Black Heddon

M. A. Richardson’s Table Book (1842–5) includes an account, sent him by Robert Robertson of Sunderland, of the haunting sixty or seventy years previously of Black Heddon, near Stamfordham, by a supernatural being known as ‘Silky’ from her predilection for appearing dressed in silk:

Many a time, when any of the more timorous of the community had a night journey to perform, have they unawares and invisibly been dogged and watched, by this spectral tormentor, who at the dreariest part of the road … would suddenly break forth in dazzling splendour. If the person happened to be on horseback … she would unexpectedly seat herself behind, ‘rattling in her silks.’ There, after enjoying a comfortable ride; with instantaneous abruptness, she would … dissolve away … leaving the bewildered horseman in blank amazement.

At Belsay, a few miles from Black Heddon, there was a crag under the shadows of whose trees Silky loved to wander at night. At the bottom of the crag was a waterfall, over which an ancient tree spread its arms, amid which Silky had a rough chair, where she used to sit, rocked by the wind. Sir Charles M. L. Monck, of Belsay Castle, had carefully preserved this tree, still called ‘Silky’s seat’.

Horses were sensitive to Silky’s presence and she seemed to take pleasure in stopping them in their tracks, so that no manner of brute force could get them moving. The only remedy was ‘magic-dispelling witchwood’ (rowan, mountain ash). Once, when a farm servant had to fetch coals from a distant colliery and was returning after dark, Silky waylaid him at a bridge, thereafter called ‘Silky’s Brig’, south of Black Heddon, on the road to Stamfordham. On reaching the top of the bridge, the horses and cart became fixed, and there they would have stood all night had not someone come to the rescue who had ‘witchwood’ upon him.

Silky is described as ‘wayward and capricious’. Like many bogeys, she revelled in surprise. Women who cleaned their houses on Saturday night, ready for the Sabbath, would find them next morning turned upside-down, but, if the house had been left untidy, Silky would put it straight.

Eventually, she abruptly disappeared. People had long surmised that she must be the restless ghost of someone who had died before disclosing the whereabouts of her treasure. Supposedly, about this time, a servant, alone in one of the rooms of a house at Black Heddon, was terrified by the ceiling giving way, ‘and from it there dropt, with a prodigious clash, something quite black, shapeless and uncouth’. The servant fled to her mistress screaming at the top of her voice, ‘The deevil’s in the house! The deevil’s in the house! He’s come through the ceiling!’ It was some time before anyone dared to look, but finally, the mistress, stouter-hearted than the rest, ventured into the room and found there a great dog or calf’s skin – ‘filled with gold’. After this Silky was never more heard or seen.

The Denham Tracts (1892–5) quotes an article published in 1861 which likewise says that Silky had not been heard of for some years. However, the writer, the Revd J. F. Bigge, says, ‘I was once attending a very old woman, named Pearson, at Welton Mill … [who] told me, a few days before her death, that she had seen Silky the night before, sitting at the bottom of her bed.’ Here she seems to have taken on the role of White Ladies as death omens.

There was another apparition named ‘Silky’ who ‘rendered untenantable’ the mansion of Chinton, and a third at DENTON HALL.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008