“In the park at Tealby there’s a stream that runs along the road up to Bully Hill. If you go into the Park opposite the Church and follow this stream for a time, on the right hand side there is a large hump of stone which is known as “The Devil’s Pulpit” – when I was a girl they always told me that when the Devil hears the clock strike twelve he comes down there and drinks at the stream.”
L---- , Caistor*
I was introduced to the work of Ethel Rudkin by a friend just before the beginning of lockdown. Twenty pages into her book on Lincolnshire Folklore I had already started planning trips to investigate as many of her folklore stories as I could. Unfortunately, the Covid lockdown and its swift ban on unnecessary journeys put the kybosh on all that and left me dreaming about it instead.
Ethel herself was widowed in the Influenza epidemic of 1918 and spent the rest of her life researching the folklore and history of Lincolnshire. Later in life she took on students and shared her knowledge with anyone who cared to listen, but her life was defined mostly by solitude and obsession. By the time of her death in 1985, she had accrued a vast collection of artifacts that spilled out of her house and into a nearby windmill. As well as writing the definitive guide to the mythology of the county, she contributed regularly to Folklore magazine and was offered an MBE which she declined for reasons known only to her.
Lincolnshire is the second biggest county in Britain but is far from the consciousness of most people. Even today it remains a remote and occasionally inaccessible place. The mix of rolling hills and sweeping fens, combined with acres of woodland and remote villages provide the ideal breeding ground for superstition and myth. If folklore and mysticism couldn’t blossom here, its chances elsewhere are slim. Ethel’s book lists hundreds of fantastical tales gleaned from the mouths of locals who had, she claimed, abandoned their usual reticence once she had assured them of her noble intentions and local provenance.
As the 2020 lockdown dragged on, I devoured Ethel’s stories about such things as the Haxey Hood Game and the Blue Stone Boulder of North Thoresby. I decided that it was about time someone with a bit of imagination and too much time on their hands set about investigating their veracity. I’ll not lie: the prospect of some almost comfortable bus rides and the occasional country pub didn’t hurt the campaign’s appeal.
My deep delve began one bright Spring morning in Tealby, once acclaimed the tidiest village in England and home to one of the few mysteries I could access on public transport. Even then I had been forced to walk about four miles from the nearest bus stop in Market Rasen. Fortunately, the weather had been kind and the local butcher priced reasonably enough for me to fill my ageing rucksack with provisions.
According to my research The Devil’s Pulpit lies along Peppermill Lane, a country road leading north out of Tealby. Allegedly when the devil hears twelve bells ring, he emerges from the stone and wanders down to the local stream for a drink. I figured it would be a fairly easy story to investigate and would get me out of the house on a Saturday that I’d otherwise waste watching Grimsby Town lose again. Ethel’s main source for this legend was someone she bumped into in nearby Caistor whose name began with an L. I’m not going to speculate as to what the L stands for. We can both spot the elephant in the room.
Separate accounts claimed that by the early twentieth century, the stone was used regularly by a cabal of locals for secret meetings. There are no records as to the content of these obscure gatherings, but as I walked past the foreboding Willingham Woods, I speculated that they must be linked to some dubious practice or other. Perhaps after Old Nick had finished drinking, he would then do a bit of pontificating and sermonising for interested onlookers. As I trudged along the road to Tealby, clouds closing in and rookeries awash with grating birdsong, I couldn’t help but feel like the Devil could have sited his church a bit more handily. I wouldn’t presume to question his methods but surely he’d have been better off near a town with decent travel facilities. Maybe I’m just puzzled as to the nature of his game.
I had timed my journey to arrive just before midday, hopefully just in time for Old Beelzebub to hear the local church bells. I say hopefully. I’m not sure it’s an appropriate use of the word because, when it comes to the devil, I’m very much batting for the other side.
Sadly, the Pulpit itself is on private land and hidden from view by the local terrain. A few years ago, some climbers negotiated access with the landowner, but they turned up to find the rock had been broken in two and didn’t offer much of an opportunity for them to get their crampons out. I couldn’t shake off a niggling doubt that the Devil might have abandoned the site if the rock had been vandalised but, to be honest, I had nothing else to do that day so I took a punt.
I’d been unable to secure permission to access the site proper, chiefly because I’d only remembered when I was on the bus that morning. Fortunately, once I’d scouted the area from the road, I managed to secure a position where I wasn’t trespassing but still had a good view of the river. When the devil started drinking, I should be able to spot him easily. A few cars drove past as I waited, and one driver slowed to a halt for a good gawk, but I was left otherwise unmolested. I did briefly wonder if the gawker was part of some sinister cult guarding the site, but he seemed satisfied after a few seconds and drove back to town. If this were a Dan Brown novel, there would have been wheel screeching and maybe a gunshot but, in reality, he just did a three point turn in the road and drove slowly past while I tried to keep hold of a flaky sausage roll.
There was still half an hour to go so I decided to give my sister a ring by way of passing some time. She was a bit nonplussed when I told her what I was up to. As we chatted and she gently berated me for being a bit of an idiot, I spotted a ruined brick building hidden in the woodland. Maximum zoom on my antique smart phone revealed only a broken down brick tower a couple of stories high with a tree growing through a window. There were no signs of occupation, but the cawing of local crows lent it a supernatural appeal. Suddenly it had all become a bit Blair Witch. My sister’s usual rock-hard cynicism cracked slightly, and I had to promise I’d ring at one minute past midday to assure her that I was safe.
Time dragged on. I listened carefully to see if the birdsong reduced in volume as midday approached but nature appeared to be uninterested. Unsure as to whether there would even be audible church bells, I started to count the calls of the birds to see if they numbered twelve and served instead. Just as my mobile flipped to 12:00, the local church bells started to chime. I felt suddenly cold. There were no cars on the road that I could see so I was all alone and at the mercy of otherworldly forces. I’m not going to lie. Despite the conceit of modernity, I held my breath nervously as I peered into the trees, watching the river and trying to spot movement.
The bells chimed for an age, surely more than twelve, but no ancient bogeymen emerged. I remained alone. Eventually a garishly angled hybrid vehicle thrummed past, sending puddle water splashing towards me and I came to my senses. The devil wasn’t here. I breathed as deeply as I had all day and headed back towards Market Rasen and thence the number 56 bus to Lincoln.
Questions remained unanswered. What if the devil heard bells elsewhere and only turned up then? What if he had turned up, spotted the Sun glinting off my baldy head and decided to lay low? What if by even looking, I had lent credence to ancient myth, propagating it for another generation and even giving it a crawl space into my subconscious? Would an ancient lie live on because I’d bothered to challenge its truth? Did the Devil’s Pulpit mean more than just an old rock where locals used to congregate for unknown and possibly innocent reasons?
I am too insignificant to conclude such weighty things. I’m hooked though. As I sit on the cramped bus home, I start reading more of Ethel’s book.
*Rudkin, E. (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore. Gainsborough: Beltons (pp. 65)
Mike Fowler is a blogger who is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. When he's not at work in a local community centre, he spends his days growing heritage apple varieties and traipsing around the countryside on buses. His only regret is that he's never convinced his cat to join him. His previous work has only ever been published on his obscure blog, The Appeal of Mrs Toogood.