How Now, Hedley Kow?

Tom Barker, resident of Stocksfield, keen walker and occasional writer, explores the local legend of the Hedley Kow. Photos by Rob Barker

Tucked up in bed on a recent, freezing winter night, I was looking forward to the following day, when I planned to walk from home in Stocksfield up to nearby Hedley on the Hill—a tiny village at the southern edge of Northumberland.

The forecast had said this was to be the best weather day for some time, so I needed to take the opportunity. Like many people, I’ve found a good long walk to be one of the best ways to help me through the last year.

Lying there, dozing off, I thought about what the going might be like underfoot, what food to bring with me, and what winter birds I might see in the lonely fields and frozen copses along the way. Climbing the north face of the Eiger this was not, and I had little reason to worry about anything, except perhaps my sarnies getting a little over-chilled in my rucksack. At least, that was until a troubling thought bubbled up in my mind: what about the Kow?

I’d first read about the Hedley Kow (often pronounced ‘Koo’) a few years back, in a book about local folklore. It is a ghost—or ‘boggle’ in local parlance—associated with Hedley and its environs, with accounts of sightings going back hundreds of years. Not, or at least not solely, a spirit in the guise of a cow, it is, rather, a shape-shifter, able to take on a variety of forms.

Setting off the following morning, my little jaunt seemed to have taken on a new edge. A keen birder, I now found myself scrutinising every blackbird and magpie with extra interest; could one of these be the Kow, tracking me along my way? Sitting down in a little plantation to eat those sandwiches and warm myself with some coffee, I was startled by a rustling sound, only to turn and see three curious dogs bounding through the undergrowth towards me, owners nearby. Mind you, nothing recorded in folklore suggests the Kow wouldn’t take on the guise of a cocker spaniel…

If stories are to be believed, the Kow is, first and foremost, a mischief-maker. The celebrated local historian Nancy Ridley recounts how it, ‘delighted in tormenting the servant girls by imitating the voices of their sweethearts, unravelling knitting, upsetting pots and pans’. In a similar vein, the Victorian scholar Joseph Jacobs tells the story of an old woman, who, walking home one summer evening, came across a pot of gold coins by the side of the road. Dragging the pot back home, the old lady stopped to rest and check on her treasure, only to find it had turned into a lump of silver. Two further checks along the way revealed two further transformations—first into a lump of iron, then to a great stone. When the lady finally arrived home, Jacob reports that the stone, ‘all of a sudden…seemed to give a jump and a squeal, and grew in a moment as big as a great horse…and went off kicking its feet into the air, and laughing like a naughty mocking boy.’

Such tales of playful antics gave me little reason to worry on my journey that day, but further reading in the days after revealed a more sinister side to the Kow. Vol XII of A History of Northumberland records a declaration made by a Thomas Stevenson of Framwellgate who, on the evening of 7 August 1729, returning home from Hedley, ‘saw an apparition that looked sometimes in the shape of a foal, sometimes of a man, which took the bridle from off his horse and beat him till he was sore, and misled him on foot three miles to Coalburne.’ Stevenson’s ordeal—and that of his guide, who was beaten in the same manner—allegedly lasted until daybreak.

Here, surely, was something to be really scared of and, perhaps, put a man off his wild ghost chase. I’m no Yvette Fielding, and I don’t care who knows. But now I was committed, and so set out again one Saturday afternoon (this time with a co-opted sibling in tow for extra security) from Hedley, eastwards along the Lead Road towards Coalburns—my best guess as to where the haunting of Thomas Stevenson had taken place. Whatever it may have been in the eighteenth century, the Lead Road is, today, rather fast and busy, lacking footpaths, and I advise against it as a walking route. Evidently, the Kow had reached the same conclusion and, I’m sorry to report, once again evaded us. Perhaps this was just as well though, given Stevenson’s brutal handling? The more I learned about the Kow, the more I began to feel that it wasn’t something to be trifled with, or willed into being.

At risk of getting carried away, it’s time I ended this piece, with an admission: I don’t really believe in ghosts. This would be an important coda at the best of times, but in this era of internet bunkum and misinformation, I think it’s incumbent on all of us not to fan the flames of superstition and irrational belief. But we like ghost stories because we like being scared—just a little bit, in the right way. I like the story of the Hedley Kow, particularly, because it seems to be something of a ‘free range’ ghost; not fixed to some haunted house or ancient hanging tree, it seems instead to roam the countryside almost at will, within some indeterminate, spectral radius.

We live in an age in which the secrets of nature are increasingly being revealed to us. Night-vision cameras unveil the natural source of the nocturnal hoots and howls that so unsettled our ancestors—noises which spawned a thousand tales of the super-natural. For the most part, such new insights are to be welcomed, helping us to understand and therefore appreciate the living world all the better. But there’s still something within us that yearns for that ancient sense of enchantment; the feeling that there’s something more to the landscape, something just beyond our understanding, just skirting our peripheral vision, just out of camera shot. And that, I think, is why I’ll always be watching for the Kow when I’m up there, walking on the hill.