By the Manifold River

Folklore and word-lore sections from: James Buckland, “By The Manifold River”, The Leisure hour: an illustrated magazine, 1896, pages 116-120.


Cast as they are in the sluggish backwater of the current of modern progress and enlightenment, it is not surprising to find that the people of this wild part of the North-east of Staffordshire retain some thing of the false beliefs of their forefathers.

Indeed, I was astonished to discover that superstitions have a much stronger hold upon them than they themselves care to admit. They do not speak openly of these things, and only grudgingly when questioned; but some strange old traditions and stories are still whispered about among many of the least educated of the moorland folk.

That belief of a mermaid who dwells in Black Meer Pool, a dreary tarn on the summit of bleak Morridge, across whose dark waters the night winds howl dismally, is widespread.

Moreover, there are to be found in this district those who talk with awe of the spectral horseman who nightly rides from Onecote Bridge to Four End Roads.

At the dread hour of midnight, when cold breezes are sobbing upon the sterile bosom of the drear moor, this phantom, mounted on a snow-white steed, comes rushing past noiselessly, brushing even the garments of belated wayfarers, as he speeds by, arrow-like, and vanishes into the night.

There is a man living at Betterton who firmly believes that his father once rode upon this apparition. He had lingered long over his cups one night at Onecote, and, setting forth homewards, he was persuaded to accept the offer of a mount from a horseman who appeared suddenly at his side.

Hardly was he fairly seated behind the mysterious equestrian, when the snow-white steed, with lightning-like rapidity, rose like a bird into the air.

The next thing the poor mortal remembered was being hurled to the bare earth at his own door, where he was found with a bruised body, his face actually deformed by an expression of supernatural horror.

There is a woman too at Warslow who declares that the spectral rider appeared one wild night to’ her father. Swiftly, yet with no sound of clattering hoofs, the phantom sped past her terror-stricken parent; not so swiftly though, but that the latter had time to mark well the bright stirrups and shining buttons of this thing of evil.

In another quarter it was whispered to me that the dreaded spectre had been seen no less recently than last Christmas; but the woman who hinted at this visitation appeared loth to speak of it. So I did not press her for information.

As regards the first two instances, the man and woman alike meet any doubts of their stories with the unanswerable argument that the thing had been seen and sworn to by their fathers, and that if they are not to believe them, who then are they to believe ?

They admit, however, that both “t’ owd uns wur fond o’ a sup o’ yale.”

The notion, also, that any strange or untoward incident is the work of lightning, or the devil, is still rife among those of these moorlanders who rank lowest in the scale of general intelligence.

[The River Manifold goes underground during parts of the year, sinking near Wetton Mill and emerging at Ilam.]

Four years ago a great hissing sound, proceeding from one of the “sinks” at Wetton Mill, was heard by a chance passer-by. In speaking to this man upon the subject, I endeavoured to extract from, him some explanation for so unusual an occurrence.

“‘Lectricity, Oi reckon,” he said ; but, when I asked him how long the noise lasted, he cried, “Oi didna’ wait to see!” In such tones and gestures as left no shadow of a doubt but that he really attributed the cause of the sound to a very different agency than that of electricity.

Some ten years ago a duck was accidentally taken down in the swirl of a “sink.” After traversing the gloomy [underground] course of the Manifold, it reappeared at Ilam in an almost unrecognisable condition. This incident so worked upon the mind of a soft-headed fellow, who lives hard by. That he at length persuaded himself that where a duck went he could go; and he actually fitted out a tub-like boat, laden with candles and provisions, with the object of setting forth upon a voyage of discovery into the cavernous depths of the earth.

Fortunately, before going very far down stream, the crazy boat capsized, and the poor man was nearly drowned — a circumstance which considerably damped his zeal as an explorer. He is still of the opinion, however, that, with a properly constructed craft, the underground passage might be safely made.

[…]

No iron rails [railways] have as yet taken the place of high roads, and new ideas reach them but slowly. In consequence, the belief that “t’ owd fashont ways are t’ best” still obtains amongst them, and they exhibit, in their ways of speaking and acting, much that is primitive and pleasant. The rude picturesqueness of their whitewashed cottages is but an outward presentment of the old-world aspect within. In some instances the pump which supplies the house hold with water stands in the centre of the kitchen; while in every sitting-room there hang from the walls rows of fire-irons and quaint old-time steel and brass utensils — all bright and clean. “Grand-feyther’s and Grandmother’s” warming pans, covered with snow-white cases of crochet-work, keep company with the “slice” and “spriddle” — instruments used in baking “pikelets” and a species of oatcake which forms the staple food of the people of the district. Upon the shelves there is usually a generous display of pewter plates and antique crockery, while old oak furniture — valuable, too, some of it — is plentiful. Everywhere in the cottages of these moorlanders there is a homelike air of cosiness and comfort.


Boys skating on the frozen river, an illustration accompanying “By the Manifold River”, The Leisure Hour, 1896.

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