Towards the close of the eighteenth century, says M. A. Richardson, writing in 1842, the occupier of Tudhoe mill, a quiet, steady, sober man, had been to Durham on business and was returning home, but by the time he reached Sunderland bridge it was nearly dusk. He felt like company on the road, and the wish was father to the thought, for he suddenly saw a man in a broad-brimmed hat about twenty paces ahead whom, though the road was straight, he had not noticed before. He made haste to catch up with him, but, strangely, the faster he walked the faster the person moved ahead of him.
They kept at about the same distance the whole way until they arrived at ‘Nicky-nack bridge’, and the miller was about to turn off to the gate on the right hand. He took his eye off the man ahead for a moment and, when he looked again, there was no one on the bridge, nor yet in the lane beyond. When later someone suggested that the man might have passed behind a tree, he replied that, as he had never harmed anyone and so had no need to fear ill things, he had looked everywhere that a man might be hidden from view, but he had vanished like the morning mist.
Many years beforehand, a company of reapers had assembled at a farmer’s house in Tudhoe to enjoy a ‘Mell supper’ (harvest feast). Though a good supply of ale and spirits had been laid in by the farmer, it unexpectedly ran out and so the men clubbed together and sent a poor mental defective to buy more at the nearest public-house, at Sunderland bridge. When he had been gone three hours, one of them swore ‘a deep oath’ to frighten him by dressing in a sheet and meeting him at ‘Nickynack field’.
Thus disguised as a ghost, he set off but never returned. Just as dawn was breaking, the simpleton rushed in, pale and trembling. When they asked if he had seen anything, he said, ‘Yes, I saw a white ghost which came and frightened me much, but I saw a black one behind it, so I cried, “black ghost catch white ghost”.’ At that, the white ghost looked round and, seeing the black one, screamed and tried to run away, ‘but blackey was too swift for him, and after much struggling, he flew away with whitey altogether!’ When day dawned, the harvesters went out to look for their comrade, but all they found in the ‘Nicky-nack field’ were a few fragments of sheet. The man himself was never seen again.
A similar story was told of Meg of MELDON, Northumberland. At Tudhoe, the harvester made his first mistake when he swore ‘a deep oath’, always an attractant to the Devil and evil spirits. His second was to set out to torment an ‘innocent’.
Richardson does not say if ‘Nicky-nack bridge’ and ‘field’ were so-called before or only after these events. ‘Nicky’ suggests Old Nick, the Devil, but ‘nick(e)y’ also meant a simpleton.