Strange lights dancing above rocky crags and wooded valleys, playing tag with each other and leading travellers astray are the very stuff of folklore. The lights reported for centuries in the Longdendale Valley of north Derbyshire are not unique for similar accounts can be traced back many centuries from other parts of Britain and indeed the world.
Ghostly lights such as these are known by a variety of local names but the Will o’the Wisp or Jack O’Lantern are two which have been passed down in folk tradition. In Wales and Scotland lights such as these were known as Corpse Candles and were believed to be ominous warnings of death, the flames following the path taken by the funeral cortege. Similar beliefs are associated with the lead mines of the Peak District and from the neighbouring coal mining districts where lights observed underground warned of disasters or the impending deaths of miners.
The appearance of strange moving lights above marshes and bogs gave scientists a ready-made explanation during the Age of Reason. Methane and other marsh gases, it was reasoned, created by rotting vegetable matter bubbling up through the marsh could generate wispy flames and balls of flame. When ignited these would flit around when carried by air currents. In 1730 Sir Isaac Newton suggested marsh gas as the explanation for reports of the will o’the wisp or the ignis fatuus (‘foolish fire’) and this theory persisted until very recent times when reports of dancing lights and UFOs have routinely been dismissed as ‘marsh gas.’
In 1980 Dr Alan Mills of Leicester University’s Department of Geology decided to scrutinise the evidence for marsh lights and found it seriously wanting. Using controlled laboratory conditions he failed to reproduce a will o’the wisp-type flame despite using quantities of flammable methane, phosphine and other natural substances which were suspected as contributors in the chemical soup. What is more he could not find any other natural spark which could ignite the gasses produced by rotting vegetable matter. Whatever the will o’the wisp was, he concluded, it was not a product of marsh gas.
In any event, few of the stories describing ghostly lights which I have collected in the Peak District describe them above marshes or boggy areas. The vast majority are seen on mountains and fltting above rocky gritstone uplands. Some frequent springs and wells, rocky crags and caves. The rapid, playful movements of the lights and their longevity almost suggest they are controlled by some low order of intelligence or are natural phenomena reacting to changes in the magnetic field or environment which are not obvious to the human observer. In folklore the will o’the wisp is often depicted as a mischievous fairy or evil spirit who misleads travellers from safe paths into trecherous marshes. This is a motif well known in the lore of Dartmoor, where victims led astray by the lights are said to have been ‘pixie-led.’
There are a number of stories describing fairy lights leading walkers astray on the Pennine moors of northern England. A Sheffield councillor called Graham Lawson told me of his own experience which happened one night during the 1940s. He was enjoying a day out on Bretton Moor near Eyam with three friends one winter’s afternoon when the group became lost and disorientated as darkness fell. It was then that they spotted a string of twinkling lights which Graham initially believed were the lights of a village in the distance. Elated that they had found civilisation at last they decided to follow the lights but were puzzled when they appeared to move away from the trio. ‘There were around four or five lights in a string, moving and twinkling,’ he said. ‘We kept following them and could never get near them and eventually we came out onto a road between Hassop and Great Longstone. We had been lost for about two hours in all and had stumbled across bogs and moors following these lights but we never found out what they were.’
While it might be easier for people unfamiliar with the moors and foothills of the Pennines to become disorientated in the darkness and misinterpret the lights of houses or lanterns as something far stranger, many similar stories are also told by lifelong residents of the area. In addition, experienced hikers and climbers frequently report encounters with inexplicable lights while visiting the Peak District moors and fells. Adrian Busby was a member of Derby Mountaineering Club when he had a ‘lights on the moor experience’ in the summer of 1976. He sent me the following account of what he saw from his home in Christchurch, New Zealand:
‘At the time I was a student and it was during my summer holdiays that I set out with two friends one glorious midsummer evening to bivi out on Bleaklow. It must have been late June or July and we left our car at Doctor’s Gate on the Snake Road and headed for the Wain Stones and Bleaklow Head itself. Half way there we saw a bright and quite distinct light some hundreds of yards away appear to shine directly at us. The visibility was excellent with little cloud and no mist…in fact it was a perfect night. The range of the light was difficult to judge, which is the case with any light in such open country, but all three of us saw it clrearly and it appeared to shine in our direction. We watched it for a while before turning off our own headlamps, then we repeatedly flashed them in its direction. We covered quite a distance, but the light was a little like a rainbow in that we could never catch it, and we were walking for ten or fifteen minutes to find it was just as far away. This had us baffled because if someone was in trouble why run away yet still shine the light in our direction, and if it was someone who didn’t want to be found they could simply have put the light out and escaped among the groughs of Bleaklow. Eventually the light disappeared and we were never able to explain it. I was a member of the mountain rescue team and have spent literally dozens of nights out on the moors in the dark as a mountaineer in various countries, but I’ve never had an experience like the one I had on Bleaklow.’
While these strange elusive lights appear to prefer the gritstone areas of northern Derbyshire they are also reported from time to time in the White Peak, where the landscape and geology is very different. Dove Dale and the beautiful Manifold Valley at the southern tip of the Peak is highly popular with tourists who throng the trails and footpaths throughout the year, but how many seek to explore the mysteries of this eerie area late at night?
One of the most puzzling and detailed descriptions of ghostly lights I have collected came from a young man called Oliver Rowlands and took place in the limestone valley above the river Dove. Oliver was studying at Derby University early in March 1993 and travelling to college daily from his home in Staffordshire. One night, accompanied by a friend, he decided to go for a late night drive into the Derbyshire Peaks after finishing college for the day. They drove to Dove Dale and arrived just as darkness was falling. Parking up in the carpark the pair went for a walk beside the River Dove towards the well-known Stepping Stones. As they got closer to the stones two ‘very bright white lights’ attracted their attention. Both lights were approximately the same size they were perfectly round and lit up the surrounding area although they appeared to cast no beam. In complete silence they danced in perfect symmetry both following the other or one moving right as the other moved left. The two young men estimated the lights were between ten and one hundred feet above the river and about double the width of the river in distance away from them.
‘They were moving up and down in crazy patterns far too quickly for them to be the lights of a motorbike; anyway, there would be no chance of a vehicle of any type moving up and down the cliff so quickly or with such turns of speed. The experience, which lasted about three minutes, left us speechless. Then we started talking and questioned what it could be. There was something quite eerie about it. We eventually decided to turn towards the car again, and we were too frightened to look back, so we just kept walking and eventually broke into a run.’
The following day the pair told their family and friends at college about the experience, and we met with laughter and ridicule. Determined to show someone else, in September that year Oliver returned to the valley with another friend from college. They arrived at the car park at 7 p.m. just after darkness had fallen and walked two miles past the Stepping Stones. They followed the river, climbed a hill beyond a chain of limestone caves and sat watching the valley from a point high above the river.
‘To be honest, I thought that to see such an occurrence once would seem a miracle, but twice? But sure enough, one light (much larger than the previous one) made its appearance from trees to our left, looking back along the river, towards the carpark. It seemed to rise, and wobble along before disappearing into the trees. This was below us and again we heard no sound. Later we saw another light, whilst on foot heading back towards the car. Again, it was a large sphere of light, white in appearance.’
Once again, Oliver was left perplexed and speechless. Trying to imagine a cause or explanation for what he had witnessed, he asked: ‘Can rivers or water emit strange gasses? And if so how can they dance and chase each other in perfect symmetry at speed. Are they ghosts or spirits? I don’t know, but if I could film them then perhaps the peculiar pattern to their dance can be unravelled to reveal some particular meaning, code or language….’
Spooklights and Earthlights: links and further reading:
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of locations around the globe which are known to be haunted by these strange and unexplained light phenomena. Some are so well known they have signposts and tourist centres to assist curious visitors who wish to see the lights (for example at Marfa, Texas and Hessdalen, Norway). Others are less well known outside of their immediate localities. Here are some links to articles that refer to spooklight and earthlight phenomena. I will update this list as my website develops.
Peakland Spooklights by David Clarke; originally published in At The Edge 8 (1998).
Earthlights – link to Paul Devereux’s article published in Fortean Times 218 (Jan 2007
Sean Palmer’s Mystery Lights website
Unfriendly Fire: Ball Lightning and UFOs– David Hambling