Ghosts, ghouls and phantoms were once a familiar part of village life, writes Robin Longbottom

WITH Halloween now behind us, we can put the thought of ghosts and ghouls away for another year.

However, for our not too distant forebears, ghosts, ghouls and other phantoms were once ever present.

In the early 1900s the story of a phantom called Screamer was recorded by the late Dr Norman Davy, of Cross Hills.

Screamer was said to lurk in the depths of the deep clough formed by Ickornshaw Beck, that runs through Cowling. Haggard and dressed in rags, she wandered through the night in search of those who were about to die and was said to herald a death by letting out a loud screech. After a death, doors and windows were flung open to let the spirit pass unhindered.

Guytrash, known as Barguest in the Dales, was a more common phantom that wandered our lanes and byways at night during the 'witching hour'. It took the form of a huge black dog with a long shaggy coat and eyes the size of saucers. Guytrash stalked unwary travellers caught out late at night and once in pursuit could only be shaken off by crossing a beck, as the phantom was held at bay by water. Some said it could swallow a whole sheep in one gulp and others that it would wander into villages to look through windows after dark. In the 19th century Billy Blakey, returning home from Grassington to Linton one winter's night, had an encounter with Barguest. He said he had felt something large brush past him and when he arrived “ther war summat ligged across t’ threshold o’ t’ dooar. Ah sed git up an’ stir thyself…it turn’d an’ luiked at me – an’ sich eyes did glower an’ wer as big as saucers". When he “raised t’stick to baste it wi" it slunk off into the night. In 1876 the Craven Herald reported that Guytrash lurked during the night in the dark tunnel that passes under the canal between Kildwick and Farnhill. However, the introduction of street lighting was said to have put an end to such superstitions.

Churn-milk Peg, also known as Jinny Greenteeth in other parts of Yorkshire, was a haggard old wraith said to prop herself with a staff of hazel and wander through village orchards to protect fruit trees. In autumn, children suspected of going scrumping apples, pears and plums were warned “tak care, or Churn-milk Peg will tak yer ta t’owd lad!” (the devil). She also protected hazel groves to prevent children from taking the unripe nuts when they were still soft and pulpy – known as churn-milk. She may well be a relic of mythology brought to the area by Norse settlers who revered an obscure goddess called Idunn, who protected orchards and guarded the golden apples that were the food of the gods.

In Sutton-in-Craven there was a tale that may also have its origins in Norse myth. It was said that one spring afternoon two men and their dogs had left the village to search for plover eggs on the moor, once collected and eaten. As the day grew late the skies suddenly darkened and a bitter cold wind swept the moor. Then as the men crouched down for shelter, their dogs cowered and whimpered and the sound of pounding hooves and the howl of hounds passed furiously over their heads. As soon as the host had gone the skies cleared and peace returned. The story of ghost riders of the 'Wild Hunt' is common in folklore and in Norse myth was led by Odin the god of war and the rushing wind.

Today only a distant echo of Screamer, Guytrash, Churn-milk Peg and the Wild Hunt survives once a year on Halloween, the eve of the dead.