‘From a distance it looked like someone trying to cross the road but as I got nearer I could see it was like a man in a long cloak. Then I realised it had no face and it was just hovering above the road.’
Supermarket deputy manager Paul Ford no longer uses a haunted road on the border between South Yorkshire and the Peak District following a terrifying encounter with the unknown. Paul, then aged 28, was driving his wife Jane on a social visit to her sister’s home in the steel-making town of Stocksbridge, northwest of Sheffield. The couple were travelling along the Stocksbridge bypass which runs along the hills high above the Don valley, with the town and its steelworks below, when Paul first spotted the figure.
‘I just slammed the brakes on and swerved to avoid hitting it, and it was only through Jane grabbing the wheel that we managed to stop the car from crashing.,’ said Paul. Jane added: ‘If I hadn’t have been in the car Paul could have been killed or seriously injured and it left both of us badly shaken up. It was a very frightening experience and I think it might explain why there have been so many accidents on that road.’ The pair continued their journey in a state of shock and were visibly shaking when they arrived at their destination.
The Ford’s experience, on New Year’s Eve, 1997, was just the latest in a series of eerie sightings on the road, which has developed a reputation for having a jinx.
The bypass was planned as a solution to the growing problem of traffic congestion in Stocksbridge, taking heavy traffic away from the narrow streets of the steel town. During the construction, the road builders sliced through earth and crags on the hillside north of the town. The ghostly phenomena which have given the £14 million road its reputation began while it was under construction in the autumn of 1987. When the rumour leaked to the press stories soon appeared which claimed the bypass was being haunted by restless spirits from a graveyard which had been disturbed by the construction work.
The moorland region near Sheffield through which the road was constructed blends into the hills of the High Peak and already had a rich store of folklore which helped the newborn story to take a firm root in the local imagination. A project undertaken by schoolchildren in the steel town uncovered a rich seam of local lore which included stories about the spirits of children killed in a mining accident and a tragedy involving a stagecoach. Most interesting of all was a story concerning a monk who had been buried in unhallowed ground, his resting place having been disturbed by the building of the bypass. Another version turns the monk into a Catholic priest who became lost as he journeyed on foot to take secret mass at an isolated cottage hundreds of years ago. His spirit continues to wander the hillsides. Although there were a number of monastic farms in the area during the middle ages there is no historical record to support any of these legends, and no evidence has ever surfaced to suggest the road-builders had disturbed any grave, unhallowed or not.
When the bypass finally opened on Friday 13 May 1988 no one could have suspected that within a decade fourteen people would have died and hundreds of others would be injured in a series of horrendous accidents on the road, which today carries more than 18,000 vehicles per day. Ten years after its opening a local MP labelled the road an ‘accident blackspot’ and called for urgent action. Traffic police who patrol the bypass attribute the dreadful accident record to problems associated with many other newly-opened roads. These include motorists driving too fast and inappropriately for the conditions and overtaking on double white lines, hazards exacerbated in some cases by the design of the road itself. Straightforward explanations such as these have done little to prevent the high accident record of the bypass becoming directly associated in the popular imagination with the hauntings which have been reported there and widely publicised in newspapers, books and TV programmes.
The stretch of the A616 (T) where the Fords experienced their ‘ghost’ is in fact just one of a number of sections of the road and its approaches which have become the scene of strange sightings. While popular belief associates the haunting with the ghost of the monk whose grave was disturbed, there are also reports of a woman in white and a circle of dancing children who have been seen on a number of occasions. Accounts of tiny figures dancing in the moonlight have direct associations with the fairylore found in other parts of the British Isles. In the Emerald Isle the favourite haunts of ‘the Gentry’ – hills, pathways and special trees – are even today treated with great respect and are rarely disturbed. Stories are still occasionally told about roads which have had to be specially re-routed to avoid fairy hills, and accidents which have befallen those who have broken the taboo by building directly upon a pathway used by the little folk. Could the plans for the modern bypass have disturbed a fairy path across the Peak District hills?
Stories of the haunting by a monk in a long hooded cowl can also be traced back in local lore, many years before the bypass was even on the drawing board. An old lady called Annie Staniforth who earlier this century lived at White Row Farm near the route of the bypass confided to her daughter that she had seen a ghostly monk on several occasions. Today the idea that the bypass is haunted by a monk has been encouraged by the stories of a number of psychic researchers who have visited the area and claimed their own experiences which have confirmed their belief in the origin of the haunting.
The bypass is in fact one of a number of ‘haunted highways’ which have been identified by researchers who have studied the urban legends which have replaced more traditional folklore. The ghostly figure who unaccountably vanishes after running directly into the path of a moving car is in fact a story type found at many other locations throughout the world. In some cases it becomes more elaborate with the ghost appearing as a hitch-hiker who is picked up by a motorist and then disappears en route to their destination. Is the story of the spirit which hitches a ride home a folk tale whose source can never be definitively traced, or are there ‘real’ experiences at the core of the mystery? The fact that the same or a similar story is told with local variations across the world does seem to suggest it should be categorised, as the folklorist Jan Brunvand suggests, as an urban myth.
Here is an example of this type of urban legend collected in the Peak District. Several versions of the tale have appeared in local books and newspapers and the Derbyshire historian Clarence Daniel was convinced the incident really occurred ‘a number of years ago.’ He wrote that the case was initially reported in a Sheffield newspaper, which was itself followed up with a much-embroidered version published in a weekly paper in Matlock. Searches of the relevant files have failed to locate them which is puzzling but simply adds to the apocryphal nature of the whole story. Furthermore, I have collected versions of this same account from a number of different people all unconnected with one another who have added additional details or variations. One claimed to know someone who knew the couple who claimed to have had the experience, making this a classic ‘friend of a friend’ story.
The tale concerned a young courting couple who were riding in a motorcycle and side car one winter’s evening between the Fox House inn near Hathersage. During the journey they pulled over to offer a lift to a girl dressed in motorcycling leathers and a crash helmet who appeared by the side of the road and thumbed a lift. She said nothing other than to give an address in Sheffield. As they reached the boundary of the city, with the girl riding pillion, the driver glanced back only to find to his astonishment that she had vanished. The couple quickly retraced their steps to Fox House but could find no trace of the hitch-hiker. They were so concerned about her welfare that the driver reported the incident to the police, then resumed their journey. Having second thoughts the motorcyclist and his girlfriend decided to call at the address given by the biker. The woman who answered the door burst into tears when they asked if she knew anyone answering the description. After recovering her composure she told them her daughter had been killed in a motorcycling accident on that very stretch of road. The family had attended her funeral just days before the couple turned up at her door. The description of the girl, including the leathers and crash helmet, exactly matched those of the figure who had hitched a ride that cold winter’s night.
It has been suggested that road-ghosts such as the hitch-hiker and the Stocksbridge bypass spectre are modern transmutations of the ancient and very human fear of being alone and isolated in dark and umbrageous places on the boundary of one’s family or community. This is an age-old anxiety developed effectively in modern horror film genre such as the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. In the Stocksbridge case, the hauntings have been reported by many witnesses who have little if any awareness of each other’s stories. Collectively they are redolent of the ‘spectral jay-walker’ story-type which are known from many other localities in the British Isles. Some folklorists have suggested these tales are ‘ghostly classics’ which have been repeated and retold so many times that they take on a life of their own. Eventually they are passed from one story-teller to another and in the process are transmitted across vast distances. Folklorist Andrew Lang, who became the President of the Society for Psychical Research in 1912, once said that: ‘People will unconsciously localise old legends in new places and assign old occurrences or fables to new persons.’ This theory presumes that all can be traced to a source which both the teller and his audience believe to be true with the ‘evidence’ provided by ‘a friend of a friend’ who can never be identified.
In the Stocksbridge case many of the witnesses are clearly identified and a number are in fact personal acquaintances of the author, who can vouch for their sincerity. Take for example the following account by Judy Simpson, who at the time of the experience, in July 1990, was driving along the B6088 at the village of Wortley adjacent to the haunted bypass. Her businessman husband David was travelling in the passenger seat and agreed entirely with his wife’s description of what she saw approaching the carriageway.
‘I just saw this figure bolting or jogging in the middle of the field on the left of the road,’ Judy told me.
‘I couldn’t actually see an outline or any facial expression and there were no clothes as such, it was just a grey outline of a person. I could see a head and shoulders, with arms and legs flying everywhere. It was just running aimlessly across the field and I thought it was a jogger until I realised that it wasn’t actually touching the ground. It was around three feet above it. There is an embankment that comes up to the road and it leapt from the field over the embankment and landed in the middle of the road in front of us. It seemed to hit the car and just vanished. I just screeched to a stop and it just seemed to melt into the car and all of a sudden it was gone. I looked at David and said “What’s happened? It’s just gone,” and we got out and looked around but we could not find any trace of anything. We were both left really shocked and upset and I could not believe what had happened. All I could think was that it must have been a ghost, whatever a ghost is.’
Afterwards, the Simpsons called in at a public house in Wortley for a drink to steady their nerves and told several people at the bar what they had seen. They were surprised to find their claim accepted in a matter-of-fact way rather than being greeted with laughter or disbelief as they had anticipated.
Of equal interest is the story of Chapeltown resident Graham Brooke who in the presence of his son Nigel, then aged fourteen, experienced a bizarre phantom on the same stretch of road during the autumn of 1987. The experience occurred while the bypass was still under construction, which may well be significant. Mr Brooke senior had entered the 1988 London Marathon and was training every day with a target to achieve the necessary level of fitness by means of a daily run from his home in the northwest of Sheffield to the church at Wortley, near the by-pass, returning by the same route:
‘I could normally complete the run in about thirty minutes but on this occasion my son asked if he could come with me…We reached the church in about three quarters of an hour but Nigel kept getting the stitch so on the way back I ran on to make time until he caught me up. I was not tired because I was not running at my normal speed and it was dusk at the time but not dark. As we approached a layby coming towards Wortley village I suddenly saw a chap walking with his back towards the oncoming traffic. I looked at this figure and my brain just could not take in what I was seeing. He was dressed in what I would say was eighteenth century costume and wore a dark brown hood with a cape covering his body. He was walking in the ground, not on the level of the road itself and I just could not make out what I was seeing. Then I looked at him directly and saw his face. He was carrying a bag and it was slithering along the surface of the road. It was a dark coloured bag with a chain on it and Nigel said he could hear the chain rattling on the ground. I just gasped and said “who is this silly person?” and realised my son was seeing him too, and at that moment the hairs on the back of both of our heads just stood on end and we could smell something really musty just like we were standing in an antique shop. I saw him clearly and was looking directly at him, probably no more than fifty yards away from me with his face towards me and his back to the traffic. He was so close I could see that every half-inch down the cape there was a button, it was that clear. It was a long cape, dark brown in colour and very worn, with a “lived in” look about it; it was so real you could have walked up and touched it. He walked straight past us as we stood there amazed in the middle of the road. Then a lorry came with its lights on and he just disappeared.’
Mr Brooke said if he had been alone at the time he would never have told anyone what he saw and dismissed it as an hallucination. But he could not dismiss the fact that his son Nigel had shared the experience down to the very same details such as the buttons on the cape, which both remembered so clearly. ‘I will never forget that musty smell, the cape he wore and the blank face,’ he told me. ‘I looked right into the face and everything was black, just like a miner’s face but without any eyes. It was the strangest experience of my whole life.’
THE BY-PASS SPECTRE
Graham and Nigel Brooke are just two of a large group of people who, unconnected with one another, encountered an uncanny presence during the period in which the Stocksbridge bypass was under construction. Dark figures wearing long black capes, musty smells, eerie feelings. Something very odd was stalking those hillsides during the autumn of 1987. During work on the new road a Hillsborough man called John Holmes was working in a lorry depot immediately below the bypass. ‘When construction work was going on we often heard kids singing late at night and it was very frightening,’ he told me afterwards.
‘It started on freezing cold nights and would continue on and off until the early hours on a few nights. We could not work out what the song was but it sounded like a group of small voices and it seemed to be coming from the woods. It was a really spooky and we had a strong feeling that someone was watching us all the time.’
Mr Holmes did not know Steven Brookes and David Goldthorpe, two security guards who at that time were employed by Rotherham-based Constant Securities to patrol the unfinished bypass. One night early in September 1987 the pair were on patrol near Pearoyd Bridge which carried a narrow fly-over above the route of the bypass into the town’s steelworks. They saw what they later described as ‘a group of young children in medieval clothing’ playing and dancing in a ring around a pylon beside the road near the bridge. Themen drove past the children and stopped their vehicle only to find the group had vanished, leaving no sign of footprints in the soft mud.
It was shortly after this uncanny vision faded that the two security men had an even closer encounter with the unknown, an encounter which would have a dramatic effect upon both their lives. Brookes later told the police how they had spotted what appeared to be the figure of a man standing on the newly-constructed Pearoyd Bridge, which could not be reached directly from the road below. Initially believing they were the victims of a joke, Brookes stayed at the base of the bridge while his colleague drove around behind the ‘figure’ and directed the full beam of the vehicle’s headlights upon it. The sight which greeted them reduced both men to terror. For the figure, enveloped in a long cloak, appeared to have no head, and the beam of the headlights shone straight through its body. Within seconds, it had gone. Some time later I interviewed the men’s boss, Constant Security’s director Mike Lee. He confessed:
‘In all my experience I have never seen or heard anything remotely weird but this sighting was definitely peculiar. I was called out at 4.30 in the morning and saw these two hysterical men who were totally out of it. I always think policemen and security guards are very unimaginative people but when something like this happens to them it makes you scratch your head. My two former employees were basic, fit, down-to-earth South Yorkshire lads, one was a rugby player and weight-lifter but twenty four hours after the sighting they were both still shaking with shock and their nerves had gone. We understand one of them now lives in Canada and the other still lives locally but neither have worked since this happened. You can usually tell if people are kidding or winding you up but this was unique in my experience.’
The two security men unsurprisingly did not relish the thought of returning to the construction site. At one stage they visited the local priest asking if it was possible to have the bypass exorcised as they believed the road-builders may have disturbed a graveyard. Eventually they called in the police who, satisfied they were indeed genuinely frightened, decided to investigate.
Deepcar-based Police Constable Dick Ellis visited the bypass with a special constable, John Beet at midnight on Friday 11 September 1987. Both men were experienced officers, in PC Ellis’s case hardened through experience on the front line during the mining dispute of the early 80s. Neither of the two men were not likely to be scared easily by a ghost story, or so they thought. Initially they had driven onto the unfinished road and had parked to admire the clear sky and full moon. Just a couple of minutes had elapsed before both noticed a shadow moving around across a large painted palate box left by workmen near Pearoyd Bridge. They flashed the headlights of their car at the box several times in an effort to identify the shadow before they concluded it was caused by a piece of plastic flapping around in the wind. It was now midnight and the bypass was pitch black, the lights from the steelworks below reflecting upon the bridge and the box in front of their car. ‘We’d been sat there for about twenty minutes,’ PC Ellis told me in an interview conducted a fortnight after the events. ‘It was a nice night and I put my window down. Suddenly I had a peculiar feeling – not like I’d ever had before, because we have been working nights for a long time, just as if someone had walked over my grave, because I just froze.’ He continued:
‘What was so odd I went cold without knowing what was the matter. Then a few seconds after I had another feeling that someone was stood at the side of me and I turned my head slowly and could see that there was something stood by the side of the car. But as I turned quickly around there was nothing there. And at that very moment John let out such a scream and hit me with him arm and I looked around and could see there was somebody stood there next to the car!’
PC Ellis said all he saw was the torso of a man pressed up against the passenger window, but his colleague was able to describe the figure in more detail. ‘It virtually went from my side of the car to Dick’s side in an instant,’ Special Constable Beet said.
‘As Dick was looking out of his window I was just gazing up onto the banking, and I just turned to Dick and shouted and there was this chap just stood there, next to the car. It was really weird. To me, from what I saw of him, it sort of connected to the 1820s, that sort of era. I just looked at its face which I presumed was that of it man, and it was just literally staring at me. I only saw the face for a split second. It looked as if he had got some kind of cravat on, and a waistcoat. It looked like something out of Dickens’ time, but as I looked again and tried to focus it was gone.’
Both men leapt out of the car and searched the area and the banking surrounding them without finding a trace of a joker. The pair then drove further along towards the bridge itself and parked with the intention of using their radio to call for assistance. Before they could do so, the patrol car they were sitting in was jolted by a series of loud thumps as if something was impacting upon the boot. By now scared stiff, the two officers turned their car around and headed back down into the steelworks and safety. The following day PC Ellis made an official report to his superiors describing ‘inexplicable phenomena’ on the Stocksbridge bypass. Soon the story reached the press and appeared on the front page of the local evening newspaper the Sheffield Star. Despite the dose of light-hearted ribbing they received from friends and colleagues in the build-up to Hallowe’en both men stuck with their story which has never changed. Six years later, when a TV company visited the area to film a documentary on the experience PC Ellis said:
‘There was definitely something there, but I can’t explain it. I might have dismissed it as my imagination but my partner saw it and had the identical eerie feeling at the same time. It was definitely unnerving and it wasn’t a publicity stunt as was claimed at the time, we don’t do that sort of thing in the police force.’
(ITV Strange But True: The Haunted Bypass, 2 December 1994)
Today the story of the Stocksbridge bypass ghost is an established part of the living folklore of the area. Pearoyd Bridge, where the sightings of the security guards and PC Ellis were made, is known as ‘the Ghost Bridge’ and has become the scene of regular ghost-hunts by local enthusiasts. Stocksbridge and its haunted bypass has already entered the lists of haunted locations spawned by the ghost-hunting literature and many people have visited the road and had ‘experiences’ of their own. How many of these are ‘real’ and how many are the products of imagination, fed by what has been read or heard, is impossible to say.
Copyright David Clarke 2011