Amy Investigates - The Haunted Hamlet of Wycoller
Nestled in a valley in the shadow of three counties is the picturesque hamlet of Wycoller. Wycoller Beck separates the now ruinous 16th century hall from the rest of the settlement, while the Brontë Way (linking key Brontë sites across East Lancashire and West Yorkshire) runs close by. Seven bridges traverse the beck; the Clam Bridge is produced from a single slab of stone and listed as an Ancient Monument. Trees circling Wycoller are peppered with tiny fairy doors awaiting eager children, but these tiny beings are not the only souls rumoured to reside in Wycoller, for incorporeal beings are also said to haunt this ancient site.
Finds dating to the Stone Age hint at Wycoller’s long existence. Its population of around 75 in 1660, had reached up to 350 by 1820. This growth is attributed to the weaving industry, with many households in Wycoller being in possession of a handloom. Unfortunately, for the residents the good times were not to last, the arrival of power looms in the 19th century decimated their income and forced them to seek work in the mills. Wycoller was never entirely deserted, but its population was significantly reduced, and numerous properties were abandoned as a consequence. A plan to dam Wycoller Beck at the end of the 19th century to create a reservoir was thankfully discarded, allowing the settlement to breathe easy for another day. Its relief must have been palpable when it was finally awarded country park status, thus allowing it to thrive again.
Wycoller’s atmospheric ruined hall is a magnet for visitors. Built by Piers Hartley in the 16th century, this formerly modest two-dwelling property passed into the hands of the ancient Cunliffe family when Pier’s daughter Elizabeth married Nicholas Cunliffe. The hall was extended over the years, and Elizabeth and her youngest son Ellis inhabited the southern part in 1660, while John Pearson and his family occupied the rest. Henry Owen Cunliffe made significant alterations after inheriting Wycoller Hall in 1773, including building an immense fireplace, but a fondness for spending money led to an impoverished death in 1818, and the building was gradually stripped for parts to cover his debts.
Charlotte Brontë is rumoured to have modelled Ferndean Manor on Wycoller Hall in her 1847 novel Jane Eyre. The diminutive author lived in the nearby village of Haworth; she likely travelled through Wycoller when visiting friends at Gawthorpe Hall. Wycoller Hall has probably been vacant for the most part since Cunliffe’s death in 1818, and although its roof was still intact until around 1880, plundering must have reduced the hall to a pitiful state. Charlotte evidently thought so if the rumour is to be believed. A small cottage was built in the northwest wing at some point, perhaps it existed when the author visited, and she imagined it suitable housing for her infamous Mr Rochester when he retired to dank, desolate Ferndean Manor following the fire at Thornfield. Continued pillaging destroyed much of Wycoller Hall, but restoration work in the mid-20th century saved it from complete ruination.
While a peaceful place to wander during the daylight hours, Wycoller is reputedly one of the most haunted hamlets in England, with many restless souls said to disrupt the night. Well, an ancient site veiled by woodland provokes mystery and intrigue, especially with a crumbling hall at its heart. Members of the Cunliffe family feature in many of the ghostly rumours haunting Wycoller, as the following listing on the Paranormal Database shows:
Date / Time: Once a year, middle of winter (reoccurring), sound recorded 26/07/1996 Further Comments: Simon rides the area where he once lived, blowing his horn prior to a tragedy. It is said that he scared his wife to death by riding up the staircase of their home, chasing a fox that had ran inside to escape the hunt (ghost hunters Colin Veacock and Peter Crawley recorded a sound similar to a riding crop here in 1996). Another tale states that the horseman isn't Simon but an assassin, killed by a manservant before he could murder the master of the hall. The young daughter of a family living here during the twentieth century told her mother that a 'white woman' would visit her during the night - the sightings stopped when the child changed bedrooms.
The first of the three hauntings listed on this database is mentioned in John Harland & T T Wilkinson’s ‘Lancashire Legends’ published in 1873. A wraithlike horseman wearing clothing from the Stuart period makes an unnerving annual visit to the hall in pursuit of said fox. Simon Cunliffe supposedly trails the panicked animal up to his wife’s room, where his spouse reacts in a way befitting fear. Unfortunately, her husband disapproves of histrionics and raises his crop to silence her. His action works rather too well for the woman dies from fright. One can only wonder at what happened to the animals. An absent moon and stormy weather heighten the drama, while galloping hooves and disembodied screams pollute the air.
Any evidence of a Simon Cunliffe having lived at Wycoller Hall is elusive, as is any record relating to a fox-hunting incident. The ghost’s vaporous attire alludes to the Stuart period (1603-1714) - we know Piers Hartley owned the hall until the early 17th century when it passed into Nicholas Cunliffe’s hands. His marriage to Elizabeth Hartley produced five children, none of whom were called Simon. Elizabeth was living in the southern part of the hall with her son Ellis in 1660, while the Pearson family occupied the rest. If a Simon Cunliffe did exist, and ever resided at the property, it must have been sometime after that, and before another Nicholas Cunliffe inherited Wycoller after 1723.
Apart from the absence of evidence that such a skirmish occurred, the probability of it is difficult to believe. A terror-stricken fox seeking sanctuary from the hunt is one thing, but a rider driving his highly strung horse into a property of no doubt significant physical constraints (these old halls are known to have favoured low ceilings and narrow passageways), up tight stairs and into his wife’s bedroom, all the while ducking door frames, avoiding furniture and people is, quite frankly, farcical. Even an experienced rider would struggle to manoeuvre a pent-up quadruped through such a constricted environment.
The second haunting cited on the Paranormal Database is equally dramatic, with an assassin replacing Simon Cunliffe as the horseman assigned to murder the master of Wycoller Hall. Who was the assassin hired to perform such a task, and who was the heroic manservant alleged to have saved his master? Detail regarding this purported assassination plot is irritatingly sparing - we are not privy to the identity of the master, nor the reason why someone would want him dead. It forces us to speculate on what would drive someone to engage an assassin, perhaps the owner was having an affair or owed money. Either way, considering the startling nature of the event, no record exists to authenticate it. This case would have been sensational even in the 17th and 18th century, and surely would have been difficult to keep quiet.
There is a further account of paranormal activity involving a horseman in a hurry that doesn’t feature on the Paranormal Database. This version is also shy on specifics and the identity of the master of Wycoller hall galloping home after being told his wife is an adulteress remains a mystery. Fury fuels him to murder her before he remounts his steed and flees. This haunting tends to be an audio phenomenon, with the sound of horse’s hooves speeding through the hamlet, across the Pack Horse Bridge towards the hall. Blood curdling screams escape the ruin before the sound of hooves can be heard again, this time dashing away. The few who claim to have witnessed this apparition state the rider’s horse emits flames from its nostrils - a rare skill indeed.
Perhaps a tragedy did occur during a fox hunt, or a manservant attacked an intruder caught in the act of stealing, but the absence of any record prevents us from corroborating the rumours. Whatever the reality is behind this impassioned rider galloping to Wycoller Hall, the purpose for his urgency is anyone’s guess. Likely, a single, mundane event occurred one night, many years ago, which has been embellished into the various versions we are privy to today.
The ‘white woman’ mentioned on the Paranormal Database is intriguing. The young girl living at the hall sometime during the twentieth century is the only individual said to have witnessed this visual phenomenon. This otherworldly form was apparently timid around company; she limited her appearances to one room, only materialising during the night hours. So, who was the family living at the hall during the twentieth century, and the white woman alleged to haunt it? One can only wonder at her manner, because the account, yet again, is maddeningly light on detail. Was she a quiet or antagonistic spectre? Did she slam doors and wave her icy fist at the child in response to the perceived intrusion, or did the apparition quietly go about her business oblivious to the child; a stone tape of her life if you will? Whatever the white woman’s motivation, when the child finally had the gumption to change bedrooms, she no longer suffered these supernatural visitations. Evidently the ghost was attached to the room rather than the child.
We are not told which bedroom the ghost materialised in, but a plan of the property shows a farmhouse in the north-west corner of the hall built sometime after the death of Henry Owen Cunliffe in 1818, while the rest of the hall was being looted. The roof had been removed in the original two dwellings by 1880 (as mentioned above), so it is unlikely a family inhabited either of these during the twentieth century. Records of the farmhouse itself are sparse, and it is unclear whether this was a single or two-storey property, although the child had the option to change rooms, which may point to the latter. Elizabeth Cunliffe is said to have lived in the southern section of the hall, and part of this section was adapted to create the farmhouse; maybe this ‘white woman’ was Elizabeth Cunliffe herself. Without further detail, it is impossible to know.
Another spectre said to haunt this small hamlet, but not listed on the Paranormal Database is ‘Black Bess’. More than one edition of this ghostly tale exists, as is the habit of the spectres of Wycoller. The first relates to a wraith complete with black silk gown said to lurk amidst the darkened ruins, terrifying unsuspecting ramblers. While her identity remains enigmatic, some believe she is the stricken wife of Simon Cunliffe whose sorrow permeates the place where she died.
An alternative, more fantastical account identifies Black Bess as the supposed murdered bride of sea captain Henry Cunliffe. Henry is alleged to have sailed to the West Indies, where he got engaged to or even married an heiress. His love quickly soured on their journey back to England though; he terminated their relationship by throwing her overboard. Unhappy with such ungentlemanly conduct (and we can hardly blame her), Black Bess is said to have shadowed her murderer back to Wycoller, where she now haunts what should have been her marital home. In contrast to many of the rumours, there is evidence of a seafaring Henry Cunliffe who inherited Wycoller Hall sometime after 1723, although a marriage abroad and subsequent incident aboard a ship appear purely fictitious. One can only wonder at how such a rumour started.
Further paranormal activity purported to afflict Wycoller include a phantom carriage hurtling through the hamlet towards the hall before disappearing into thin air, while a spectral hound prowls the ruins, bestowing ill will on anyone unfortunate enough to encounter it. We must pity any dog walker forced to brave the dark, when the moon is shrouded, and the damp air bites. Maybe they know to avoid the ruins for fear of scampering paws and gnashing teeth. Light anomalies, disembodied sounds, cold spots, inexplicable mists, and feelings of unease are just some of the phenomena recorded by paranormal groups amidst the ruins, but while intriguing, are not definitive proof the site is rife with former residents.
While one can appreciate how and why rumours evolved around the Cunliffes and why the ruined hall is fertile territory for ghosts, an evidence deficit would suggest they are mostly, if not entirely fabricated. It is also curious that while weaving was such an important aspect of the settlement, any inexplicable sounds or smells relating to this industry are noticeably absent. Perhaps the weavers and their handlooms are not deemed romantic enough to inspire tales of ghostly intrigue and betrayal, unlike the former owners of Wycoller Hall.
If I were tempted to engineer a ghostly tale, it would be of Charlotte Brontë’s claimed connection to the hall; well, it seems fitting considering she already haunts the pages of my first Porter Biggleswade book (https://www.amyflint.com/porter-biggleswade-series). One can imagine the solitary figure treading quietly amongst the ruins, drawing inspiration for her novel Jane Eyre. Maybe she steals past Henry Owen Cunliffe brooding silently by the grate, the former owner haunted by debt. The wraith’s heavy brow and stocky form give Charlotte the idea for her hero, and thus Mr Rochester is born. If the other ghostly accounts are anything to go by, I’m entitled to use a little artistic licence, too!