Monday 5 April 2021

Fenland Folklore

The Fens of Eastern England are strange. The folklore is even stranger. Take the skeletal remains of an elephant discovered at the ancient market town of Chatteris, or the lucky charms made from the severed hands of executed criminals and you may perhaps, begin to see what I mean.  Alex Langstone takes a  look.  (Author pic: Barb Lowe)

A landscape shaped, in part by 17th century Dutch engineers, who drained the land and created much of the arable farmland you see today. A landscape, which can appear bleak and uninteresting to some, but which can appear mysterious and intriguing to others. It is a landscape, which shares many qualities with the only other fen land region in England; the Somerset levels. But whereas the levels of central Somerset were drained (by the same Dutch engineers) for livestock rearing; the eastern fens were drained for arable farming. Hence the Somerset Levels green and pleasant land versus the Fens bleak, dark, broodiness. What the two landscapes do share though is the vast straight drainage channels and broad navigable waterways. Folklore abounds in these flat lands, and it is the lesser-known and largely ignored Eastern Fen Country that this article is about.

Tom Hickathrift and the giant of Wisbech depicted
on the Old Sun Inn, Saffron Walden.

The legend of Tom Hickathrift
Tom lived in marshes near the Isle of Ely and although initially lazy and gluttonous, he was prodigiously tall and it soon became apparent that he had the strength of twenty men. Various proofs of his strength are given: he carried twenty hundredweight of straw and a tree as if they weighed nothing, kicked a football so far that nobody could find it and turned the tables on four men who tried to rob him. He eventually got a job carting beer in Wisbech, but the long journey tired him, so one day he cut across the land of the Wisbech Giant. The giant took this badly and fetched his club to beat Tom, but Tom ripped up a tree and stole a cartwheel from a passing cart and fought the giant. After a furious battle the giant was killed. Tom took his land and was from then on held in esteem by the people of the area. Tom's shadowy figure still haunts the flat-lands between Ely and Wisbech, especially on dark stormy nights, when he maybe glimpsed angrilly hurling his cartwheel at an unseen foe.

The Devil in March
It is said that many years ago the people of March wanted to build a church near the market place. The devil thought that the fens belonged to him and, when the building work started he pulled everything down so that each dawn saw the labours of the previous day were wasted. A cross was put up to drive the devil away, which had the desired effect, but the church was never built. The base of an old stone cross stands by the road between the market and St Wendreda's church and the story may been told to explain the existence of this cross. This legend abounds across much of rural England and Wales in many variants, and may suggest a pre-Christian origin of the site chosen for the church.

A fenland landscape

Jack O' Lanterns
The self igniting gas present in the swamps of the fens often appeared on the surface of the water as small flickering flames called Jack 0' Lanterns. These were greatly feared, as it was believed that they were the faerie folk of the fens, and could entice a wayfarer off the path after dark and to certain death in the marsh. Whistling was thought to encourage the Jack O' Lanterns to appear. The safest thing to do on seeing them was to make for the nearest shelter or if none were available to lie face down until the lights disappeared.

The Isle of Ely

The cathedral city of Ely is a beautiful gem in the heart of the fens. The ancient Isle rises only a few feet above the now drained marshes, but was once lonely and isolated. The Cathedral sits on the original site of the double Celtic style monastery, founded by Etheldreda, a Saxon princess following the Celtic Christian tradition in the 7th century. The cathedral has many beautiful green men carvings (below right), which may allude to the Isle of Ely as a sacred pre-Christian site, and there is a large mound which rises steeply in the park adjacent the cathedral. Marked as a Motte and Bailey, the mound has a curious and mysterious atmosphere, and affords great views from the Sacred Isle of Ely across the vast flat plains of the east.

At the west end of the Cathedral you will find the shrine to St Etheldreda. Her remains were lost during the reformation, but her left hand did re-surface in 1810 on the Duke of Norfolk's Arundel estate in Sussex. it was found in a reliquary hidden behind a wall in a priests hole inside Arundel castle. It was returned to Ely and is no
w housed in a shrine in St Etheldreda's catholic church in the town. Her hand is said to haunt the town's historic Kings School,
and frequently appears on the stairs in the school. Other ghostly encounters have been witnessed around the Cathedral, many ghostly monks have been sited over the years, especially around the old Monastic buildings near the Porta gate. These buildings have amazingly survived intact, and the whole complex of medieval monastic buildings, gardens, parkland and cathedral are very atmospheric and lend themselves to thoughts of the past history of the ancient fenland isle. The area around the cathedral has one of the largest number of former monastic buildings still in use, many of them now used by the King's School. The Great Hall, the brewery and the malting house can still be seen giving the visitor a feel of what the area looked like centuries ago.

The historic and picturesque waterside area of Ely is haunted, and many sightings have been reported over the years of a lady dressed in black who appears by the River Great Ouse without warning, then promptly vanishes again further down the river. The ghostly cries of help are often head late at night seeming to come from the river itself, but no-one is ever found. Another green man (left) can be found watching the modern-day shoppers hurrying past. He is carved into a cross beam of the city centre's Steeple Gate, and is now blackened with age.

Just outside the town on the fen edge the local Black Shuck haunts the watery levels. The Black Shuck seems to be unique to East Anglian folklore and is variously seen as an evil demon dog from hell to a more benign guardian of the landscape. The Ely Shuck is more of a friendly guardian, though his appearance is that of a terrifying demon! With a black shaggy coat and blazing red eyes, he appears on dark winter nights during the dark of the moon, and has guided people home from the marshes to the city for hundreds of years.

Sunday 4 April 2021

Some East Cornwall May Day Traditions

The Maypole Battles and Other Customs

Alex Langstone


Many villages, hamlets and farms around Bodmin Moor and eastern Cornwall had a peculiar May Day tradition of the Maypole Battles.   At the end of April, each village would choose a stripped fir tree between thirty and fifty-foot-high and would fasten it to the highest chimney stack in their home parish at midnight on May eve. Alternatively, it would be attached to the highest tree in the vicinity. In the early hours of May Day, it was trimmed with streamers made of coloured scraps of material and with flowers and vegetables taken from neighbour’s gardens. The moment the pole was up and decorated, each village became a fortress, with other rival villages setting off on raids to try to steal the Maypole of the next village. At some villages, such as Merrymeet, the pole was cemented in and tarred, so it could not be climbed, but the men of St Cleer simply sawed the pole at the base and carried it away.  At Trekernal a pole was fastened to the highest tree and decorated in the traditional manner. However, it was quickly taken, before dawn, by a man from North Hill, who climbed the tree with a rope and lowered the pole to the ground. 

The maypoles were generally left in position throughout the month of May, and were guarded each night by the men of the village throughout the entire month. At the months end they were then taken down and stored safely until the following year.  

Around 150 years ago the biggest Maypole battle to have been recorded, took place between Altarnun and Trewen.  The folk of Altarnun managed to steal the Trewen pole and this resulted in a fight where it is reported that the villagers “fought like Dragons”.The descriptions of these East Cornwall maypoles sound remarkably like the Maypole seen every year at Padstow, (above) which are very different to the maypoles decked with ribbon for dancing around. 

The East Cornwall maypoles were instead bedecked with garlands and hoops of flowers. Other villages recorded as having these poles include, Berriow, Middlewood, Menheniot and North Hill. St Neot had its own version of the Maypole tradition, recorded by W. Arthur Pascoe in Old Cornwall 12, winter 1930. This was considered the most favoured of all the festivals once observed in the village. One of the last observances of this once popular custom saw one of the large farms cut a pole and raised it in the village, having much faith in their ability to defend it. However, they did not foresee such a mass attack, which they would have to repel. Amid scenes of great confusion, dire threats, the firing of shotguns into the air and discharges of hot water and pepper the St Neot pole was lost and the victors marched off with the pole on their triumphant shoulders, singing a long-lost song of maypole victory. The custom died out around 1890, but until then was firmly entrenched into the St Neot village calendar.  

Bringing in the maypole. Lanreath, 1940s

The greatest maypole battle celebration was centred on the village of Lanreath, and the tradition is thought to stretch back at least six hundred years, and was still going in the early 1980s, when it started to decline, due to complaints and police intervention. It was all about the virility of the young men of the village, who would steal the biggest tree from the local woods, which would be taken at the dead of night. The poles were huge, and in 1973 the maypole was recorded at 105 feet before it was stolen by the lads of Pelynt. Upon its return it was a bit shorter, and was found hidden within rows of the potato crop. 

Games of skittles locally called ‘keels’were played, with the stumps (skittles), having been made from the previous year’s maypole. (See below). The battle of the maypole was often between Lanreath, Pelynt and Lerryn, and local rivalry was intense. Each village would never know who would raid who, and Doublebois and Duloe also often raided Lanreath. The maypole guard would hide in and keep watch from the churchyard, armed with sticks and one night the army arrived from Bodmin’s barracks and tried to take the pole back to Bodmin, however they were unsuccessful.  

Playing 'keels' in Lanreath, 1940s

Aside from the May Pole Battles, other more sedate form of observance are also recorded from the region.  A may-pole used to be erected on West Looe Quay on the 1st May with dancing and street processions with garlands of flowers that were an art form in themselves, which processed through both East and West Looe. The May Frolics followed during the evening, where bands of young people would gather together and walk to a nearby farm.  Accompanied by a fiddler, they would dance until midnight. If the weather was foul a barn would be emptied for them, if the weather was fine a field would be used and the dances performed under a starry sky. They would dance four-handed, six-handed and eight-handed reels, riotous quick-steps followed by the more sedate Triumph and Cushion Dances, which were slow and graceful. Metheglin, Sloe and Elderberry wine would be supplied for the occasion along with junkets of cream and rich milk and ‘Whipped Syllabubs’ straight from the cow. Similar festivities were common at Fowey and Polperro.  

The following poetic description of the late-night return home from the ‘May frolicks’ at Looe, can be found in the Old Cornwall Journal, Summer 1930 – 

One can picture the happy party returning from Hay Farm, each with a lantern, keeping very close together as they turned the corner of Hay Lane, and the trill that shook them as they glanced apprehensively toward Plaidy, fearing they might catch a glimpse of the Phantom Horsemen careering across the beach on his ghostly headless steed. To keep up their courage they would lustily troll a catch, and the “dug-dug” of the maidens’ red-eared festal clogs would be a gentle accompaniment.

First published in Meyn Mamvro, No. 95, Spring/Summer 2018
© Alex Langstone