As Samhain (pronounced ‘sow’inn‘) or the ‘Festival of the Dead’ approaches, this very important date in the Pagan calendar is often superseded by the shenanigans habitually attendant on Halloween, celebrated on the night of October 31st.  Believed to be one of the original festivals behind the holiday we know as Halloween, this ‘Witch’s New Year’ is also associated with the Christian calendar, All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, falling on November 1st, the preceding day known as All Hallows’ Eve – hence ‘Hallowe’en’.

While the run-up to the 31st, marked by the sale of pumpkins and fancy dress parties seems to begin earlier with every passing year, Samhain itself  is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset, the date falling almost halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

With regards to the lore and customs of Samhain (meaning ‘Summer’s end’) firmly rooted in the Gaelic tradition, this is possibly the biggest festival of the Witches’ year, a time to remember those who have passed on, celebrate the end of a hopefully fruitful Summer and prepare for the long, dark Winter months ahead.  The end of the cycle of birth and growth, the celebratory rituals surrounding Samhain include bonfires, dancing and feasting, and indeed some of Halloween’s most common traditions such as the carving of pumpkins and bobbing for apples stem from Samhain’s harvest festival roots.  Though pumpkins are very much an imported American tradition, as the Celts regarded the human head as the Seat of the Soul, the concept of the carved pumpkin with a candle inside it as the Light shining from the Soul could be construed as a modern tradition fitting with the ethos of Samhain.

Concerning customs such as apple bobbing, we’re on firmer ground, however, as many of the apple games played at Samhain grew out of the belief in the Apple as a sacred and magical fruit.   (An apple, cut crosswise, reveals the five-pointed star, or pentacle at its core, a symbol of the Goddess.)  Symbolic of life and immortality, in Celtic tradition, apples were buried at Samhain as food for those souls who are waiting to be reborn, and as this is also considered a liminal time, when the veil between life and death grows thin, some celebrate Samhain with a ritual to guide the dead home, the Candle Ceremony of The Ancestors, opening a western-facing door or window and placing a candle in the opening.

So, whether you’re honouring your ancestors, or honouring your sugar craving by going trick-or-treating, whatever you do, have fun and enjoy as the nights lengthen and Winter begins.

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As a postscript, though the origins of Halloween may be ancient, the celebration still marks a turning point in our modern calendar, and it’s just a sleigh ride toward Christmas from here on in, and the surprising Pagan origins of our modern festive cheer will certainly make for another Blog with the approach of this beloved Winter holiday.

Treasure, Bank, Box, Brown, Case, Chest

‘X’ marks the spot!  The beloved trope of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ can surely be applied to a map of the Yorkshire Dales, if we are to believe the tales of buried treasure and caches of riches aplenty that still lay hidden and awaiting discovery, though in many cases a little more than mere spadework is required…

We begin with the tradition of the supposed hoard still waiting to be unearthed at Middleham Castle, the now extensive roofless ruin that was once the fortified royal palace and childhood home to Richard III.  Here it is intriguingly rumoured that a wealth of treasure is buried somewhere in the castle environs.   It is said that if you run around the castle three times, where you stop the treasure will be found; sadly the essential starting point for this race to riches is yet to be revealed, and so the treasure, and the tale, remain intact.

The remains of the once formidable Middleham Castle, the childhood home of Richard III, where a hoard of buried treasure remains undiscovered.

More buried treasure is waiting to be claimed within the ruined walls of Bowes Castle, situated on the old Roman road running through Stainmore and leading onto Cataractonium, or Catterick Garrison as we know the town today.  Bowes Castle was constructed on the foundations of the Roman fort Lavatrae, built in the late 1st Century, and traces of the garrison that once protected the Roman road on its course across the North Pennines, the modern route now followed by the busy A66, are still visible in the fields to the south of St Giles Church.  During the final days of the waning Roman occupation and a general disintegration in discipline, the soldiers stationed at Lavatrae went on a plundering spree of the surrounding villages, laying their hands on anything of value, especially gold…  Eventually, the victimised local inhabitants banded together in numbers strong enough to storm the fort in a revenge attack and massacred the Roman soldiers to a man.  However, clearly suspecting a local backlash the soldiers had previously and prudently buried all their ill-gotten loot, but with the entire garrison annihilated, the hidden location still remains a mystery.   It is said though, that on the anniversary of the massacre the ghosts of the murdered legionaries appear at Bowes Castle to re-enact the burying of the treasure, and associated folklore dating to the 16th Century tells of two local men who had the splendid idea of hiding in the ruins on such an anniversary so that they might ascertain exactly where to dig.  The enterprising pair claimed to have seen a procession of soldiers carrying a huge chest of gold which they then watched them bury.  However, before the location could be disclosed both men met a violent death within hours of each other…  The first was murdered by his greedy associate, who on proceeding to scrabble in the dirt at the appropriate spot was beckoned by a mysterious bloody red hand and dragged over the fields to the banks of the River Greta where his body was discovered the next day.  Understandably for many years, Lavatrae was shunned as a dark and sinister place, especially around the anniversary of the bloodbath that had taken place so many centuries before.

The site of the Roman fort of Lavatrae now lays beneath the ruined remains of Bowes Castle.

It is said that buried treasure also lies hidden within the now ruined Pendragon Castle near the hamlet of Outhgill in remote Mallerstang Dale.  Reputedly standing on the site of an earlier castle, built some 600 years previously by Uther Pendragon, purportedly the father of the legendary King Arthur, this 5th Century chieftain was at the spearhead so to speak of leading the local resistance against the invading Anglo-Saxons.  Uther has attracted much folklore and legend over time, with tales of how he battled a large dragon-like serpent while in Mallerstang, and his attempts to reroute the River Eden to create a moat for the Pendragon Castle.  According to tradition, it was at Pendragon that Uther met his end, he and a hundred of his men slain within the castle when Saxon invaders infiltrated the fortress after poisoning the waters of the castle well. While the existing ruins of the Norman castle date to the 12th Century, the legends of Uther’s ghost still hold, as do the tales of the hoard of treasure hidden therein, but bizarrely protected by a phantom black hen!  This plucky eternal guardian deters all would-be treasure hunters from digging for booty by frantically replacing any freshly dug soil as quickly as it can be excavated!

The atmospheric remains of Pendragon Castle, near Outhgill, but not a phantom black hen in sight…!

Though the Pendragon phantom chicken may seem an unusual sentinel, there is a strong tradition of hidden treasure being safeguarded by feathered custodians, with hens, cockerels, ravens and eagles (some even consuming the odd foolhardy treasure hunter) standing guard, and another tale of a custodial rooster can be found in William Henderson’s ‘Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders’ (1879).  Relating to a hoard of buried gold in Swaledale, possibly hidden by retreating Celtic tribesmen in the face of Roman incursions, Henderson wrote that he had learnt ‘from Mr. Robinson, of Hill House, Reeth, Yorkshire, that in his neighbourhood as in many others is a place called Maiden’s Castle, in which tradition avers a chest of gold is buried. “Many attempts,” he says, “have been made to gain possession of the treasure, and one party of adventurers actually came up to the chest and laid hold of it, when a hen appeared, flapped her wings, and put out the light. This occurred three times, and the men were obliged to desist. The next day was Sunday, still, they returned to the place. A violent storm of thunder and rain came on, however, and the ‘drift,’ in miners’ phrase, ‘ran’. My informant, an old man of the place, knew this, he said, for a fact.’

Yet another chicken is involved with the legend of treasure concealed beneath Stony Raise Cairn, the round barrow to the south of Addleborough Hill near Bainbridge in Wensleydale, supposedly belonging to a local giant who inhabited the area (it must be said that giants do seem to feature frequently in Dales folklore).  The tale told is that tripping on Stony Raise Cairn, the giant lost his grip and dropped his precious load.  It is said that to this day that the treasure remains beneath the cairn and bizarrely can only be uncovered with the assistance of a hen and an ape!  The unlikely pairing of poultry and primate has never been satisfactorily explained, but needless to say, this theory has yet to be put to the test.

The treasure hidden within Dob Park Lodge, an early 17th Century hunting lodge in the beautiful  Washburn Valley, may be difficult to locate as the original  directions to this hoard reference some internal features, and as Dob Park is now a ruined shell (the lodge’s state of collapse already well advanced when Turner painted his “On the Washburn, under Folly Hall” in 1815) the clues may well prove useless.  There is also a further impediment in the shape of the huge saucer-eyed black dog or Barguest (the Yorkshire name for legendary monstrous phantom black dogs of folklore) that is said to watch over the hidden treasure at Dob Park, and unusually also possessing the power of speech!   Some time in the 1800’s, a foolhardy, and it must be said very drunk individual ventured to explore the vaults of the lodge, the entrance to which was supposedly at the foot of a once winding stairway.  Claiming that he actually saw a great chest of gold, presumably, he was too inebriated to follow-up on his discovery, and one must assume that the gold and the formidable conversational canine remain in the ruined lodge to this day…

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The decaying remains of Dob Park Lodge, wherein lies a great chest of gold, and a huge saucer-eyed black dog set to watch over the treasure.

Image courtesy of T J Blackwell

Our final tale of buried treasure, which incidentally may have been ‘borrowed’ from the Persian story One Thousand and One Nights, is the tradition of the copious hidden gold discovered in the grounds of the 14th Century ruins of the castle at Upsall, the tiny estate village situated on the western slope of the Hambledon Hills.  Upsall Castle was ‘slighted’ during the English Civil War, the deliberate destruction by the Parliamentarians a fate which befell many castles and fortified houses, rendering them useless to the enemy.

Many, many years ago there lived in Upsall village a man called Jack who dreamed, on three successive nights, that if he travelled south to London Bridge he would hear something greatly to his advantage.  Nagged by the theme of his recurrent dreams, Jack walked the entire distance from Upsall to London, and on arrival in the Capital, he headed straight for London Bridge.  There he waited, day in, day out until his patience had all but deserted him.  On the point of returning home, thinking he had embarked on a fool’s errand, Jack was approached by a Quaker who politely enquired why he had been camped out on the bridge for so long.  After reluctantly admitting to his fantastical dreams, the Quaker laughed and admitted himself to having had the self-same dream the night before, but in his sleep he had been directed to go to Upsall in North Yorkshire, a place he didn’t know, and to dig under a certain bush in the grounds of the castle there, whereupon he would find a pot of gold; having noted Jack’s Yorkshire accent, the Quaker enquired whether he knew where Upsall was?  Astutely pleading ignorance, Jack immediately set off home in search of the Quaker’s dream horde himself, and after digging beneath a likely looking shrub unearthed a pot filled with gold, covered with a lid on which was written an inscription in a language he did not understand. The gold went straight into Jack’s pocket, while the pot and its lid were preserved as a memento in the village inn, where one day a bearded stranger, looking not unlike a Jew, caught sight of the pot and translated the inscription from the lid:

 ‘Look lower, where this stood is another twice as good’

On hearing the pot’s message in plain English, Jack resumed his spadework, returning to the bush and digging even deeper, he found another pot filled with a quantity of gold far more valuable even than the first.  Encouraged by this good fortune Jack dug deeper still and found yet another pot containing even more treasure.  And the moral of this story – good things come to those who wait – and dig!

Money, Coins, Gold, Currency, Coin, Finance

This October sees the 951st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and of course you don’t need to be an eminent historian to remember that most celebrated of dates in English history – yet while 1066 is the pivotal year that every schoolchild knows by heart, there were in fact two decisive battles fought prior to Hastings, instrumental in determining the final outcome, and the bloody carnage of both engagements took place far to the North, on Yorkshire soil…

Overshadowed perhaps by the the final conflict between the Saxon hero, Harold, and the French villain, William of Normandy – or William ‘the Bastard’ as he was otherwise known (in reality, both were of Viking descent and neither had a particularly strong claim to the English throne)  Hastings – or the ‘Battle of Senlac Hill’ as preferred by pro-Saxon Victorian historians – is one of those landmark events that shines brightest from the dimness of the Dark Ages.   Consequently, the importance of both the battles fought at Fulford in York and at Stamford Bridge seems diminished in the collective national consciousness.  Indeed neither are represented in the stitches of the Bayeux Tapestry, yet an alternative outcome to either of these battles could have forced a fundamental change in the history of our Isles, and affect how we live our lives today.  From the formation of the United Kingdom to our Constitution, our economy, even down to the way we speak, while it is well nigh impossible to determine the course of British history without the Conquest, an alternative outcome to either Stamford Bridge or Fulford could have had considerable ramifications also.  Time for both of those Yorkshire battles to take a share of the limelight then.

The first of these bloody engagements. which certainly seems to have fallen between the cracks of popular history, was the Battle of Fulford, also known as the Battle of Fulford Cross or the Battle of York.  On the morning of 20th September 1066 the armies of Morcar of Northumbria and his brother Edwin of Mercia clashed with the forces of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, supported by Earl Tostig, King Harold of England’s disgraced turn-coat brother, the opposing sides facing one another across the marshland beside the River Ouse in Fulford, one-and-a-half miles from the centre of York.   This valiant Saxon attempt to face down the superior Norse army that had come to reclaim Britain as a Nordic nation was doomed to defeat and failure, however.  On that day the northern earls were outnumbered 4-1 when they took their positions on the miry ground at Fulford against Hardrada’s estimated 12,000 Norsemen, disgorged from 300 longships which had sailed up the Ouse and moored at Riccall.  With the front ranks locked together in a shield-wall, the Saxon spearsmen utilised any gap they could find to assault the axe-wielding opposition, yet caught between Harald Hardrada’s men on one side and Tostig’s army on the other, the Saxons were finally overwhelmed and their fate was sealed.  As they fell back, trapped between the Vikings and the River Ouse, those who were not cut down or crushed were drowned, and it was said that the tidal estuary of the Ouse, known locally as Germany Beck, ran red with the blood of fallen Saxons.

Prior to the Fulford massacre, everybody in England had been on invasion alert during 1066, and King Harold was now placed in an unenviable position.  Should he march his army north to confront Hardrada, leaving the south of England unprotected against the threat of invasion from across the Channel, or remain where he was in anticipation of the Norman offensive, leaving Hardrada to consolidate his control in Yorkshire?   Taking the decision to march north, Harold was optimistic that he could defeat Hardrada and still be able to return south in time to confront William’s army.

After Fulford, the Vikings received the surrender of York, the city capitulating without resistance, averting the inevitable sacking and savage reprisals had they fought on.   Decamping to Stamford Bridge, some seven miles to the east of York, Hardrada presumed that Harold would not leave the south of England unprotected against the threat of Norman invasion, and felt confident enough to leave a third of his men and armour with the longships moored at Riccall.  However, when Harold’s army reached York on the morning of the 25th, their numbers bolstered by the remnants of Morcar’s and Edwin’s defeated forces, he immediately marched from the city to Stamford Bridge, taking Hardrada completely by surprise.  At a parley prior to the battle, Harold offered his traitorous brother, Tostig, his earldom back if he would lay down his arms and rejoin him.  When Tostig asked what English lands Harald Hardrada could expect if he dismissed his Viking army, King Harold’s derisive reply was that ‘he would offer Hardrada seven foot of good English soil, or as much as he needed as he was taller than other men‘.   Battle commenced…

While the exact location of the main battlefield at Stamford Bridge is now difficult to determine, the site of the initial action was for control of the bridge itself.  Incredibly a huge and formidable Viking berserker clutching a massive double-bladed battle axe held the narrow crossing single-handedly, impeding the entire Saxon army.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that he slew up to 40 Englishmen, but was finally vanquished when one of Harold’s men ingeniously floated under the bridge in a half-barrel, and thrust his long spear through the laths of the bridge, mortally wounding the seemingly unstoppable warrior from beneath.

With the way now clear for the Saxon army to storm across the bridge, locking shields with the enemy on the western bank, the fierce and bloody battle raged on for hours, until, as dusk fell, Harald Hardrada, who had tirelessly wielded a two-handled sword to devastating effect, was finally struck down by an arrow to the windpipe.   Remaining true to his traitorous allegiance, Tostig took up the fallen Viking Raven Banner, the ‘Land-Ravager’, and fought on until he himself was slain.  Echoing the fate of the defeated Saxons at Fulford, as the routed Viking army was pursued, many of the fleeing Norsemen were drowned in the river.  This was a decisive victory for Harold, and notwithstanding those who’d perished in the River Derwent, so many of the invaders had fallen in such a small area that the field occupying what is now called ‘Battle Flats’, to the south-east of the town. was said to have been still whitened with bleached bones some 70 years after the battle.  Tellingly, of the 300 ships the Vikings arrived in, only 25 were needed to return the survivors to Norway.

In spite of his betrayal of his brother, Tostig’s body is believed to have been taken to York and buried at York Minster, presumably at King Harold’s behest, and while Harold had promised Hardrada a grave in ‘good English soil’, his the body was taken back to Norway and interred in Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim.

Harold’s victory was short-lived, however, as even while celebrating the Viking defeat at a banquet in York, he received word that Duke William had made landfall in Sussex.  The rest, as they say, is history…

Though the Battle of Stamford Bridge is probably the better known of the two precursors to Hastings, when questioned, most people will still allude to Chelsea FC’s home ground!  There has, however, been a recent revival of an old, almost lost, local tradition dating back to the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  Pies baked in the shape of a small boat with a symbolic spear-like wooden skewer protruding from the crust are once again customarily eaten on the first Sunday after the 25th September to commemorate the turning point of that historic battle.  Perhaps this accounts for the fierce face of the Viking warrior gracing the iconic pub sign for The New Inn, formerly The Swordsman Inn.  The site of the pub is just upstream from the present road bridge, where the original 11th-century bridge would have been, and where the mighty giant Viking berserker met his infamous battle’s end from beneath!


‘For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.’  This was the last request of modest murderess Mary Blandy, who was hanged for the poisoning of her father in 1752.  Concerned that the young men amongst the crowd who had thronged to see her execution might look up her skirts as she was ‘turned off’ by the hangman, this last nod to propriety might appear farcical in one who was about to meet her maker.  Yet this was just another aspect of a case which attracted so much public attention in its day that some determined spectators even went to the lengths of climbing through the courtroom windows to get a glimpse of Mary while on trial.  Indeed her case remained newsworthy for the best part of 1752, for months garnering endless scrutiny and mixed reaction in the popular press.

Opinions are certainly still divided on the matter of Mary’s ‘intention’ in the poisoning of her father, and the extent to which her coercive lover, Captain William Cranstoun, was responsible for this murder by proxy.  Yet Mary Blandy’s trial was also notable in that it was the first time that detailed medical evidence had been presented in a court of law on a charge of murder by poisoning, and the first time that any court had accepted toxicological evidence in an arsenic poisoning case.   The forensic legacy of the acceptance of Dr Anthony Addington’s application of chemistry to a criminal investigation another compelling aspect of The First Forensic Hanging.

The First Forensic Hanging: The Toxic Truth That Killed Mary Blandy is due for publication 2018 (Pen & Sword Books)