Clough is a northern English word for a steep valley or ravine cut into a hillside by fast-flowing water. The slopes of the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield are perhaps the most obvious reference point for such nomenclature; there, cloughs provide ample opportunities for entertaining, if often very wet, scrambles up to the bleak moorland plateaus of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow. Yet wooded ravines also extend into the cities that surround the Peak District – and in Manchester, cloughs in the northern suburbs of Prestwich, Blackley and Moston represent perhaps the last vestiges of ‘natural’ land left over from centuries of urban development.
In the case of Boggart Hole Clough – an urban park bordering Blackley and Moston and roughly three miles north of Manchester city centre – that nature is very ancient indeed. Covering 171 acres, the dense woodland of birch, hazel, alder and oak that envelops several cloughs in this park has survived since at least 5000 BCE and was probably inhabited by our ancestors in the Bronze Age. Surviving the rapid growth of Manchester in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of its protection as a deer park, Boggart Hole Clough was purchased by Manchester Corporation in 1911 and now contains playgrounds, an athletics track, tennis courts and a boating lake. Yet it is still the thickly forested cloughs that characterise the park – the main thoroughfare winding its way around the edges of these dark and forbidding ravines. And it is these secretive spaces that have generated a plethora of folktales centred on the park, beautifully elaborated by folklore historians Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook.
Originating in the early 1800s in the story of the eponymous Boggart – a mischievous, goblin-like creature that was said to inhabit a farmhouse that used to be located in the park – the folktales associated with Boggart Hole Clough have subsequently mutated into a plethora of myths, many of which still survive, as revealed by Houlbrook’s recent interviews with local residents. With an astonishing total of 39 distinct traditions emerging, the Boggarts – who are said to steal children, and particularly babies, and emerge from the park’s drainage grilles at night – are now just one of several mythical entities residing in Boggart Hole Clough. Together with the Boggarts, the devil has his own seat beneath one of the park’s bridges; the ghost of a suicide victim – the white lady – haunts the park’s woods; fairy rings litter its open spaces; and a troll lurks beneath the foot-bridge leading to the ’99 steps’, the successful ascent of the latter granting you a wish.
What is extraordinary about these stories is not their content, which is somewhat cliched, but rather the fact that they have flourished in recent years, against the grain of everything we might expect of contemporary life. It seems that local residents – and particularly the young – have latched onto the park as a place of myth and magic. Houlbrook has argued that this is a consequence of both the rise in stories about mythical creatures in the popular media – the shape-shifting Boggarts in the Harry Potter novels and films being the most obvious – and also the gradual re-wilding of the park itself, which has been allowed to become overgrown again after a long period of manicured respectability. Together with a perceived increase in crime – murders, muggings or molestations – Boggart Hole Clough has seemingly reverted back to its primeval state, ripe for appropriation as a place of both mystery and fear.
When I visited the park on an overcast weekday afternoon, it was almost deserted – just a few solitary (male) strollers, one dog walker and a young family were making use of its spaces. Upon entering, I descended into the principal ravine (the Boggart Hole Clough itself) via the 99 steps. Surrounding on all sides by thick woodland, the park does indeed feel mysterious, the tree-lined wide concrete path that encircles the park skirts the edges of other cloughs that plunge steeply into even thicker foliage. An elderly man repeatedly ascending and descending the 99 steps (in preparation for a trip to the Great Wall of China) warned me to be careful of my camera, whilst also dismissing my Boggart enquiries. Yet, with the park’s stories still fresh in my mind, I silently made my wish on the steps, discovered the small rock known as the ‘giant’s tooth’ or ‘toe’ which marks the place where an ancient Boggart and brave human got into a fight, and peered under the bridge where the Boggart supposedly resides. Further into the woodland, in some trepidation, I came across the site of a recent camping expedition: a ramshackle bivouac and blackened stones the giveaway remains. Close by, a few beer cans had been skewered onto branches – votive offerings perhaps to ward off the evil Boggarts during what was presumably a somewhat fraught night out.
In one sense, it’s not the content of these stories that matters. As Houlbrook rightly points out, folklore survives so well because it is eminently malleable: stories are passed down from generation to generation in whatever form the tellers wants them to take; there’s no dogma to folktales; rather an ever-changing relationship between the imagination of the storyteller and the places to which those stories have become attached to. What the survival – indeed, proliferation – of folklore in places like Boggart Hole Clough shows us is that there is still a vital relationship in cities between its inhabitants and its places, even as the virtual world of images seems to increasingly dominate our lives. Indeed, it is arguably those imaginary images themselves, consumed in the comforting environs of home, that have led to a richer engagement with the very real places that lie outside and beyond.
As I left the park and retreated back to safety of the busy Rochdale Road, a slightly deranged youth passed me with this lurid warning, offering up yet another myth for me to take home: ‘There’s killer snakes in there. They’ll f***k you up! You understand?’