Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Gravestones and Devils’ Hooves

Not so long ago, it seems, down at Fluke Hall in Pilling, close to where microlite pilots latterly gathered in droves and unemployed youths from Knott End raced untaxed cars for want of better sport, two ancient gravestones could still be seen standing proud on the beach.
They dated to the 1650s and appeared to record the final resting place of C. Dickonson and Margret his wife.
Naturally we went for a look. This was a couple of years ago, it should be noted, and we travelled there in the informative company of the now sadly deceased Headlie Lawrenson and Neil Thompson.
Let’s have an illustration of how the graves originally appeared, shall we?

According to Sobee’s ‘History of Pilling’ (the bible of the Pilling Historic Society):

There is a story that a ship was wrecked on the sands and some sailors managed to get ashore and were received into a cottage. The sailor’s had the plague and the inhabitants of the cottage caught it and all died and were buried there.

To account for the apparent un-holiness of the burial ground Sobee concocts the following theory:

The most probable story is that the Dickonson family lost father and mother and the children brought the stones across the sands from the ruins of Cockersand Abbey to mark the spot where they had buried their beloved parents.

Nothing, however, is ever straightforward and Headlie related to us an alternative narrative, one that he’d discovered himself in a handwritten manuscript by the late Reverend Charles Sherdley.
According to the reverend’s version of events, in 1717, when Newers Wood Chapel was being demolished, a certain Mr. She Dickinson (don’t ask – it’s an odd Christian name, we know, but then, as we’ve mentioned before, the good folk of Pilling have some very odd ways) helped himself to the above-mentioned gravestones, his intention being to use them as lintels in his barn at Sandside Farm.
Pilling farmers have always been years ahead when it comes to recycling.
Unfortunately She’s relatives weren’t as amused by the idea as he was. To make matters worse, on several occasions the stones allegedly turned of their own accord in a supernatural fashion.
Following a heated debate with ‘tha missus’ about potential maintenance and other matrimonial matters, our industrious farmer loaded the gravestones back onto his cart and promptly dumped them on the foreshore, where they remained in perpetuity or, at least, until the new sea defences, despite protestations from local historians, swallowed them up.
And, just for the record, here’s an illustration of the aforementioned new sea defences in all of their monotonous glory:

From the site of the buried gravestones (now just a mound of rubble shielding Pilling from encroaching tides) the observant visitor can see some of the more ancient sea defences snaking like a giant green draught excluder across the landscape.
These serpentine banks are even more visible alongside the Pilling Marsh road where, until comparatively recently, they were regularly climbed by safety conscious sheep when the tide usurped their grazing land. Even today the odd lone ram can be spotted gazing from one such summit, ignorantly seasoning itself on the salted marsh grass that gives our local lamb butties their exceptional flavour.
Another oddity in this vicinity worth a mention is the ‘Pilling Enigma’, on the off chance that we haven’t mentioned it before…which we probably have, but who’s checking?
Back in the July of 1970 a number of suspected ancient graves were discovered at Beech House in Pilling. Neil kindly pointed the location out to us from where we stood on the foreshore, although, if the truth be known, we wouldn’t be able to recognise the particular field from its identical neighbours nowadays.
The county archaeologist was called in (for the Pilling Enigma that is, not because Neil was pointing out fields to us) and one hundred and eighty five pits were recorded, thirty of which were excavated with the enthusiastic help of some local volunteers.
Archaeological socialism! That would have suited our old hero Allen Clarke down to the ground. In fact, we can picture him now, up to his shoulders in soil, sleeves rolled up, waistcoat unbuttoned, pipe hanging jauntily from his lips with a pennant of blue smoke coiling upwards into the crisp Pilling air.
As it transpired the layout of the graves closely resembled an Anglo Saxon burial ground, although there were no actual traces of human remains. Headlie naturally had his own theory. “Tham’s lilly-ya, tham is,” he knowledgeably informed us as he leant on his stick. “Defensive pits wi’ sharp stakes inth’ bottom, what ’ud impale any unt’ward invaders. Sum oft’ pits still ’ud wicker on ’em what would ’uv camoo-flaged t’oles.”
We suspect he was right, although we’ll probably never know now, which is why the whole adventure was recorded in the Over Wyre Journals (by the Headlie himself) as the Pilling Enigma.
At nearby Broadfleet Bridge, Headlie assured us, could (and indeed still can) be found the only ‘genuine devil’s hoof print’ in the whole of Great Britain, a reminder of the rather long-winded occasion when the Cockerham schoolmaster outwitted Lucifer himself.
Time for another illustration:

The story’s been related before, in more than enough detail, courtesy of a famous (locally if nowhere else) poem, but recognising that our reader/s probably suffer/s from somnambulism here’s our abridgement.
As the devil wrought havoc around Cockerham the residents appointed the schoolmaster their champion and sent him packing to the churchyard where he confronted his foe. Here he was informed that if he couldn’t outwit the devil within three questions, the demonic one would transform and disappear with the mangled remains of the now panicking tutor.
Understandably, perhaps, the schoolmaster thought long and hard before venturing (somewhat uselessly as it transpired): “How many dewdrops are on that hedge?” The devil quickly calculated the answer, so the schoolmaster upped the stakes a notch and continued with: “How many stalks are in that wheat field?” (You can sense a certain chain of thought in the schoolmaster’s methodology here, can’t you?) The devil promptly set about the wheat with his scythe, and, once again unsurprisingly, soon arrived at the answer. By now the schoolmaster was running low on ideas, but nonetheless suggested, with a lump in his throat:

"Now, make me, dear sir, a rope of your sand,
Which will bear washing in Cocker, and not lose a strand."

Naturally the devil gave it his best shot, but, presumably not being conversant with advanced scientific reasoning, the results disintegrated and the poem, not before time, concluded:

The devil was foiled, wroth, and gave him a shaking;
Up he flew to the steeple - his frame a-quaking,
With one horrid frig - his mind very unwilling,
He stride to the brig o’er Broadfleet at Pilling.

We weren’t sure what ‘one horrid frig’ meant, so we checked through our dictionaries and then decided that it might be best to steer clear of an explanation on this family friendly board. However, the imprint of the devil’s hoof can still be found on the east wall of Broadfleet Bridge, if you use your imagination.
According to the rhyme the devil’s next stride took him to Blackpool where he resides to this day. We could make some suggestions as to the name under which he’s currently operating, but it might be better if we didn’t.


Andrew said...

I know which business he has in Blackpool. It sells fish and chips.

Brian Hughes said...

Can't be Lenny Bennett, 'cos he died last year.

Jayne said...

I think you'll find he's employed within our State Govt or thereabouts, Brian :P
Shame about the loss of the headstones.

Brian Hughes said...


They're not lost. We know exactly where they are...underneath five tons of rubble.

John said...

Hmm... amazing the disrespect given to the dead these days!

I'm quite surprised anyone would think to use headstones as lintels, or even doorstops. Besides being quite rude, wouldn't there have been some superstition and worry over upsetting unsettled souls so surreptitiously?


Anyways, it's also considered rude these days to return your hosts hospitality with the plague! Imagine that! "Pass the salt, hmmm, porks good, achoo! oops, sorry you've got the plague now".

As for dumping tons of stones on the beach there, couldn't they have done better by the dearly departed? I mean, yeah, a beach isn't the best place for a burial, what with shifting sands and shiftless tides, but just in case, you'd think they'd either move the whole plot, or dump stones around the stones and try to preserve some of their dignity?

Oh well.... too many questions. Your blog portrays humanity in too human a manner, and gives one pause to comtemplate the complication which is our modern society, not to mention the human condition itself and otherwise.

Thanks for that, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


Cheers. Have a glass for me as well.