'Bodies are piled high!' Ironbridge Gorge's creepy folklore dating back to the Black Death

The Ironbridge Gorge is usually one of Shropshire's most peaceful places to stop and smell the fresh air - but did you know it is supposedly patrolled by a phantom boatman sailing a ghost barge full of corpses?

'Bodies are piled high!' Ironbridge Gorge's creepy folklore dating back to the Black Death

The legend of the Ghost Barge of the River Severn is one of Shropshire's most enduring spooky stories, one that fascinates folklore expert and enthusiast for all things paranormal Amy Boucher.

Amy, a history teacher in training from Madeley with a keen interest in local ghost stories, takes up the story of the Ghost Barge, an oft-reported apparition in the gorge – and one which her grandfather even reportedly saw with his own eyes.

"The River Severn is said to be haunted by a large, open-topped barge, which is best seen whilst stood on the Ironbridge," she explained.

"At the ship's helm, a tall figure stands, often described as wearing old-fashioned clothes, or a dark cloak. He is unwavering, staring forward towards his destination.

"The barge sails slowly down the river - and as it gets closer, the ghastly cargo is revealed.

"The Ghost Barge is often witnessed from the top of the Ironbridge and it is probably the best vantage point to see its consignment of corpses. The bodies are laid row by row and are piled quite high. This is obviously a very macabre and shocking spectacle - especially when you’re enjoying the beauty of the gorge and not expecting to see such a sight.

"However almost as soon as the corpses are noticed, the barge shimmers, and inexplicably disappears from view.

"This is not the end of the ghost barge’s journey. Indeed, our chilling visitation has been also witnessed further along the river, in Jackfield.

"Here the ghostly barge is seen tethered to the riverbed. Instead of being laden with bodies, the boat is now empty and the bargeman stands on the riverbank.

"At his feet are the rows of the dead. It appears we’ve re-joined the bargeman at the end of his journey – but there is still more of this story to be told.

"Indeed, our unique haunting is thought to have his origins in the Black Death of the 1660s. This bubonic plague hit Shropshire hard, ripping through the county and leaving a trail of awful symptoms - beginning with fever and culminating in nausea, headaches, delirium, and painful pus-filled buboes which, if burst, would give the poor patient a 50/50 chance of survival.

"Though records are incomplete, it's fair to estimate that around 15 per cent of Shropshire people lost their lives in an 18-month period. Our bargeman is at the helm of a plague ship, which was used to transport the dead to their final resting place.

"Until the advent of rail, the River Severn was a main source of transport through Shropshire and to the wider world. Boats travelled up and down the river, transporting goods and indeed people to their destination - however, as the plague hit, these boats began to carry the dead to plague pits to limit the spread of disease.

"Interestingly, there is evidence of plague pits located in the Jackfield area, and with that, our story’s origins begin to take shape. The Ghost Barge of the river Severn is a plague ship, following its final journey to unload its burden in Jackfield."

The view from above.

Amy points out that in tight-knit communities like those of the gorge, the Black Death and its devastating death toll would have left deep mental scars on the survivors, inflicting severe emotional trauma on people who lost their friends and loved ones to a seemingly indiscriminate killer.

Watching the plague boats load up with their grisly cargo for transportation to Jackfield would no doubt have played on the minds of those who lived and worked along on the river, perhaps going some way to explaining the enduring legacy of the Ghost Barge haunting.

Explaining her interest in the paranormal, Amy said: "I wanted to explore my passion for folklore in my writing and noticed that the folklore and ghost stories of Shropshire were severely underrepresented in the paranormal community, so over the last few years the focus of my research has been Shropshire, namely how ghost stories can inform us about the past, and the cultural significance of the ghost to society.

"These stories can give us such a powerful insight into the thoughts, feelings and fears of a society, and that's how I try to approach my research. I'm personally a believer in the paranormal and I'm interested in the science behind hauntings but I'm not as well-versed in that side."

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