Thursday, 19 October 2017

Humphrey Head - Home of the Last Wolf?

Although I live in the English Lake District, sometimes we like to drive where it's quieter, heading out along the Furness Peninsular. The featured walk today begins at Allithwaite, a village between Grange over Sands and Flookburgh.

There is a bit of debate about the meaning of the name 'Allithwaite'. The first suggestion I found was that it derives from the Old English Holy Well (Hallig Wella) and the Old Norse word for clearing - 'thwaite'- thus the clearing by the holy well. I'm not convinced by this, even though the well of St Agnes is nearby, as I see no reason why the H would have been dropped from the Halig (holy). Also the 'well' part has been dropped, leaving a name that seems to mean clearing by the holy, which makes no sense. 

Another suggestion is that it means Halle's son's clearing. Clearing is certainly the meaning of the ON (Old Norse) 'thwaite', but again I wonder about the dropping of the initial H. I rather like the suggestion that the name means 'a clearing belonging to Eilfr', although I've also seen it spelled Lilifer, which is less convincing.

The well itself, dedicated to St Agnes, was a popular destination for people in the 18th and 19th centuries, hoping to find cures for all sorts of afflictions upon drinking the water.

The first historic building to be seen on this walk is the Kirkhead Tower. It's not actually that old, probably dating from  the early 19th century, and it's the centre of a legend which suggests it was built on the site of a much earlier church, hence the name, kirk being the ON word for church.

The next historic building on our walk is Wraysholme Tower - a Pele tower built by the Harrington Family, who seem to have owned Hornby Castle but might have originally hailed from the Gleaston/Aldingham area. The ruins of Gleaston Castle can still be seen, an edifice which is thought to have been built by John de Harrington in the 14th century. (A side note about Gleaston: there is a wonderful restored WATER MILL in the middle of beautiful countryside. Parking is limited, but every time I've visited it's been incredibly quiet, so this shouldn't be an issue.)

A Sir William Harrington was a standard bearer for Henry V at Agincourt, but there seems to be uncertainty as to the exact date of the construction of Wraysholme Tower. William's father, Sir Nicholas, was knighted in 1369, but the general consensus is that the tower dates back to around 1485. Part of a working farm, it is not open to the public. 

Pele (or Peel) towers sprang up during the 15th century, defensive buildings designed to protect smaller settlements i.e. those without a castle, from border raiders. 

Heading out towards Humphrey Head, a rocky outcrop looking out over Morecambe Bay, the land is fairly flat, and the Pele Tower is visible for some distance.

We walked on, and still I could see it -

and it occurred to me that, although it was never a castle, it would still have been difficult to attack it without being seen from afar.

Walking on for some time, with the rocky outcrop to our left, I began to despair of seeing any water. I was assured that we were very near the edge of Morecambe Bay, but it was difficult to believe.

Then, just after we'd passed the field shown above...we came to the water's edge. It is possible to climb the rocks, but perhaps inadvisable, as, according to an inscription, a ten-year-old boy named William Pedder died in the attempt in 1857.

Humphrey Head is reputed to be the place where, in 1390, the last wolf in England was slain. I tried to find the source of this story, but according to Joseph Strutt (1801)
"In the forty-third year of Edward III's rule, a Thomas Engaine held lands in Pytchley in the county of Northampton, on the condition that he find special hunting dogs to kill wolves in the counties of Northampton, Rutland, Oxford, Essex and Buckingham. In the eleventh year of Henry VI's reign (1433), a Sir Robert Plumpton held a bovate of land called “Wolf hunt land” in Nottingham, by service of winding a horn and chasing or frightening the wolves in Sherwood Forest." [The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England: From the Earliest Period, Including the Rural and Domestic Recreations, May Games, Mummeries, Pageants, Processions and Pompous Spectacles]
So it seems that the Humphrey Head wolf was not the last in England. So where did the story come from? I asked Elizabeth Ashworth, author of Tales of Old Lancashire if she knew where the story came from originally. She told me: "I think that the legend of the last wolf is one that has been told again and again over time and has changed with each new telling. There are various versions of what happened but I don't think it's possible to know how true it is or where it originated." Elizabeth has a detailed re-telling on her blog which you can read HERE

In 1806, an English school text book* recorded that the wolf has "a savage aspect, a frightful howl, an unsupportable odour, fierce habits, and a malignant disposition."

In medieval times it was said that wolves spat on their paws so that their prey would not hear them approaching. Wolves have long been the subject of folklore and the 'last wolf' seems to have been killed in quite a few places up and down the country: in Cheshire in the 15th century, or Great Salkeld in Cumbria, or even at Wolverstone in Devon or Wolfscrag in Sussex. Jack of Badsaddle (Northamptonshire) was known as the wolf-slayer.

As Elizabeth says, it is probably impossible to know where the Humphrey Head story originated, but we might have a clue with Joseph Strutt's book, and the point he makes that land was held in return for hunting wolves. Lands in Derbyshire were also recorded as being held under such terms. The family, from Wormhill, had a friend who remarked in the 19th century that "There is a tradition that the last wolf in England was killed at Wormhill."

Whether or not the legend of the Wolf of Humphrey Head is true, there is a wealth of history in the area and even without it, this is a tranquil walk, with stunning views of the bay, and the open countryside.

If you are in the area, there are plenty of other places along the peninsular to visit. Flookburgh itself is a quaint market town with many old buildings, Conishead Priory at Ulverston repays a visit,
and further along, almost in Barrow-in-Furness, is Furness Abbey. But for a little bit of history, a splash of legend, and an enchanting walk in the open countryside, simply take a walk around Humphrey Head.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

*The Lore of the Land - Westwood & Simpson


  1. As a child, I spent every half term in Alithwaite with my Gran, and we used to walk the dogs at Humphrey Head almost every day. Like most of the beaches in the north, it was much nicer before the dreaded spartina grass took over, but it’s still a lovely walk. Some of my favourite memories include hiking up the head itself at 4AM to watch a lunar eclipse, climbing up to read the inscription about the hound boy who fell, and doing a cross bay walk from Morcambe to Grange.

    Matt Long

    1. *young boy. Silly autocorrect. Haha

    2. What lovely memories to have! Thanks so much for sharing them. What I love about the area is that even on a really busy summer's day, when the Lake District itself is packed, the area of the Furness peninsular is still quiet and peaceful. I haven't seen this particular part of it without the spartina grass, but I can imagine how much it must have changed the look of the area.