The triangle of upland between the mill-towns of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley has no particular name of its own and is often overlooked in topographies of the area; yet this tract of the Pennines possesses a distinct identity, a palpable sense of place that over the centuries has bred a glut of remarkable lore and legend. The region is not excessively remote: it is criss-crossed by arterial roads and farmers have reclaimed much of the desolate moorland for pasture. These hills are also home to small towns such as Denholme and Queensbury—two of the highest municipalities in England—whilst the sprawl of the West Yorkshire conurbation is often visible in the valleys below.
The district borders Brontë Country and there is certainly no doubt that the literary sisters were familiar with this territory: they were born in the village of Thornton on its eastern edge and lived there for the earliest years of their childhood before moving to Haworth—itself barely a few miles away. Nonetheless, it feels discrete from the more characteristically “wuthering” landscape of the Worth Valley—which must be considered the Brontë heartland—and for the sake of convenience, I have come to refer to this area as the West Bradford Moors, although it is a shame that a more poetic and evocative name cannot be found.
One of the many hidden treasures of the West Bradford Moors is the wooded dell carved out by the Harden Beck as it flows from the watershed on Thornton Moor towards Bingley where it joins the River Aire. In the upper reaches of this valley, the stream tumbles down a series of charming cascades on its course through Goitstock Wood creating a veritable fairy glen. We know that Charlotte Brontë herself once strolled through this valley in the company of an old Chartist from whom she hoped to extract raw material for the literary endeavour that was ultimately published as “Shirley” in 1849 (although by all accounts he advised her against reopening old wounds).
The Harden Valley is so picturesque that it is difficult to conceive it might once have been a source of dread; yet so it was. Discussing the area at the end of the 19th Century, that indefatigable Yorkshire antiquary, Harry Speight, refers to a “sorceress or witch, who is believed to haunt the lane which descends to Hallas Bridge on the Cullingworth side of the beck. She is traditionally said to be coming down the hill at the cautious pace of seven straw breadths in the year, and when at last she reaches the bridge, woe betide any person or house that may then be upon the hill, for by one magic wave of her hand the hill will vanish, and of course everything upon it”.
The legend is corroborated in 1923 by Elizabeth Southwart, in her excellent book, “Brontë Moors from Haworth to Thornton”. As if to demonstrate the unique quality of the West Bradford Moors, she also notes the persistence of supernatural traditions in the area: “The ghost tale left Thornton, Wilsden and Cullingworth very reluctantly, whilst at Oxenhope and Haworth the only trace is to be found in books; the oldest inhabitants not only deny that they ever believed in ghosts, but that their forefathers ever did. On the other hand, the Thornton, Cullingworth and Wilsden folk, though obviously incredulous, half wish that the tales were true: in fact there are people still left who believe they are”.
The most curious facet of the tale of the Hallas Bridge witch is that whilst the legend is apparently unique in Yorkshire, the motif is more familiar in the extreme south-west of the country—albeit attached to ghosts rather than witches. Such apparitions are known as “cockstride ghosts”: spirits that have been only partially laid at some remote location and now advance homewards at no more than a “cockstride” every year (“cockstride” being an archaic term synonymous with any tiny increment). Examples of cockstride ghosts are familiar in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall but there are no obvious northern analogues and it is unclear how an isolated example the motif has migrated so far.
Similarly opaque are the means by which the “cockstride” motif has become syncretised with the figure of a witch and how the tradition became quite so apocalyptic. The threat that if the witch ever reached Hallas Bridge she would make the whole hillside disappear—Cullingworth included—is considerably more dire than the consequences should a cockstride ghost make it back to the house it used to haunt. However, as the surrounding hills are replete with toponyms such as Egypt, World’s End and the Walls of Jericho, we can surmise that the folk of the West Bradford Moors took their apocalypses very seriously indeed.
Perhaps they needed to in such a stark and windswept landscape; it is often remarked that pitiless places breed pitiless eschatology. Like most of the South Pennines, austere Non-Conformist denominations such as Primitive Methodism flourished on these moors—as did abstinence societies such as Independent Order of Rechabites. Meanwhile, in the late-18th and early-19th Century the area was a fertile breeding for millenarian sects who envisaged that the spiritual transformation of society foretold in the Book of Revelation was close at hand. Followers of self-proclaimed prophets such as Joanna Southcott, George Turner and John Wroe were drawn extensively from these townships.
There is also something about the West Bradford Moors that seems fundamentally liminal; i.e. pertaining to boundaries, borders and thresholds. As mentioned earlier, settlements such as Queensbury and Denholme are amongst the highest towns in Britain and hilltops have long been perceived as a threshold between the earth and the heavens. Liminality is expressed too in the area’s relationship with the surrounding centres of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. It partakes in the character of all three, but is not wholly identifiable with any one and functions as an effective frontier between them.
Liminal locations are boundaries spiritually as much as geographically; places at which the veil between this world and the other is worn thin. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that the West Bradford Moors were once home to so many uncanny entities: phantom black hounds stalked every lane and rumours of a shadowy horned figure once gripped the neighbourhood. There was also a rich tradition cunning-folk, who were rarely wholly benign: one raised the Devil to recover a client’s lost property; others set out on a disastrous quest to recover a hoard of demon-guarded treasure—after getting lost in the fog, they were reported to ecclesiastic authorities and excommunicated.
The Witch of Hallas Bridge is just one panel in the region’s rich tapestry of curious lore, and the apocalyptic tone of the legend is easy to understand in the context of this environment. Survival here was tenuous; the end always near. Disaster and hardship hove over the horizon like the witch slowly advancing towards that ill-fated crossing whereupon she would whisk the hill away. In such elemental landscapes it is easy to conceive of these malign entities and we must face the prospect that our anthropological interpretations are merely rationalist fancies to sooth our eschatological angst. If I lived in Cullingworth, I’d certainly be worried: after all, the witch must have almost reached that bridge by now.