Monday 12 November 2012

Lost Landscapes - Finding Stories

I recently finished the latest Alan Garner book, Boneland.
With this, Garner completes a trilogy which began with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and then onto the Moon of Gomrath leaving its protagonist twins, Colin and Susan, with uncertain destinies. Fifty years on, Boneland is a grown-up, strangely sad end to the twins' journeys. Garner explores Colin's dsturbed psyche
which has been formed by his relationship with the ancient haunted landscape of Alderley Edge and its beginnings rooted in folklore.

It remains a brilliant, mystifying story which I read because I was entranced by the magical realism of The Weirdstone. I was Colin (he was more interesting than Susan) and I was captured by Alderley Edge as much as he was. Garner is impressive. His story is huge but can be held in your hand because it's a world he makes local to its foundations.
Garner brings the stars and the earth and the poetic story of a people and makes this whole big story universe local.
There are stories out there for the taking, shaping and remaking, endlessly told and retold and none the worse for that. They fascinate because they are based in a reality we know or used to know, a place just out of reach but still within remembering and possible.

I will confess that I LOVE legends and folklore in all its forms. I'm a shameless watcher of  'Merlin' and' Game of Thrones'. Both are familiar and still differently realised. So, bring them on... witches, demons, fairies, screaming skulls, hidden treasure, phantom beasts, drowned villages, spirits, secret passages, Arthur and his Sleeping Knights etc etc, all these archetypes and characters and places are woven into the British landscape for anyone who cares to look. I keep a copy of not one but two Oxford Dictionaries by the bed - Superstitions and Folklore of England. Both are fantastic for dipping into. But my regional folklore bible is:

It is packed with stories about people and the landscape, about simpler times when explanations were not so forthcoming, when logic and science still bordered on bonkers. When you could just make it all up and folk would be inclined to believe you, especially if you were sitting round a fire and the dark was outside and well, really the only explanation for your dead livestock was that funny look Old Mother Tweddle gave you.

They' re not my black crows

There are many similar stories but they are all made different, peculiar to their locality. How to choose an example when there are so many. What about bogey beasts like the Black Dogs?
 They spring up all across Lincolnshire and pretty much everywhere else but there're not always dogs and not always black. In Cambridgeshire there is the, 'shug monkey'
A cross between a big, rough-coated dog and a monley with big shining eyes.
Hmmm, sounds like the East Anglian, 'shuck'. In 1850, the Reverend E.S.Taylor of Ormesby wrote of, 'a black, shaggy dog with fiery eyes...who visits churchyards at night.' Of course it does Reverend! How brilliant! But hang on, in 1830 a Reverend (naturally) Robert Formby  in Suffolk reported sightings of a, 'shock':
'a mischievious goblin, in the shape of a great dog , or a calf, haunting highways and footpaths in the dark. Those who are so foolhardy as to encounter him are sure to be at least thrown down and severely bruised and it is well if they do not get their ankles sprained.' 

A likely place for a beastly bogey encounter
Landscape can mould or give rise to particular stories. Sunken villages with their ghostly church bells are popular tales,  like that of drownded Derwentwater. Off the Cornish coast, such stories give way to the legend of Lyonesse, a entire land submerged beneath the waves. As William of Worcester in the 15th century mentons, 'Woods and fields and 140 parochial churches, all now submerged between the Mount and the Isles of Scilly.' Travel to landlocked Lincolnshire in 1696 and Abraham de la Pryme wrote in his diary,
'I went to see a place, between Sanclif and Conisby, called the Sunken Church, the tradition concerning which says that there was a church there formally but that it sunk in the ground with all the people in it.'
According to an 18th century story from Norfolk, a deep hole called Seagar-ma-hole' was said to be a 'Fairies' Bay'. A church which stood on the spot was swallowed up by the boggy, rushy ground. Prosaic reasons for terrible events become lyrical, endlessly repeatable and fabulous.

Dunino Churchyard
There are so many stories to be discovered. When I go on holiday, I like to seek out the wild and woolly. Near St Andrews there's a little hidden place called Dunino Den. The church there is relatively young (19th century) but the site it's on, is ancient and brimming with folklore. You can put this down partly to its situation - a dell accessed by a steep stepped path...

Looking up to where Dunino Church is sited
And then there are the carvings...
Can you see the face?

Talismans draped from trees in the dell
One associated story tells of fairies and a woman taken and held there for seven years. When she returned she was burned as a witch. In another story, there's talk of human sacrifice and worship of wood and water spirits. Whatever the truth, the place has atmosphere.
Dunino pool - a natural rock basin above the dell and a place of ancient tales - photo thanks to Land of the Fae

There is so much to be found, so many stories stored in the stones and the woods and the water which when told, gather some sort of creeping substance. Sometimes I feel spoiled for choice. So, bit stuck with a story? Go for a walk, scrape at some moss, dig down a little and you may find gold.

Don't be too much of a cynic. be like the so-called Shepherd-Lord of Brougham Castle in Cumberland who found beauty and wisdom everywhere he looked:

Love had he found in huts where poor men lie,
His daily teachers had been wood and rills;
The silence that is the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.

Here be giants or fairies or witches or...

Got any favourite bits of folklore?


  1. I've always been fond of Atlantis, so must look up more about Lyonesse! Thanks!

  2. Great blog, Addy! Susan Cooper also roots her fantasy in the local in The Dark is Rising series. She uses Lyonesses in one of the books too!

    1. I loved The Dark is Rising! Thanks for reminding me, Paula!

  3. Love the Alan Garner stories and used to read them to my class. I remember we all cried at the outcome of the valiant dwarf's last battle. The chapter where they are trying to crawl out of the mine through increasingly narrow passages is just too claustrophobic for words!

    1. wish I'd been in yur class, Gill!

    2. I blame my husband's claustrophobia on that scene. Oh to write a scene that can stick in the mind for thirty years!

  4. oooh that face! you're right. there's so much to be discovered!

  5. Not folklore as such, but I was having a fascinating chat this morning to a local builder who remembers the area where I live when it used to be the old Lambeth Hospital (if you watched the Grand Designs programme featuring the water tower, that's the one). He described how, a few years back, he was asked to make good the roofs on some old cottages that had previously formed part of the surgeons' accommodation for the huge hospital and workhouse complex. The cottages still stand, he said (and I presume that they're listed and hence can't be demolished), but no-one had been in them for nearly 50 years. He walked in and found everything still there - all the old furniture still in its place, even pens still sitting in their pen pots. By this point in the conversation there were shivers going down my spine - not because I believe in literal ghosts, but because there is something inherently ghostly and elegiac about such a scene.
    If I were a novelist rather than someone writing picture books I'm sure I could find a whole world in there to write about - it's endlessly fascinating.

    1. gosh makes me wish that you WERE a novelist!

    2. That is absolutely brilliant. Sounds a bit like Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire. It's a Gothic stone-built house at the bottom of a deep valley and it was abandonned mid-build; like the Marie-Celeste with ladders and tools left as though the builders had fled...

  6. I'm also a big fan of folklore and incorporating it within stories. It goes with a sense of place that means the story can be really well rooted. Alan Garner's books were big influence on me as well. In particular, The Owl Service, being set in mid-Wales, where I spent 17 years of my life until a year ago, was foremost in my mind in writing my last novel, Stormteller, which is also based on local myths and set in the same area. Aside from that, it is very different. This novel is not yet published, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that a Welsh publisher, which I'm due to meet later this month, may do so! If you want to no more about it, you can have a look at this website, which also details the myths and locations I use:

    1. The Owl Service was a very special book for Garner - so many odd happenings combined to help him form the story. I understand that the tv series (from the 70s?) was plagued by strange events and bad luck. It was the least favourite for me but probably the most disturbing. Good luck with Stormteller, David!

  7. I'm a big folklore fan too, Addy. I recently bought a book on Scottish fables in Edinburgh with a foreword by Terry Pratchett who uses folklore from the book. It's very thick and I'm working my way through it wondering if I'll come across the Nac Mac Feegles going Waily Waily. But somehow I think they are from Terry's head.

  8. Oh, for them to be real! I think I'm a bit in love with Terry Pratchett.


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