WHAT is it about Halifax and its fascination with severed heads?
It’s a question I put to John Billingsley, who devotes a chunk of his latest book to the subject.
Early legends of the town point to an ancient sanctity, he says. But there’s also a dark side too.
The town’s name can be translated quite literally as “holy hair” so surely there must be a reason for that.
Talk inevitably turns to John the Baptist and his associations with the town - after all the saint’s head does feature as the centrepiece of Halifax’s former coat of arms.
(One of its most striking representations can still be seen on the gates of the Piece Hall, along with other less colourful versions in and around town, including beside the Ring ‘o Bells and at Shibden Hall.)
But did the head of John the Baptist actually come here?
“The simplest version of the legend explains that a group of monks came to settle in the area bearing ‘a true likeness’ of the face of St John the Baptist’ but was this mysterious object an image or a part of John’s actual skull?,” ponders John.
Tantalisingly he also muses whether the famous head could have been brought to Halifax in the company of Templars - outside of London, Yorkshire was the main centre of operations.
But severed heads are not the only preoccupation for the Hebden Bridge based author.
In the book - Hood, Head and Hag, he also looks at the tales of Robin Hood and his men in Calderdale as well as Hag - or shapeshifters and spellcasters as he refers to the book.
Regarding the legendary outlaw: “Whatever the arguments for Nottingham or anywhere else, there is still no denying that Robin Hood’s links with West Yorkshire are strong,” he says.
“Calderdale is heavily touched by Robin Hood lore.”
John, originally a Londoner, cheerfully refers to himself as an “offcumden” despite having lived in Calderdale since 1985.
In 2007 he published Folk Tales from Calderdale, which was so successful it is now in its third printing.
Like the first volume, this latest book is a collection of place legends and other lore relating to the region.
And there is plenty of subject matter to give food for thought, he reveals.
“Calderdale is an area rich in folk tales,” he says.
“It has a wealth of customs, stories, beliefs, festivals, rituals, sayings and language. And what’s fascinating about Calderdale, is it is made up of such diverse areas.
It has grown up as a collection of separate communities which are not really joined together because there are green spaces in between. As a result different areas have been allowed to grow independently and retain their own sense of identity.”
John, a prolific author (he has produced a book a year since 2007) is passionate about collecting stories and legends. Everyone has a story to tell and it’s important that we tell it. Otherwise, how else will these folk tales survive from one generation to another?
“Information comes from all sorts of sources,” says John who regularly organises heritage walks around Calderdale.
“Sometimes you meet people on a chance encounter and they’ll pass something on to you. It can be something you’ve been trying to find out for quite a time too,” he laughs.
“When I was writing my book about the Mixenden Treasure of the 1500s, there was one particular bit of information I had been searching for, for ages. I was giving a talk and someone just put their hand up and had that information.”
He also reveals that he spends hours scouring local libraries and archives for knowledge.
“The information you want is rarely organised and in one place. It’s usually scattered about and of course every time a story is told, bits gets changed and sometimes parts of the story become embellished.”
In his latest collection of folk tales he looks into 21 individual legends and stories from Old Betty who could “wish you to Hell” if you crossed her, to farmsteads familiar with cunning and witchcraft.
There’s the tragedy of Old Cragg Hall and the sculptor who killed himself twice.
There are tales of the strange, tales that will chill, tales of loss and - John is at pains to point out - tales with happier endings.
Each one is enhanced by a commentary explaining its history and context and the collective result is a fascinating picture of Calderdale’s rich heritage of cultural tradition.
John admits that he is now taking “a bit of a break” from his writing, in order to concentrate on more research.
But if this second volume is half as successful as the first, his research could be interrupted by fans eager to pass on more stories with which he can regale us.
l Hood, Head and Hag by John Billingsley is available at Fred Wade, Halifax and the Book Case, Hebden Bridge.