The Black Dog of Wilcote Woods
1 January 2023 (Updated 31 October 2023)
According to local legend, a ghost in the shape of a black dog once haunted the woods around Wilcote. A ritual involving priests, babies, bells, and ponds was eventually used to lay the ghost.
Keep out of the woods...
Details of this haunting were told to Katherine M. Briggs by various Wilcote locals in the 1970's, and Briggs recorded them in her book Folklore of the Cotswolds. The location given is just stated as 'Wilcote Woods', I've assumed the wood in question is the one marked on maps as 'Holly Grove' as this is the nearest large area of woodland adjacent to Wilcote, but it could also be any number of smaller patches of nearby woodland.
There is no suggestion given as to why the ghost haunted the woods or why it should take the form of a black dog (although ghostly black dogs are by no means uncommon in Oxfordshire folklore), but a lot of details are provided as to how the ghost was finally layed to rest.
The ghostly dog is layed by baby, pond and clapper?
According to the account given to Katherine M. Briggs by a Mrs Claridge, the method used to lay the ghost involved gathering a priest, a new-born child (presumably recently christened as newly-christened children were believe to be potent against evil) and a pair of bird-scaring clappers. These clappers would have taken the form of two pieces of wood which, when violently struck together, made a noise loud enough to scare birds away.
The priest said prayers over the baby, and the two clappers were separated and each thrown into different ponds. This was enough to exorcise the ghostly dog, though it was believed that if at any time the items were brought back together, the black dog would return.
In the account given by Angelina Parker, the clapper in question was one from a bell. In this version the bell was thrown into one pond and the bell's clapper into another, and a whole group of priests were required to carry out the procedure.
The account given to Briggs by Mrs Pratley of Wilcote ups the ante considerably, involving either 7 or 12 clergymen who carried out a ritual in which they managed to speak to the ghost itself. When the priests demanded to know why it haunted the area, it told them 'I shall haunt as long as the clapper and bell hang together.'
Consequently the bell was melted down and the clapper thrown into a pond, ending the haunting. No baby appears to have been required in these last two versions, which is probably just as well!
Black dog or devil?
Briggs includes another tantalising tit-bit, the idea that the 'ghost' may have actually been the Devil, or if not the Devil then certainly a devil! This was another story from Mrs Claridge who stated that it was believed that there was a 'devil' at Hill Farm, which also took the form of a black dog and also required a new-born baby to lay it.
It is possible that this is an extension of, or had been confused with, the Wilcote black dog story. I haven't been able to track down the 'Hill Farm' in question, unless it is Fish Hill Farm near North Leigh, but this seems unlikely as it is more modern farm.
There is a patch of trees to the south of Wilcote marked on OS maps as 'Hell Brake', which is certainly suggestive of some devilish goings on!
Is this the ghost of Sir Wilcote?
In Lore of the Land, Westwood and Simpson give an account of another Wilcote haunting and ghost laying, the facts of which feel like they have been mixed up with the black dog tale above.
I've covered the story of the ghost of Sir Wilcote here, but in short it concerns the ghost of a troublesome local nobleman whose ghost persistently rang the bell of Wilcote church and who was finally foiled when the clapper of the church bell was removed and thrown into a pond.
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine M. Briggs (B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)
- 'The Lore of the Land' by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (ISBN: 0141021039)