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The legend of the Crier of Claife arose during Victorian times, when people living around Windermere, England's biggest lake, whispered tales of ghostly wailing bringing terror and doom to the mere and its inhabitants, huddled around the (relative) safety of their hearths by night. No one knew what exactly the Crier had once been, only that the horror of a nocturnal rendezvous had cost a doughty ferryman his sanity and, days later, his life some centuries before.
The story also has monks from the long-dissolved Furness Abbey - which, as the story developed, became the Crier's original dwelling house - bringing to bear their wealth of arcane knowledge to lay the spectre, confining it to an old quarry on Claife Heights, a remote, heavily-wooded section of high ground on the Lancashire side of the lake, until it was possible for men to cross the wide mere on foot. This seemed to be effective...
... or was it? Several times since this remote era, the lake has frozen over, enabling the locals to make the crossing in just such a manner. Ramblers traversing the heights have reportedly seen strange shadows in the forests, and some have alleged that they have been followed by an unseen presence.
Thus, though its voice may have been silenced for a time, the Crier may still lurk among the rocky slopes of Claife Heights.
The year is AD 1520. According to our earliest sources, it is around this time that the Crier of Claife claims his first known victim, a ferryman who set out from the inn on the site of the Ferry House on the Westmorland side of Windermere in response to an incessant calling from the Ferry Nab on the Lancashire side. The night was wild and stormy, around Martinmas, with the chthonian pitch black outside (a gloom which made the fireside so much more inviting to the many travellers resting in the tavern) only lit by occasional crackling flashes of lightning, which "made the hills look like giant phantoms," these hills having been lent a ghastly pallor by the hail which pelted down intermittently. In spite of divers counsel, imploring him to remain at his station, the intrepid boatman, sensing that there was someone in desperate need of that roaring fire, he took up his oars and made his way with surpassing difficulty across the swells of Windermere.
Time elapsed. The ferryman returned alone, stuck dumb with terror and unable to divulge the particulars of what he had seen on the sullen west bank of the lake. Still keeping the nature of his experience to himself, the brave fellow expired some days later.
Subsequently, monks from Furness Abbey, who were supposedly stationed on Lady Holme, were summoned in order to exorcise this strange entity, which persisted in wailing over to Westmorland across the expanse of the lake. After a lengthy ceremony, to which the locals were invited to bear witness, they apparently succeeded in doing within the old quarry, which was ever after to bear the name of the "Crier of Claife."
Lady Holme, one of the many islands in Windermere, was indeed the home of monks during the prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, although here, we encounter a problem with the "received" version of the legend: rather than hailing from Furness Abbey, the monks dwelling on the isle were affiliated instead with Segden Hermitage, an Augustinian foundation at Berwick-upon-Tweed, which closed as early as 1350. Monks on Lady Holme are attested in 1272.
Later accounts of the Crier furnish the phantom with suitably-tragic origins. It is said that, during medieval times, a certain monk from Furness Abbey dedicated his life to saving the souls of fallen women. However, this was to prove his undoing: he inevitably developed tender feelings for one of his charges. This resulted in one of two scenarios playing out: -
Suffice to say that, riven by heartbreak or internal strife, the hero does not get the girl. Driven mad by his predicament, he seeks solitude on the lonely, wooded hills above Windermere, where he eventually dies, either of starvation, exposure, or by his own hand. Unable to find refuge in the paradise he so craves (be that in the company of Almighty God or in the arms of his belle), his spirit persists, doomed evermore to fester in his living thoughts. This spirit eventually fades to the point where only his voice - his wailing, keening voice - remains. It is this voice which, many years later, would lure the poor boatman to his preternatural doom. The emotions which had overcome the monk were so strong that his successors at Furness were unable to exorcise the spirit, leading them instead to come up with the ingenious solution of confining him to the ancient quarry.
One potential base of operations for such a figure has been located at Hawkshead Hall, which was the original manor house for the monks of Furness Abbey. Nearby stands the small lake or tarn of Priest Pot, above Esthwaite Water, wherein, according to Jonathan Otley, "there is a Floating Island 24 yards in length, and 5 or 6 in breadth." The pool once supplied fish for the monks' Hawkshead grange. Further details suggest that this eyot was known as the "car."
At sunset on the 19th October 1635, a wedding party returning from Hawkshead Church were among 47 passengers on the Great Boat ferry when tragedy struck: the ferry went down, with all but one of the crew and passengers being lost to the depths. The identity of the newlyweds is as yet undecided (perhaps they were Thomas Benson and Elizabeth Sawrey, married at Hawkshead on the 15th October, or William Sawrey and Thomasin Strickland, who were married there on the 18th October and appear to have survived - perhaps even both, given the occurrence of the name Sawrey twice; other candidates are Rolland Strickland and Gervis Strickland's wife, of Staveley), though what is known is that the tragedy struck a chord with a local poet - perhaps even the eminent Richard Brathwait - and led to the composition of The Fatall Nuptiall: or, Mournefull Marriage. W.G. Collingwood, a local historian, suggests that the "three little ones" mentioned in the poem as having been fostered by a "worthy couple" who met their end in the disaster were Brathwait's younger children Alice, Agnes and John.
While the mythology in no wise connects the story of the Crier with these terrible events, there are certain coincidences to note, in particular the portents being associated with a Windermere ferry. It is thus more than likely that the story of the 1635 ferry disaster fed into the development of the legend of the Crier of Claife.
Eric Worsley of Jonathan Craig Guides, truly one of YouTube's hidden gems for lovers of the English Lake District, features the legend of the Crier of Claife in a guide to Claife Heights. In it, Worsley, adding more details to the story, relates local suspicion that the Crier was behind the tragic ferry accident of 1635 - some of the victims of which may have been descended from the Crier's supposed object of unrequited obsession. Worsley also provides a novel and highly-plausible explanation for the development of the folklore surrounding the Crier, noting that this part of the country was used by moonshiners brewing illicit alcohol, who would understandably be keen to keep unwitting adventurers away from their paraphernalia, and would only be too happy to perpetuate legends of ghostly or demonic entities lurking about Claife Heights.