There is a famous legend in the lore of Staffordshire known as the headless horseman of Butterton Moor.
It is the story of a devilish ghostly apparition that is said to roam the bleak moors and deserted country roads around midnight between the small villages of Grindon, Butterton and Onecote. It is thought that the horseman is an omen of evil to whomever he appears with many documented reports and sightings down the centuries.
I can remember first hearing the tale of the Headless horseman of Grindon Moor in primary school. It terrified and intrigued me and still to this day I will automatically think of the story any time I am passing over this incredible, wild part of the moorland which lies on the Staffordshire border in the Peak District National Park.
Some have speculated that it is the earthbound soul of some wrong doer from another era, others say that it is one of four evil spirits cast out of heaven and cursed to roam the earth till the end of time itself. I have heard it said that the horseman was a murderer beheaded for his crimes who searches continually for his executioner.
On cold, dark wintry nights, anyone in the vicinity who has ever heard of the legend cannot help but turn their thoughts to the horseman.
The story of the origin (or the origin of the story) goes…
A leek farmer had sold four cows at the May Fair, and had celebrated at length in the taverns that upheld Leek’s reputation for brewing strong ale.
Now he was relying on his horse to find the way home to Butterton. His confidence was well-placed and the patient beast carried its master, half-asleep, half-merry, in the saddle safely up Douse Lane and over the top of Morridge.
It had been a long day and dusk was clouding the landscape as they began the walk down to Onecote.
The farmer never knew what hit him. Four men had been following him from Bradnop, where they had lain in wait for a likely victim. They seized their chance where they would be out of sight and earshot.
One grabbed the bridle while the other three pulled the farmer from his horse. One of the three clubbed him over the head and as he lay still on the ground, another chopped at his head with a sword. Three or four strokes later the head rolled away from the body.
The robbers left it lying in the ditch while they divided up the market money that had not been spent in the Leek taverns.
By now it was quite dark, so they were in no hurry to dispose of the remains. Rigor mortis was beginning to set in and one of the robbers had a macabre idea.
Tales of the Horseman have long frequented the taverns of Leek, terrifying wary townsfolk
They put the body back into the saddle, secured one of the arms in the victim’s belt and stuck the severed head under the arm. They slapped the horse on the rump and it trotted off on its interrupted journey. It was nearly midnight when it arrived with its grisly passenger, and the farmer’s wife almost died of fright when she saw what had arrived.
The robbers were never caught, but exactly one year later, on the first day of May Fair on the 18th of the month, two men walking back to Warslow were startled out of their lives when the ghostly form of a headless rider charged at them out of the darkness and vanished.
Sleigh’s History of the Ancient Parish of Leek tells the story of one farmer who was actually given a lift by the rider. The farmer was so badly bruised and broken by this frantic journey that he was put to bed. Within a few days he had taken his last breath.
The legend of the headless horseman made its debut in the local paper, The Sentinel, over 140 years ago, during the Victorian era, in October 1880.
The article read: “The great terror of the neighbourhood was the supposed appearance of a headless rider that haunted the parts between Leek, Onecote, and Warslow.
Many a tale of this horseman and his exploits have been told in whispers round the fire in winter evenings, of the old stone built inn, the Dog and Partridge of our village (Onecote).
So terrified have the listeners become at these horrid ghostly narratives that travellers have been half frightened out of their wits even by the ancient squeaking sign that swings over the door of the hostelry.
These stories were put to a practical use by men who took to the road as highway robbers, and to whom a ghostly disguise just served their turn.
Of these mounted highwaymen, there were two or three who acted in concert, sharing the spoil, and a good business was done until the gang was broken up by one of their number, William Ferm, of Bottom House, about two miles from Onecote, being arrested, and afterwards hung at Stafford.”
According to the report of October 1880, the aid of the church was also called upon to lay this demon to rest.
“Some clergymen were called in to read the prayers that were provided to prevent this goblin from troubling the neighbourhood anymore. But the spirit confessed to these holy men when they forced it into speech that it was one of the four evil spirits, cast out of heaven and condemned to roam over the face of the earth till the crack of doom should release it from its terrestrial wanderings.”
As you pass through these narrow country roads on top of the blear moors you can almost sense the terror which people have felt throughout the centuries also passing through this place. The place is certainly atmospheric as you gaze out over the spectacular horizon of the Peak District.
Whether the horseman exists more in the imagination than in reality we will never know, but it is an extraordinary story to behold, particularly on a cold, dark wintry night as the clock begins to tick ominously toward the witching hour…