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Episode 6: A curious collection of Churches

6: A curious collection of churches
byTales of Britain and Ireland.

Three (well sort of four) stories vaguely linked by the theme of Churches: featuring Devilish plots both thwarted and not, great marketing and a young whippersnapper of a Reverend. Musical credits, sources and more at #myth #mythology #folklore #legends

Here is the church and here is the steeple…

The podcast’s very first medley episode, where I try to fit lots of stories in while still talking in a moderately paced voice.

Three (well sort of four) folktales vaguely linked by the theme of Churches: featuring Devilish plots both thwarted and not, great marketing and a cocky young whippersnapper of a Reverend.

There are, very roughly, a million church stories I could have told. If you’re in the British Isles I guarantee there’s a church near you and there’s at least something very interesting happening there. Even if they aren’t brewing parish ale any more.

So why don’t you go check one out? No requirement to be a Christian! Their fascinating places whatever your faith, or lack thereof.

Use The Church Conservation Trust – to find your local one.

Find more on the Church conservation trust below the story.

Stories in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)

The stories 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…

Way back in the 11th century (the 1000s) the people of a small Lancashire parish thought it high time they got one of those fancy new stone churches all the bigwigs were getting. Thus better to show their allegiance to god.

Money was raised and work was eventually begun at the small settlement at Whittle-le-Woods. An architect and team of labourers broke ground and construction began.

With the labours of the first day over they retired for the night.

The next morning Father Ambrose, the Priest overseeing the operation, got to the site early. Looked around. Did a double take.

This was the site. Yes, of course it was! But all the materials gathered were gone! Damn thieves must have made off with them. 

But, no, it was much stranger than that. When a workman arrived he exclaimed:  “look here, the grass has not been touched, there’s cowslips and buttercups growing that I dug up myself yesterday!”

As they stood around pondering the mystery a runner arrived for Father Ambrose. He’d come from Leyland, some four miles away, and had some shocking news about a field there: “The foundations of a church have appeared overnight, along with all manner of building materials!”

They went back with the man to Leyland and it was just as he said. Ambrose was beginning to suspect a diabolical hand in this. “Take it all back to Whittle-Le-Woods” he ordered, at a loss for other options.

That night two stout and brave fellows were selected to guard the site. They took their duties very seriously indeed. Until their fire got warm that was. And their consumption of ale got heavy. As did their eyelids.

They awoke the next morning to an empty field. They claimed to Father Ambrose that they’d “probably been put to sleep by the phantom church stealer.”

That day was really a repetition of the last, minus the surprise. Fetch the church bits back from Leyland, begin again. Though I’m sure everyone was getting quite annoyed at this now.

That night the two failed watchmen wanted another chance. Swore off the drink. Had an afternoon nap to ready themselves. Father Ambrose joined them for as long as he could. But as an old man at about midnight he had to excuse himself.

And he left the two sober watchmen there, alone.

It was about half an hour after his departure. The night had dropped terribly chilly for spring when one watchman jumped in alarm. “There!” he whispered in horrified hushed tones.

By the pile of stones was a cat. But one larger than the men had ever seen. Completely black and with great unnatural looking eyes that seemed to burn as though alight. And its tail, swinging from side to side had a huge evil-looking barb on the end of it.

With ease it took up one of the blocks in its mouth, turned and then disappeared. A moment later it was back, and took another stone.

While both were sore afraid one watchman was bolder than the other. He took up his cudgel and crept towards the fearsome feline. When he was close enough he dashed and brought his weapon down on its head. A howling filled the night. Not of pain though, of anger.

There was a short series of movements, a sickening snap and a crunch as the watchmen was first grabbed in the beast’s jaws then thrown to the floor. He lay there, unmoving.

His companion fled, summoned a mob, who returned at great haste. But when they arrived there was no sign of the cat, of the church construction, of anything but the poor watchman’s body.

And after that they continued construction of the church at the site the beast had selected in Leyland. Where the works went undisturbed by demonic cats.

And the church stands there still to this day.

The End

Today there is no church at the village of Derwent. There is no village of Derwent, for the village was sunk under a new reservoir in the 1940s.

For a time after the drowning the church spire could still be seen above the level of the water, but that is gone now as well.

But that’s not the strangest story told of the church.

Many, many years before the sinking a new Reverend, Rev. Goodwin, had come to the village. The old Reverend had recently passed away after many years in the place. Goodwin was fresh out of theological college, full of energy and ready to make a difference to the lives of his new flock. Bring some new blood in.

Things went well for him in his new parish. Despite his difference in style to the man he had replaced people got on with the young man. He was a thoughtful, hard working and diligent local priest.

But in the run up to New Year’s Eve an unwelcome complication arose. Goodwin received an unusual request from one of the Churchwardens:

“Would the good Reverend make sure to preach the service for the dead on the night of the last Sunday of the year?”

Rev. Goodwin was a good CoE boy and while Catholics might permit such superstitious nonsense he certainly would not, and he told the Churchwarden so in no uncertain terms.

Word got around and the attitude of his parishioners towards him became decidedly frosty.

The next weekend the church wardens collectively collared him. Perhaps he’d misunderstood. It wasn’t for the already dead, they explained. They just needed him to preach to the souls of those who would die in the next year. Who would creep into the gallery that Sunday. At midnight. Usual stuff.

“The gallery?” said Goodwin, No one’s getting up there! It’s crumbling away and needs fixed! This is absolute tommy rot bordering on the heretical!”

But as the day grew ever closer Goodwin had a change of heart – they all seemed so set on it he reckoned he’d use it as a teaching opportunity about the dangers of superstition.

So on that Sunday night he made his way to the darkened church, at Midnight. Took a lantern in, and strode to the lectern. As expected he raised his eyes to an empty church. The pews were uninhabited, the place silent.

And then a flicker caused him to raise his eyes slightly. To the gallery, off-limits, dangerous.

Goodwin gasped and started. There were human figures in the gallery.

They regarded him silently, he could make out faces despite the darkness: they were people he knew from the village!

Now he was just angry,  this was some kind of silly windup! He raised his voice to deliver a rebuke but his words died in his throat when his eyes alighted upon one particular figure with a very distinctive visage.

One that he saw every morning in his shaving mirror.

He showed remarkable strength of spirit and, as promised, he delivered a sermon. Not the one he was preparing before, but earnest words quietly spoken to the listeners.

It was the best sermon he ever gave.

But nevertheless by the day the last of that winter’s snow had melted from the Church roof the Reverend Goodwin lay at rest in the graveyard. 

The End

The fiends of Hell were hard workers, with not many rights. But they did at least have some serious job satisfaction.

Once in a while, every few millennia or so, Satan got generous and might grant his minions a single day’s holiday.

And this day four imps had gotten the day off, and they’d packed their holiday cases and headed for Earth. One of them went riding rainbows, another burrowed into the ground, while another grappled with lightning.

But the fourth imp was determined to cause mischief, and he rode the wind to Lincoln Cathedral, the tallest building in the world (really: it was tallest from its construction until 1549, and it only lost it because the spire collapsed rather than a larger building being constructed).

He planned to take the wind inside, to put out all the candles, to smash the windows and to lift the robes of the priest. But the wind was too pious for such a task. And it refused. “It’ll be fun!” pleaded the Imp. But the wind was having none of it.

So the imp flew on his own and caused mayhem – tipping over fonts, stripping tapestries from the walls, throwing all the pews into a state of great disarray. 

An impolite, impious and impertinent creature he was. The imp chortled and giggled and generally had a great time.

But a cathedral is a sacred place, and as the devil has those in his service so too does God. And from a illustration in a book of prayers there emerged an Angel. A beautiful creature with golden hair and amethyst eyes!

The angel looked around in a terrible shock. The imp resting on a wall looked down with a sneer, crossed one leg over the other as it rested, jeered and mocked the horrified servant of the Lord. 

But the angel had a fitting riposte for the Imp: “Oh awful creature”, said he, raising into the air, “Oh impudent creature, there you rest and there you shall remain!” and in an instant the Imp was turned to stone. And there indeed he does remain to this day, grin on his face, one leg crossed over another.

The wind still waits for him outside the Cathedral and can be heard blowing there even now.

The End

The Churches Conservation Trust

The Churches conservation trust is a truly excellent UK based Charity that, in their own words:

“is the national charity protecting churches at risk. We care for the churches vested in us by the Church Commissioners of the Church of England, repairing the damage from sometimes years of neglect, and work with local communities to bring them alive again.”

They do some truly excellent work in preserving the network of old. and often very cool churches, falling into disrepair. But more than that they host a genuinely great array of events that I think any listeners of this podcast might be interested in.

If you’re in the UK then you can book with them to stay in an old church overnight, or you can follow one of their many self guided walks or cycle routes or book yourself onto one of their excellent guided tours.

But even if you’re not in the UK then you’re still in luck as they run a wonderful free lunchtime lecture series which touches on many folkloric topics. There’s a huge back catalogue of them on Youtube here and this is one of my favourite, that I’m sure will be of interest to many of you, but really there is something for everyone there:

On location

There are books and books that could be written on today’s theme. So instead of trying to sum it all up again somehow, in my heathen godless way, here we simply have a few collected pictures touching on the episodes stories.

Selected Sources

Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music

Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:


This tuning is so dramatic
Wind on my legs

Hot October

Doctor Turtle
Ladies take me with you
The ants built a city on his chest

Lee Roservere
The Nightmare

Kai Engel

Railroad’s Whiskey Co

Damiano Baldoni
Momento di solitudine

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Welcome to Tales of Britain & Ireland: A podcast telling folktales, myths and legends from across Britain and Ireland. Hosted by Graeme Cooke.

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