You should, in all circumstances, stay clear of visiting bookshops when travelling. It’s a dangerous pastime. In this case we left the store armed with a nifty little book on the ancient sites around Helmsley and the sure and certain knowledge that at some point we were going to have to come back and explore the area further. Not that this is a hardship, mind you… it is just that we are pretty much fully booked for the next year or so as far as research trips are concerned. We wouldn’t be able to do any more this trip… it was raining, we were a long way from Sheffield and even further from my home… and we both had work next morning.
So we turned the car southwards at last and headed on back through the Vale of York. Traffic came to a standstill some way north of that ancient city so we slipped down a lane, the prospect of a few extra miles in the Yorkshire countryside being preferable to sitting motionless in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
We did not get lost… merely took a rather nice and unexpected detour in the mist and damp. A church promised ancient stone but proved to be locked. The tea shop was busy being repainted, and we finally arrived on the outskirts of Sheffield some considerable time later in dire need of liquid refreshment. Having established that I had not yet seen the place, I was directed to the Noose and Gibbet. Whilst no noose was in evidence, the gibbet swung in the wind with its grisly occupant looking unnervingly realistic in the gloom.
The pub stands close to the site of the original gibbet where Spence Broughton’s body was placed after his hanging at York in 1792, ‘suspended between earth and heaven as being worthy of neither’. The body remained in its cage for 36 years until the new landowner had it taken down, annoyed at the constant trespassers coming to visit the bones; 40,000 people are said to have come to view the remains on the first day alone, including the boys of the Grammar School; it was a carnival atmosphere. Broughton had been involved in robbing the mail coach here, as well as in Cambridge and, oddly enough, in my own nearest town of Aylesbury. He is thought to be the last man to have been gibbeted in Yorkshire.
His remains were not to rest in peace, but were to be ‘buffeted by wind and storms’ as they decayed as both punishment and deterrent. Broughton’s penitent demeanour at his execution, however, seems to have bought him a place in both public sympathy and local folklore. Legend has it that two drunken potters threw stones at the skeleton some years later and, dislodging a finger, the calcined bones were incorporated into the body of a jug.
His remains were eventually laid to rest, it is believed, in nearby Darnall churchyard.
Broughton’s gibbet was to be the final stop of our journey. For me, however, there was still the early morning drive home before work… and as I would be leaving very early, if the weather cleared, there might be a final dawn… I could always hope.