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Hikes, Hostels and the Old Hag…

Just want to get this straight here, I’m NOT the hag mentioned in the title (I’ve got a few more years before that happens yet!) ;0)

I want to present to you, a very strange incident that happened to me a couple of years ago.  I’m still not quite sure what to make of it myself.

Anyone who knows me, knows that one of my greatest passions in life is hiking. Me and my hiking buddy, Bonnie, regularly do long distance treks in the UK: West Highland Way, Hadrian’s Wall path, Wainwright’s Coat to Coast….or should that be Wainwright’s Coast to GHOST……

It was in the spring of 2010 that Bonnie and I set out on the 200 mile trek across Britain, from St Bee’s in Cumbria to Robin Hoods Bay in Yorkshire.  We set out when the snow was thick on the ground, wading waist deep through snow at The Honister pass high in the Lake district; we passed through thick fog in the Pennines and we baked on the wide open Edges and Moors of Yorkshire.

Kirkby Stephen old map

Old map from Cumbria History website

It was at Kirby Stephen, about half way along the route,  that I had possibly the most frightening paranormal(?) experience I have ever know…we had walked the 20 or so miles from Shap to Kirby Stephen that day, and below are extracts from my journal which I kept at the time:

“We set off under lowering skies and struck out across a bleak landscape as we left Shap, passing by Chemical Works and Quarries and crossing our first big motorway.  Eventually we reached the moorlands and open fells.   We were soon baffled by our first Moorland and took a few unintended detours!

Looking back across the moors we could see Lakeland in the distance, it is sad that there is nothing coming up quite so dramatic, but not so sad to be leaving behind the steepest inclines and the snow and ice.

More fells and moors lay ahead of us, dun coloured and featureless under the grey skies – bleak but beautiful. We passed the lovely Smardale Bridge and the Grand aqueduct that spans the valley, before finally reaching Kirby Stephen our destination for the day.

We arrived at Kirby Stephen, with aching feet, by 4PM.  The hostel is an old converted Methodist chapel.  We ate dinner in the congregational Hall.  It is very cold and slightly creepy here – still we have an en-suite twin room for only £18 each – not to be sniffed at on this trip!  Pennines and Swaledale Tomorrow!!”

I should add here, that the hostel was beautiful – the congregational hall was all dark wood, with old Pews set up for the dining area, stained glass windows and a carved wooden balcony at one end, and underneath the balcony the kitchen area.  I seem to recall, that there were carved wooden angels tucked away in dark corners of the chapel, ready to catch you unaware!  It was a remarkable place to spend the night, and the hostel warden was very welcoming and gave us the Warden’s apartment to stay in (she did not live-in at the hostel – later I would wonder why).

The following day, i continued my journal:

“Falling asleep exhausted last night, listening to the rain beating on the windows, I had begun to wonder if the hostel was haunted. It had been sort of slowly giving me the creeps all evening.  The first thing that struck a jarring note was the old man.  There were only a few people staying in the hostel – and we know most of them because they are on the Coast to Coast route too.  But an old man was sitting in the shadows under the balcony last night, reading.  I greeted him, he nodded. I was distracted for a moment, when I looked back he was gone, but he hadn’t passed me by and I couldn’t see any other exits.

The warden’s rooms were in a separate part of the building from the dorms were everyone else was.  Apart from two girls we had met on the previous day’s hike who had the room down the hall, we were in a secluded part of the building away from the few other guests.

Last night I had the most terrifying dreams I have ever had, and some part of the experience occurred when I was awake – I am sure. 

The first part was that I felt that there was an evil presence in the en-suite (if it hadn’t been so scary I would have laughed), I went to see what it was.  I felt something pulling at my t-shirt, I ordered it to stop and a voice said quite clearly “Oh he usually brings a rose, and lays it across your teeth”  wierd!!

I then heard a loud banging like someone trying to gain access to the hostel and just as a voice said “Whatever you do, don’t let her in, she mustn’t come in” I woke myself up – I was absolutely bricking it – it felt like there was a really negative energy filling the room and the atmosphere was really oppressive. 

I felt like I didn’t want to move a muscle and I didn’t try,  I was convinced someone or something was trying to get in the room.  I said to Bonnie “Bonnie, lock the door!” because there was no way I was getting out of bed to do it.  I turned to look over to Bonnie’s bed on the other side of the room, I could hear her snoring and she was clearly deeply asleep.  As I looked over to her perhaps the most terrifying thing of all happened – she spoke – in a voice like tombstones. She said: “There is something in here with us.” I spent the rest of the night hiding under the duvet!’

No one else heard any kind of commotion during the night, and Bonnie had no recollection of speaking in her sleep although she did admit to having nightmares of her own that night.

So was the hostel haunted and where does the Old Hag come in to the story?

Well, for me, for a long while the jury was out.  There were logical explanations possible, after all, there was no evidence the old man was a ghost and he might have exited the congregational hall via an unseen exit.  The warden did not live in most likely because she was local, rather than because she was afraid of any supernatural phenomenon.  My dream was so vivid that I probably called out in my sleep before waking up and perhaps this triggered Bonnie’s doom-laden pronouncement.  In addition to this, I haven’t found any other references to this hostel being haunted or strange things happening in it.

At the same time…it was a really intense experience and it felt REAL.

It was then that a third option presented itself.  This came via a comment from  AngryScholar who is a folklorist (and horror aficionado) and has an excellent blog relating to these topics.  In response to a recent post by Miss Jessel he recommended a book on the old Hag tradition: ‘The Terror that Comes in the Night’ by David J Hufford, published by the American Folklore Society.  Being a compulsive purchaser of books I immediately ordered a copy and devoured it in a very short time.

In short, the Old Hag is a tradition common to Newfoundland, and relates to a kind of psychical attack where the victim awakes from sleep feeling either some kind of paralysis or that a heavy weight is pressing down on them preventing movement.  They feel intense fear and the phenomenon is often accompanied by the sound of footsteps approaching or the feeling of a malign presence which sometimes has a visual manifestation.

Those familiar with the traditions also often know of methods to dispel the attack or turn it against the instigator of the experience.  Huffords excellent study takes the phenomenon outside of Newfoundland area  to disprove the cultural source hypothesis – ie if you know about the custom you may have this kind of experience – his work showed that the experience was cross-cultural and did not depend on prior knowledge of the tradition.

Hufford interviewed a large number of people who had had similar experiences but who had no knowledge of the tradition.  In conducting his study he found a number of common features of the experience some of which match the experience that I had.  He estimated that the phenomenon is so common that up to 15% of the population could have had a similar experience but that their willingness to disclose or withhold information relating to it can be determined by the culture they come from – in other words will they be met with ridicule or thought to be suffering from some kind of mental illness?

He considered that some of the experience related to the hypnagogic or hypnapompic state of sleep, hypnagogic is the “period immediately preceeding sleep” while “the time from the termination of measurable sleep to genuine wakefulness is called the ‘hypnopompic’ period” (1) and notes that these phases of sleep were at the time of his writing, relatively unexplored.

After extensive examination of case studies Hufford applied the term ‘Sleep paralysis with hypnagogic hallucinations’ as a close approximation of the Old Hag  phenomenon.

This is a very brief outline of Hufford’s very detailed study, but I think there were some similarities between what I experienced and some of the cases he examined….and who knows – strange things can occur in that twilight state that is not quite sleep and not quite wakefulness.  A place, even in our modern technological world,  where normal rules of reality do not apply and where the hag may still walk by night….

kirby landscape neg - Copy


Hufford J David, The Terror that Comes in the Night, 1982, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kirby Stephen Independent Youth Hostel,

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