The Hedley Kow was a troublesome, shape-shifting, trickster sprite or spirit that made mischief around the area of Hedley-on-the-Hill, Northumberland. More mischievous than dangerous, it had the ability to turn itself into any animal or item. It delighted in using this talent to play tricks on unsuspecting local people before revealing its true self and vanishing with a resounding peal of mocking laughter (1). Several tales tell of its antics and pranks on local people which result in the victim becoming bewildered or embarrassed. Presented here are a few examples of such encounters followed by a tale of an irrepressible old lady whose attitude is a lesson to us all.
The Dancing Kow
In one tale an old woman went out collecting firewood. As she was searching she came across a long dry stick she considered perfect for kindling a good fire. She picked it up and placed it into her basket and continued her search. As she searched she noticed her basket was getting heavier and heavier and she dropped it spilling the sticks on the ground.
To her surprise the stick she had considered perfect suddenly jumped in the air turning into a large gangly cow. She was even more shocked when it started jigging up and down and swaying from side to side as if it was performing an old-fashioned country dance. It continued to caper up and down and then let out a loud braying laugh as it jigged down the road and out of sight leaving only the mocking echo of its laughter.
Tricked by the Kow
Another tale tells how two young men dressed in their Sunday best clothes intending to meet up with their girlfriends by the River Derwent. The young men set off full of anticipation and excitement of what the liaison might bring. On reaching the river bank they saw their girlfriends ahead walking arm in arm in the opposite direction. They shouted several times trying to attract their attention but the girls did not seem to hear them and carried on walking.
Therefore the young men set off after them and being young and fit expected to catch up with them easily. However, the faster they walked and the harder they tried the more they failed. The girls just continued strolling along unhurriedly but the distance between them did not diminish and they stayed ahead.
This state of affairs continued for sometime but suddenly the two lads found themselves in a bog and up to their knees in mud. As they looked towards the girls they saw their forms slowly dissipate into a wispy mist as a deep mocking laugh echoed back at them. Realizing that they had been tricked by the Kow they scrambled from the bog and ran home with the Kow in close pursuit taunting and mocking them all the way. Once safe inside they told their families of the unnerving experience of their encounter with the Hedley Kow.
Tricks of the Kow
Despite its mischievousness the Kow appeared to possess a degree of compassion. It was never known to trouble people experiencing great sadness or mourning for loss of loved ones. Nevertheless, for unknown reasons it would sometimes make trouble at births. This might take the form of knocking on the door of the residence where a birth was taking place and disappearing when someone opened the door only to be greeted by mocking laughter. Other times it would frighten the horse of servants of the attending midwife whom she might send on errands.
It was also known to mimic voices to sound like someone known to its victim. Tales tell how it could impersonate the voices of the servant girl’s lovers or change into a replica of him to appear at their windows. Sometimes it would mimic the voice of their employers, shouting down corridors for their attendance only for them to find they had been tricked (2).
The Hedley Kow
The following is a retelling of a story collected by Joseph Jacobs in “More English Fairy Tales.” It tells of an encounter with the Kow by an irrepressible old lady who made a sparse living doing cleaning, cooking and washing chores around the village. She was poor and was often paid by being given a good meal and a cup of tea or just a few pennies so she never had much money. Nevertheless, she was always of good cheer and always looked on the bright side. Her demeanor was of someone who had not a care in the world despite her poverty.
Walking home one summer evening after completing all her chores for the day she found a large black pot sitting in the middle of the road. Surprised at the find she looked at it closely wondering who ever could have left it so carelessly in the middle of the road like that. Despite looking all around she could see no one else and it just seemed to have been left there. She thought it was just the thing for her to put a few flowers in from her small garden in so she decided to take it home. Bending her aching back she lifted the lid and looked inside and to her complete astonishment saw inside it was full to the top with gold coins.
“Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!” she said to herself over and over again as she walked around it wondering what to do. It was too heavy for her to lift and the only thing she could think of was to wrap her shawl around it and drag it along the road. She did this and made considerable progress homewards all the time saying to herself, “Goodness Gracious, upon my soul, but I do feel rich and very grand!”
She noticed it was getting dark, but rather than let it disturb her she thought it would stop people seeing her treasure and lessen the risk of theft. She kept thinking to herself how grand she felt and thought upon ways of spending the gold. She fancied, a big house, new clothes and she would sit by the warm fire drinking tea all day, never again go hungry and live like a queen. She thought perhaps she would give the gold to the local priest to look after and he could give her a little at a time to spend when she needed it. Alternatively, she thought she might bury some in the garden and hide some up the chimney and about the house.
All this time she was dragging the heavy pot full of gold along and she grew very tired and her back began to ache. She stopped and rested but could not resist the temptation to lift the lid to look at the gold. To her astonishment it had turned into a great lump of pure shining silver, although earlier, she swore it had been full of gold coins worth a fortune.
Now, silver being worth less than gold you might think she would be upset, but not a bit of it. She reckoned that when she started to buy things using gold coins word would get round and she would become a target for thieves. “Never mind, I shall be better off and safer and still very rich so what does it matter?” she said happily.
Once again she started on her way dragging the pot behind all the time planning on how she would spend the money and live an easy life. After a while her back began to ache and she began to tire so she stopped to have a little rest. Looking back at the pot she was astounded to see that it had turned into a large lump of iron and worth much less than the silver. Now you expect her to be very disappointed but she simply shrugged and said, “Never mind, at least it will be easier to sell and it will still be worth a fair piece and I won’t have to fret about robbers breaking in to steal my fortune! It is still worth more than enough to ease my old age so I am still very lucky!”
Once again she began dragging the lump of iron along the road home until once again her back began to ache and she grew tired. She stopped and looked back but to her astonishment instead of the lump of iron she saw it had turned into a large stone.
She stood staring at and said, “Well I never and who would have thought such things possible! It must have realized I have a great need for a good stone to prop open my door in the summer. Well now isn’t that the most amazing luck! I am so lucky to have such good luck!”
Happily she continued on her way excitedly imagining how the stone would look with her front door propped open by it. At last reaching her front gate and quickly lifted the latch and hauled the stone up to her front door.
Turning around she bent to unwrap her shawl. The stone sat on the path and there was still enough light for to see it plainly. As she unfastened her shawl from around it she had a shock. For a second or two the stone, free of the shawl, sat still and peacefully on the path as you would expect it to. Suddenly it sprang in the air and from it sprouted four long legs, a long neck beset by the head of a cow with horns, two long ears and behind grew a long tail. It was the most ungainly looking creature she had ever seen. It pranced around her two or three times while laughing mockingly at her before dashing off back down the lane.
The old lady stared in disbelief as it ran off. Now you might think after all the disappointments she had experienced she would be very upset. Not a bit of it! She just shook her head and said, “Bless me but I am the lucky one! I have just seen the Hedley Kow and all by myself. Not many people in the whole wide world can say that. Why, I feel special and grand and I think I need a cup of tea to think things over and celebrate!” (4)
If that old lady was alive today she would probably be a world famous guru on the art of positivity with her own YouTube channel and a following of millions!
© 27/01/2021 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright January 27th, 2021 zteve t evans
- (1) Hedley Kow – Oxford Reference
- (2) A Mischievous Bogle – The Hedley Kow – Consett History – By Brian Harrison – April 3, 2020 – Writing ing Consett Magazine
- (3) Hedley Kow | Facts, Information, and Mythology
- (4) More English Fairy Tales – Collected and Edited by Joseph Jacobs – Editor of “Folk-Lore” and Illustrated by John D. Batten – 1894 – G.P. Putnam’s Sons – New York and London
- The Hedley Kow – Wikipedia
- The Hedley Kow – Northumberland Archives
- Image – The Hedley Kow – zteve t evans – 15/01/2021