Ancient flying machines!

I’m telling stories about ancient technology at Gloucester History Festival on Saturday, and flying machines do come into it…

People have always wanted to fly. The stories of the gods and goddesses of the world imagine our earthbound chariots and horses into the air – think of Helios’s sun chariot, or Freya’s chariot pulled by cats. Bellophron rides Pegasus, a flying horse born of Poseidon and Medusa. The Egyptian god Horus was a falcon-god. In the Ramayana, gods and demons have vimanas, chariots powered by the air.

Daedalus and Bladud

The most famous story is, of course, that of Daedalus and Icarus. The great Greek inventor, trapped on Crete with his son, devised wings made of feathers, string and wax, and flew safely to Naples, where he dedicated his wings to Apollo – something we often forget when thinking of how Icarus fell to his death. There was nothing wrong with Daedalus’s wings! You just had to use them safely, as with any dangerous tool. Inspired by this, King Bladud of Britain, who had studied in Athens in his youth, built himself a pair of wings through his studies in necromancy (did he channel the spirit of Daedalus?) and flew from the temple of Apollo in London – but like Icarus, he fell, and died.

Alexander the Great

More successful early flights include that of Alexander the Great. In the Alexander Romance, which first appears about the 3rd century AD, Alexander has a number of strange adventures: he travels down to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell; he defeats the barbarians of the north giants Gog and Magog, and, ahem, builds a wall[i] to keep them out; his sister is turned into a mermaid. But he also flies. His flying machine is fairly basic – he goes up in a glass-bottomed chariot drawn by griffins chasing either jewels or meat held perpetually out of their grasp. Alexander goes further than Daedalus or Bladud – he travels so far into space that he can see the whole world, likened to a coiled snake, satisfying his desire to see the ends of the earth – and not learning the lesson of Scipio Aemilianus, the destroyer of Carthage, from Cicero’s On the Republic. Scipio dreams of flight, and is shown ‘how small the earth appears in view of heaven’s own immensity’, thus learning humility and showing how the mind should kept on spiritual, not earthly matters.

Icarus … again?

The satirical writer Lucien took to the skies twice in his writing. Firstly, the well-known journey to the moon in his ‘True History’, in which the protagonists are shot into the air in their ship by a water spout. Less well-known is the story of Icaromenippus, who, like Daedalus, builds wings and flies to Mount Olympus – where he discovers that Zeus is planning to king all philosophers for being useless – or at least will get round to it after the long vacation! Menippus feasts with the gods (and in true Roman fashion, is placed with the least favoured gods on the bottom table…) and sneaks a taste of ambrosia and nectar, but is deprived of his wings and set back down on the earth again by Hermes.[ii]

Eilmer, a Wiltshire aviator!

Daedalus was also the inspiration to the first non-legendary flight in Britain, that of Eilmer of Malmesbury, the story of which features in my book, Wiltshire Folk Tales. Eilmer was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey, much later than all these classical fantasies, and was known to the writer of his story, William of Malmesbury. The story is told in his Deeds of the English Kings of 1125. Eilmer only died in 1066, and so there would have monks at the abbey who would have remembered Eilmer when William first joined the monastery as a boy in the late 11th century.

As a historian, William is surprisingly well-respected – one of my favourite accounts of his is of the witch of Berkeley, a rather fantastical tale, which he preambles with the following:

At the same time something similar occurred in England, not by divine miracle, but by infernal craft; which when I shall have related, the credit of the narrative will not be shaken, though the minds of the hearers should be incredulous; for I have heard it from a man of such character, who swore he had seen it, that I should blush to disbelieve.[iii]

This is careful distancing! So why not a flying monk? William states that he was inspired by reading a book on Daedalus, and was inspired to build a pair of wings. William also says that he flew for more than a furlong – more than 200 metres – before the twin problems of the wind and his own realisation of what he was doing caused him crash. Powered flight it isn’t – but nonetheless, Eilmer flew – find out more about him and his experiences with Halley’s Comet in my Wiltshire Folk Tales.

He was the first in Britain, only following three other accounts of tower jumping, one in China in the 1st century AD, one in the 6th, and one in Spain in the 9th. The first Chinese jumper glided 100 metres – so Eilmer’s glide was twice as long.  The Chinese seem to have experimented with man-carrying kites, as well, and possibly the Japanese, too.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that flight took off, as it were, first with balloons, and the rest was history!


A cat flew in 1648. The Italian inventor Tito Livio Burattini built a model winged ‘dragon volant’ … at least he knew the passenger would always land on their feet…[iv]

When researching Heron of Alexandria, however, I discovered the earlier inventor, Archytas, from Tarentum in southern Italy. Archytas created a flying creature – a pigeon, powered by steam! See the excellent Kotsanas Museum for more:



[i] Trump might well be inspired by Alexander, a fellow narcissist. It’s not just the wall – consider Alexander’s bouffant blond locks and, er, Trump’s…


[iii] William of Malmesbury, The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmesbury (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1815), p. 264



1: John Peter Gowy The Flight of Icarus, 1635-7. The Prado, Madrid.

2. Illustration from Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, French, c. 1420, BL Royal 20 B XX

3. Eilmer copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2011


Roman Wonders! Heron of Alexandria and Ancient Automata

In a couple of weeks on Saturday 9 September I’m telling stories, Roman Wonders, as part of the Gloucester History Festival. Last year I was there telling Gloucestershire tales with Inkubus Sukkubus, but this is a little different – the brief was to tell stories of Roman invention and innovation for a family audience. So what did the Romans invent? I didn’t want to tell stories of siege engines or roads, so I looked further afield until I found what I wanted – steam engines, vending machines and robots!

In the course of researching content for the show I was suddenly reminded of a Roman period inventor who would be able to supply the kind of Roman Wonders I wanted. His name is Heron (or Hero – from the Greek word meaning ‘protector’ or ‘defender’, not the bird.) and he lived Alexandria, probably around the first century AD, and he designed steam engines and We don’t know much about the man than that – and even that is debatable, with dates given for him between 150 BC and 250 AD! He was probably a Greek. After all, Alexandria, founded by a Macedonian king in 331 BC, was the capital of the great Hellenistic state that only came to an end in about 30 BC after Cleopatra VII’s death, when Egypt was annexed into the Roman Empire by Octavian.

Alexandria was an exciting place to be if you were a thinker or an inventor. The great museum (or mouseion – not the kind of museum I work in – but rather a shrine to the muses) there had been founded by the first Hellenistic kings, Ptolemy Soter, who may, like his friend and king, Alexander the Great, have been taught by the philosopher Aristotle. Ptolemy had travelled the world with Alexander, and seems to have shared his love of learning. It amassed as much of the knowledge of the ancient as it could. Unfortunately, its library was burnt down (probably…) during the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey in 48 BC… The library rose, phoenix-like, from the flames, and by Heron’s time it was flourishing again. The museum was a research institute and university, and Heron taught there. As we don’t know anything about his life, we can imagine a comfortable life for him, with a tenured position at the museum, some teaching, a lot of writing, and a lot of experimenting and completing commissions of his machines for temples and theatres and other clients.

He certainly wrote a lot – and here I am coming up against the fact that I didn’t even do physics gcse. He wrote on hydraulics, pneumatics, mathematics – and automata. He’s said to have invented the windmill, but typically, this innovation that would change the world he used to power a musical organ. Indeed, our Heron seems to have had a latent desire for the theatre as his inventions are extremely theatrical.

Simpler designs include mechanical birds that could sing and flap their wings – there was even one that protected her family of chicks from a snake! These were powered by either air or liquids, and are toys, curiosities:

Some of his most complex designs were whole mechanical theatres. To our jaded eyes these seem very simple, but imagine yourself back to the time of Heron and it would truly be a wonder. It moves by itself! Fires are lit! Water pours! The figures move! Music plays! This video, from the Kotsanas Museum of Ancient Greek Technology, shows a recreated model of the Dionysus theatre:

However, among these less practical items, there are one that would have provoked religious awe. It seems that Heron was supplying the Alexandrian temples with the means making their parishioners believe that supernatural forces were at work… For example, Heron invented the first automatic doors. Today, we don’t think when a door opens in front of us, but then, the only way to open a door would have been with manpower … unless it was godpower that was doing it. Or mechanics. Outside, under the portico of a temple, there would have been an altar fire where sacrifices could be seen even by those who couldn’t go in the temple. Heron cleverly linked up the lighting of the fire with the opening of the door using weights and counterweights. Here’s a little video, part of an Ancient Discoveries programme by the History Channel:

Perhaps his most famous invention, however, was a steam engine. It’s called an aeolipile, and it works by heating up water and forcing the steam through two jets, which cause the ball to spin around.  Here’s Charles Baetsen’s recreation of it:


As it is, it’s a toy, but imagine if Heron had applied it! We might have had an industrial revolution nearly 2000 years before it actually happened. Admittedly, it’s probably very good for the earth that that didn’t happen, but I can’t help envisaging an alternative steampunk past that isn’t Victorian in style, but rather Roman. Crack out your togas, reenactors!

If you’d like to find out about these ancient technologies, and more tales besides, come and join me for my family friendly storytelling show as part of Gloucester History Festival at 3.45pm on Saturday 9 September at Blackfriars, Gloucester. It’s free! I’ll be blogging about the other tales I’m telling over the next couple of weeks – so come back to the blog for tales of Alexander the Great, the Roman god Vulcan and Aesop and more!


First image: Modern reconstruction of wind organ and wind wheel of Heron of Alexandria (1st century AD) according to W. Schmidt: Herons von Alexandria Druckwerke und Automatentheater, Greek and German, 1899 (Heronis Alexandrini opera I, Reprint 1971), p. 205, fig. 44; cf. introduction p. XXXIX

A Ballad Lovers Tale: The Famous Flower of Serving Men

Back in June I was delighted to have a story published in this collection edited by Kevan Manwaring, Ballad Tales. Kevan’s been getting seriously into ballads in recent years, in part due to his PhD research, and in part due to his folk singing, balladeering partner, Chantelle Smith. I was thrilled to be asked to contribute because I’ve loved ballads since I was but a wee lass. My stepdad, weary of listening to the likes of Wham, Duran Duran and the Thompson Twins, decided that it was time to reintroduce me to folk music. Of course, I’d been listening to folk music since I could walk, going to festivals and to see the Morris (back in the day when I had to sit, grumpy, outside the pub because under 12s were not allowed in!), but then, aged c. 12, I was a little disenfranchised. So, he played me fairy ballads – Tam Lin by Fairport, Thomas the Rhymer by Steeleye. It was a cunning plan to hook a girl already lost in fantasy fiction … and hooked I was. I still have the tapes I made back then – Ballads 1, 2, 3… And yes, I do still have a tape player on which to play their slightly stretched and wobbly glory! I’d love to recreate those tapes as playlist now, but sadly some of the songs, such as another Tam Lin by the Jumpleads, a ‘new wave’ band plying ‘rogue folk’ from the early 80s, are just simply not out there…

The ballad I chose certainly is out there, and remains a favourite ever since those early days more than 30 years ago. My stepdad wasn’t convinced I’d like Martin Carthy straight away, thinking his singing and playing rather an acquired taste for a Duran Duran aficionado, but I loved him immediately. My stepdad played me his own favourite, and it was this ballad, from Carthy’s album Shearwater, 1972, that I chose to retell for the Ballad Tales book: The Famous Flower of Serving Men.

This is a typical border ballad. It’s bleak, very bleak. To me, Carthy’s first lines were incredibly powerful:

My mother did me deadly spite

For she sent thieves in the dark of night

Put my servants all to flight

They robbed my bower they slew my knight.

They go on to kill her baby, steal everything and wreck the place, and she, in fear and grief, cuts off her hair, puts on men’s clothes and reappears as Sweet William. William goes to court, becomes the eponymous Serving Man to the king – a Chamberlain, the man who looks after the king’s household – and the king, well, he’s rather disturbed by his feelings to the young man. One day he goes off riding in the forest, and as you do in ballads, gets separated from his friends chasing a white hind and has a magickal hexperience with the spirit of the dead knight in the form of a dove, which causes the king to race home, kiss the boy/girl and then catch her mother and have her burnt at the stake… For me, it was the otherworldy white hind and the white dove that really made the song.

We had two versions of it the song at home. The other one was one a Chris Foster album, Layers, and that one offered an ending that I found interesting. When the mother has been burnt etc., the king proposes, but the girl refuses:

Oh no, Oh no, Oh my lord” said she

“Pay me my wages and I will go free.

For I never heard tell of a stranger thing

as a serving man to become a queen.

I loved that she doesn’t go for the so-called fairy tale ending, but rather rejects the king and goes off to make her living another way. It seemed plausible to me that a woman who’s lived had been so blighted wouldn’t immediately marry the first man to look at her, even if he was the king.

Now, back in those days there was no internet to access, but I got out from the library Child’s Ballads volumes 1 and found out lots of stuff – but not about this ballad, which is in volume 2, which my library didn’t have. So it was some years later when I discovered that the things that I liked best of all in the ballad were, in fact, made up! In the ballad the girl is simply overheard singing about her background (an elementary mistake!) by a ‘good old man’ and she does marry the king! What a con, what a cheat! Although Foster is actually following the singing of an English singer, Albert Doe of Bartley in Hampshire, recorded in December 1908. When reworking the ballad for the 21st century I decided, sod it, that I would keep in those 20th century alterations.

The ballad first appears in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry, 1765 as ‘The Lady turned Serving-Man’[i] – to which Percy admits ‘improvements’ have been made (‘excerable’, says Child) – and in this version, it doesn’t appear that the mother did it, but unspecified ‘foes’. This then is suggestive of a more familiar and realistic story of border raiding and feuding – the woman only ‘scant with life escap’d away’.

This is then unpacked further by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 1803[ii]. Scott had another ballad, ‘The Border Widow’s Lament’, in his collection, which he describes as a ‘fragment’.

Here’s Chantelle Smith singing the ballad as part of her Ballads in the Borders and Beyond project this summer:

This ballad Scott says he himself heard sung from recitation in the Forest of Ettrick. He says it ‘is said to relate to the execution of Cockburne of Henderland, a border freebooter, hanged over the gate of his own tower, by James V’. Cockburne was, by all accounts, not a very nice man. A border reiver (raider), he, according to the ONDB ‘enjoyed a laird’s status in the Scottish borders, holding the twenty-pound land of Henderland and Sunderland in Peeblesshire and Selkirkshire, with tower and chapel. He preferred, however, to make his living from theft, blackmail, and collusion with Englishmen during the minority of James V.’[iii] When James V turned 17 he was able to free himself from his advisors, and set about stopping the activities of these border lords. William Cockburn was killed about 1530, strung up, the tradition goes, from his own tower. His widow Marjory, Scott suggests, is the widow in the song:

I took his body on my back,

And whiles I gaed, and whiles I sat;

I dig-g-‘d a grave, and laid him in,

And happ’d him with the sod sae green.

This is sadly unlikely, as James had Cockburn and the other reivers executed in Edinburgh, but it’s a good story, substantiated by a monument in the wilds near to the tower which reads ‘Here Lyes Perys of Cokburne and His Wyfe Marjory’ – admittedly, probably not the same Cockburn![iv]

In fact, we can follow the Famous Flower ballad further back than either Percy or Scott knew, though not quite back to the 16th century. It was written down by the prolific balladeer Laurence Price, and registered in the Stationers Register on July 14 1656. Price wrote 36 chapbooks containing histories, science, wonders etc., and registered at least 62 broadside ballads. Child’s ballad is taken from Price, although he doesn’t acknowledge him.[v] Where Price got it from, however, we’ll probably never know…

My version brings things into the 20th century, giving the ballad a 1920s gangster setting, not too dissimilar from the border reivers of the 16th century…


[i] Percy, Thomas, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (George Bell and Sons, 1876), p. 162

[ii] Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, volume 3 (Robert Cadell, 1849), p. 94-97

[iii] Henderson, T.F., ‘Cockburn, William, of Henderland (d. 1530)’, rev. Maureen M. Meikle, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 31 July 2017]

[iv] Inspired by Scott, an unknown author penned a poem in 1832 as part of their collection Iolande, a Tale of the Duchy of Luxembourg, with a somewhat biased account of ‘Pier’s’ betrayal by the king…

[v] Palmer, Roy, ‘Price, Laurence (fl. 1628–1675)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 31 July 2017]

All new blog and the art of memory

It can be tricky, trying to keep all of the balls in the air. My two blogs, Fire Springs Folk Tales and What Would William Morris Say? have been very quiet of recent months. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, and I was working on a new book – Suffolk Ghost Tales, out later this year, co-authored with Cherry Wilkinson – and various other projects (a course to plan, storytelling shows to perform, an exhibition to put on) all converged on the same time and so I was stuck!

So, I’ve decided to change tack and combine my two blogs into one – this one.  It looks much the same as the Fire Springs Folk Tales blog – and features one of Katherine Soutar’s wonderful cover designs as the header image, the green girl from Suffolk Folk Tales. It contains all the content from both blogs, so you can still find all the folk tale, storytelling and William Morris related goodies in here, but all together.

I hope you enjoy the new, updated blog!

Those of you familiar with me will see that I’ve given it a title similar to that of my website: Stories from the Palace of Memory. Well, why?

There’s a story about that, of course. Once, a poet called Simonides was declaiming a praise-poem to his host, Scopas of Thessaly, and, as was the custom, he praised a couple of gods as well, Castor and Pollux, the gods of boxing, at which Scopas excelled. Scopas, however, was offended, and when it came time to pay Simonides his fee, he declared that he would give the poet half – and Simonides should ask the gods for the rest!

A little while after, Simonides was asked to go outside, as there were two young men there asking for him. Simonides went, but there was no one there. As he stood there scratching his head, there was a rumbling in the earth and suddenly an earthquake struck, shaking the hall to the ground and crushing all inside. Simonides realised that the two young men must have been Castor and Pollux, and he was grateful, but his role wasn’t over yet. When the rescuers came to clear away the rubble, none of the dinner guests was recognisable, but the poet had memorised everyone’s position in the hall and was thus able to identify who was who.

Simonides, evidently a practical chap,  realised that this was a good training for the memory. He developed a memory training exercise from this, using visual locuses as an aid to memory. Poets and orators – and storytellers – have used it to this day.

To me, the past is a palace of wonders, elusive, untrustworthy, perhaps, no matter how objective we try to me … like memory, unreliable, but ultimately nourishing and there to be cherished and preserved as best our fallible human nature can allow.

Fire Springs and Friends events!

Fire Springs are greeting summer icumen in with a song! Ballad Tales is launched in June, featuring stories by editor Kevan, and by Anthony, Chantelle, David, Kirsty and Richard – that’s right, the whole Fire Springs kit and caboodle! You can buy the book here, and why not come to our launch events in Stroud on 9 June and in Bath 19 June?

That’s not the only new book: with his Awen hat on, Anthony is pleased to announce the publication of a new edition of Charlotte Hussey’s Glossing the Spoils – a collection of ‘glosa’ poems casting a contemporary light on passages from medieval epics and romances. Check out the Awen blog for lots of ecobardic content, too!

Two Fire Springs are out next week in Midsomer Norton as part of Bath Festivals – David and Richard are performing Outsiders and Outcasts on 25 May. Four Fire Springs are going to be performing with Gloucestershire goth legends Inkubus Sukkubus at St Briavels Castle for Midsummer – is it a good thing the night is short? Kirsty and Anthony will be telling Gloucestershire ghoulish tales, while Kevan and Chantelle explore the Celtic otherworlds… Further from home, Anthony will be taking part in Writing on the Wall, an immersive day of eco-poetry curated by Jay Ramsay as part of the Waterloo Festival in London, and Chantelle’s performing at Singing Together in Doncaster.

Anthony and Kevan are out and about on the blogosphere, too: On Anthony’s Deep Time blog are new pieces about Greg Bear’s Queen of Angels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, W.A. Harbinson’s The Light of Eden, and Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. and Kevan’s Bardic Academic page has everything from the Bard of Hawkwood contest to writing fantasy!

Look out for further updates for all spoken word events on twitter @StroudStory and for storytelling on the Gloucestershire Storytelling facebook page and explore the whole bulletin right here:

You’ll want to scroll as there are many, many treats from us and our friends this month!


Interview with Agent Krisa, DCHQ

I’ve come to C23AprilNDDjpeg-212x300heltenham today to meet up with one of the members of staff at DCHQ, a rather secret organisation in this pleasant Regency town, best known for horse-racing and … the other place. We meet in a café near the museum, a busy and slightly noisy place. Agent Krisa smiles at my surprise and confides that the noisier and busier the place, the less likely people are to overhear. She’s a tall, dark haired woman, dressed  loudly in a shiny, but rather tweedy jacket, and with severe glasses that make her look older than she probably is. There’s something of the schoolmistress there – or maybe, given her job at DCHQ – a librarian. For Agent Krisa has an important role there – she is the Keeper of Tails – oops, I mean Tales.

It turns out that they do outreach, you see, and in Stroud’s Museum in the Park on Sunday 23 April – the day we know as St George’s Day, but they call National Dragon Day for reasons that will become apparent – she and Agent Green from the same organisation are going to be telling stories, and Agent Green is going to be doing some practical activities with the children.

My interview doesn’t get off to the best of starts…

H: What can you tell me about DCHQ? I know it’s very secret.

AK: Indeed. All you need to know is that it’s the Dragon Conservation Headquarters – I think the title says it all, really. Don’t you?

H:  And your role, Keeper of Tales? What does that, ahem, entail?

AK: My job is to look after the records. I’m an archivist – although there’s a bit of a museum there, too – you know, the twisted swords of those who tried to kill dragons, some burnt bricks from destroyed cities, that kind of thing.

H: Really?

AK: Oh yes, of course, the dragons are great hoarders, so our storerooms are quite, quite full. But I spend most of my time with the records. Our archive is the most important archive of dragon stories in the world – well, the Chinese have pretty good records. We’ve got the very earliest tales, like Marduk and Tiamat from ancient from ancient Babylon on clay cuneiform cylinders, we’ve got all the St George stories, and, of course – all the current sightings and stories are held there too.

H: Sounds fascinating? So, how did you get into this?

AK: Well, I was a little bit older than Agent Green – she was recruited straight from university for her … unique skills. I, however, was already a fully qualified archivist before I got the job. It all happened in Greece, you see. My name – well, its not really my name, you understand, is like Agent Green’s – except its Greek, almost the Greek for gold. My father is a Greek Cypriot, so it seemed the right thing, especially after what happened. I was hiking in the mountains of the Peloponnese when I was about 30, and I’d got a little lost and was feeling a little concerned that I’d be stuck out all night. I mean, it was very beautiful – but you know there’s no mountain rescue in Greece! Then, when I turned a corner – I chanced upon a young dragon sunning herself. I don’t know who was more startled. I’m not afraid to say that I thought my time was up! But, in fact, she was very helpful, especially when she learnt what I did for a living – turns out she had a hoard of old scrolls from hundreds of years ago that she was looking after and was keen for someone to look after them.

H: Gosh, what happened then?

AK: Well, dear Fotia, as I learnt she was called (it means fire!) carried me down to the path again, I went back to where I was staying and in the morning I thought I’d dreamt it. I mean, I’d read a lot of fantasy books, and I’d read a lot of folk tales – and was quite adept at telling them, too – but dragons? No!

H: But you are working for DCHQ now, so…

AK: Yes. I went home to England again – I was living in Bath then, a favourite dragon place, I later learnt – and there on the doormat was waiting a letter, inviting me to an interview at a secret location in Cheltenham. I was to be met by an official – and there was the blindfold and everything. I was quite unnerved. But when I saw the archive for the first time, I knew I had to take the job!

H: So, describe a normal day at DCHQ for you

AK: First thing, I check that the environmental conditions are still stable. Many of our records are very, very old so we have to ensure that the temperature and relative humidity stay stable. With all our friends around it can sometimes get a little hot, as I am sure you can imagine … and if things do get a little damp, I know I can easily warm things up! But its a question of making sure they don’t get too hot… Then I spend  lot of time digitising the records – scanning and typing up onto our database. I catalogue the new acquisitions, manage the volunteers – making they know to cover their claws and put on the protective fire-proof muzzle – some of them can get quite excitable as they read the tales of their ancestors, you know.

H: You mean…

AK: Oh yes, they do like to get involved!

I’m fascinated, but Agent Krisa has now finished her coffee and, although she’s all smiles, I can see she’s looking to wrap things up.

H: So, what’s happening this Sunday?

AK: Agent Green is doing one of her outreach sessions. She’ll be teaching basic dragon tracking – how survive your first encounter with a wild dragon … Stabling and feeding … Techno-magical devices and clothing … What to wear for formal meetings with dragons. Plus important first aid such as What to do if your dragon’s flame goes out. Great fun! We all have to cover this, you know! And I’ll be telling some tales from the archives – including St George’s story, and one of those ancient tales from my first dragon friend, Fotia.

H: When is all this, then? And how can we book?

AK: It starts at 3pm, in the Museum in the Park. You can book by calling the museum on 01453 763394, just £3 for children and adults go free! We’re really looking forward to seeing you there. Perhaps you should come and find out more.

And with that she’s gone … and I realise she’s left me to pay!


The Maid, the Maggot and the Saints


On National Dragon Day this year – you might know it better as St George’s Day, the 23 April – two agents from DCHQ (Dragon Conservation Headquarters, not the Other Place) in Cheltenham Agent Green and Agent Krisa will be coming to the Museum in the Park, Stroud, at 3pm to teach dragon tracking and to tell dragon tales straight from the archives – and straight from the dragon’s mouths…

Here’s one of the stranger tales in the archives…

In the small village of Little Langford, on the banks of the River Wylye and on the edge of Grovely Wood, there once lurked a monster. It terrorised the village – it jolly well near destroyed it! But the question is – was it there at all?

The evidence for the tale was self-evident to the villagers. Why, it was carved on the very doorway of their church! There you could see the poor unfortunate maid who thought she’d tamed the beast dressed in her long skirts and there, about to engulf her, are the pointy teeth of the maggot. Carved in the stone below that is a hunting scene, and the villagers said that shows the beast being rounded up by the hunters.


The story is featured in my Wiltshire Folk Tales book, although there are other variants of the legend. Little Langford was one location that had alluded me when I was researching the book. I have to confess – we were put off by utterly torrential rain and spent the day in nearby Salisbury in the cathedral and coffee shops! However, on our way back from the Isle of Wight a week or so ago, we finally went. Little Langford is a very small village, and has been rather compromised by the railway that runs alongside both the road and the river.


The church is on the other side of the railway to the few houses on the road and, when you get there, appears to be dwarfed by its vicarage. In the church itself we found another version of the tale – this time the maggot, rather than being destructive, did some good in the world. It ate the maid, yes, but she was not an innocent girl but a lady who had wanted to deprive the villagers of their right to gather wood in Grovely Wood.

This wood gathering is a contentious business in the area. In the close by village of Great Wishford, the villagers had to enact a tradition to ensure their rights to gather. The laws concerning this go back at least to Elizabethan times, from when there are charters saying that a group of dancers have to go to the cathedral and be blessed. This used to take place in Whit week, and now – still – happens on May 29, Oak Apple Day. The day begins with collecting the wood – oak no thicker than a man’s arm, green willow and hazel wands – and raising the cry ‘Grovely, Grovely, and all is Grovely!’ All dressed up, the villagers proceed to Salisbury with their banners: ‘Unity is Strength!’, which I presume must go back to the 19th century when it was necessary to fight for these rights. Some branches are placed on the high altar and all is blessed. Then the party begins! So, you can see how excited the villagers might get to have this critical right, the right that gave them warmth through the winter in the firewood they gathered, taken away. But going to the cathedral and dancing is one thing – resorting to a giant maggot is another!

The story echoes many tales of unsuspecting people nurturing something that turns out to be a dragon – or, as they are often called in England, a worm.  Now, worms and maggots, it could be argued, are fairly similar in looks, it’s most likely the maggot is really a juvenile dragon.  Dragon stories are very rare in Wiltshire, but in next door Somerset there are many…

But is this really what’s going on? The tympanum has other interpretations, and may in fact represent another Wiltshire legend. If you don’t want to hear that it might not be the maggot – stop reading here!

One of Wiltshire’s key saints is St Aldhelm, a 7th century saint who studied at Malmesbury Abbey under the Irish monk Maildubh and at Canterbury, so learning both Roman and Celtic Christianity – he’s also featured in Wiltshire Folk Tales… I like Aldhelm for a particular reason. He was storyteller. Understanding that people can get bored when being preached to, he would liven up his performances with songs, and clowning – even juggling! It was his mission to raise the educational level of Wessex and he wrote songs to help ordinary people understand Christian stories. But there was one time when he couldn’t keep the audience. He was in a place near Warminster, and it wasn’t going well. So he set his staff aside to try some juggling, but then everyone started looking at the staff – it had taken root and flowered!

028.jpgThere are those that say that the tympanum shows St Aldhelm with his staff now become an ash tree. If you look closely you can see it’s a bishop – there’s his crozier in his hand, his mitre on his head, the correct garments underneath… The carving may have been done around the time of Bishop Osmund of Sarum (1078–1099). Osmund was a particular promoter of Aldhelm’s legend.

But it might also represent St Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, to whom the church is dedicated. You see the three dots in the pattern next to the maid/bishop? Those could represent St Nicholas’ emblem of three balls. BUT – there’s more! For you see, in his youth St Nicholas had an encounter with a dragon – one that marks him as a cuddlier, friendlier saint than our St George. Once, a town was being terrorised by a dragon, and Nicholas was brought in to help. Maybe the town’s folk thought he’d slay the beast, but instead Nicholas charmed it and calmed it so that it troubled the town no more … and they didn’t trouble it. So maybe those sharp zig-zags really are dragon’s teeth and the tympanum shows the moment where the saint calms the dragon down … just in the teeth of time!

If you’d like to hear the story of the Maid and Maggot, of St George and Dragon and more, then join us on Sunday 23 April at the Museum in the Park, Stroud at 3pm. Agent Green is really Chloe of the Midnight Storytellers, and Agent Krisa is me, Kirsty from Fire Springs.

To book simply give the museum a call on 01453 763394. £3 children, accompanying adults go free. And don’t miss out on our special Family Tickets – a steal at just £10!


Jordan, Katy The Haunted Landscape: Folklore, Ghosts and Legends of Wiltshire (Cromwell Press, 2000), pp. 20-21

Wiltshire Wandering: Obsessive Journeying to Draw Anglo-Saxon and Norman Sculpture:


All images © Kirsty Hartsiotis

Hopeless Things…

Today we are straying far from our usual haunts to far stranger shores where slimy things walk … with spoons, upon the slimy land, to paraphrase a certain famous poet. We have a guest creature on the blog! I hope you will welcome this ‘Hopeless Thing’…


It happens that good friends of ours, Tom and Nimue Brown, have a new addition in their family … of books … and have offered up this and other strange denizens to walk (or crawl, or fly, or … move in other unspeakable ways) into the blogworlds of others. Here at Fire Springs Folk Tales we have had green children, shucks, dragons and other ‘exotica’ as the Greeks call these creatures – even when they are native to their shores – but never before has this entity set tentacle (or spoon) on the shores of England. However, I do wonder if the equally mournful figure of the merman of Orford would recognise them from his travels, or the sea serpent that lives off the coast at Pakefield… But they will never share their secrets…

This being is one of many, many strangelings in their gothically glorious graphic novel, Hopeless, Maine: The Gathering, published by Sloth Comics. If you want to investigate further (and I recommend you do!) you can find it here, available (alongside our books of tales!) at the Book Depository, as well as through your local book and comic shops.

Hopeless is a strange, gothic island off the coast of Maine, cut off from the rest of reality for the greater part. Hopeless Maine is also a graphic novel series, the peculiar child of Tom and Nimue Brown. Here’s a little taste of island life:


Spoonwalker: It isn’t easy being a soft, slow moving squishy thing on a cold, hard, hungry island like Hopeless Maine. This is why spoonwalkers have adapted to use stilts. It’s believed that early spoonwalkers made do with bits of twig and whatever else they could employ to get their unhappy bodies off the ground and moving at a swifter pace. The arrival of cutlery-bearing humans on the island caused a radical change. Why it is that spoonwalkers favour spoons over all other cutlery, is uncertain, but an unattended spoon is always at risk of night pillaging from these creatures. The spoonwalker can never have enough spoons, and will sneak into houses for the sole purpose of raiding cutlery drawers to satisfy its cravings for shiny metal. Wooden spoons are seldom taken.

Cooking instructions: can be fried, but better just have the tentacle as many diners find the mournful faces off-putting.

Images © Tom Brown

Information on spoonwalkers kindly provided by Tom and Nimue Brown, with additional gloss by Kirsty Hartsiotis.

There are eight more creatures out there! Check out @GothicalTomB and @Nimue_B on twitter to catch them all!


Is John Ball a dream?

It’s a tough one, this. William Morris’s novella A Dream of John Ball paints a heroic picture of one of the most complicated and contested episodes in English history: the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. The main character, dreaming his way back to the 14th century from Morris’s dirty, depressed and over-populated London to a clean and well-kept Kentish village, discovers he has arrived at exactly the moment when John Ball, the excommunicate priest recently sprung from Maidstone jail by a growing body of rebels, arrives to preach and incite the locals to take up their weapons and march on London. The villagers are decent, happy to share what they have with the stranger, and all too glad to follow John Ball to bring down the feudal system and reinstate the primordial communism known by the first men and women, when there were no gentlemen. But was it like that?

I’ve been homing in on the Great Rising from two different directions. Firstly, this blog, and my all interest in Morris and his political messages, and secondly, from the book of Suffolk ghost tales I’m researching and writing at the moment. Suffolk was the original home of the hated Chancellor, Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, and the county exploded into rebellion as Kent and Essex rebels were marching on London. These are dark tales. There’s no surprise that there are ghost stories associated with the rising. The rebellion in Suffolk, especially around Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Lakenheath, was brutal, full of revenge, petty and great.

And that’s one of the problems, for me. This communist uprising with its noble aims of distributing the wealth to one and all was no such thing. Did John Ball even write his letters? The famous phrase, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’ was in the common parlance. Did Wat Tyler taste power and have it go to his head? Did Jack Straw even exist? What then was going on?

Well, as with everything in life, it’s complicated. The 14th century was a tumultuous one – I remember reading when I was a teenager Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial (but now rather out of date) A Distant Mirror, which calls it a calamitous century. The Hundred Years War, the Black Death, revolt and rebellion, it was all kicking off. And yet, for many, in the latter half of the century, things had improved in southern England, at least. Much of the population had meat on their tables, wore better clothing, had the chance of better wages. The successive plagues had more than decimated the population, and so there were opportunities for those who were left. As you can imagine, landowners were not keen to face up to this. Parliament pushed through statutes that artificially suppressed pay. Not popular. Worse, the war with France wasn’t going well in the aftermath of the last illness of King Edward III and into the minority of his son, Richard II. And war was costly.

It’s a tough one, too, because I approve of taxation. Unlike Morris, whose ideas tended towards a stateless anarchism, my experience of living in the safe, peaceful society that has been Britain for the majority of my forty-plus years on this earth has led me to believe that a form of taxation that allows us to pay when we can (i.e. when we have an income) for things that we might need when we can’t – things like the our universal health care system, our free schooling, our state pensions, our welfare state, and, when I was young, for the fees and grants that allowed everyone to go to university, if they made the grade. And the peasant’s revolt is a lot about taxation, and not wanting to pay it.

But how much do you tax? And whom? There can be no doubt that a line was crossed by parliament. It was Simon of Sudbury who demanded the last and largest amount – £160,000 (a labourer was paid roughly 5p a day, just to contextualise that). Over a 3 or 4 year period a bewildering number of different taxes were laid on the country, and everyone, rich and poor alike, had to pay. There’s even an account of a sergeant at arms, John Legge, lifting girls’ skirts to see if they were old enough for sex i.e. had pubic hair, and were thus old enough to pay the tax, liable from age 15. Nice. The tax collectors turned up with bully boys, and corruption was rife. The burden of the later taxes fell hardest on the poor.


Chelmsford celebrating John Ball in this painting by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, in the County Hall.

And people were already angry. Angry with successive wars, Angry with a venal church that cared little for the pastoral needs of the ordinary folk in their parishes. Angry with the continuing burden of petty rules and regulations, particularly for serfs, who were effectively owned by their landlord – they had to pay, for example, merchet, a kind of fine to get married, and owed time and produce to their lord. It must have seemed they got little in return for this bargain. More people were making their way off the land and into towns, and in the towns and villages too were itinerant preachers, ready to speak of a better way of being – as John Ball is supposed to have written, ‘Now pride reigns as prize, covetousness is held wise, lechery without shame, gluttony without blame, envy reigns with treason and sloth is in high season. God bring remedy, for now is time…’ To rise up? Yes.


But to rise as they did, looting and murdering? That’s what I find hard. There are moments of calm, such as when John Wrawe, in Suffolk, and his men, repair to an alehouse in Long Melford for a pipe of wine, and pay the landlord from their takings, Robin Hood style. But contrast that with the treatment of John de Cavendish and John de Cambridge, a king’s justice and Bury’s prior respectively. One waylaid and executed at Lakenheath, the other at Mildenhall, and their heads paraded around Bury for the amusement of the people. Then there’s the looting. Some of it reasonable – take the records and burn them, that’s a great way to start a new world order, as we are then, in theory, created as equal as we were when we were born. But much of the violence seems meaningless. It reminds me of the riots in Britain in 2011 after the trigger incident of a police killing. And again, the revengeful outpouring of hate and violence that erupted after Trump was elected. The people are angry. They will take revenge.


The skull of Simon of Sudbury at St Gregory’s, Sudbury.

The times are more dangerous now, the stakes far higher. John Ball was a sort of left-wingish (if we can say such a thing of a medieval character!) populist. The populous were whipped into action all too easily because they had cause to be angry and had no voice. Then, the rebellion was put down hard. Nobody listened. The chroniclers vilify Ball and Tyler and the rest. They try to make people like Simon of Sudbury and John de Cambridge martyrs, and my goodness, these were not nice men they were trying to sanctify! But they were the establishment, and it had enough might to suppress pretty much anything, then. Does it today? Do we want to be able to? Do we want more surveillance? Do we want harsher laws to ‘protect’ us? No. So we mustn’t make the mistakes of the past. We must listen to those who are angry and find common ground, the common ground of our thoughts and the decency with which we all believe we are living our lives. And those who are angry need to listen, too. Need to see that revenge and violence against whoever the scapegoat might be – whether the establishment, or whether against a random ‘other’, such as the forty unfortunate Flemish clothworkers murdered during the Revolt in London – is not the way to make their own lives better.


And so, for once, if we are going to dream of John Ball, let’s make him a not rabble-rouser but a peaceable man.


  1. An illustration of the priest John Ball on a horse encouraging Wat Tyler’s rebels  of 1381, from a c. 1470 manuscript of Jean Froissart‘s Chronicles in the British Library.
  2. John Ball by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, 1938, image copyright Essex County Council
  3. The skull of Simon of Sudbury, copyright Evelyn Simak