Tag Archives: folklore

Holiness and profanity? A visit to Cerne Abbas

We all know what to expect from Cerne Abbas, don’t we? A picture speaks a thousand words on this one. Shall I give you a close up? No? We all know that by the 19th century he was associated with fertility and that it’s said that as a woman either sleeping alone in the phallus or, er, doing a bit more than sleeping there with your partner can cure infertility. No surprises there… But there’s another fertility boost in the very same village, and this one was probably the one used in the medieval period, and, perhaps, before.

Why? Well, if you go, as Anthony and I did this last weekend, to see the giant from the viewpoint, the text panel tells you that the Cerne Abbas giant may be one of the three ancient chalk figures of England – made, unlike most of the chalk horses and etc., before the Middle Ages. The others are, of course, the Uffington White Horse, which may be up to 3000 years old, and the Long Man of Wilmington, which, is now considered to be probably a lot newer than previously thought, not Iron Age, but 16th or 17th century – possibly much like the Cerne Abbas giant. Unlike the Uffington horse, which is first mentioned in the 11th century, there are no mentions of the two human figures before the 17th century, Cerne Abbas first appearing in 1694 and Wilmington in 1710. The giant might, in fact, be a bawdy caricature of Oliver Cromwell as Hercules (he once had a cloak as well as a club, now obliterated) put there by Lord Holles, the Lord of the Manor.

Cerne Abbas giant detail copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis

Holles was a Parliamentarian, but a moderate – he hated Cromwell and the army party, and accused him of cowardice. In the complicated times towards the end of the wars, he held fast to his moderate views, begging the king to reconsider. Sadly, neither the king nor Cromwell were moderates, and Holles’ faction was doomed to failure. He was, however, one of the leading people who brought about the Restoration. We will probably never know if he had the giant cut, however, as the first suggestion of this was in the 1770s, nearly a century after his death.

How it was cut and why are lost. If you do get close to it, it’s hard to see how the figure fits together.  Anthony walked up the hill, and said that he could just see the horizontals… He didn’t cross the barbed wire into the giant’s enclosure, however. I busied myself with some anthropomorphic flowers instead, the fine Early Purples growing there.

Early Purple Orchids on Giant Hill copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis

If only they had been Monkey Orchids – much more fitting! (These from a site near Megalopolis on the Peloponnese, though there are a very few sites here in England, there are none recorded in Dorset)

Monkey Orchids, Greece copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis

But what about that other fertility place? I had no idea that we were going to get a double folklore whammy from the place when we arrived. Obviously, I knew there had been an abbey there (here’s the site of it – really not a single stone left of the church) but what I didn’t know was the story of its foundation, and why. Indeed, on the OS 1:50000 map, there is no indication that there is an ancient holy well just down from the burial ground of the parish, below where the abbey once lay. It’s there on the 1:25000, but we didn’t have that.

Holy well, Cerne Abbas copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis

Oddly, there are two conflicting stories as to how the spring was discovered. In the seeming first, it’s St Augustine (of Canterbury, I assume?) who happened to be travelling there. He chanced upon some shepherds, and asked them if they wanted beer or water to drink – and on their saying ‘water’, he struck the ground with his staff and up bubbled a spring. As he struck the ground he cried out ‘Cerno El!’ – ‘I see God!’, a pun on the name of the village, Cernel … thus continuing the great saint punmeister tradition (see St Gregory’s quip ‘non angli, sed angeli’ when seeing English men at a slave market). This, if true, presumably happened at some point in the very early 7th century when Augustine was archbishop.

But, unfortunately, this tale was concocted by the monks of Cerne Abbas in the 11th century. Cruising around the country at that moment was Gotselin, a roving hagiographer – William of Malmesbury says of him, ‘He went over the bishoprics and abbeys for a long time, and gave many places monuments of his surpassing knowledge.’[i] – who happened to be the first hagiographer of Augustine of Canterbury. The first archbishop of Canterbury was a far more exalted founder, the monks evidently thought, than the man who may really have discovered the spring.

The text panel at the well says that the next tale is ‘truth’, but we must be cautious with that – especially as we don’t really know whether this man definitely existed. St Eadwold may – or may not – have a Suffolk connection. He may be the brother of St Edmund, but managed to sensibly skip off out of East Anglia before his brother was killed by the Vikings and make his way to Dorset. On his way, he had a vision of a silver well, and started trying to follow a path to it. On arriving at Cernel he gave a shepherd some pennies – which were, of course, silver in those days – for bread and water, and the shepherd took him to a well. Eadwold recognised it as the one in his vision, and built a hermitage there – though it might not have been at the spring, but on a hill nearby (Giant Hill, anyone?), and he worked many miracles (though I don’t know whether they were before or after he died … O for access to the Journal of Medieval Latin!) He probably died about 900AD, and a swift 70 years later the Benedictine monastery was founded. Of course it’s possible that the well was both struck by Augustine and rediscovered by Eadwold … and used by the shepherds throughout.

But what about that fertility stuff? There are a number cures attributed to the well – it’s good for eyes and newborns as well as curing infertility. It’s also a wishing well, with girls instructed to place their hands on the wishing stone and pray to St Catherine for a husband (there was a St Catherine’s chapel just up the hill). A more sinister superstition is that if you look in the well first thing on Easter Day, then you will see those who will die that year reflected back up at you…

As for chalk figures, even if we don’t have the chalk in Suffolk, we can still do the job… Is the figure of the Suffolk Black dragon still at Bures?

[i] Anon ‘Goscelin or Gotselin, (fl 1099)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/odnb/9780192683120.001.0001/odnb-9780192683120-e-11105

Information about the well from the village text panel and from Harte, J M Dorset Holy Wells: http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/fs1/fs1jh1.htm

The Treasure Seekers: finding (or not) gold and wealth in local folklore

If there’s one trope of folklore that appears over and over again, it’s schemes to get rich quick. Jack and the Beanstalk is, of course, one of the most universal – who wouldn’t want a goose that laid golden eggs? Lazy but often kind boys charm princesses into marrying them; pretty and resourceful maids do the same with princes. These fairy tales are a daydream, a wish-fulfilment to those stuck in a seemingly inescapable round of poverty and want. It’s something we can easily recognise in lottery ticket buying and the poring over the lives of celebrities and the royals even as austerity pinches pockets a little further and privatisation erodes the services we once had. But get rich quick stories didn’t always take place in the never-never land of fairy tales. Sometimes they take place right here, in our local area.

In researching the various folk and ghost tale books I’ve written, these tales occur again and again. They are not, of course, tales in which people actually get rich quick. These are the other sort – the sort that tells us not to rock the boat, not to disturb the status quo, to knuckle down and work hard to get your rewards because these schemes always end, if not in disaster, then in disappointment.

You see, there’s treasure hidden out there, under the earth, in ponds, in secret places. We all know it’s true – look at Lance and Andy in Detectorists sweeping their metal detectors over the (allegedly) Essex countryside (actually Suffolk!) and, at the series’ end, discovering the treasure lurking beneath their feet. People have been discovering this hidden treasure for centuries – Roman coin hoards, lost rings, real buried treasure placed with the pagan dead. Even now, we are desperate to concoct tales to tell the story of why this treasure happened to be where it was, even if our tales today tend to be more historically minded than the tales told in ale houses and by firesides in the day’s before we knew the history in the earth. But still, stories they are.

That’s why it’s thrilling to think that the man in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo might actually be King Raedwald. A real person, attested by that reliable witness, Bede – and in king lists. We already have a story to attach to him. But there is a tale that Edith May Pretty, who owned the estate that the burial ground sits on back in the 1930s, had a friend who saw ghosts there – including one who stood on Mound 1, which, so it’s said, inspired Pretty to get the archaeologists in, just before the Secord World War![i] Of course, there may have long been tales that the burial mounds were haunted – after all, most of them had been ransacked for the treasure that the robbers had failed to find in Mound 1.

Not surprisingly, burial mounds are often a focus of treasure seeking tales. Not just Anglo Saxon and Bronze Ages ones, potentially likely to hold treasure, but the far older long barrows, which were repositories for bones, not the metal whose use had not yet been discovered by the people who raised them. As I’ve said before, often all these mounds were thought to be Saxon or Viking, so Molly the Dreamer of Minchinhampton can meet a Saxon warrior under Gatcombe Tump long barrow on his dreamed tip off that there’s gold buried there, as retold in Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. But that’s only one example – there’s a Bronze Age round barrow near Bisley, also in Gloucestershire, that’s actually called Money Tump! The tale there, retold by Westwood and Simpson, is that it was well-known that there was treasure there – a farmer wished to bulldoze the mound to find it, saying he’d ‘be rich for the rest of his life.’ [ii]  The money came from the chieftain buried there after, presumably, being cut down fleeing the invading Saxons. There have been sightings of headless warriors there, too, though admittedly this was after the Bisley Feast…[iii] There’s a Golden Coffin Field up there, too, at Oakridge, with a tale that the field once contained such a thing – there’s a barrow in the field.[iv]

In Wiltshire there’s a golden coffin, too, but with a darker tale attached to it. It’s associated with one of the barrows on the Down at Bowerchalke, near Salisbury. I tell the tale in Wiltshire Folk Tales, and there are usual admonitions of not speaking while raising the coffin – but of course one of the seekers does, and the seven men who went up the hill to dig up the coffin never came down, but rather roam the hill, dragging the coffin behind them – its theirs for eternity, but not in this life! A tale told to put you off, to deter you from going up the hill and trying your luck! Treasure sits under megaliths, too – such as in Somerset under the wandering Wimblestone[v] – if you can get your hand under there while it’s dancing around the field at full moon and Midsummer’s Eve, or rolling down to meet the nearby Water Stone… What won’t work is yoking horses to it to move it during the day – the Wimblestone mocks you by staying put, then mocks you all the more by telling the tale to the Water Stone when next they meet!

It isn’t just mounds and stones were treasure can be found, back in Suffolk again we find our poster boy, who graces the cover of Suffolk Ghost Tales – the Dog-headed monk (and his nearby fellow, the Monk-headed dog), who is the ultimate odd couple – a monk and dog set to guard a treasure by St Felix, the bringer of Christianity to Suffolk at one of Suffolk’s many Clopton’s that have strangely morphed over the centuries into one being… These creatures are by halls – places of the wealthy, where you might logically think there would be treasure to be found.

Pools are another likely location – makes sense, we love putting treasure in water, a relict of a time in the Bronze Age when we offered sacrificial weapons to the spirits, maybe, of the water, and seen in every penny dropped into fountains around the world to ensure a wish come true or a return visit. At Wimbrell Pond near Long Melford is a sorrowful husk of a ghost who clings to its treasure, calling out, ‘that’s mine,’ when people try to retrieve it – although the pond may be long gone now, and the treasure forgotten. It’s said that there was a major Roman vs Celt battle there, on the Roman road to Coddenham, and that maybe the ghost has been there since then.[vi]

Even if you get the treasure in your hands of a night it will be gone by morning – as evinced by the case of the old lady of Orford who was buried with her gold and sent out of her grave to try to give it away as a punishment for trying to hang onto it when we all knew that, despite what the ancients might have thought, you can’t take it with you. But ghostly gold only exposes the gullibility and avariousness of those who seek it…

What can we draw from all these tales, and the many, many more that I could mention? I don’t know, but I do wonder whether if our society was more equal and wealth distributed so that we were more comfortable, whether we would dream of free wealth in this way and go to the great efforts our folkloric cousins go to get the free thing? Hmm. Back to Lance and Andy again. Much treasure dug up now does go into museums for all of us to see, but what drives the people who seek for it? Are they content with finding the fragments of the past for the thrill of meeting the ancestors? Many are. But – you do get paid the worth of treasure if you find it – divided between the finder and the landowner. And that is a driver as well. And, all of us, we know the excitement of finding a pound coin (not so much a penny, these days, for all the luck it might bring) or more dropped by another…


1. Cover image for Suffolk Ghost Tales (c) Katherine Soutar-Caddick

2. Sutton Hoo in the snow (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

3. Wolfhang from Molly the Dreamer (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

4. The Barrow Thieves (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis

5. Orford churchyard – where the old lady is said to be buried (c) Kirsty Hartsiotis


[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUG2LqqsEek

[ii] Westwood, J & Simpson, J The Lore of the Land (Penguin Books, 2005), p. 283

[iii] Rhiannon http://www.themodernantiquarian.com/site/4614/money_tump.html

[iv] Grinsell, L V The Ancient Burial Mounds of England (Routledge, 2015), p. 68

[v] Grinsell, L V Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain (David & Charles, 1976), p. 58 & 104

[vi] Burgess, Mike Hidden East Anglia, https://www.hiddenea.com/suffolka.htm#acton

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!


A Medieval Marvel: the Green Children

‘But the night is Halloween, and the fairy court do ride…’

picture1Tonight is Halloween, and it’s supposed to be the night when the fair folk rise up out of the hollow hills and ride through the lands of the living. If see them dancing and step into the ring to dance alongside them, you could be caught forever… There are many dangers for the unwary mortal stepping into the Otherworld, but less is said about those poor creatures who by chance step out of that world into ours. What if you didn’t want to come to the mortal world? What if it was an accident? Just two children strayed away from their homes, lured into a tunnel by the sound of pretty bells, only to awake in the blazing dawn to a land of strangers, fear and death.

There have been many theories about the Green Children of Woolpit. Many of them have been prosaic, striving to make sense in today’s pragmatic, secular world of something inexplicable. In 1173 there was a battle just outside Bury St Edmunds during the Revolt between Henry II and his sons Henry, Richard and Geoffrey (complicated – don’t go there! Read Sharon Penman’s The Devil’s Brood if you want to find out more). Suffolk was heavily involved in this revolt after the Earl of Leicester landed at Walton Castle and persuaded Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, to take up his cause. It causes two stories in Suffolk Folk Tales – A Strange and Terrible Wonder and Maude Carew – and may be the spark for the Green Children.

The 12th century saw a surge of immigration into East Anglia from Flanders across the sea – welcomed in as the Jewish communities were starting the long process of victimisation and eventual banishment in the late 13th century. There was a settlement of Flemish fullers at Fornham St Martin, close to the battle site at Fornham St Genevieve – did the children flee, and get lost? Did they become sick as they wandered, and suffering from dietary deficiencies, was their skin tinged green by chlorosis? Was the Flemish they spoke unrecognisable to the villagers of Woolpit? Was the girl’s talk of St Martin’s Land a reference to their old village? So far, so good. But surely Richard de Calne would have understood Flemish and realised what had happened? This theory assumes an extremely parochial, limited existence for our medieval forebears. I don’t buy that someone living in Bardwell wouldn’t know what was going on in Fornham St Martin. I mean, it’s only about 9 miles away – you could easily walk there and back in a day!


So where does that leave us? Are they the Babes in the Wood from the Norfolk story? Poisoned by arsenic by their wicked uncle, abandoned in Thetford Forest (scary – got lost there once myself!), they wander into Woolpit. The older, stronger girl survives, but her younger brother is too weakened and dies. Maybe? This tale doesn’t appear until the printing of a broadside in 1595. The most commonly cited wood for the tale is Wayland Wood, just south of Watton, and about 30 miles from Woolpit. Not impossible, but … in the story the children die. The wicked uncle is punished, but there’s no Disney happy ending. They die. Both of them. Alone in the forest.

Putting the green children in context helps. It’s a wonder tale, one of many collated by medieval writers, and particularly in the 12th and 13th centuries. Anything goes! These mirabilia, or marvels, were, perhaps, some of the earliest folklore collecting, predating people like John Aubrey and William Camden by centuries. But their reasons for putting in these tales to their accounts were different. We can’t assume that they were simply included because credulous monks and scholars believed them – though that may have been the case in some instances! There was a conscious searching for the hidden things of the world, that one day might be revealed and understood. The recording of marvels like the Green Children thus becomes a kind of scientific experiment, recorded for posterity when we might understand it better. Or, often, there is a moral lesson within the stories – though it’s hard to pinpoint what that might be in this tale.


At this time, this kind of tales was avidly lapped up by the aristocracy. Courtly scholars such as Walter Map, Gervase of Tilbury and Gerald of Wales record many mirabilia and fantastica to thrill and chill their courtly audiences. Henry II and Henry the Young King were apparently keen on these stories. The stories included range from international folk tales to locally collected ones. Did our monkish scholars include similar tales to curry royal or aristocratic favour? But these stories give another possibility in our search for the ‘real’ green children – were they aliens? Alexander the Great saw alien spaceships at the Siege of Tyre in 329 BC, they allegedly ‘observed three soaring discs, which were described as “shining silvery shields, spitting fire around the rims,” … These “shields” were said to have annihilated a stone wall with a lightening-like beam weapon.’[i] In The King’s Mirror, a Norwegian example of these collections of tales from about 1250, an incident is recorded of ships in the sky over County Clare in the 10th century[ii]. In this case, one of the ‘aliens’ comes to earth to fix a problem with his anchor, but, unable to breathe our air, he dies. Gervase of Tilbury also records this tale, but sites it in England, and develops it further with the adventures of a Bristolian in the sky – and that story features in Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales….

But I don’t think our Green Children were aliens. For me, they seem to have come out of the hollow hills where the fair folk live. Green is a fairy colour, although the ballad Tam Lin mentioned in the first line says that the fairies were ‘grey’ – perhaps referring to the idea that they were spirits of the dead instead of another race… Is Halloween, when the fairy court do ride the first zombie apocalypse? There is another instance, recorded by Gerald of Wales, where the interaction goes the other, more usual way – a boy is approached by two little men saying, “If you will come with us, we will lead you into a country full of delights and sports”[iii] and led into another world with a sunless sky. John Aubrey also records an instance a few centuries later, in which a man accesses the world below through a round barrow; this became the basis for ‘The Fairies of Hackpen Hill’ in my Wiltshire Folk Tales. Its common knowledge that those who go into fairyland come out changed, and that many pine away. Perhaps it’s true of those who come out of the Otherworld, too, like the green boy. The green girl was a different matter, even though her story hints that the Otherworld was possibly more fun than ours as she showed ‘herself to be extremely high-spirited and unrestrained’![iv]


[i] Morphy, Rob ‘Anchors Away: Sky Ships and Storm Wizards’, 2011 http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2011/09/anchors-aweigh-sky-ships-and-storm-wizards/

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konungs_skuggsj%C3%A1

[iii] Cambrensis, Geraldus The Itinerary through Wales and the Description of Wales (JM Dent & Co, London, 1908), pg. 68

[iv] Translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s story by Dr Monika Simon, 2012


  1. The Green Children © Kirsty Hartsiotis
  2. Image from http://hypnogoria.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/folklore-on-friday-babes-in-woods.html
  3. Image from http://io9.gizmodo.com/5917914/why-are-there-spaceships-in-medieval-art

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder – videos!

Those lovely folks in Inkubus Sukkubus recorded the whole show on 9 September 2016 and are releasing videos on You Tube! Here are a selection – watch this space for more as they come up.

Kirsty starts the whole thing by telling The Deerhurst Dragon:

Ronald Hutton introduces the band in his own inimitable style:

And here’s one of my all-time favourite songs, the Witch of Berkeley:

Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder in Gloucester

1-iksu-pic-by-mick-robertsOn Friday night I had an absolute blast! I had the privilege to take part in an amazing show, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder with the incomparable Inkubus Sukkubus, as their storyteller. This was part of Gloucester History Festival – so it was great to introduce a bit of folklore to all that ‘real’ history. We were telling the histories we all want to believe are true! The stories that are true at gut level … the kind of stories that make you nervous when you go are out into the darkness at night … and in some places, during the day as well. And though I might have been the official storyteller, Candia, Tony and the band were telling tales too … tales that ranged from local folk tales like the Witch of Berkeley (one of my absolute faves in song and story!), to witchlore to, er, activities on a certain local landmark to personal tales to touch the heart.

Inkubus Sukkubus have recently released a new album, Barrow Wake, an acoustic album full of the dark tales of Gloucestershire – and beyond (there’s an allusion to my original part of the world with Hopkin’s Man, Matthew Hopkins, the foul Witchfinder General, denizen of Essex and my native Suffolk. I’m so proud. Sigh.) It’s a great listen – sample it here, and then you know what to do!


So, they decided to play a gig in their home city as part of the History Fest, and donate the proceeds to the lovely folk at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust who manage the Barrow Wake nature reserve. They wanted local stories to go alongside the music, so they approached Anthony and me. Candia McKormack, the lead singer of the band, also happens to have her pulse on the county – she works for Cotswold Life, and as a pagan, a nature lover and a folklore aficionado, she knew about Anthony’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales and our follow up, the Ghost Tales book. Anthony’s away right now, on a research trip for his new novel, in the South Pacific (poor thing!), so it was me. I offered a selection and Candia and Tony selected.

Two of the stories I was expecting – the Deerhurst Dragon and the Fairy Horn – but the third, the Seventh Bride, was a surprise. I was really pleased to do the Deerhurst Dragon in particular. Dragons can be seen as representative of all large predators, and our reaction to them – fear and the urge to destroy – we see even with what scraps of large mammal life we have left in Britain, such as foxes and those goalpost moving badgers. Several people came up to me afterwards to say how affected by the story they’d been – exactly what you want. It breaks my heart, too. But I also love that story because it taps into my old love – Anglo Saxon architectural sculpture. Deerhurst has some of the most intriguing in the country. Fitting for a medieval themed history festival, though a little early. The actual beast heads there are probably 9th century, and thus very rare. Nearly as rare as dragons, these days… The Fairy Horn, set in the heart of the Forest, is a classic fairies’ revenge story, and encourages you to show respect for the forces beyond your ken … like nature, like the spirit realm. The third story is a Gloucestershire Bluebeard tale, a fable to encourage young girls not to trust strangers, something we still sadly feel we must do to this day, but this tale also shows how powerful you can be in extremis – and has an unexpected long barrow with unusual and grisly inhabitants too. Dark tales…

The Inkies music was incredible – I was captivated from beginning to end. I didn’t want it to end. Candia and the band had invited fiddler Nick Gibbs from Folklaw and cellist Abigail Blackman to play with them, and I loved the acoustic sound they created together. Particular favourites were Woman to Hare (and the cat, don’t forget the cat!), the Witch of Berkeley, the title song Barrow Wake (tho’ it makes me smile when I think about the lovers in question!), and the beautiful song about the love spell that made me think, moist-eyed, about my far away love. Go to the Inkubus Sukkubus facebook page to see some clips from the night – I hope to pop some up here soon, too. I’d love to see this combination again – and in fact Candia is going to be guesting at the upcoming Folklaw gig at the Sub Rooms in Stroud 24 September. I shall be there!

20160909_195320-cropAnd all of this in the most amazing venue, Gloucester Blackfriars. Hard to believe the difference in the site from when I worked in Gloucester 10 or so years ago. I worked in the Docks, a bare hop (not even a skip and a jump) away, and although I knew it was there, of course I never went in. Now it’s a fantastic venue, perfect for storytelling and music. So atmospheric … the courtyard magical with little lights and the sound of the superb Gwilym Davies on pipe and tabor ushering in the guests with music, and the thrill of being in the building with all its layers – the great fireplace hanging above us as we performed, that strange combination of church and home. A friend and I were wondering what ghosts marched above our heads, pacing out an afterlife on lost floors… The Inkies had made it beautiful, too, and I particularly loved the film of the Forest with fairies playing above me – what could have been more fitting for the Fairy Horn?

Image credits:

  1. Me in full flow at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Mick Roberts
  2. Inkubus Sukkubus at Blackfriars, Friday 9 September 2016. Picture © Jack ‘Pyromancer’ Howard
  3. Gwilym Davies piping in the hordes! Picture © Kirsty Hartsiotis


Rolling, rolling, rolling … a Gloucestershire Midsummer’s tale – Kirsty Hartsiotis

800px-Castle_an_Dinas_midsummer_bonfire_2009It’s midsummer, and, typically for Britain, the sun’s gone in, the rain’s coming down. Flash floods abound and friends have had both their houses and their workplaces inundated. Today, this is obviously a major inconvenience for those concerned, but for the rest of us we just note it on the news and move on. After all, there are more important things to worry about than a spot of rain at midsummer, aren’t there?

But can you imagine a time when you approached the middle of summer with a nervous eye on the weather, and noted the downturn from sun to rain with looming dread in your heart? Well, any farmers reading this probably know exactly that feeling, but in today’s globalised society that’s their problem, isn’t it? If one farmer loses his crop, then, well, hard cheese, bad luck – there’ll always be a job at the local Aldi, won’t there, if it all goes belly up? After all, the food just keeps flowing in whether British fields are bathed in sunshine from June to August or whether the rain comes down in stair rods. We all know – head knowledge – that this wasn’t always the case. We might even think that this insistent globalisation is a bad thing and try to eat seasonally. But buying your asparagus in May and your strawberries in June doesn’t impact on the fact that there will be bread on the supermarket shelves every day of the year, a bad harvest or no.

If it rained after midsummer – rained substantially, as it often does in our green and damp land – then the crops could be in danger. And if the crops were in danger – the wheat and the barley: the meat of bread and beer, staples of peasant life for many centuries – then you and your family might not have enough to get through the winter. You might starve.


So it’s no surprise that midsummer has long been celebrated – the sun shines the longest, the hay harvest is in, the wheat and barley ripening in the fields, the year stands in the balance… Much has been written about the many customs. I’m just going to focus on a couple, both of which took place in medieval Gloucestershire.

The first probably relates to an existing, vibrant custom that now takes place on the Spring Bank Holiday (which I, erroneously, still call the Whit bank holiday…) on Cooper’s Hill not far from Stroud. This is, of course, the cheese rolling. Once, it used to happen at midsummer. A quaint English custom, you might say. Well, maybe quaint isn’t the right word for people racing down a 1:1 hill in pursuit of a cheese – but unequivocally English. But people right across Europe have been rolling things down hills at midsummer for a long, long time.

In the 14th century an irate monk from Winchcombe condemns the practice. Earlier yet, in the 4th century AD, St Vincent in his Acts describes the pagans of Aquitaine doing it. They were doing it in Devon, at Buckfastleigh in the 19th century, and in the Vale of Glamorgan, too.[i] They’re still doing it (though at Easter!) in Lügde in Germany – and my stepdad even saw it, back in c. 1970. But rolling what, precisely?

A flaming wheel, of course! Here’s a clip from Lügde:

Traditions vary, of course, but the standard across Europe seems to go like this: the people would take a cartwheel and cover it in straw, then insert a long pole through the middle, so as to guide it. In the semi-darkness of the shortest night they would light the wheel and set it rolling downhill. Bad luck if it went out, but if it blazed right down to the bottom, then, well, the sun would shine and the rain would come when they were needed and there would be a good harvest! In some places, it was luckier still if it hit water – Buckfastleigh, for one, and also Konz on the Moselle. The practice died out in Britain after a revival in Buckfastleigh in the 1950s failed, but it’s possible that the cheese rolling is an echo of this even more dangerous practice! I would also note that it’s another indication of our European shared culture to all the Leave sayers…

I heard about the second custom at a little conference in Wiltshire last year – a scholar talking about rights and the commons mentioned a thing that made my Gloucestershire ears prick up.[ii] There survives a document from c. 1300 that charts the duties of over 150 families, tenants of the Lady of Minchinhampton in the various hamlets and villages atop the hill. Now the Lady was in fact the Abbess of Caen in France, unlikely to have ever come to Minch, but the manor was highly organised nonetheless. Alongside the duties of paying the penny tithe to Rome, haylone (reaping hay), bederipe (reaping and mowing) etc., some households were expected to be watchers on St John’s Eve.[iii]

Watchers? Watching for what? Today we expect the veil to be thin at Halloween, but in the medieval calendar St John’s Eve (23 June, and the midsummer festival) was one of several times that the dead might return to the places of the living, and that you might be able to predict the future. It was a time to light the fires and keep what scant darkness there was away. In Shropshire in the 14th century, ‘men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood, and is called a wakefire, for the men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire’[iv] – the stench of the bones also kept dragons (and maybe spirits?) away. It was a sanctioned Christian feast – among all the other stuff going on, the fires also signified the light of St John the Baptist, whose feast it was in the morning, who ‘pointed out Christ in this world of darkness.’[v] It must have been a fun occasion – the writer of the article on the Minchinhampton custumal, CE Watson, describes it thus: ‘Wild orgies often marked the night, drunkenness and worked up excitement being the reaction to many superstitious fears.’[vi]

But waiting for the light in a time of darkness arouses fears in all of us. Imagine the people of Minch, up on the common, no doubt as much then as now the haunt of ghosts and creatures of the wilds, huddling around the wakefire telling tales – of the fairies; of how tonight was the night that dragons mated, roiling in a writhing ball and creating the powerfully magical ‘serpent’s egg’; of how if you went to the church on midsummer’s eve you’d see who was to die that year (and you might just see yourself!) – and reeling a bit from the beer provided by the richer folks, giddy from the dancing and the release from the toil of the summer’s work and one can easily imagine how things might get a little crazy … especially if the fairies were indeed about that night!

And why not? It’s midsummer! In the light of the night why not go crazy? Gloucestershire’s a good place to do it! Or, if you are really bold, why not hop over the border to Somerset, Warwickshire or Wiltshire where the stone circles lie and spend the night alone in a circle … you’ll come out a bard – or mad. Happy midsummer!

Images and videos:

  1. Traditional Cornish Hilltop bonfire. Midsummer’s eve 2009 © Talskiddy
  2. Haymaking & harvesting, from a French 15th cent. ms., Keble College, Oxford (ID 1623) © Oxford University
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLFM9yUSZ0U&feature=youtu.be © Dennis Zimmerman


[i] Find out more in Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (OUP, 1996)

[ii] Graham Bathe ‘Commons and Communities’, 2012: http://www.chilternsaonb.org/uploads/files/AboutTheChilterns/Commons/Commons%20and%20Communities%20by%20Graham%20Bathe.pdf

[iii] Find out more in CE Watson’s ‘The Minchinhampton Custumal and its place in the Story of the Manor’, from the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1932, Vol. 54, 203–384

[iv] Quoted from Hutton, p. 312

[v] ‘Catholic Activity: St. John’s Eve Bonfire’ https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/activities/view.cfm?id=461

[vi] Watson, p. 257