A disclaimer: I am in love with the North York Moors. This vast sweep of bleakly beautiful countryside, occupying a remote corner of North-Eastern England, was virtually my childhood playground. Sunday afternoons were made for family yomps around the heather-coated hillsides of Carlton Bank and Roseberry Topping, while school trips and Outward Bound courses began to introduce tantalising hints of sometimes-invented folklore. Did I ever get to the bottom of the ‘Black Heart of Whorlton Castle’, a terrifying, medieval ghost story set amidst the crumbling remains of this overgrown, 12th Century ruin? Yes, 25 years later, when I tracked down my former teacher, Mr Hirst, and he all but admitted that he’d made the whole thing up.
But that was part of the appeal: landscape attracts stories. Both ancient and modern. And now, when I tramp around the same desolate hillsides and ancient ruins as a middle-aged, weekend dog-walker, I take as much pleasure and inspiration from the folklore attached to the landscape as I do from those spectacular surroundings themselves.
Clearly Chris Lambert and Kev Oyston feel the same. Around five years ago, I became aware of their musical collaboration as The Soulless Party, and the folk-influenced electronica that claimed to take its inspiration from the sinister stories attached to The Black Meadow, an area of the North York Moors centred around the famous RAF Fylingdales. I knew, of course, the story of this mysterious military base; its legendary “golf ball” radomes had comprised arguably the most recognisable Cold War missile warning system in the world. Though these infamous spheres were demolished in the mid-1990s, and replaced by a sleek, concrete pyramid, the base remains an iconic local landmark.
I was, however, utterly unaware of the wealth of local folklore that Lambert and Oyston seemed to have unearthed. The Black Meadow was a name unfamiliar to me, as were its accompanying tales of a village that appears only “when the mist is high”: a darkly mystical community existing in a supernatural netherworld of pre-industrialised folk ritual and superstition. Just who was the “Rag and Bone Man”? Did the mysterious “Brightwater Archive” really attempt to document these stories in the 1930s, before being inexplicably shut down? And did Roger Mullins, a visiting professor at York University, genuinely vanish in the area while attempting further investigations in 1972?
Lambert and Oyston presented books, music, photographs, websites, blogs, lectures and even a “lost” 1977 Radio 4 documentary to reinforce the veracity of these stories, expertly blurring the lines between genuine folklore and invented fiction. I’ve since come to know them both well. I’ve interviewed them many times for BBC Radio Tees, and I’ve even collaborated with them on certain projects. Sometimes they admit to wild invention, other times they’re tantalisingly vague. It’s all part of the fun. And the project has been expanded further with the release of two new instalments: a wonderfully atmospheric album – largely by Oyston – and Lambert’s accompanying book, where tales of the “Ticking Policeman”, the “March of the Meadow Hags” and the “Village Under The Lake” further explore the legend.
Both book and album are entitled The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, and both are available now.
I spoke to Chris Lambert about the whole Black Meadow phenomenon…
Bob: For those unaware, tell us a little bit about the Black Meadow in your own words… as far as you’re concerned, where exactly is it?
Chris: The Black Meadow is an area of land on the Whiteway Heads Road, between Sleights and Pickering on the North York Moors. RAF Fylingdales, once of the iconic “golf balls” missile warning system, is located on the Black Meadow. For centuries, the Meadow has been a hotbed of strange phenomena, mysterious creatures and bizarre happenings. The most famous of these, as everybody knows, is the village that appears when the mist is high. I first found out about it when a colleague of mine, Kev Oyston, was investigating a lost Radio 4 documentary, Curse of the Black Meadow, and asked me to assist him in his research. After that I was hooked.
Do you find that area of the North York Moors especially fascinating? It provides a direct link between ancient landscape – with its associated folk stories – and Cold War paranoia, in the shape of the aforementioned RAF Fylingdales. Is that a combination that you find particularly irresistable?
It’s completely fascinating. It’s the incongruity of that vast landscape and the stark, strange pyramid that now sits atop it. The golf balls too were an eerie sight… even more eerie in the memory, and in faded photographs, now that they are gone. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War… though excitingly it is threatening a comeback, which will be a real boon for us Threads fans. But I remember living with a slight sense of dread constantly in the back of my mind. I think that’s why I’m drawn to these places, and to these types of stories.
Just down the road from where I live, in Berkshire, is RAF Greenham Common, the now-decommissioned American missile base. That also holds a real fascination for me. And the silos were used as a location for Star Wars – The Force Awakens! I also love the pillboxes that are dotted along our local canal, to defend us against attacks on our waterways. Any site where there is a strange, seemingly anachronistic incongruity attracts me. That juxtaposition of the natural against the artificial, particularly in places where nature has actually won. That shows that these terrors are fleeting, and that the life of our planet is beautiful.
I think this might also be because I read a lot of John Christopher as a child, and loved the images of the decayed modern cities in The White Mountains, from the Tripods trilogy, and Beyond the Burning Lands, from the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Or the desolation in Empty World. More recently I read his adult novels The Death of Grass and Wrinkle in the Skin. They also scratched this itch, with their exploration of a vastly altered landscape.
What’s your own connection to the North-East? Were your parents from Teesside?
My mum grew up in York, and her parents were from that area. My Dad was the vicar of the parish church in Saltburn in the 1960s and early 1970s, before I was born. He then moved the family down to Shaftesbury in Dorset, which is where I appeared! Interestingly, Shaftesbury is the home of Gold Hill, where the famous Yorkshire-set Hovis advert, directed by Ridley Scott, was filmed. So, quite aptly, I lived in an imagined Yorkshire, in the south of England. Interestingly my Mum told me just at the weekend that she never wanted to move south. She absolutely loves the north of England, and I suppose that enthusiasm has rubbed off.
I know you had a strict religious upbringing, and I’m guessing traditional folklore wasn’t a big part of that. Is there an element of researching and writing about supernatural folk stories makes them almost “forbidden fruit” for you?
Oh, my goodness. All of it! I think I appear to be very overexcited about things when I discover them. I don’t have the same cultural references as Kev Oyston or your good self, because I wasn’t allowed to watch, listen to or read quite a lot of things when I was little. My Dad would put the TV in the loft or in the cupboard during the week, and I would sneak an extension lead up there if they were out, and watch Alas Smith and Jones. It was a real pain when Doctor Who moved from Saturdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays.
I did a talk about burning my Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when I was a young fundamentalist – I was led to believe that they would do me spiritual harm. So any folklore was off limits. Anything occult-tinged was a no-no. I remember my mum warning me about the dangers of Dennis Wheatley… who I had never heard of, but she made him sound very exotic and interesting. I still haven’t got around to him, as I don’t believe he could live up to the hype! I was brought up on the aggressive anti-gay/catholic/muslim/occult tracts by Jack Chick, and the only comics I read were Archie and the (now that I have revisited them) utterly appalling and deeply offensive Crusaders comics. With the exception of Archie, these comics introduced me to imagery of hell, torture, possession and demons that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Lucio Fulci or Armando de Ossario film. So oddly, it was these terribly written but evocatively illustrated works, intended to lure me away from Satan and all his works, that stuck in my head. I wouldn’t have known about these things if I hadn’t read them. Such a strange bubble to live in!
So sometimes there is a little wicked part of myself that thinks – would this get burned? Is this a bit naughty? If it is, I’m more likely to research it or write it. This sounds a bit like rebellion but it doesn’t feel like it, I just write what comes into my head. But I can’t deny the influences of my childhood.
You’ve lived in Berkshire for many years – was there ever a temptation to write about Berkshire folklore, or is there something specifically about the North-East, and the North York Moors, that you find lends itself to strangeness?
I am very interested in Berkshire, and have written a kid’s play called Deadman’s Lane which, like The Black Meadow, is about a world hidden inside another. A re-imagined geography. Deadman’s Lane bisects the school grounds where I work. I’m also working on something based in my own immediate locality, which I plan to start if the Black Meadow ever frees me from its misty embrace. That said, the North York Moors do attract me hugely… partly because they’re physically distant, and so they give me the opportunity to imagine myself there. It’s the desolation of the moors that I love, that vast sweep of heather, interrupted by that strange pyramid and the floating mist. They’re a favourite place to holiday, too.
How did you first start writing about the Black Meadow? And what were your ambitions for it at the start of all this? It’s become quite a sprawling, multi-media project…
The project began when Kev and I worked on the radio documentary, The Curse of the Black Meadow. Kev had created/discovered the theme tune for Tales from the Black Meadow and it was already growing into a larger project in his head, so he invited me to help write the documentary for which this would be the theme. As I was creating that, I decided that one of the key players, “Philip Hull”, would mention, off the cuff, several folk tales… such as “The Shining Apples” and “The Devil and the Yoked Man”. I then realised that these tales needed to actually exist to add weight to the documentary. So I began to create/discover them. Firstly for the documentary, but then as we went on, more were unearthed/written.
And I had no real ambition at first! We just sort of went in the direction the meandering paths took us, having fun. After that it evolved into the book and album, but I certainly didn’t envisage at the time that that little documentary would end up leading us here…
Can we talk about Kev Oyston himself? How did you meet, and what’s the division of labour like between you and Kev?
It’s really interesting for me to pull this apart! We met online, of course. It started because a friend of mine, Dave Yates – aka Dolly Dolly – had done a track for Kev on his Electronic Encounters album, and sent me the link. I loved the album, and was fiddling about one day and decided to make my own Close Encounters-influenced track, Follow the Toys… which I then took a punt on, and sent to Kev. He was kind enough to pop it on his Electronic Encounters Special Edition. We then bandied tracks back and forth, and he sent me a couple of instrumentals that I added lyrics to… like a latter-day Vince Clark and Andy Bell. And then Black Meadow happened. He made an evocative video to accompany his track, and invited me to do the documentary.
The division of labour for the first album was, with the exception of one track, that he wrote the tunes and I wrote the stories. As the project progressed, the process became more knotty. Kev would write a track and send it – and the title – to me. From the title and the mood of the track, I would then write a story. However at the same time I would be writing another story which he would read, and then use the title for another track. I’m now not entirely sure who started which stories! I think he definitely wrote The Black Dog, from which I wrote the story… and I wrote The Shining Apples first, because Philip Hull mentioned that in his interview.
For this second album we used a similar method. I would immerse myself in the music and extrapolate a story from that and the title, or Kev would come up with a tune, from the story and title I’d provided. I have fond memories of listing to The Maiden of the Mist on repeat, while I worked on that story. I have the album on repeat when I’m writing, editing and typesetting, just to stay in that world. The second album has been a much longer process because Kev kept writing more music, and I kept coming up with more stories. It got so thorny that I had to make a spreadsheet just to keep track. Which Kev ignored on several occasions! Hence the thickness of the book.
What kind of reaction does the Black Meadow evoke in people? Do people generally believe it all?
We tread a fine line. When I do a talk I introduce myself as “a teacher, a writer and a liar”. I often have the word “LIES” on a screen behind me. But even though I say that, people still ask me if it’s all real. I had one person ask me if they should contact their MP about the disappearances on the moors… I actually didn’t give a her a definite “no”, as I was quite tempted to see what would happen.
I had a very strange conversation with one chap. I remember starting a sentence with “I made all this up…” and he asked me in the next sentence if what I was saying was true. I then told him “No, I made it up…” and carried on to another bit of folklore which I also preceded with a disclaimer. He then asked me about again about the truth of it all. This went on for the entire conversation… which I enjoyed immensely.
I think the issue is that people want to believe. There are also so many weird blimming things going on that they think it is all inspired by real occurrences. It’s a very interesting time to be doing a project like this, with all the talk of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. I never set out for this to be some sort of critique of that. But when you use real places, add dates, and use phrases such as “everybody knows” or “it has often been said” before telling a story, people seem to accept it as the truth. Even if you explicitly tell them it’s a lie.
Have you met sceptical souls?
I have met sceptical souls, but they tend to enjoy the wink and the nudge of it all. I often say that if you do even the tiniest bit of research this will all unravel, but most people can’t be bothered and would rather enjoy the fun.
Is blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction part of the appeal for you? How far will you go to achieve that?
I am very much into the idea of mythogeography, projecting a story onto a landscape and exploring that landscape through a different lens. We all do it to a certain extent… for example, we get a little frisson of excitement when we visit a film location. Gloucester Cathedral cloisters are the location of the Hogwarts corridors in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. So if you visit, you can picture the martyrdom of Bishop Bonner alongside the petrification of Colin Creevey. And when I visited Cheddar Gorge in Somerset the guide on the bus tour talked of how the two tall columns of stone influenced J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. I don’t know if that was true at all, but even if it wasn’t, I could still picture Orcs peeking out from behind the stones.
It’s the urban myths told around camp fires: “It was just half a mile from here that his body was found, and it is said that….” So yes, it’s a huge part of the appeal. I think some of that comes from playing as a child in my garden. I was lucky enough to have a big, vicarage garden and would spend hours on my own imagining myself in epic fantasy adventures. I would make tunnels in bracken and bramble, and fashion maps where corridors and cave-like openings would have grandiose names.
The strange thing is, I visited the Black Meadow over a year after I had written the first tale and I was struck by how very real the stories seemed to be, and how they fitted with the landscape. It was very strange. I’m delighted that every time I’ve been there, it’s been shrouded in mist.
How far would you take the illusion? There is actually a little plaque on the moors, isn’t there… where – ahem – did that come from?
How far would I go? I think there’s a mischievous side to me, but I would be utterly appalled if we hurt anyone’s feelings or upset anyone. So Kev and I both err on the side of caution. We aren’t planning to do an Area 51 style storming of RAF Fylingdales, for example. That said, the plaque commemorating the disappearance of Roger Mullins, which you can indeed find on the North York Moors, was put there by the Brightwater Archive and Roger’s family. It has nothing to with me or Kev, so I don’t know what you’re talking about there.
Back in 2017, you brought a party of drama students up from your Berkshire school, and performed a Black Meadow stage play at Caedmon College in Whitby, a stones throw from the meadow itself! I was there, and it was amazing. How on Earth did you persuade your head teacher to give the green light to all this?
My school is great. I’ve worked there for over fifteen years, and have always been given the space to innovate. Before I was a teacher, I worked as a playwright, but I moved into teaching when I began to starve to death. From the start, I was getting the students to perform at local venues and trying out strange and wacky ideas. From medieval mystery plays around the whole school site, to a Deadman’s Lane radio play and a Zombie Walk!
Before we got to Tales from the Black Meadow – The Play, I had been working on a series of productions to try and get more boys into Drama. We went down the horror route and that did seem to work. I worked on a three-year “Trilogy of Terror” (without Karen Black or crazed African wood carvings) which started with an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos – right up your misty alley – followed by the aforementioned Deadman’s Lane, and then topped off with Night of the Living Dead for Kids. To promote the final play of the trilogy we did that Zombie Walk for charity and then, erm… I somehow persuaded the Parish Council to let the cast shamble after the runners when the Olympic Torch was passed through our village, in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics.
So taking the cast of Tales From the Black Meadow to Whitby? It wasn’t really a surprise. The head teacher just rolled her eyes and gave us her blessing. I think the parents thought we were mad, though… and they were probably right, the students still talk about it. My only regret is that they didn’t get to see Whitby, because we had to leave at 5am, get off the bus at 12pm, get into the school and set up, perform at 2pm, then get back on the bus… we did however drive through the Black Meadow to get there, and the mist was up.
How do you think the performance went down? Do modern kids understand that 1970s “haunted” feeling that we still seem to feel so profoundly?
It’s always interesting performing a play to complete strangers. Caedmon College were so kind to accommodate us, and gave us lovely feedback. We could have done without our smoke machine setting off their fire alarm in the first ten minutes, though! The students really got the play, but it’s hard to say whether they get our haunted feeling. I’m just an old man to them, and they aren’t bothered by our past experiences. In the same way that weren’t bothered by our own parents’ stories when we were kids. They live in strange times though, so maybe they’ll look back on this era in a similar way, with that nostalgia for dread. We had the Three Day Week, the Cold War and Public Information Films. They have Brexit, Trump and internet memes… something weird is going to be born from that, I’m sure.
Any future plans for the Black Meadow project?
We plan to produce the next volume of the Black Meadow Archive soon, but there are rumblings from Whitehall that we won’t be given access to their files, so there could be something of a delay whilst we sort that out. The amount of back and forth we had, trying to get the latest publication past those censorious civil servants, beggars belief. We’d love to make a film or a radio documentary, too. I guess whatever the government allows, will happen.
The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1, by Chris Lambert, is available here…
And the accompanying album, by The Soulless Party, is releases on Castles In Space, and is available here…