Friday, 23 September 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Tales from the Playground Part IV - The Grey Lady

Over the last few entries in Folklore on Friday, we've been exploring tales I heard in a childhood spent in the little village of Aycliffe, in County Durham in the 1970s. We've identified some tales as urban legends, and traced others to actual reports of hauntings in the village. However if you mention the subject of ghosts and hauntings to anyone who has ever lived in Aycliffe Village, there is one name that will be mentioned more than any others - the Grey Lady. 

But despite being easily the most talked about phantom in the village, there seems to be very little written about the Grey Lady in gazetteers of ghosts or collections of local folklore. Indeed the only definite reference to her I have ever found was printed just a few years ago. In an interview with Mr Richard Matthews, a leading vet based in Barnard Castle, published in Newshopper (Wednesday 27th August 2014),  he recalled a call out to Aycliffe - 
I was once called out to lamb a ewe at night on a smallholding near the old church in Aycliffe village and told by the farmer that the place was haunted and he had recently seen the ghost of a grey lady. He then hid behind a tree and jumped out at me!
That said however, some collections of ghostly reports from the North East, do reference several sightings which are usually conflated with the hitch-hiking lady in white we discussed last time (see here). The first is taken from Ghosts of Today by Andrew Green (Kaye and Ward 1980) - 
Having escorted a lady friend home he was walking through Aycliffe Village when he saw 'a white shape about five yards away, walking in a field'. The figure clearly resembled a young woman in a wedding dress and a veil.
And over the years there have been other reports of a female apparition in vintage dress too. For example, a father out walking with his brother and son spotted a female phantom wearing Victorian dress. The figure did not appear to have any feet, and was in fact floating just off the ground. The spectre turned to look at her three observers and then sped away, reportedly 'faster than a greyhound'. 

Now to my mind, this female figure in period costume is undoubtedly the Grey Lady. For although the tale of the lady in white that haunts the road out of the village has been doing the rounds for more than a century, stories of encounters with this hitch-hiking spirit always describe her as appearing in contemporary dress. Plus she only ever appears on the roadside. Whereas the Grey Lady is always described as wearing "olden times" clothes and appears in several places around the village.

Most commonly the Grey Lady is seen in the vicinity of St Andrews Church. For accordingly to stories I heard, she is the shade of a noble lady who died while praying in the church - in one version she tripped on the altar steps and bled to death, while another story claimed she had been killed by round-heads while at prayer. However given that our year was studying the English Civil War when I heard this second variant, I rather suspect that what was going on in the classroom had shaped the spooky tales being told in the schoolyard. Once again, if you dear reader have heard a different origin tale for the Grey Lady I would love to hear it. 

However certainly the Grey Lady has close links to the old church. Generations of kids in Aycliffe Village have heard of the local rite associated with her, a classic example of what folklorists call legend tripping. It is said that if you go to St Andrews Church after dark, and walk (or run) around it seven times, and then stick a pin into the church doors, the Grey Lady will appear. Naturally I have heard of many who claimed they would attempt this, but no reports of anyone who actually did the deed in the end. Typically the whims of weather and parents, and in general the sort of catastrophes that prevent children from doing their homework, somehow always got in the way and the bold soul had to shelve their ghost raising plans.

But the Grey Lady does not appear to be bound to one particular location. And unlike the roadside lady in white or the red-eyed spectre that allegedly can be seen outside one of the village pubs (see here), the Grey Lady does not seem to trapped re-enacting the circumstances of her death. Rather she appears to be a phantom with a certain degree of freedom to appear where ever she chooses. However
it was also said that she appeared most often in the last quarter of the year, and in particular in the run-up to Christmas. And when I canvassed some locals about the village's famous spectre, one chap
recalled - 
I know a guy who saw her twice. He saw her near South Grove, off the village green when he was a kid. I was told that she appears around this time of year checking that people spend their money to help the needy rather than wasting it.
I don't recall ever hearing any specific tales she had appeared to chastise a wrong-doer, but she was always talked about in terrifying terms. I'm quite sure that more than a few children over the years have been persuaded into behaving as otherwise the Grey Lady would come and get them. However she was never portrayed as an evil presence, but from the way the the Grey Lady was talked about, there was a sense she was always watching over the village. And although I cannot remember any tales that envisioned her as some kind of supernatural guardian, she has been a part of the village for many many years, and so perhaps we can say that the Grey Lady is simply the spirit of Aycliffe in more ways than one... 

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