlisle.

      …but the wind across the rest of Cumbria wasn’t the Helm Wind! The Helm blows in the opposite direction – from the NE – and only extends about three miles from the Pennines, so nowhere near Ambleside.

      Imagine getting that several times a year…

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