Episode 20: The Spectre Horseman

Go fool! Here comes one better than thee..

This episode we’re back with a very spooky story from Lancashire featuring, amongst other things, class politics, horses, a kiss and several levels of storytelling.

“Und die Todten reiten schnell”

Gottfried August Bürger, Lenore
Translation: “And the dead travel fast!”
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)

The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.

If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…

Long long ago, before England was a place, but not long ago enough that it was “the mists of time” two brothers were lost on the hills in a terrible snow storm. And things were not looking good for them.

The cold was bitter, the wind was fierce and mere teeth chattering had begun long before and now progressed to a cold in the very bones, a cold that made even the forming of thoughts an impossibility.

The younger lad was first to fall. He had enough energy to muster a cry, and though the sound was faint his brother turned. He turned with the intention, so vaguely formed in a fog of thoughts, that he could somehow help his sibling. But it wasn’t to be, for the older boy too was then overcome and he toppled, landing on a rock with what would have been a horrible cracking noise had it not been drowned out by the rage of the winds.

The younger looked up one last time to where his brother had fallen. And that was almost the last thing he ever experienced. But just prior to a terrible death overtaking him there came a sound that even in that last moment he could register as strange, unearthly, uncanny.

A horrific shriek, getting louder, getting closer. But by the time the source of the noise had revealed itself the young boy was no longer able to see it or indeed anything at all, ever again.

Two days later the winter storm had died down enough for the search party to find the two bodies. The passing of the sons of the local saxon king, for such had they been, was a tragedy for this quasi-royal family, even at a time in history when life was expected to be brutal and short.

King Edgar ordered graves to be constructed at the site the bodies had been found – simple stone monuments. And life went on. Time passed. A lot of it. But while King Edgar was long forgotten some quirk of fate meant that the boys never were.

The monuments had their intended effect – and generation after generation replaced the stones as they fell away. So while all around them changed the two stone cairns remained. The piles of stone became known as “the two lads” and by the time our story proper begins they were, for the purposes of the locals, as much a permanent feature of the landscape as the sky and the hills.

Exactly when the story takes place is not known: but it’s one of the closing years of the 18th century. English pride rides high, even the petty gentry of England are amongst the most powerful people on the globe. And in their own estimations they rank a considerable amount higher than that.

A small group of them were out that day, making their way at pace towards the small hunting lodge atop Rivington Pike (pike = Hill in this context). There were a quite a number of men out, but the ones of whom we have names are the type who would refer to their little party as consisting of three men, the horses, the dogs and the servants.

There was Pilkington – the young lord of Rivington Hall, There was Norton – A young local man of means. And there was Mortimer, a school friend of Norton visiting the county of Lancashire where all this takes place.

A successful day of hunting had been had, in as much as such things can be judged, and the plan had been to head back to Rivington hall, but a few miles hence. But the sudden appearance of vast dark banks of lightning filled clouds had forced the men to make an alteration to their plans.

While Norton had a touch of romanticism about the ongoing storm: probably been reading too much Goethe or something, the others were firm that they were getting indoors, and the little tower offered the only shelter close enough by.

They reached it not a moment too soon for just as the little party got inside there was a tremendous crash of thunder, the heavens opened and the rain battered down.

The light grew dimmer. And the men, the dogs and the horses huddled.

Some time passed and the storm showed no signs of abating. They were discussing settling in for the night when a change came into the atmosphere of that little space. It was difficult to assign a real cause to, yet it was obvious to one and all. Some deep dark gloom.

A dog jumped up, made its way to the door. Began to bark at it, before a servant shushed the hound.

“What’s got into him?” asked Mortimer.

“I’ll tell ya” came a voice from the back of the room. One of the older servants. Unnamed still, but his place in the story means he is at least due an appellation.

“They’ve sensed him, they have,” said the foreboding servant

“Sensed who?” asked Mortimer.

“The Spectre Horseman, that’s who. This here is his domain.”

“Don’t be so superstitious man….” began Mortimer… but his voice betrayed him as it faded away as he, along with everyone else in the place strained to hear it through the rain: the clatter of hooves, the heavy snort of a horse’s nostrils.

Norton for his part seemed positively excited by the possibility. His eyes gleamed with wild excitement and he started rapturously at the door.

“Don’t be silly, there’s…”


Mortimer’s face went ashen as a deep dread crept over everyone in that room.

And again there came a knock, a single loud unmistakeable knock. The dogs cowered and the men shrunk backwards away from the source of sound. All but Norton, for Norton started forward, and with a wild speed pulled back the bolts and swung open the door.

There was a silhouette of a man, mounted on a horse, his features mostly obscured by a black hat “I… Uncle?” asked Norton. And then he stepped out of tower towards the rider.

The door slammed shut behind him. There were a few moment’s of motionless silence in. Then people jumped into life.. headed towards the door, pulled it open again. But already they were gone. Looking down the hill into the rain there was a horse galloping at full pelt, now with two figures on its back.

“You better not go after him Masters” said the foreboding servant, who has now become so important he gets a name. Martin. “I’ll explain why.”

And Martin had a story to tell. Which he did in exchange for some whiskey to steady his nerves.

Some twelve years before. Exactly twelves years before in fact. Another St. Bartholomew’s night. A night when Martin’s father hadn’t returned home promptly after a trip across the hills. More concerning than that was the fact that his dogs had returned. Martin had opened the doors to them. Two dogs whining, bedraggled and tired, no sign of their master.

Martin had been sick with worry (“ok, get on with it- what does this have to do with Norton who is very much gone missing right now”, Mortimer hurried Martin along).

“Well he did return though. My dad. Eventually. At some early morning hour. In a state of such terror I ain’t never seen a man afore or since, and hope never to again. It took him a long time before he could tell me what had happened though.”

“Get on with it!”

“Ok. ok… “. Martin’s Dad, when he did speak, had a strange tale to relate. And yes by this point this is a story about someone telling a story about someone telling a story. Very Hofstadterian.

Martin’s Dad had been crossing the Pike they were all now on when he had seen it first. A figure on the back of a horse. It was night and he hadn’t expected to meet anyone else, but he’d called out friendly enough, wondering if the fella was lost.

But the voice the man had replied in had sent a primal shiver down into Martin’s Dad’s soul. “There is something you could do actually”.

And then he all he wanted to then was get away, as fast as he possibly can, to flee in a mad terror. But he couldn’t just do that. For if he did then surely the man, the thing, whatever it was, would come after him.

“You could you show me the road to the two lads.” said the fiend.

“It’s.. it’s hard going on a horse” Martin’s Dad eventually choked out.

“Don’t you worry about that my… ah ha… good man, my steed can tread a bog without wetting his hooves”.

And so with little choice Martin’s dad led the man to those two old, old grave markers.

It was then that the dogs fled. The rider paid no attention to them. Martin’s Dad envied them but was under no illusion that he was free to follow.

For he watched on, as the rocks and the ground beneath the cairns moved, seemingly at the man’s command. Impossible and awful it was but not as impossible or awful as the arm that reached out from the fiery chasm that was revealed under them.

A great taloned hand extended outwards holding within it… something…

“Take it, take what he offers you” came the rasping guttural voice of the fiend. Shrieks and howls emerged from the pit.

But at that point Martin’s Dad had resisted.

“Take it, take it or I shall miss my time!”

And despite his fear he resisted still. The horseman moved angrily toward him, it seemed he was to force him. But at the last minute he was saved by sheer blind luck. There came the sound of another, lost that night, footsteps stumbling in the dark.

“You can go now fool. For Here comes one more worthy than thee”.

And at that the horseman gave Martin’s Dad a kick, a kick that flung him far into the air.

“And I am sure that I would not be sitting before you now had I not remembered an old witch charm I was taught as a child” his Dad had said, for he mumbled it as he fell through the air and as a result landed far more softly than would otherwise have been the case.

Martin drew his story to a conclusion, but adding the one fateful detail: “A few days after this awful affair we heard tell of a Gentleman from Rivington who had been crossing the hills one night and had disappeared.

It was of course imagined he had got trapped in a bog, though no body was ever found. But my father thought, my father knew differently. He always said the man had got caught up in that whole business he himself had escaped but by a whisker.”

The implications were clear to all. The rider they had just seen that evening was that missing Gentleman, Norton’s Uncle, returned 12 years later.

it was ridiculous of course. Totally ridiculous. They’d go back to the Hall and Norton would have made his own way there and they’d laugh it all of. Of course.

The rain had stopped. There was light enough by the very full moon to allow them to go back to the hall. Where of course there was no Norton to be found.

It had been a stupid story of course. An ignorant, peasant story. And they weren’t scared of it. And this wasn’t an act. They weren’t. Mortimer and Pilkington had that sense of entitled invulnerability that came with a public school education of the time.

But did they totally disbelieve it? Well that was a different story. And so they decided to head out again, into that forbidding night. To go to the two lads cairns. Just in case.

Up they rode on horseback, as far as they could. But they couldn’t go the whole way like that, so were forced to dismount. Headed up further on foot.

As they did a mist descended around them. But they pressed forward still. Things stepped up a notch as they got closer to the cairns. They felt a beating of the air around them, like great leathery wings. and the two men grasped each other.

Their courage finally deserted them as there came a tremendous shriek, so close by it was almost upon them. The men sunk to their knees, overwhelmed by terror and from the lips of Pilkington came a cry “Save us Merciful Father”.

And at this the frightful hubbub died away, the mists parted, the clouds rolled back and the moon illuminated the cairns. There was nothing supernatural about them.

But there did come a weak moan.  The men jumped at the sound, but as it came again they realised the source was mundane, though horrifying. For there lay the prone form of Norton and as they dashed to him his moaning ceased.

The man was positively corpse like, hands clenched together, his whole body looking strained as if from some awful event.

Pilkington lent in.. Norton’s breath was faint.. but it was there.

Several days passed, during which time Norton occasionally ate, mostly slept and sometimes woke to rant and rave and scream, and then fell silent staring into the middle distance, insensible of any attempt to rouse him.

But after some weeks a little life began to return to the stricken man. And when he was finally well enough to hold a conversation…  well would you know it… he had a story to tell.. because this tale is all about stories within stories with very little action happening in the main narrative.

As they had suspected Norton had took the horseman for his Uncle, who had indeed gone missing twelve years before. Caught up in his strange romantic mood and delighted to see his uncle again he had gone with him willingly to the cairns. Even waiting at the stones when his Uncle had taken off again.

Norton continued:

” “Wait here till midnight nephew”, he asked of me. And I remembered all the good things he had done for me in my boyhood and so I did just that.

I went to embrace him before he left but that great beast of a horse was snorting and he turned to it. It looked for all the world as though it was the one ordering him to depart. The horse and not the man was the master.

But oh how I wish I had waited! For when he returned I realised immediately the wrongness of it all. But it was too late, for as he approached his hat tipped back and, lit by the moon I fully saw his face for the very first time: a visage that was hideously distorted, demonical in its expression. I tried to back away but in an instant he was upon me, hand upon my shoulder. “You are mine” he triumphantly declared, “now you shall know my secret” He leaned nearer, his hot breath above my face. His eyes were firey pits and the smell as he leaned in was abominable, leaned in so that those detestable lips, lips that barely covered fanged teeth, those lips met mine!

I could not pull myself away but though I was almost suffocating I found I had just enough energy to give one cry, and I cried out for heaven to save me.

And after that I have no memories.. until what I understand to be many days later when I became aware of my presence here.”

Never again could any of the three go near the two lad’s cairns. No more sightings of the Spectral horseman were ever recorded. None of the three who had been out that day were to spend much more time on the moors. Mortimer returned home and was not seen in that county ever again, while Norton and Pilkington, tied to the land by their property, would take extraordinary lengths to avoid the moor routes, and when twilight fell there was no power on earth that would compel them up there.

The cairns of the two lads still remain today, as does the hunting lodge at Rivington Pike. Both offer wonderful views of the landscape and are well worth a visit. But before dark, especially on St Bartholmew’s night.

The End

Images not appearing in this story

It doesn’t seem that there exists any public domain illustrations of this tale. Every picture of a spectral horseman I can find in the public domain is not of this story at all. It usually of Death in his role as fourth horseman of the apocalypse.

But there’s a load of pictures below for your edification anyway. But just for completeness: The horse in the story is black. The spectre is not a skeleton despite the inclusion of some skeletonesque features. Because it very definitely has those lips.

But I wanted some pictures of spectral horseman (Bring me those pictures Peter!) and so this is the best of what I can find.

If you want to illustrate this story with some weird potentially homoerotic, potentially just horrific, spectral horseman of your own my office door is open.

John Roby

John Roby – Traditions of Lancashire – A Regional antiquarian of the highest order

The two lads…

Two Lads Cairns

About Rivington, the two lads is a good website featuring pictures of the cairns, and there’s lots more besides. The website author also took the drone video below showcasing the two in some rather impressive lighting.

There’s also another good website featuring the two lads and packed with lots of other interesting information on a huge variety of topics: The Northern Antiquarian on the two lads.

Neither of these sources mention John Roby’s theory that these were altars to Ba’al, for some reason. Which is a shame as I’d love to see this in Lancashire

Alter to Ba'al
Eye up cocker, just doing some fire worship are ya?

Rivington Pike as a whole is a popular place for drone shots and you can have a good look at the tower the men sheltered in, alongside some extremely dramatic music:

And Winter Hill

The TV transmitter, one of the tallest structures in the UK

Only a very brief mention at the end of the episode but there’s lots to explore on Winter Hill with its murders, aeroplane crashes and UFO sightings.

All topped off with the Lancashire-renowned TV mast that can be seen for many miles around.

It’s even got its own paranormal investigator with a facebook page right here, for all that spooky stuff: Paranormal Winter Hill

Visit that website for photoshops of moth man on Winter Hill. What more could you possibly want?

A shout out to Jamie Mann

Just after I started the podcast I was given a physical copy of John Roby’s “Lancashire Legends” by a friend of mine who thought I’d have more use of it than him. It was a cracking read and really helped inspire me to keep going with the podcast, even if it did take two years until I actually recorded a story from it.

Anyway, while this isn’t really related to folklore he’s got an Instagram which features amazing street art from the UK, Europe and beyond (though quite a lot from my beloved home of Sheffield). So now I have an excuse to put a picture from it here. Also this particular piece of art is a skeleton, which is sort of related to the story, if you squint.

Give him a follow @Jamieman on instagram, if you like that kind of thing:

Selected Sources

Musical credits for Episode 20: the Spectre Horseman

Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music

Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:

Damiano Baldoni
A Ghrà
Momento di solitudine

Lionel Schmitt
Winter Land
The strangers

Kevin Hartnell
Liidinous Orison

Ben von Wildenhaus
Week Twenty nine

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