The Mermaid of Blake Mere
Blake Mere is said to be inhabited by a mermaid. The account of her origin is that, several hundred years ago, a beautiful young woman rejected the advances of a man called Joshua Linnet. In revenge he accused her of being a witch, and as a result she was thrown into Blake Mere: as she drowned she cursed her accuser. Three days later Joshua was found beside the pool, dead, with terrible wounds on his face as if left by claws. The young woman, it seems, had had her revenge, and her spirit haunts the pool to this day.
Tis true indeed in the Moorelands where they burn much Peat, their pits are usually fill’d by the frequent rains brought by the Tropæan winds from the Irish Seas in which the water being sated with a crude Sulphur, and stagnating besides, must needs emitt contagious vapors; yet are not these neither so bad as some have fancyed the water is of the black-Meer of Morridge, which I take to be nothing more than such as those in the peat-pits; though it be confidently reported that no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which areas false as that it is bottomlesse; it being found upon measure scarce four yards in the deepest place, my Horse also drinking when I was there as freely of it as I ever saw Him at any other place, and the fowle so far from declining to sly over it, that I spake with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lyes under.
Amongst the unusual accidents that have attended the female Sex in the course of their lives, I think I may also reckon narrow escapes they have made from death. Whereof I met with one mention’d with admiration by every body at Leek, that happen’d not far oft at the black Meer of Morridg, which though famous for nothing for which it is commonly reputed so, as that it is bottomless; no Cattle will drink of it; or birds fly over or settle upon it (all which I found false) yet is so, for the signal deliverance of a poor woman, inticed hither in a dismall stormy night by a bloody Ruffin, who had first gotten her with child, and intended in this remote inhospitable place, to have dispatch’t her by drowning. The same night (Providence so ordering it) there were several persons of inferior rank drinking in an Ale-house at Leek, whereof one having been out, and observing the darkness and other ill circumstances of the weather, coming in again said to the rest of his Companions, that he were a stout man indeed that would venture to goe to the black Meer of Morridg in such a night as that; to which one of them replying, that for a Crown or some such Summe he would undertake it; the rest joyning their purses said he should have his demand. The bargain being Struck, away he went on his journey with a slick in his hand, which he was to leave there as a testimony of his performance; at length comeing near the Meer, he heard the lamentable cryes of this distressed woman, begging for mercy; which at first put him to a stand; but being a man of great resolution and some policy, he went boldly on however, counterfeiting the presence of divers other persons, calling Jack, Dick, and Thom, and crying here are the rogues we look’t for, &c. which being heard by the Murderer he left the Woman and fled, whom the other man found by the Meer side almost stript of her cloaths, arid brought her with him to Leek, as an ample testimony of his having been at the Meer, and of Gods providence too.
“Blake Mere,” or “Black Mere,” is a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles E.N.E. from Leek. A visit to it in Summer is pleasant enough, but in Winter, and when the mists of November beset the traveller as he passes the spot—when the cutting winds howl fiercely through the gloomy heath—the pool, naturally dark, appears “black as night,” and leads him to term it—
Skylark never warbles o’er.”
Such, indeed, was the horror in which the “Black Mere” was held by our ancestors; and such their strange beliefs connected with it, that I have thought it well they should be preserved in the pages of the “RELIQUARY.” Camden quoting Nicham, says it is
Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er—
By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued,
They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Dr. Plott, however, in his History of Staffordshire, says—“The water of the Black Meer is not so bad as some have fancied, and I take it to be nothing more than such as that in the peat pits, though it be confidently reported that no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
But this place has yet far more terrible associations—“Hark!” says a manuscript1 now lying before me—“Hark! what a shriek of agony! what an appalling scream; what a soul-sickening note of despair; Heavens; ’Tis a woman’s voice that crys so loudly for aid; her very throat seems cracking with the intensity of her efforts. Louder; louder; grows the scream, and then a fearful gurgle, sudden and instant, stays the hideous sound; yet the stillness is more ominous than the hitherto frightful din. Not a sound, not a murmur; the senses stunned and palsied by the piercing cry, are now awe-stricken at the deathlike silence which succeeds But hark; hark; it comes again—quick, like a thunder-clap, it is repeated in all its former agony; the air is filled with the re-vibrations of that wild outcry; horribly distinct, the shriek becomes deafening in the extreme. The voice is unanswered—no other tongue speaks but that despairing one, yet it cries as though some were near to hear it; it appeals as if those were present who could relieve its terror. Again the cry is suddenly hushed, a confused murmur as of one calling from beneath thick folds of cloth wrapped over the mouth, is heard, and then silence deep and deathlike, prevails. But again; again; the head escapes the barbarous hand; again the mouth is clear, the tongue moves, the shriek is repeated; echo sends back the cry, it resounds from all sides, and the air is fraught with the deafening scream—“Help! help! Mercy! mercy!” The cries are quickly stifled; the voice is mute; the tongue dumb; yet the hoarse hollow cry once more faintly sounds, and the low, smothered, guttural whisper bears the same burden, “Help! help! Mercy! mercy!”
One is too poor, too weak for my revenge.”—Shakespeare.
This event is thus ably narrated by the venerable historian before quoted—“Amongst the unusual accidents that have attended the female sex in the course of their lives, I think I may also reckon the narrow escapes they have made from death; whereof I met with one mentioned with admiration by every body at Leek, that happened not far off at the black Meer of Morridg, which, though famous for nothing for which it is commonly reputed, as that it is bottomless; no Cattle will drink of it; or birds fly over, or settle upon it (all which I found to be false), yet it is so for the signal deliverance of a poor woman, enticed hither in a dismal stormy night by a bloody Ruffian, who had first gotten her with child, and intended in this remote, inhospitable place, to have dispatched her by drowning.”
The same night (Providence so ordering it), there were several persons of inferior rank drinking in an alehouse2 at Leek, whereof one having been out and observing the darkness and other ill circumstances of the weather, coming in again, said to the rest of his companions, that he were a stout man indeed that would venture to goe to the black Meer of Morridg, in such a night as that; to which one of them replying that for a crown, or some such summe, he would undertake it; the rest, joining their purses, said he should have his demand. The bargain being struck away he went on is journey with a stick in his hand, which he was to leave there as a testimony of his performance. At length, coming near the Meer, he heard the lamentable cries of this distressed woman begging for mercy; which at first put him to a stand, but being a man of great resolution and some policy, he went boldly on, however, counterfeiting the presence of divers other persons, calling “Jack, Dick, and Thom,” and crying, “Here are the rogues we look’d for,” which, being heard by the murderer, he left the woman and fled, whom the other man found by the Meer side, almost stript of her clothes, and brought her with him to Leek, as an ample testimony of his having been at the Meer, and of God’s Providence too.”
This Meer is also termed the “Mermaid Pool,” from an old tradition that one of those fabulous creatures dwells in it; in fact, some of the peasants thereabout are ready to swear that when, some years ago the Pool was partially “let off,” one appeared, predicting that if the water were allowed to escape “it would drown all Leek and Leekfrith.” This vain idea has given origin to the sign of a neighbouring roadside inn — “The Mermaid,” a place frequently visited by sportsmen when shooting in the vicinity.
In a quarter of a mile we keep left on the track through Hurdlow, which becomes an uphill path across the moor leading to the magic letters P.H.—though I hope the hour will be too early to slake a thirst scarcely yet generated. The lonely pub is visible from afar, like the Ark on Ararat, against the long even skyline of the Morridge. You may, as you climb towards it, speculate as to what name awaits you in this breezy wasteland. Its saucy Mermaid sign, when you reach it, seems inappropriate to these inland hills, yet it derives from a good local legend.
Northward of the inn along the moorland road which you take, with Merryton Low rising to its 1,603 feet on the right, is Black Mere or Mermaid Pool. It is said that an attractive young woman was once drowned as a witch there, and that shortly after, one Joshua Linnet, her chief tormentor, was also found drowned in the pool with talon scratches on his face. Local gossips declare that no bird will fly over Mermaid Pool. Alas for the legend. One summer evening as I sat lonely beside it watching the sunset over Cheshire, half fearing, but half hoping for a shapely arm to rise and beckon me into the depths, saw curlew, lapwings, and snipe cross the fatal mere.
The Black Mere of Morridge enjoys a similar reputation to the other pool. Its waters, too, are refused by animals, no fish are to be found there, and its murky waters are reputed to be bottomless. A nearby inn – the Mermaid Inn – bears witness to a siren who charms men to their fate in much the same way as Kinder’s, except that this particular mermaid may be seen any night of the week at midnight.
Blake Mere (commonly Mermaid’s Pool). Pool over 1.5m NW of Upper Elkstone and 4.5m NE of Leek. Formerly in Heathylee township in Leek ancient parish. A tributary of the Churnet rises out of it. Wardle says some wrongly believe this is the true Churnet. The pool has appeared as Blakemere, Blackmere and Bleak Mere. It has many traditions associated with it. According to one tradition it has no visible inlet or outlet and it is fed by underground sources. That no cattle will drink out of it, no fowl will fly over it and that it is bottomless (SD p 106). Yet Plot measured it to be only four yards deep at its deepest and his horse did drink out of it and geese were seen to settle upon it. Some say the pool has had an evil reputation since at least the time of Alexander Neckham (1157-1217). Dr Wilkes says the superstitions surrounding it were just trumped up to enhance a private property. A mermaid is said to live in the mere; she lures men to their deaths at midnight as related in verses on the wall of Blakemere House. One tradition alleges the mermaid was a beautiful young woman who drowned here after being accused of witchcraft by a rejected suitor. She may have threatened to destroy all Leek and Leek Frith if her home is disturbed. The mermaid legend probably originated since Plot’s visit, since he would have mentioned the story. Little Van Lake near Brecon, Aqualate Mere, Mermaid Pool on Kinder Scout, NE of Hayfield, Derbys, and a pool at Child’s Ercall near Market Drayton, Shrops, have similar traditions. There is a strange story, which occurred in 1660, of a woman who was raped by a man by the pool. He returned to murder her and cast her into the mere, but as providence would have it, some men, that night, at the Cock Inn, Leek, had a wager that one of them or a group would defy the terrible weather and go up to the mere and back again, which they did and the man was caught and the woman was saved. Robert Southey (1774-1843) based his poem ‘Mary, the Maid of the Inn’ (1796) on Plot’s story, but substitutes Dieulacres Abbey for Blake Mere, Mary for the man who takes the wager, and Gun Hill for Morridge. Another story, which apparently occurred in 1679, with similarities to the other, tells of one Andrew Simpson, a renowned villain who would see his victims come into money and follow them to a secluded place where he would rob them. He followed a lady lace pedlar back from Leek market to Bakewell and strangled her and threw her into the mere. His crime was only discovered because he tried to sell some of the stolen linen and lace to one of the maidservants at a Red Lion Inn in Leek where he had worked as an ostler after leaving his trade as a shoemaker. It is said a beautiful young woman drowned in the mere after being accused of witchcraft by a rejected suitor, Joseph Linnett; later Joseph Linnett’s body was found floating in the mere with the scratches of sharp talons on his face. This gave rise to the belief the mermaid of the mere is the incarnation of the woman.
Blakemere House Inn 0.5m SSW of Blake Mere, 4m NE of Leek, 3m N of Onecote. Formerly in Onecote township in Leek ancient parish. The house existed by 1638 and possibly stands on the site of a house recorded as at Blackemere in 1348. It was an inn by 1851 and was known as the Mermaid Inn by 1863 owing to its proximity to Blake Mere, which is reputedly inhabited by a mermaid. The inn is an old drovers one as it lies on a route between Congleton to Nottingham; it is said also to be the third highest inn in England. Verses are carved on the stonework relating to the mermaid of Blake Mere -
The Mermaid was originally Blake Mere House, one of several houses in a village long since gone. The village boasted a chapel and a pub (the old pub was at the other end of the car park), which is why the current hostelry seems remote.
Hereabouts legends abound. If you want one of the best in the area, go up the road a little way to Blake Mere. You are standing just below Merryton Low, an open access area, and a hill which at 1604 feet affords fine views in all directions; there is also a memorial plaque on the trig point to the fifth Staffordshire Leek battalion. So high up in the hills, it seems amazing that a pool of water exists here at all. What is even more amazing is that if you look out towards the Roaches, almost at the highest point there is another stretch of water – Doxey Pool – exactly the same height above sea level as Blake Mere. So, if there wasn’t already a legend here, you would simply have to invent one. You have, however, been beaten to the job, because they are both supposedly bottomless and inhabited by a mermaid (hence the name of the pub).
Equipped with these facts, you may well ask why the similarities. The answer is truly amazing in itself, but obvious when you think about it. Both Blake Mere and Doxey Pool are connected underground by water-filled passageways fed from deep underground. The pressure from below acts a bit like a lavatory ‘U’ bend, each pool feeding off the other. Note the depth of the valley in between and it is hard to imagine this to be so, but it is. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that no birds have ever been seen flying directly over Blake Mere, and no animals are ever supposed to drink from its waters.
Sceptics would say it’s because no bird or animal could stand the cold; however, if you stand here for a few days you might just prove the sceptics among us wrong; if you can take the cold yourself, that is.
Proving the story of the mermaid wrong might take a little longer, especially with the landlord of the Mermaid pub always keen to keep the legend alive in order to continue to attract customers, but the story is a good one, and worth retelling here. Briefly, a chap by the name of Joshua Linnet visited the spot with a female companion many moons ago, but left alone. He can’t have been a happy man, as before the woman drowned, a curse was hurled out of the murky depths at Joshua, who, strangely enough, was found there three days later face down in the water, quite dead, and with deep, talon-like scars across his face. No rational explanation was offered, and none since has been submitted.
Blake Mere, or Blackmere (SK 030613), is a small pool in the moorlands between Leek and Buxton. It lies alongside the spectacular road which follows the Morridge – literally ‘the moorland ridge’ – an ancient track that must have been well used by prehistoric man. It is most easily approached off the A53 at Stake Gutter, which is 2m NE of Upper Hulme, but which can be reached via Thorncliffe.
All manner of tales and superstitions are connected with this 40-foot, heart-shaped pool: animals will not drink there; birds will not fly over it; the pool is bottomless; it can never be drained; there is a mermaid who protects it from harm, etc. It is said that in recent years there was a moorland fire and the fire brigade pumped water out of the pool non-stop for many hours without the level lowering. It is very likely that Blake Mere had religious significance for early man and that these legends are a folk memory of ancient beliefs.
Some say the mermaid story originated in medieval times when Joshua Linnet had a young girl branded as a witch and drowned in the pool. As she floundered in the water she cursed her accuser and said he would suffer the same fate. Three days later Joshua Linnet was found drowned in the lake with his face torn to pieces. The mermaid has been known to walk alongside travellers and try to entice them with her deep green eyes to follow her to her watery home.
In 1679 there was a murder here. Andrew Simpson, who worked at the Red Lion at Leek, overheard a young woman speaking of how well she had done selling her lace, wool and thread. He followed her home across the moors and murdered her for her money. He threw the body into Blake Mere but the corpse was found and he was hanged on Gun Hill.
Just south of Blake Mere is a prehistoric burial mound called Merryton Low, and south of that is the stone-built and gabled Mermaid Inn. This is all that remains of the village of Blake Mere. In the 16th and 17th Centuries there were several houses, a chapel and a pub, the original Mermaid Inn. At that time the present pub was a house, called Blake Mere House. The remains of the old hostelry are at the end of the car park. The field opposite the inn is used by a Gliding Club. All around are wild moors, parts of which are used by the army for exercises.
Mermaid Blackshaw Moor, near Leek, and elsewhere. The Blackshaw Moor pub is about a mile from Mermaid Pool. Legend has it that a certain Joshua Linnet was responsible for a local witch-hunt in former times. It led to a girl being drowned in the pool. Three days later, as her persecutor walked by the pool, she reached out and grabbed him, pulling him under the water.
Blake Mere seems to have more than its fair share of place-name variants for such a small place, also being called Blake Meer, Black Meer, Black Mere and Bleek Mere. As indicated in a couple of the accounts above, there used to be a Blake Mere (or Meer) House before the Mermaid pub was established, as can be seen from the 1842 Ordnance Survey sheet of Buxton, part of which is shown below.
The 1842 map shows Blake Mere and Blake Mere House before the latter had been named the Mermaid. It isn’t until the 1879 map that we see Blake Mere House (or Blakemeer as it’s called on the map) described as the Mermaid public house.
Looking at the photograph of it as it is now, Blake Mere hardly seems large enough to sustain a mermaid, but from what Dr Robert Plot writes, it used to be larger. The channel through which the water was presumably drained to lower the level can be seen at the far side of the pool, to the right. The channel certainly appears to be artificial, though it’s possible that it is a natural feature, and the account of there having been an attempt to drain the mere a fabrication. The Mermaid Inn can just about be seen in the distance, if you look above the left edge of the pool, in the ‘V’ of two ridges.
It should be noted that while the heights above sea level of Blake Mere and Doxey Pool are indeed strikingly similar, they are not – sadly for local mythology – identical. As closely as may be determined (by using the current Ordnance Survey map), there is a difference in level of approximately 5 metres between the two. In other words, the water would run out at one end. Besides, the geology of the area rules out the idea of there even being an aquifer connecting them, never mind a tunnel.
There is an anomaly in the accounts by John Higgins and Michael Raven which I’m unable to explain. They write of how there was a village called Blake Mere in the 16th and 17th centuries, with a pub called The Mermaid, the precursor to the present inn, and a chapel. This is not substantiated by A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 7: Leek and the Moorlands (Victoria County History, 1996). The Mermaid Inn and Blake Mere are separated by a parish boundary, so two entries have to be consulted, but here they are:
In the entry for Onecote township, in Leek parish (in which the Mermaid Inn lies):
In the entry for Heathylee township, in Alstonefield parish (in which Blake Mere lies):
In other words, there was a Blakemere House in 1638, which was rebuilt on a nearby site in the early 19th century, and was an inn by 1851. There is no mention of it being a pub in its earlier form, and certainly no chapel or village. Obviously John Higgins and Michael Raven got the idea of there being a village of Blake Mere from somewhere, but since neither of them gives his source, I can’t say from where.
The fact that Robert Plot doesn’t mention the mermaid in his lengthy account of Blake Mere is strong evidence that the legend didn’t exist at that time. The first appearance in print of the mermaid is of her issuing a curse to drown all of Leek and Leekfrith, as described by ‘W.B.’ in 1863. The idea of a mermaid cursing those who are trying to drain her pool is seen elsewhere. One such example is of the Aqualate mermaid, here as related by Robert Charles Hope, in The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, 1893:
Newport and Meretown I will destr’y.”
The version in which the girl is accused of being a witch makes the best story, but it is clearly the most recent, only appearing in print in the second half of the 20th century and, I suspect, not dating back much further than that. My own guess would be that a landlord or regular of the Mermaid Inn felt that a little colour was needed to what was, after all, a rather bare story. It may be that the present story is a hybrid the description by ‘W.B.’ of the mermaid casting a curse, and of Dr Plot’s account of the attempted murder of a woman at the pool (or, for that matter, of the actual murder of a woman at the pool by Andrew Simpson in 1679).
The way the unnamed girl is drowned following an accusation of witchcraft may be due to confusion of the ‘swimming’ test for witches, and their punishment by death. Employed in the 16th and 17th centuries, the principle of the test was that if those accused of witchcraft floated, they was guilty; if they sank they were innocent, and were pulled out. If convicted they would be hanged, not drowned. However the story is vaguely worded, and the implication may be that her death was accidental.
If the modern form is to be accepted, the suggestion is that the mermaid is the vengeful spirit of a murdered woman, rather than being a mermaid or water spirit in the traditional sense. In this respect the legend is unusual, and somewhat reminiscent of the Russian Russalki, which, in some versions at least, are river- or lake-dwelling spirits of young women who have killed themselves.
The idea of a subterranean passage connecting Blake Mere and Doxey Pool is one I remember hearing myself, many years ago. A similar story is told of the Rostherne Mermaid and the passage connecting Rostherne Mere to the Mersey, and of the Mermaid’s Pool on Kinder Scout being connected to the Atlantic.