Ghosts, witches and wild men in the Valley

Words by:
Rory Waterman
Featured in:
April 2024

Rory Waterman, who leads a new Lincolnshire Folk Tales project, takes you on a folkloric tour of an overlooked but fascinating part of the county, starting and ending at Metheringham railway station.

The journey is navigable by car or cycle
Short route: 32 miles
Long route: 50 miles

Turn right out of the station car park, and follow signs for Dunston. When you reach the beck, plonk yourself on the bench and consider the following tale, recorded by E G Kent in Lindum Lays and Legends (1861).

It tells of a small boy who is stolen by witches, ‘to be boiled in their cauldrons for the purpose of making charms of his bones’. He is rescued from the mouth of the witches’ den by Billy Shuffler, a gardener.

Shuffler is riding his horse, ‘old Simon’, and is chased by the witches to Dunston beck. The horse fails to clear it – he is ‘old’, after all – and though Shuffler shuffles to safety with the child, the horse is seized, ridden away, and boiled in the mouth of the den where the boy had been rescued.

A few ducks might pull handbrake turns for you as you set off again towards Nocton Hall – taking the bridle path by Dunston school, if you are cycling. When you reach the Hall gates, drive up the winding track. You won’t miss the Hall, an evocative ruin since it burned down in 2004: it is a tall 19th-century country house on the site of a 15th-century one, itself built in the once-extensive grounds of a dissolved priory. For much of the 20th century, there was an RAF hospital in the grounds, and its own ruins rot away behind the shell of the Hall.

Many people have claimed to see a ‘grey lady’ wandering around here, and the ghost of a young woman was often reported walking the Hall’s corridors in tears. She was particularly associated with one bedroom, in which people would apparently often wake at 4.30am to be confronted by her muttering about a ‘devilish man’.

Bardney and Stainfield
Now head towards Bardney. If you’re cycling, you can take the back route through Wasps Nest, beside the Roman Car Dyke, then turn left across the fen. I wouldn’t do that in a car, though, unless you want to make your teeth and suspension rattle; instead, drive through Potterhanworth, past the long-closed Plough Inn (you might see Robbie the Robot rusting away in a swirl of brambles out back), and across the causeway that rises above fenland. Then cross the River Witham, go through the village (which has a few shops and a heritage centre), and follow signs for Bardney Abbey: a church-shaped series of lumps in the meadow, often covered in wobbly sheep, with evocative bits of masonry occasionally poking through the turf.

You might have noticed the village sign, depicting an open door. In 697, this substantial abbey received the relics of King Oswald of Northumbria, killed in battle against King Penda of Mercia in 642. As Oswald had once ruled over Lindsey, and was regarded as foreign, the relics were initially left outside the gate, some foundational stones of which are now in the grip of an old hawthorn. According to Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastia Gentis Anglorum (c.731), a shaft of light then shot up to heaven from the wagon containing them.

The monks responded by accepting the relics, and dedicated a shrine to Oswald, the Abbot declaring that in future all travellers should be admitted, and locks removed from doors. This led to the saying ‘Are you from Bardney?’, uttered to chide those who leave doors open, and inadvertently kept the myth alive.

There is a nearby barrow mound, often called King’s Hill and traditionally believed (without evidence) to contain the body of a king – Ethelred of Mercia, according to a source cited by Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire (1908).

A pleasantly winding couple of miles will take you to Stainfield: a hall, a few houses, the brick-built St Andrew’s church, and a stream. A ‘wild man’ allegedly once lived in the nearby woods, from where he would make raids to kill locals and their livestock. There are effigies and relevant magazine clippings displayed in the church, which used to house the rags he had supposedly worn and the dagger, gloves and helmet of the man who killed him, but they went missing in 1995.

There are several variations of the wild man’s legend. In one, a band of local farmers, ‘the Hardy Gang’, hunt him down between Stainfield and Langworth, near what is now Hardy Gang Wood. In another, one Francis Tyrwhitt-Drake finds the wild man asleep and plunges a dagger into him, receiving substantial local lands in return. It is said he took the name Tyrwhitt, a local onomatopoeic term for a lapwing, to honour the bird that had indicated the wild man’s hiding place.

In yet another variant, the wild man is a local nobleman who returns from the Crusades to find his land and property has been stolen. He takes to the woods with his mind bent on vengeance, terrorises the neighbourhood, and is then killed by Tyrwhitt-Drake.

Woodhall Spa and Tattershall
Retrace your route to Bardney, then take the B1190 towards Woodhall Spa. You might want to stop at the picturesque ruins of Tupholme Abbey. From here, cyclists can follow signs for Southrey and then take the disused railway route beside the Witham, but drivers will need to stick to the main road.

In Woodhall Spa, you can have a pit stop at The Bakery and Delicatessen (it deserves that definite article), or the wood-panelled Petwood Hotel, which served as RAF officers’ quarters during the Second World War.

Now make a quick detour past the remains of Kirkstead Abbey, setting for a legend concerning a ‘wise man’ known as Fiddler Fynes, which is retold by Maureen James in Lincolnshire Folk Tales (2013). In this tale, a farmer is robbed, and approaches the wise man asking for help to solve the crime. Fynes tells the farmer to look into a mirror, and he will see the thief’s face. He does so, and recognises one of his labourers. Fynes then tells the farmer to crack the mirror, and the thief will develop a cut in the corresponding place on his face. The next day, he confronts the farmhand, who has a cut cheek, and forgives him.

James Obelkevitch, in Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825-75 (1976), notes that in the 19th century, a schoolmaster from Kirkstead called ‘Fiddler’ Fynes set himself up as a wise man. In the early 17th century, Sir Henry Fynes had converted the ruined Kirkstead Abbey into a country house.

It used to be received wisdom that a subterranean passage ran from here to Tattershall Castle. Martin Hughes, in ‘Strange Tales of Lincolnshire’ (Lincolnshire Life, 1968), notes that stories were once told of a man who went down at the Kirkstead end to see whether this was true, taking his dog for company and a bugle to blow if he encountered difficulty. After waiting a while, his friends heard the bugle, and then the dog rushed out of the tunnel and away, never to be seen again. The bugle was repeatedly blown, but grew fainter, and his friends didn’t dare to go down, so the man was never seen again either. The ‘tunnel’ is possibly a channel that diverted a stream, taking sewage from the abbey. This can be seen on historical plans, but after the Dissolution it was neglected and dried up.

If you’re taking the short route, cross the river at Kirkstead Bridge, continue through Martin, then pick this narrative up at RAF Metheringham. If, however, you are a completist, head past former RAF Woodhall Spa, towards Tattershall Castle and, beside it in a little patch of bucolic splendour, the grandiose Holy Trinity Collegiate Church.

This place is full of distractions, among which is a little flagstone engraved ‘T Thumb Aged 101 Died 1620’. Tom Thumb is the hero of a fairytale that begins with a woman’s wish to have a son, even if he is no bigger than her husband’s thumb, which is duly granted. The story follows his subsequent escapades, which vary depending on the wit and whims of the storyteller. His debut in print was The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for His Small Stature Surnamed, King Arthur’s Dwarfe (1621), by ‘R.I.’, possibly the pamphleteer Richard Johnson. According to some versions, he is said to have been buried near Lincoln.

Anwick and Dorrington
Take the A153 out of Tattershall, through Billinghay and North Kyme, until you reach Anwick. You’ll find two boulders outside St Edith’s churchyard.

One version of the tale associated with them tells that a plough horse vanished in quicksand, and a drake (in some versions a dragon) flew out in its place. The following day, a boulder shaped like a drake’s (or dragon’s) head appeared on the spot. In a competing narrative, recounted in Gentleman’s Magazine (1833) and quoted by Maureen James in Lincolnshire Folk Tales, the Devil lived under the stone in a treasure-filled cave. Locals tried to dig for it, but could never reach the bottom of the stone, and after a downpour it became an island in a pond. Nobody could move the rock, and on one occasion its guardian spirit flew away in the guise of a drake when someone tried to shift it with oxen. Eventually, however, it certainly was moved, by traction engine in the 1920s, and allegedly broke in two during the process.

In Tales of Old Lincolnshire (1990), Adrian Gray suggests ‘drake’ is a corruption of ‘dragon’. This is feasible, and it is correspondingly feasible that the drake-related aspects of the legend developed as a result. The dragon may itself be an analogue for a demon, which would bring all competing versions of the tale back together. It is not uncommon in folklore for demons to guard treasure-filled caves.

Return to the main road and proceed towards Ruskington (taking the quiet route via Fen Lane if cycling) then follow the B1188 through Dorrington and on to St James’s church, north of the village on a gentle hillock. In A Dictionary of English Folklore (2000), Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note ‘a type of legend found throughout England’ in which the location of an ‘inconveniently sited’ church is said to be the result of malevolent forces repeatedly moving the stones until the builders relent, and Dorrington is a juicy example. Earthworks suggest the village has simply migrated south, but two local legends converge on a different explanation.

One tells of Tochti, a Saxon thane, who used stones from a pagan site on the hillock to build his church in the village. They were moved back uphill by demons who emerged from a mature oak, so Tochti relented and built his church there instead. In another version, a village church was being built, but whenever the workmen were absent it was destroyed. One day, a large stone from the wreckage was moved to the present site, and once work began there it went uninterrupted. Susanna O’Neill, in Folklore of Lincolnshire (2013), records the belief that ‘On a clear, moonlit night you can peek through the keyhole to watch the Devil playing with glass marbles’. The Devil was once also said occasionally to be seen hopping round the church in the form of a white rabbit or hare.

Digby and RAF Metheringham
The folklorist Ethel Rudkin, in ‘Lincolnshire Folklore, Witches and Devils’ (Folklore, 1934), collected an especially large number of witch-related anecdotes from this area between Metheringham and Ruskington. Witches were often assumed to transform into hares, or other creatures. Mary Borrows, in ‘Witches of Lincolnshire’ (Lincolnshire Life, April 1986), mentions a Dorrington witch who disguised herself as a rat; one day she was kicked by a villager, and the next morning she was discovered (in human form) beaten and bruised. Daniel Codd, in Mysterious Lincolnshire (2007), documents a supposed witch from nearby Rowston who morphed into a hare, was then shot by a farmer, and subsequently died (again in human form) from a gunshot wound. Both of these anecdotes were collected originally by Rudkin, along with others from Digby and Scopwick, and many comparable stories exist elsewhere too. Some will provide supernatural explanations for natural phenomena, while others will either have been fabricated entirely, or used as excuses for abusing or murdering (then vilifying) women.

Continue on the B1188 for a mile, and turn into Digby (where you’ll find a part-Norman church and a lock-up), then turn left at the village cross and proceed through Rowston to Kirkby Green. You’ll have to go through a ford here, so if it’s been raining you might prefer to follow the B1188 to Scopwick, then turn right. Follow signs for Timberland, then at the T junction turn left towards Metheringham. You’ll soon see a sign for the excellent RAF Metheringham Visitor Centre. A little farther along, follow the signpost to Blankney Fen, and after a few yards you’ll find yourself on the remains of a runway. You can follow this to the end and loop right, along repurposed perimeter track, past the memorial to No.106 Squadron, then turn right again at the end, returning to where you started.

You have now toured the alleged stomping ground of the Metheringham Lass, a ‘phantom hitchhiker’ who apparently flags down unsuspecting motorists at night, saying her boyfriend has crashed his motorbike.

She then disappears, leaving the smells of rotting meat and, in some accounts, lavender. In some versions, she wears a green mac and grey headscarf, and the last people see of her before she vanishes is her skull facing them. Some connect this to Catherine Bystock, killed at the age of 19 in 1945, when her Flight Sergeant boyfriend lost control of his motorcycle. So take care as you navigate the two winding miles of road back to Metheringham.

Lincolnshire Folk Tales: Origins, Legacies, Connections, Futures is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and hosted by the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. For more information about upcoming events and to use the interactive folk tales map, visit the website:

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