Sunday 31 October 2010



During the 1730s the Excise or Preventative Men were the scourge of the thriving smuggling trade around Whitby. In its position of isolation on one of the main roads into town, Saltersgate Inn, with an ex-sea captain as landlord, was the ideal place in which to conduct this nefarious business with relative immunity.

With an eagle eyed-lookout surveying the countryside for customs officials, alarm was usually raised in plenty of time to give the locals ample opportunity to hide the contraband and secrete the evidence of crime securely away. By the time the officers of law burst into the hostelry, to all intents and purposes it was a normal working pub. The landlord was serving ale, two men were deeply engaged in a game of cards, a dog slept by the fire and a drunk was mumbling to himself sprawled over a table in a corner. No one was ever caught.

One night, after the usual unsuccessful raid, the Excise Men hatched a plan to catch the reprobates red handed. One of them stayed behind and hid in a nearby farm outbuilding until the cogs and wheels of the secret trade began turning again inside the alehouse. Freezing cold and windswept, after an hour or so he stealthily crept to the entrance. Gathering all his moral fibre together he kicked open the door, brandished his gun at the throng and shouted "I am arresting you in the name of the King!"

Seemingly it was all over for the crew of felons caught squarely in the act. But unbeknown to the officer, one of the locals had nipped outside to answer a call of nature. He saw the Excise Man in the doorway on his return, and quickly felled him with a judiciously swung barstool to the head.

The Excise Man was stone dead. After debating the issue of how to cover up this murder of an official of the King, a plan was devised which involved burying his body beneath the fireplace. The slabs were lifted and the corpse was incarcerated beneath the hearth of Saltersgate Inn. The fire was always kept burning to make sure it was impossible to carry out a search there.

When the landlord died thirty years later it had become a tradition for the fire to always remain lit day and night. Legend decreed that if the fire ever went out the vengeful ghost of the Excise Man would haunt the inn and wreak rack and ruin on the pub.

Now, due to renovation work, the fire has indeed been extinguished. Unfortunately the money ran out and the inn is now a semi derelict shell, a sad phantom of its former self. Does the blame fall on economic circumstances, or possibly the malevolent spirit of the Excise Man returning from the dead to punish the living?

Search me !

Monday 25 October 2010



In Whitby, upon the Eve of All Saints, it was customary for young suitors to practice strange divinations. The medium for one peculiar process of love prognostication was the nut. Couples would throw two hazelnuts into the fire. If they burned quietly together, then a harmonious marriage lay ahead. Exploding, popping nuts that ricochet around the room upon all hallows eve were considered an inauspicious omen.

Saturday 23 October 2010



The spells were in vain, the hag returned
To the green in sorrowful mood
Crying that witches have no power,
Where there is a rowan-tree wood.

From The Old Ballad of Laidley Wood

From the secluded back lanes and woods of the English countryside to the cities' municipal parks, the European Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) is a common sight throughout the British Isles. In fact it is such a familiar part of the landscape that it almost becomes inconspicuous, when compared to it’s grander cousins like the English Oak and the Sycamore. But the truth is that the humble Rowan tree has a remarkable story to tell.

The tree itself is referred to in numerous mythologies throughout history, the ancient Greeks believed the tree was created from the blood and feathers of an eagle sent to aid Hebe in her battle to regain the chalice of ambrosia. The Rowan that appears in Celtic mythology is often associated with druidic rituals, where as the Norse myths relate to the Rowan as been the creator of woman. The tree also constantly recurs in literature from the ancient sagas and poems of the Irish right through to contemporary stories like J R R Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings.

During the 16th century the emergence of a more puritanical Christian church forced the last residual enclaves of paganism to the periphery of society, where anyone that was deemed a follower of the old order was branded a practitioner of witchcraft and subjected to trails, torture and invariably executions. This meant that thousands of innocent people across the whole of Europe were put to death, simply because they put their faith in nature and an ancient knowledge that had been passed down through the generations.

What is testament to the iconic power of the Rowan tree that it was able to survive these events, but it was with a certain amount of irony that the defining symbol of paganism had to suffer the indignity of been turned into the very object that was need to protect a person from the supposed malevolent forces of magic. It seemed on an intuitive level there was still an awareness of the tree’s importance, but the old, true meaning had become distorted through this new indoctrination of the people.

The following extract is taken from ‘Forty Years In A Moorland Parish’ written by the Reverend Canon Atkinson in 1891, and is an account of the ritualised preparation and use of the Rowan as a charm against witchcraft.

To be effectual, the requisite piece of rowan tree,- for many were wanted; one for the upper sill of the house door, one for the corresponding position as to stable, cow byre and the other domiciles of the various stock, one for personal use, one for the head of the bed, one for the house place etc, etc, - must not only be cut on St. Helen’s day, but, in order to be quite fully efficacious, they must be cut with a household knife: they must be cut, moreover, from a tree which not only the cutter had never seen before, but of the very existence of which she must have no previous knowledge or suspicion; and that, on the tree having been found in this blindfold sort of way, and the requisite bough or boughs having been severed and secured, they must be carried home by any way save that by which the obtainer of them had gone forth on his quest.

It would appear that the remoteness of the surrounding moorland had a significant influence on these archaic rituals enduring far into 19th century. In places like Danby, Lealholm and Castleton the people still considered witches and witchcraft to be such a serious threat to their homes and livestock that ‘Witch Wood‘ was considered to be the only effective means of keeping these malign creatures at bay. In fact so prolific were these enchantresses that many of the villagers could name and identify them as well as where they were perceived to live.




Ruswarp Hall

The name Bussel (Bushell) has been recorded in the Whitby Strand Records since AD1200. They were a prosperous family with strong connections to the sea. During the reign of James I their success as merchants enabled the building of Ruswarp Hall by Nicholas Bushell, who already owned Bagdale Hall which he'd bought from the Conyer family in 1595.
Nicholas Bushell married Dorothy, the daughter of Sir Henry Cholmley of Rooksby. On May 17th, 1609 a son named Browne Bushell was born. The question over his exact birthplace still remains, although it seems more likely he first saw the light of day in Bagdale, Whitby rather than Ruswarp Hall.
In 1633 Captain Browne Bushell married the daughter of Cromwell's Chief of Staff, Thomas Fairfax, who owned alum works at Dunsley. The couple made Bagdale their marital home.

Bagdale Old Hall
The English Civil War regularly saw men change allegience from the Parliamentarians to the Royalists (and indeed vice versa) at the drop of a hat, often depending on who had the upper hand at the time. Browne Bushell however was in a class of his own.
He was serving in the garrison under Hugh Cholmley in 1643, concerned with holding Scarborough Castle for Parliament. However Cholmley suddenly decided to hand the castle over to the Queen in March of that year, thus turning his back on Cromwell. Before doing so, he sent Bushell away on an errand to Hull, but he was captured and imprisoned by his cousin John Hotham, the Govenor of the city. He was held for two days, and only released after promising to recapture Scarborough Castle again for the Roundheads.
Bushell arrived back at the castle to find Cholmley had gone to York where the Queen was staying for a time. The soldiers at Scarborough were very dissatisfied and angry with the manner of Cholmley's feeble surrender, so Bushell and his brother Henry had little trouble in retaking the castle for Parliament in a totally bloodless coup.
Browne Bushell in Scarborough Art Gallery
It wasn't long before Browne Bushell fancied a change and started negotiations with the Royalists. He handed the castle back to them in due course. On April 19th, 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax, his own father-in-law had him taken to London to be court-martialed.
Somehow Browne Bushell managed to convince his accusers of his wholehearted support for the Parliamentarian cause, because he was given the command of a fine ship under Admiral Sir William Batten. He couldn't stick with it though, and in 1648 he and several other ships captains delivered their vessels to the Prince of Wales.
...............Two men duly apprehended the turncoat, getting a reward of £20 for their troubles, and he was thrown in prison. On March 29th, 1651, with Cromwell having displaced Charles I, Bushell was condemned and executed having spent the final three years of his treacherous life in prison.
............. In 1916 two dismembered paintings were found in the box room at Bagdale Old Hall. They were duly sent to London for restoration and returned to the hall in something akin to their former glory. They were portraits made directly onto wooden panels, probably by some unknown itinerant italian artist. One was of Browne Bushell aged 24, the other depicted Dorothy, his bride aged 19. They were dated 1633. Each sitter is wearing a betrothal ring on a chain round their necks.........................
Some would say the turncoat Bushell has never left the hall. His ghost has been seen on more than one occasion among the upper rooms. Some say he is fated to return every year on the anniversary of his execution. Maybe the footfalls people hear outside their rooms, as if someone is passing in the dead of night, are those of the wretched Browne Bushell. It seems even after his spirit is meant to have left this mortal realm, he still can't decide which side to be on.




Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great tides landward flow,
Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great winds landward blow,
When the long billows heavily roll o’er the harbour bar,
And the blue waves flash to silver ‘mid the seaweeds on the Scar,
When the low thunder of the surf calls down the hollow shore,
And ‘mid the caves of Kettleness the baffled breakers roar.
Under the cliffs at Whitby, whoso will stand alone
Where, in the shadow of the Nab, the eddies swirl and moan,
When, to the pulses of the deep, the flood-tide rising swells,
Will hear, amid it’s monotone, the clash of hidden bells.

Up from the heart of the ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes it’s golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels,
For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime.
Since the gallant ship that brought them, for the abbey on the height,
Struck and foundered in the offing, with her sacred goal in sight.

And the man who dares on Hallowe’en on the Black Nab to watch,
Till the rose-light on St. Hilda’s shrine the midnight moonbeams catch,
And calls his sweetheart by her name, as, o’er the sleeping seas,
The echo of the buried bells comes floating on the breeze,
‘Ere another moon on Hallowe’en her eerie rays has shed,
Will hear his wedding peal ring out from the church-tower on the Head.

S K Phillips

A rare recording of the sunken chime

The poem by Miss S K Phillips is just one version of an old Whitby legend concerning the loss of the Abbey bell. Another more likely story tells of Henry VIII’s men removing the bells during the Dissolution in 1539 and placing them on a ship bound for London. But it is said that as the vessel left the safety of the harbour, it foundered in the open sea and sank without trace, probably due to the weight of the bells on board.

The final and more commonly known version is the tale of a villainous sea captain who put to shore at Whitby one night and stole the bells from the Abbey‘s tower. With the heavy load eventually on board, the ship made good it’s escape, but once at sea the captain found that he was unable steer his vessel. The combined force of wind and waves together with the weight of the bells rendered his ship uncontrollable and it was dashed upon the rocks at the Black Nab.



There has only ever been one witch post found outside the North Yorkshire Moors, and that was from Rawtenstall in Lancashire. They were always made of oak and built into the structure of the house as a support for the smokehood above the inglenook fireplace.
The posts were carved at the top with varying degrees of complexity, but all the designs included at least one X shaped cross. Often there were one or more rolls fashioned beneath it. A witch post from from Postgate Farm, Glaisdale has the date 1664 carved into it, together with the letters EPIB.

Witch posts: 1 From Danby. 2 From an old house near Scarborough. 3 Postgate Farm, Glaisdale. 4. In Stang End at the Rydale Folk Museum. 5 Low Bell End, Rosedale. 6 Gillamoor. 7 Quarry Farm, Glaisdale.

There is one on display in Whitby Museum from East End Cottage, Egton. An example of one performing its supporting role by the fireside can be seen in The Rydale Folk Museum at Hutton-le-Hole. The whole of the Stang End house at Danby was painstakingly transplanted there complete with the mysterious and cryptic witch post.
No folk tradition exists to cast light on their actual meaning, and it is only during the twentieth century that they have become known as witch posts. It was assumed that the carvings provided the household with protection against dark forces in those days of superstition and dread. Some suggest the X is a solar symbol, as widely used in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

The witch post in Whitby Museum

In earlier times they were often referred to as priest posts. Some claim travelling priests on blessing a house, would make a mark to confirm their holy work. The famous priest Nicholas Postgate was working in this area at the time. One idea is that they indicate a room where Catholic Mass could be safely performed.
The posts remain as relics of a lost tradition, their meaning and their secret symbolism a reminder of how the moors are laced with mysteries that still remain out of reach to our modern consciousness.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Exclusive Out on Ye! footage of a mysterious sea beast sighted off Whitby.