Going to my sister’s and spending time with my amazing nephew and nieces who are aged five and four – it’s incredible what imaginations a child possesses. Enthusiastically telling me all manner of tales try to fathom where they got these stories from.
But it’s something we all remember growing up. Playing make-believe and acting out a veritable range of characters, from warriors to pirates, wizards to nurses and doctors. It’s easy to see how imagination can lead to some stories taking on lives of their own, and as young kids get older these tales can develop into legends and myths; some becoming quite sinister in nature.
Pretty much every town and city has its urban legends. Usually involving some shadowy figure that lurks on the outskirts, that nobody has seen, but everybody knows a friend of a friend who has.
This is where an urban legend of my old school comes in.
Growing up on the outer edges of Leeds, my middle school was a pretty small one, yet it backed on to an area of land known locally as The Valley. The land itself, approximately a few miles squared had playing fields, hills, a train track running through it, and a small lake. The land was surrounded by housing estates as well as an old hospital. As young pupils, we were only allowed to venture on either during PE, cross country running, or a close part of it during breaks and lunchtime.
No offence to anyone from the area, but the Valley did seem to attract some undesirables. I remember joyriders trying to run us all down on our Sports Day – the teachers pushing us all back before the kids in the car crashed into a tree. Back then, this didn’t seem that out of the ordinary. It already had an eerie feel to it growing up, and indeed a girl in the year above me (I was 9 or 10 at this point) was found raped and murdered at the far end of the Valley not long before we moved to St. Annes.
That tragic event was after this urban legend took place. Like I said, my school was a small one, and in each year of only two classes I had either my sister or a close cousin in it. My sister would tell me of The Black Scarecrow and White Scarecrow who had lurked around the Valley, chasing children and adults they came across. Apparently one dressed all in white with a black cross on him, and the other wore all black with a white cross on him (although my sister doesn’t recall the crosses part). Now whilst sounding like some distant members of a certain white supremacist group, this tale actually scared little 9 year old me when I went on those fields.
Not only content with terrorising people passing through the Valley, but one apparently hung himself from a tree in front of some children, whilst the other doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on the same area of land. A white cross was carved and painted into the tree where one of the Scarecrows swung dead.
To this day I can recall that tree, and I’m 90% sure it exists. My sister agrees too.
Today I asked my cousins and sister about the myth and what they recalled of it.
Now speaking to them years later, it appears the source might have been revealed.
My eldest cousin Wayne says back when he was a pupil at the school he and three friends were allowed to do what they wanted one afternoon and they asked to do cross country. They were told they could go, but only if they went in a group. Whilst coming down part of the Valley known as the Black Hill, a scruffy man came from the bushes brandishing what they thought was a shotgun. All four ran away but one girl fell and twisted her ankle, forcing the others to carry her as the man pursued. Reaching the school, they went straight to the headmaster who quickly gathered a few other teachers and went searching the Valley. Wayne recalls the headmaster’s face dropping when they told him and how he reacted so fast that it felt like they were in real danger.
Soon word of the incident spread, and rumours of a man from one of the estates who hated children circulated. Another rumour was that he lived under the old hospital. Eventually other kids claimed they had saw the man, some even being attacked, and he was now being described as a scarecrow – possibly due to a recent showing of Children of the Corn.
More rumours of attacks ensured but nothing was ever proved.
Looking back, I can’t pinpoint when I was originally told the stories, but I do remember looking out on to the Valley from the school during one stormy day and feeling very creeped out.
It’s bizarre how some memories stick with you.
I guess I’ll never find out just how much of the tale is real, or if the only incident was my cousin running away from the scruffy man.
Regardless of this, I’ll continue to listen to the enthusiastic story telling of my nephew and nieces. I only hope their tales are a little less gory and sinister.
On saying this, my niece Darcie revels in the fact her name means ‘Dark’ so maybe I’ll have some dark tellings to pen from them one day.