According to a story collected by the folklorist James Bowker in the 1880s, there was once a young vicar in this village whose reclusive habits and scholarly tastes caused his parishioners to suspect him of dabbling in the Black Arts. He struck up a friendship with ‘Owd Abrum’, the village herb-doctor and astrologer. One day he told Abrum that he was curious to know which of his parishioners would die in the coming year, and had read that the way to find out was to keep watch in the church porch at midnight on Christmas Eve, when their wraiths would appear. Abrum said he would come too, so, arming themselves with protective leaves of vervain, bay, holly, and mountain ash, the two men began their vigil. Before long, they saw ‘a procession wending its way towards the porch; it consisted of a stream of figures wrapped up in grave-clothes, gleaming white in the dim light’. And one, which paused long enough to be clearly seen, had the vicar’s own form. He fainted at the sight. He left the parish soon afterwards, and died within a year of a fever caught while ministering to the sick. The herb-doctor refused ever to repeat the experiment.

One might be tempted to wonder whether this legend was connected with the fact that it was at Walton-le-Dale that Edward Kelley, the medium who worked with the famous sixteenth-century astrologer and magician Dr John Dee, is alleged to have experimented with necromancy (at some time prior to meeting Dee in 1582) in order to ascertain when a certain person would die. According to John Weever, writing in 1631, Kelley and an associate called Paul Waring first raised a demon in a park in order to learn ‘the manner and time of the death of a Noble young Gentleman, then in Wardship’, and then went to the churchyard to dig up the newly buried corpse of a pauper, ‘whom by their incantations, they made him (or rather some evil Spirit through his Organs) to speak, who delivered strange Predictions concerning the said Gentleman’. A slightly later version, in Meric Casaubon’s True and Faithful Relation of what Passed … between John Dee and Some Spirits (1659), sets the event in 1560, asserts that Dee had been present too, and says the corpse raised was that of a wealthy man whom they wished to question about money he had hidden in his lifetime.

The anecdote was certainly notorious. However, folklore collections in the nineteenth and twentieth century contain so many references from different parts of Britain to watching in church porches in order to see wraiths that there is no real need to make the connection. Various dates are mentioned, the most common being St Mark’s Eve (the night of 24/25 April).



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

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