Urban myths of the waterways

The hairy beast of Hackney Marshes, an ankle-grabbing ghoul and an alligator lurking in Welsh mountain lakes: delve into the myths and legends of our waterways

Afanc illustration


Over the centuries, the waterways of Wales and England have acquired a wealth of supernatural tales – from mysterious creatures, rivers gods and goddesses to tales of canal tunnel hauntings. Let’s explore a few of the most intriguing…

The Afanc of Welsh waters
The ‘alligator in the sewer’ tale is a well-known urban myth. Potential sightings in Wales, however, may hark back to a creature that originates in even older folklore. The Afanc is a lake monster that, depending on the source, resembles a crocodile, large beaver or even a dwarf. Stories have been passed down ever since the Dark Ages; poet Lewis Glyn Cothi wrote about the creature in the 15th century. It was said to be a magnificent beast that devoured people who entered its waters and, when annoyed, could break the banks of rivers and drown livestock. Its hide was too tough to spear, so one story tells of how it had to be coaxed out of the river by a young maiden so it could be rehomed in a remote mountain lake. The Afrac is also associated with Llangorse Lake, near Brecon, which is also known for its extraordinary large pike; a water-skier was bitten by a 5-6ft pike here in 1999. So perhaps what lies at the root of this myth is not an alligator after all, but a very real and very large Welsh pike.

The Horror of the Hackney Marshes
Winter, 1981. Inexplicably, the decapitated bodies of two bears are found in the River Lea. Weeks later, on 27 December, four boys are playing in the snow-covered Hackney Marshes when they stumble across a mysterious set of large footprints. Thinking nothing of it, they walk on. Then they see it: a large, dark shape rearing up on and roaring at them, something they later describe as “a giant, great, growling hairy thing.” The boys flee. When the police descend on the area later, they find no trace of anything living out on the marsh. Nothing except the footprints. In 2012, a student walking in dense woodland close to the River Lea shares photos of a mysterious ‘beast’ with shaggy black fur and, despite the fact that the creature resembles a blurry Newfoundland dog, the tabloids lap it up and the urban myth is rekindled. Whatever the boys saw that day in 1981 might still be out there, feeding off birds and waiting for more tasty youngsters to show up.

The Tragedy of Blisworth Tunnel
Construction of the Blisworth Tunnel of the Grand Union Canal in Northamptonshire began in 1793. Teams of (mainly Irish) navvies worked here for three years before disaster struck. While digging, they hit quicksand that caused a roof collapse, killing fourteen of the men. Following this tragedy, a new, straighter tunnel was constructed and opened for business in 1805. In 1992, a family took their boat through the tunnel, and encountered what looked like a forking of the way, a candlelit tunnel leading away from the main canal. Spookily this is just where the old, doomed tunnel would have been – it seems the 14 navvies still haven’t finished their work.

The Spook of Burgedin Lock
A picturesque lock keeper’s cottage on the Montgomery Canal at Burgedin, Powys, was also the scene of romance gone wrong. Depending on the source, this is where either the lock keeper’s wife or the Welsh princess Eira was walled up alive, punished for trying to run away with her young lover. The cottage, which is now a waterway office, is said to be haunted by her angry spirit to this day; her ghost has been seen near to the fireplace in the basement and apparently objects are regularly moved when no one is around.

Old Kanky’s Ginnel
Burke and Hare (the pair who sold cadavers to anatomists in the early 1800s) may be the most infamous body-snatchers, but Greater Manchester has its very own ‘resurrection-man’ – one with wet feet. In Middleton, there’s an underground passageway called ‘Kanky’s Ginnel’, which runs from St Leonard’s Churchyard to the River Irk. According to local folklore, it was used by a local grave-robber named Kanky in the 19th century to transport bodies he had dug up under the cover of night down to Manchester to sell.

The White Lady of Coseley Tunnel
The ghost that haunts Coseley Canal Tunnel on the Birmingham Canal Navigations is known as the White Lady. The tale originates with Hannah Johnson Cox, whose husband abandoned her when her family was evicted for rent arrears. Unable to gain entry to the workhouse, Hannah was driven to desperation and on June 14, 1901, she tied her two youngest daughters together and pushed them into the water in Coseley Canal Tunnel. She then went to the nearest police station and confessed. She was found to be guilty but insane and was detained at an asylum. What happened to her after that is not known, but it’s said that the White Lady is still seen searching for her lost children.

Peg Powler of the River Tees
The River Tees, which rises in the North Pennines and flows eastwards to the North Sea near Middlesbrough, has its own resident hag known as Peg Powler. She is an old woman with green skin, long green hair and sharp teeth who grabs the ankles of those close to the water. The foam that gathers on the higher reaches of the river is also known as ‘Peg Powler’s Suds’. Walkers are wise to check the surface of the water for foam that looks like green hair before ambling beside the river.

The Bloody Steps
The body of Christina Collins was discovered in the Trent & Mersey Canal in Rugeley on 17 June 1839. She was allegedly murdered by barge men who had agreed to transport her from Liverpool to her husband in London. Three of the four bargemen were charged with her murder and hanged, and Christina’s grave can still be found in the churchyard at St Augustine’s. The steps which she was carried up are still known as the ‘bloody steps’ to this day. Local legend has it that they sometimes ooze blood and her ghost appears upon them.

For more spooky tales from our waterways – from ghostly Roman centurions to the Monkey Man of Shropshire – read our ‘Ghostly guide to the Shropshire Union Canal’ and our article on ‘Towpath Hauntings’.

Clifford Harper