Monday, 22 March 2010

The Long Pack of Bellingham, Northumberland

When peace came to the border between England and Scotland with the accession of King James VI of Scotland to become King James I of England, and therefore of a united Great Britain, the violence slowly came to a close. But not all mystery vanished from Northumberland. There is, for instance, a most peculiar grave in the churchyard at Bellingham. The tomb takes the form of a long, rounded stone lying flat on the ground and covered in mosses and lichens. It is known as the Long Pack. In the right conditions, it can almost seem to move.

The tale behind the Long Pack begins in the autumn of 1723 when Colonel Ridley of Lee Hall took his family south to London for the winter, as was his habit. Ridley had made a fortune in India serving with the East India Company, and was living out a comfortable retirement surrounded by his family and wealth. He left at Lee Hall his plate and much treasure, together with three servants: Alice the housekeeper, Richard an old houseman and Edward a young estate worker.

One chill winter’s afternoon a pedlar called at Lee Hall. In those days, pedlars were welcome guests. They not only brought useful objects to be purchased, but also carried news and gossip around the countryside. As was traditional, Alice invited the pedlar in to the kitchen for a drink and something to eat. The pedlar gratefully dumped his rather huge, long pack on the kitchen floor and settled down to yarn about local families. He pulled out a few trinkets from his pack for Alice to inspect, and she bought a couple of pieces. But when the charming pedlar asked if he could stay the night in Lee Hall, Alice refused and told him he had to go on into Bellingham to find lodgings. The pedlar wheedled, but getting nowhere agreed to move on. He asked if he could leave his long pack behind as it was so heavy, and promised to pick it up in the morning. Alice agreed.

The pedlar left, Edward and Richard came home from their duties and the three servants busied themselves about the house. Alice was alone in the kitchen preparing supper when she thought she saw the long pack move. She screamed out loud in shock, bringing the two men running. While Richard calmed Alice down, young Edward went over to the long pack and gave it a hefty kick. Nothing happened, but Alice insisted that she had seen it move. Edward kicked the long pack again, with no result. The two men told Alice she must have imagined it, but she insisted that she was right and refused to stay in the kitchen alone. The two men had jobs to do, but did not want their supper delayed, so Edward picked up the old shotgun he used to scare away birds and fired it into the long pack. The pack twitched convulsively and blood poured out.

The two men hurriedly ripped the long pack open to find a mortally wounded man, complete with a musket, sword and a whistle. Immediately guessing that the man’s whistle is to summon his comrades, the servants began barricading the windows and doors. They were only just in time for a gang of men appeared out of the darkness and tried to rush the house. A furious gun battle ensued, the noise of which brought the men from nearby farms hurrying to the rescue. The gang fled, but left behind the man in the long pack. He seemed to be their leader and as he lay dying the man volubly cursed the name of Colonel Ridley and demanded revenge for what Ridley had done in India many years earlier.

Ridley was hurriedly summoned back from London, but declared that he did not recognise the man nor could he recall any incident in India that might explain the attack. Whether he was telling the truth or not is another matter. Clearly the man who organised the attack thought that he had reason enough to hire a gang of cut throats and plan the assault.

As with so many other incidents and events from Northumberland’s past, the affair of the Long Pack remains a mystery.
This is an extract from Mysterious Northumberland by Rupert Matthews

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