‘We had no idea what was happening or where it was coming from or what it was. I still don’t and can’t explain it to you – but I know what I have seen.’
Derbyshire housewife Laverne Marshall was describing a terrifying night-time drive into the twilight zone which has become etched upon her memory. Laverne had taken her son to Heathrow Airport and was returning to her home in the town of Glossop across a lonely road in the High Peak. With her in the back seat of the car were her 20-year-old daughter Stacey and her baby.
‘We were just driving and talking when all of a sudden these little balls of light, four or five in all, appeared on the dashboard,’ Laverne said. ‘They were really bright and dancing up and down just like they were being controlled by a juggler. The first thing I did was to look up and see if a plane was going over; but there was nothing above us. There were no houses around, and there were no headlights behind me. I said to Stacey straight away “take that torch off the baby” but she shouted back “mum, I’ve got the torch in my hand and it’s not turned on.” So Stacey grabbed the baby off the back seat and held her and as she did so these lights moved onto the roof of the car.’
Powerless to help and not willing to stop the car on the isolated road, surrounded as it was on all sides by miles of featureless moorland, Laverne watched the lights in the mirror as they slowly moved around inside the car. ‘Stacey panicked, locked the central locking and slid the cover over the sunroof,’ she said. ‘Then they sort of split up into two groups and we sat speechless as they went to the back window and then each moved back in single file to the dashboard where they regrouped, almost as if they were marching in order.’
The family’s nightmare lasted a full seven minutes as their car travelled from the highest point on the Woodhead Pass into darkened Longdendale valley, blinking out when the car reached streetlights and safety. ‘As we got near the youth hostel at Crowden there’s a turn to Glossop which takes you past the Devil’s Elbow but even though I was running short of petrol I wouldn’t go down that because it’s even spookier than the main road,’ Laverne confessed.
Both Laverne and her daughter were left profoundly disturbed by the strange encounter with ‘the lights’ which happened closed to midnight on the cold clear evening of 14 February 1995. ‘I woke up the next morning and thought “God what was it, what did I see?”’ she said later. ‘Then someone was taking the mick and Stacey said: “Well, you’ve not seen it – you can take the mick if you like, but we have.”’
Sean Wood won’t take the mick. His window fronts directly onto the carriageway of the busy trans-Pennine Woodhead Pass where the Marshalls had their frightening encounter with the unknown. He told a local newspaper with blunt sincerity: ‘Quite simply, there are bright lights which appear at the top end of Longdendale; there’s no doubt they exist, but what they are I have no idea.’ When I visited Sean’s home he described the lights he had seen, pointing towards Shining Clough, a rugged and desolate mountain ridge which dominates the southern horizon from his home at the watershed of the valley. He first saw the lights there in the early 1980s shortly after his family moved to live at Bleak House which stands directly below Woodhead’s fourteenth century chapel-of-ease.
‘It was about 9.30 p.m. on a November evening when I walked into one of the front rooms at Bleak House to chastise someone for shining a torch through our window,’ Sean explained. ‘Of course there was no torch, nor indeed any person outside. However, the light filled the room with a chilly, moonlike glow. The effect was heightened by the lack of street lighting at this altitude and when I went outside to investigate I saw a large pulsing ball of light directly above the house, and not too far from the aptly-named Shining Clough. With the hair on the back of my neck bristling I went to telephone my near neighbours at the Crowden Youth Hostel. Guess what? They were outside watching the light in the sky too.’
This was just the beginning. ‘Two years after that I saw it again, beneath the skyline. In all I’ve seen them more than thirty times over the sixteen years I’ve been here,’ Sean explained. ‘One of the times it was very, very big, and between fifty and seventy feet from the ridge; it was pulsing again and then stopping, moving back and forth and up and down. I’ve also seen three lights together, much smaller in size, like in a string, moving in an arch. I’ve seen these a few times, and also the big ones a few times.’
Sean Wood is just one of many Longdendale residents who have experienced the phantom lights which haunt Bleaklow and the Woodhead road in the valley below. The Woodhead pass is is one of the main arteries linking Yorkshire with Manchester across the Pennines, cutting through dramatic and beautiful moorland scenery at the 2,000 foot source of the river Etherow which flows west through the valley towards the Irish Sea. Fewer than forty people, mostly farmers, live within the tiny parish of Woodhead, a population which has swelled to more than a couple of hundred souls just once in its long and eventful history. In the nineteenth century Irish workmen and their families were imported to carve the huge Woodhead railway tunnel out of the gritstone rock. Since that time the string of reservoirs have been constructed in the valley bottom to serve Manchester and these are now accompanied by miles of high-tension electricity pylons.
Some have claimed the heavy traffic, reservoirs and pylons have spoilt Longdendale’s natural beauty. When visitors climb away from the valley bottom, however, they are exposed to wild nature on the high moorland crags which rise dramatically to 2,000 feet above sea level north and south of the valley. Longdendale has a strange atmosphere and a long history of supernatural happenings which stretch back to the dawn of history. Local residents will speak in whispers about the reputation of the valley and tell you that an elemental presence has made its home on these moors for as long as the memory of man can stretch. The ‘Longdendale Lights’ which haunt the gritstone crags on the north face of Bleaklow are so well known they have become part of the folklore of the region, just one aspect of the ‘otherness’ of the valley. Stories describing them can be traced back through the generations and in tales handed down through the centuries the sinister lights are known as the Devil’s Bonfires. In tradition, they were said to hover around a mysterious mound near the summit of the Bleaklow massif known as Torside Castle. Some archaeologists believe the mound dates from the Bronze Age, others maintain it is a natural lump of mud and rock left in the wake of the glaciers which cut a swathe through the valley many thousands of years ago. Folktales also link them with the phantom legions of Roman soldiers who tramp across the darkened moors on the first night of the first full moon in the spring. Their ghostly glow is said to be flames from the torches carried by the auxillaries marching along the route of a Roman road linking the fort at Glossop with the Hope Valley in the east.
One resident remembers how back in the decade following the end of the Second World War his grandmother would point towards the looming moors visible from their home in Old Glossop and refer to ‘the lights’ which flickered and hovered around the Devil’s Elbow. Many attempts were made by local people to account for lights seen on the hills during the war, from decoy flares dropped by the RAF to lure German bombers away from the big cities to exploding ammunition used by paratroopers who trained on the moors. Ten years later as a volunteer in the newly-formed volunteer Mountain Rescue Team my informant heard about the lights again when motorists began to report balls of fire resembling distress flares hovering above the hills. This was in the early years of the fledgling mountain rescue service, when walkers were advised to take flares with them for use if they became lost or stranded on the moors. Even then the reports left experienced climbers baffled.
During the 1960s the new Peak District National Park authority built the first youth hostel at Crowden, not far from Woodhead. The hostel was designed to provide an overnight resting place for walkers braving the first leg of the newly-opened Pennine Way footpath which crosses Longdendale on its route north. It wasn’t long before visitors and wardens based at the hostel and surrounding cottages began to see beams and pulsating balls of coloured lights racing along the rocky gritstone crags on the remote western face of Bleaklow, along Bramah Edge and the aptly-named Shining Clough. On occasions police and mountain rescue teams turned out to search the mountains but found nothing. Then one fine summer’s evening in July 1970 teacher Barbara Drabble was driving her Morris Oxford home to Crowden past the Youth Hostel when she suddenly passed through an invisible curtain which led directly into the Twilight Zone….
The experience was still clearly etched upon her memory when she described it again almost two decades later. ‘A brilliant incandescent blue light’ was how she remembered the strange glow. ‘It lit up all the bottom half of the mountain, all the railway, the reservoirs and about a two mile stretch of road.’ The lights lasted several minutes and did not resemble daylight. They were brighter, clearer and harsher and as Barbara drove into the light she felt intensely cold, a sensation which caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand on end as if it had been subjected to an electrical charge… ‘It was just all over the whole valley, lighting up, with perfect clarity, every single feature. It was certainly bright enough to drive without lights, and I can remember the clarity with which I could see the contour of the stone walling and the features on either side of the hills beside the road. The drive must have taken about five minutes and when I parked, or more accurately hurriedly abandoned, the car on arriving home it had an icy sheen and felt cold.’
Barbara was so intrigued that she made a point of visiting local farmers, asking them what they knew about the light. They shuffled uncomfortably when put on the spot by an outsider, and kept what they knew to themselves. ‘I drew a blank from everyone but their attitude made me feel they did see something,’ she said.
Then, one year later dozens of people staying at Crowden Youth Hostel, including the warden Joyce Buckley, were dazzled by the same or a similar brilliant light which shined in through the windows. ‘At first I thought it might be car headlights but it reappeared on top of Bleaklow and no car can get up there,’ said Mrs Buckley, who now lives in Manchester. ‘It lasted more than three minutes and was very powerful.’
The warden was so concerned about the light that, fearing there had been an accident or plane crash on the mountains, she called out a Mountain Rescue search party led by Mrs Drabble’s then husband. Ken Drabble was a senior warden for the Peak Park based in Tintwistle during the 1960s when the rescue service received up to sixty distress calls every year. In 1995 he told me he clearly remembered the night he was contacted by Mrs Buckley at the Youth Hostel, who described how they could see ‘very bright lights’ on Torside Clough, opposite Crowden. He said: ‘At first I thought they had seen a distress flare or illuminator because people do send rockets up if they are in trouble and these can light up quite large areas. Although distress flares should be red, sometimes they can be white and other colours.’
On arrival at the hostel Ken met more than a dozen residents who had seen the dazzling lights on the mountain. The lights had also been seen by farmers and residents of Bleak House further east at the head of the valley. ‘In a moment of madness I decided to go up on the hill with lights of my own,’ he said. Taking walkie-talkies and gas-powered searchlights Ken leapt into a four-wheeled drive vehicle and with a rescue team climbed to the summit of the mountain ridge where the lights had appeared.
‘When we got to the top there was nothing – no trace of people, lights or even a fire,’ he said. ‘The people at the hostel could see our lights from the top of the hill. We were carrying large gas-powered searchlights whose reflectors were the size of a dustbin lid, but the people down below said they were not even a candle in comparison with the lights they had seen. They said they could hardly see the lights we were carrying.’
The mystery incandescent light, they said, had filled the whole valley with its radiance. Discussing the events of that night for a TV reconstruction in 1996 Mr Drabble, now a retired chief ranger of the Peak National Park, told me: ‘I did not think someone was playing a trick. There were fifteen people at the hostel that night and they did see something and I would not disagree that it was something very mysterious.’
That mystery continues. Today the most common description has been of a string of moving lights which have been mistaken for hiker’s torches high on the mountainside. Others have seen balls of pulsating light and ‘searchlight beams.’ One former resident of the area wrote from her new home in California to describe her experiences with ‘the lights,’ after reading an article in a Peak District magazine. Back in the early 1980s she would regularly drive through the Longdendale valley to visit her parents in South Yorkshire and on her return journey she would often see ‘dancing lights’ racing across the mountains at Woodhead and Crowden. ‘At first I thought they were hikers but common sense and logic soon ruled this out,’ she wrote. ‘There were three moving lights, orange or yellow in colour and seemed to follow me for about a mile and then disappear. It was hard to tell what size they were but they were not very big, probably the size of a tennis ball, from where I was in my car looking up into the hills.’
These phenomena have been reported right along the fifteen mile mountain ridge south of the valley from Torside Castle and Bramah Edge in the west to Shining Clough which overlooks Sean Wood’s home at the head of the valley. So persistent have these reports become that the voluntary Mountain Rescue team have turned out from their Glossop base on a number of occasions when lights and ‘flares’ have been reported to the police, only to find that the lights fade away like a will o’the wisp as they approach. The team’s commander, engineer Phillip Shaw, became fascinated by the lights after he spotted a mystery beam of light on Bleaklow in the early 1980s and now keeps a log of sightings. ‘Between them, the seven mountain rescue teams in the Peak are called out once a year by people who see lights in the hills and assume someone is in trouble,’ he told me. ‘This has been going on for at least twenty years but no one has ever been found. The reports have become so regular that the police no longer pass on sightings of mystery lights to us unless they feel it is a genuine sighting of a red distress flare.’
A spokesman for the National Grid has heard the stories and rules out the pylons which criss-cross the valley bottom as having any connection with the lights. He says ‘arcing and sparking’ could be visible in wet weather and polluted air conditions but the glow produced by it would be very difficult to spot from ground level. Another rare electrical phenomenon, ball lightning, has also been considered and found wanting as a result of the history and long duration of the reports from the valley. Police and mountain rescue personnel point out that the entire Bleaklow plateau lies below a major international air route for traffic approaching landing at Manchester’s Ringway airport in the west and it is quite possible that landing lights could be responsible for some of the sightings of moving lights. Others may have mistook the flashing beacon of the giant Holme Moss TV transmitter to the north of the valley as a mystery light when there have been unusual weather conditions. None of these theories account for the range of unusual light phenomena witnessed in the valley or the traditional accounts of lights on the hills in the years before the arrival of aeroplanes, pylons and other man-made sources of electricity.
This point was made eloquently by a Longdendale resident whose family have farmed land near Tintwistle for three centuries. He remembered hearing stories about the lights from his grandparents which dated back to the latter part of the nineteenth century. ‘Over the years people used to say these lights could be seen above Nell’s Pike, a pointed rock above the Devil’s Elbow and the moors beyond that,’ the farmer told me. ‘Back in the olden days people put it down to witches and ghosts – now it’s all UFOs and flying saucers.’
Today people across the world can watch the skies above the Devil’s Elbow thanks to a unique Internet website which is dedicated to the study of Longdendale and its mysteries. The ‘Haunted Valley’ site was created by paranormal investigator Debbie Fair who has set up a live Webcam – a camcorder linked to a computer – which looks out over the Derbyshire moors from her home in Glossop. Weather and visibility permitting, the Webcam allows visitors to scan the skies twenty four hours every day and to join in with regular organised skywatches. The popularity of the site, which had an amazing 180,000 visitors during one six month period in 1999, has left Debbie stunned and is testimony to the rapidly spreading fame of mysterious Longdendale. For the twenty first century it is hoped that a full-scale scientific inquiry will eventually put the Longdendale Lights under the miscroscope with a mission to capture and record them on film using the very latest equipment. However, as with other strange phenomena it is the elusive nature of the lights which is their most enduring characteristic and as a result they may continue keep us guessing about their origin and purpose for many years to come.
2011 Update: Since writing this chapter I have received several accounts from people who have experienced mysterious lights in the Longdendale Valley. They had said nothing until they read about the ‘lights’ whilst searching for answers. Here are two accounts received by email:
[received from J.K. 20 October 2008]:
“…Dear Dr Clarke: I glanced at your webchat on the Sky News website today and noticed your comment about the number of strange occurences in the Pennine area between Manchester and Sheffield. I was reminded of a very, very odd experience recounted to me by my uncle prior to his death in 2000 – I took a look at your website and started reading about the phenomenon of the Longdendale Lights, which I had not previously heard about. I was amazed to find that my uncle’s experience matched almost exactly that of Barbara Drabble, who is mentioned in your article.
“My uncle was driving back towards New Mills after visiting friends in the Holmfirth area – it was late and dark. I think it must have been about two years or so before his death, so I would estimate that the incident occurred in 1998 or thereabouts. He was somewhere between Holmfirth and Glossop – he did not specify where – but reading your description of the Longdendale valley, I suspect he must have been in that area (or very near it). He told me that suddenly he and the surrounding landscape were lit up by an incredible blue light – I wondered if it might have been simply a police helicopter search light, but, like Barbara Drabble, my uncle said that it lit up the area for miles around so that he could see the detail of a massive area of landscape. I have a vague recollection that he mentioned coldness, as did Barbara Drabble, but he definitely mentioned that he arrived home and realised that he had absolutely no memory of anything after the sudden blue light. He couldn’t recall anything of the remainder of the journey home – “I simply don’t remember how I got home” he told me – those words really struck me.
“As I said, my uncle was a very down-to-earth, straight-talking Yorkshireman – prior to this incident, he would jokingly dismiss anything strange or even spiritual as “mumbo-jumbo”. Indeed, he was very reluctant to talk about what happened – I heard about it through his son and later managed to convince him to tell me about it – he was still extremely reluctant when he did eventually talk to me. This makes me wonder how many people have experienced this and, for whatever reason, have not told anyone about it.
“I will never forget what he told me – and I am hugely grateful – and really quite spooked! – to find, from your website, that he was not the only person to experience this phenomenon.”
[received from PM, 29 January 2009]:
“…Dear David…I have just been surfing the internet to try and find any walks in the Longdendale Valley when I came across your site. I started to read it and the hairs on the back of my head suddenly stuck up. A young lady had the exact same experience as I had myself. This is the first time in 36 years I have told anybody about what happened that night. At the time I was working for the Automobile Association in Cheadle Hulme and I had been out for a Friday night drink with my girlfriend because I intended to pop home to Leeds that weekend to see my parents. I had taken her home around midnight and decided to go to Leeds via the Woodhead route. So there I was happily driving my new Ford Escort playing my 8 track stereo player (Pink Floyd I think) and had just gone through Hyde and was heading up towards the moors. I had just passed the turn off on the right for Glossop and was heading uphill when all of a sudden this incredible pure bluey white light suddenly engulfed the whole area. I slammed the brakes on and just looked in awe because everywhere around me was as bright as day. Brighter than day, because everything was just so CLEAR. I noticed an electric train in the valley bottom hauling a long line of coal tubs and I could see every detail of it. All the conifers on the far side of the valley were crystal clear. I jumped out of my car and just stood and stared and tried to find the source of the light [but] there was no source, it was as if it was everywhere. I can’t have been standing there for more than ten seconds when POP the light suddenly went out…leaving me in TOTAL darkness, feeling not a little scared by this time I jumped back in my car and very apprehensively resumed my journey to Leeds. It was on my mind all the way. I kept asking myself: ‘What was it? Where did it come from? What caused it?’ I got to my parents house very early in the morning and told them what had happened. I don’t think they believed me and from that day on I have kept what happened that night to myself. I would love to know what happened that night and I am just so relieved that somebody else has had the same experience. Since that night I have had first-hand experience with aerial flares, as I now work for the MoD, and even the big artillery or mortar launched ones are only a fraction as bright as the light that night.”
Copyright David Clarke 2011