KAI ROBERTS looks at the many legends surrounding the Bolton Strid, a dangerous river in North Yorkshire
Although this brief stretch of the River Wharfe between Barden Tower and Bolton Abbey may look like any other river, it is actually one of the most fearsome stretches of water in the British Isles. Due to the surrounding geology, the river is rapidly funnelled through a bottleneck, narrowing from approximately forty-feet across to barely four.
In order to achieve this dramatic transformation, the water has eroded the rock downwards; exactly how deep is uncertain as the current is so powerful that it is impossible to fathom accurately. It is thought the water has also carved a labyrinth of subterranean channels beneath the surface of the surrounding rock.
Owing to its comparatively modest breadth, many have been tempted to jump across the Strid, and whilst some have succeeded, those who failed did not live to tell the tale. It is believed that not a single person to have fallen in the River Wharfe at this point has survived; in many cases, even the bodies cannot be recovered. The most recent fatalities occurred in 1998 when two honeymooners were swept into the river by a flash-flood.
According to one romantic legend, in 1154 young William de Romilly—colloquially known as the Boy of Egremont—attempted to leap across the Strid whilst he was hunting. His mother was so grieved by her loss that she donated the surrounding land to a community of Augustinian monks to pray for her son’s soul.
These cenobites subsequently founded Bolton Abbey and centuries later the tragic legend of the Boy of Egremont was immortalised by William Wordsworth in his poem “The Force of Prayer”.
Hazardous landscape features are often personified as terrifying beasts in local folklore and the Strid is a classic example. When a fatality occurs there, a spectral white horse is said to rise from the churning waters of the River Wharfe as the body is dragged down; much like the kelpie in Scottish folklore or the pooka in Ireland.
A variation of the tradition claims the steed is ridden by the Queen of the Faeries, and hoping to catch a glimpse of this remarkable apparition, three sisters from nearby Beamsley Hall gathered at the Strid on May Day morning. Not one returned to describe what they’d seen.
According to another legend, two young lovers once arranged to elope together, but the girl first had to cross the Wharfe to meet her swain. She was reluctant to use any of the bridges lest she be observed and chose the Strid as the most likely point at which to traverse the river. Inevitably, however, disaster ensued; the girl was dragged down by the roiling waters—shortly followed by her paramour as he attempted to save her from the opposite bank.
Visitors to the Strid have claimed the girl’s desperate cries can still be heard above the rushing waters, whilst the shades of the two lovers sometimes appear walking hand-in-hand beside the turbulent river.
William Wordsworth is not the only writer to have been inspired by such stories; the popular 19th Century American author Gertrude Atherton wrote a chilling ghost story called “The Striding Place” set at the Bolton Strid. The tale tells of a local gentleman whose childhood friend goes missing and the terrifying visage he finds floating upon that notorious stretch of river.
Although the story was rejected as “far too gruesome” by the editor of the periodical for which it was intended, Atherton believed it to be the finest things she’d ever written and it is now widely regarded as a classic example of fin-de-siècle horror.
KAI ROBERTS is a folklore and forteana junkie with a particular interest in the South Pennines and the old West Yorkshire Riding. He has written several books on regional folklore which can be purchased here. He maintains a personal blog at http://kairoberts.wordpress.com and records the folkloric traditions of the Lower Calder Valley at http://lowercalderlegends.wordpress.com