One evening in 2005, I sat in a pub with a group of strangers who had responded to my advert for like-minded people interested in starting a ghost research group. Teenage-me listened intently as two men (who were friends) shared in great detail their encounter and subsequent dramatic escape from a demonic dog in one of the country lanes in the Wiltshire village of Hilperton.
I grew up in Hilperton and I knew that there was no Grim in those lanes, but I was still reeled in by the story because I knew of Grims across the my home county of Weird Wiltshire, and these dog-like entities always piqued my curiosity.
My fascination with these dogs can be blamed, in part, on J K Rowling. The Grim featured quite heavily in my favourite Harry Potter book – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Sirius Black (who can magically transform into a large dog) was mistaken for a Grim, and when Harry Potter has his tea leaves read, therein lays an omen of death…
‘The Grim, my dear, the Grim!’ cried Professor Trelawney, who looked shocked that Harry hadn’t understood. ‘The giant, spectral dog that haunts churchyards! My dear boy, it is an omen – the worst omen – of death!’Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Back in Wiltshire, sitting in that pub on that evening, I knew that the closest Grim could be found a whole 8 miles away in Bratton, near Westbury. There it was said a spectral black dog the size of a donkey, with perfectly round eyes ‘more like saucers than eyes’ which ‘glow with a dull red flame’ would bring sickness to anyone who didn’t get out of its path, (Matthews, 2004 p17).
I knew also of a Grim which was sighted by a friend of my mother one evening while she traveled by car towards Market Lavington. It was (coincidentally) as the car approached Black Dog Crossroads that a large dog measuring about ‘fifteen feet from nose to tail’, and ‘pure black in colour’ ran across the road in front of the vehicle, causing them to have to stop, (Smith, 2007, pg. 24-25). Sonia reported leaving the scene with a sense of deep foreboding as it is told that anyone who sees the Grim will suffer misfortune.
In fact, for a long time, the sighting of a Grim has been considered an unlucky omen save for one or two examples where that isn’t the case. This is largely because of the association between these phantom dogs and Satan. In 1644, venturing across the Wiltshire border and into Somerset, the accused witch Elizabeth Styles confessed to a magistrate that the Devil himself would appear in the form a black dog (Boulton, 1681 cited in Davies 2007). It is such an association which is said to gift the Grim with his fiery red eyes, the stench of death, and ability to curse those who see him.
The grim (or pack of , depending on who you talk to) said to run around Roundway Hill, just outside of the town of Devizes, has chains hanging from around the neck. It is these that you hear clattering loudly before you glimpse the dogs themselves.
For me, the most striking thing about the Grim is how easy it is to chalk them up as people seeing ordinary dark coloured dogs and identifying them as demon hounds because they’ve been primed by local folklore. Yet here in Weird Wiltshire, we also have no shortage of Anomalous Big Cats (panthers etc. seen where they shouldn’t be), and yet you’ll not find any of these sighted in the places where lore dictates a cursed dog roams…
…except for that country lane in Hilperton where no Grim had ever been reported, apart from the one which allegedly chased the two wanna-be ghost hunters. I wonder which mythical monster will be named the next time a ‘fifteen foot’ beasty runs across a road, or a dark coloured animal is seen on the hills outside of Devizes?
I guess only time will tell…
Davies, O. (2007) ‘Manifestation’, The Haunted – A Social History of Ghosts, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire, p. 35-36
Matthews, R. (2004) ‘The West’, Haunted Places of Wiltshire, Countryside Books, Berkshire, p. 17.
Smith, S. (2007) ‘The Black Creature at the Crossroads’, Wiltshire Stories of the Supernatural, Countryside Books, Berkshire, p. 24-26