Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
Folklore and Landscape
An Island where folklore and landscape mingle so that there should almost be a word to describe it.
Our modern disconnect with our landscape leaves us bereft of understanding the tales and folklore that attend to it. Those stories passed from generation to generation may have grown and altered course over hundreds of years of telling but the kernel of the tale still exists somewhere.
“Pay heed to the tales of old wives. It may well be that they alone keep in memory what it was once needful for the wise to know.”
J.R.R Tolkien Lord of the Rings
British folklore is a wonderful hotch potch of tales that bounce around a happening, a place, never quite going away just shifting their position. We all want to believe in some part of the story. Visitors still go to see the claw marks of ‘Black Shuck’ on the church door at Blythburgh. Cornwall has a whole tourist business based on the tales of King Arthur. Others still climb Glastonbury Tor in search of the Holy Grail and as for dragons? We all like to visit somewhere and find out about the local legends and folklore. Which of us hasn’t, map in hand gone looking for dragons? John Morritt, friend of Walter Scott wrote of him;
‘he was but half satisfied with the most beautiful scenery when he could not connect with it some local legend’
There are multiple voices in the telling of folklore, all layered in different contexts and time and they add a great richness to our enjoyment of our landscape.
Folklore and special places.
Imagine yourself in a time where the furthest you would travel in your life was as far as you could walk to and back in daylight. Imagine how in the course of that life how well you would come to know every part of your landscape.
Ideas and explanations of events come about through word of mouth, they become local stories and explanations for happenings. They become stories tightly tied to a particular place. They are stories that explain place names and geographical oddities. Customs and traditions are re-enacted even though the previous knowledge about them has been lost. Many connect our brief human lives to a geological timescale. In a sense local people are the custodians of special places in their locality and that might include very ancient archaeological sites.
The meaning of archaeological sites to various people through time is well-expressed in folklore with warnings of some terrible retribution for their disturbance. Dragons and such like devilish monsters whose lair protects some ancient site. Such folklore can be considered to have acted as a form of preventative conservation. Many ancient landscapes may well have been destroyed if not for the protection given by these folklores. There are instances where monuments have been destroyed and the person responsible persecuted by the rest of the community.
Destruction of the Odin Stone.
This standing stone occupied a special place in the customs, traditions and folklore of the people of Orkney. It was a single stone standing apart from a henge and had a hole piercing it. Thought to be part of the oldest henge in Britain built around 3000BC. So many rituals surrounded the stone, children were passed through the hole, to cure and protect. Wedding promises were made through the hole and so on. It was a stone protected by the people.
However in 1814 an incomer who owned the land got fed up with people crossing his land to visit the stone that he destroyed it. He and his property were attacked and the people were justifiably devastated by their loss. Read more about the history of the stone here.
Landscape becomes venerated.
‘Cursed be he who removeth a neighbours landmark’
The Bible Deuteronomy 27:17
This is given as relating to boundary marks but could just as well be meaning important landmarks in the landscape. The Odin Stone is just one of many such stories. The removal of ancient trees also carries it’s share of folklore tales. Tales of dragon lairs beneath the roots of ancient trees prevented people from chopping them down. The lifespan of an ancient tree may outrun ten generations of a family, it is inevitable that they become such a focus in a community.
The shape of hills and valleys stay steadfast in times of change and trouble and so over thousands of years hold the secrets. This is unlike a river whose changing course and behaviour may be apparent in one persons lifetime. So the shape of the land becomes venerated.
Giants abound in the landscape.
There are thousands of giant stories in Britain. In themselves they point back to a far more ancient Britain and are stories that have been reiterated since our earliest chroniclers put pen to paper. One of the earliest known names for England is Albion. This name comes from a prehistoric giant king called ‘Albion’ who made his way here after being banished from his homeland of Greece.
Whichever way it is looked at it is apparent that giants had impact. We find them crouching under hills, making great leaps across valleys and headlands.
On Wheeldale Moor in Yorkshire there is an ancient road across the moorland. It dates back to at least Roman times. The road is an impressive monument to which there is a legend attached. It is known as Wade’s Causeway, after a giant named ‘Wada’, a common figure in Germanic mythology. Wada built the causeway with his wife Bell so that she could milk her huge cow on the moors. Of course there are clues in the landscape to confirm the story! The boulders scattered across the landscape are said to have fallen from her apron as she went about building the road.
And the giants are carved into the landscape. Wilmington Man in Sussex and the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset are amongst the largest carvings in Europe. Both are wrapped in a great deal of folklore. Many standing stones circles in Britain are supposed to have been thrown up by giants. As early as the C12th folklore surrounded Stonehenge. It was said to have been built with the magic of Merlin and the help of a giant. Folklore was a way of explaining what could not be understood. As commented on before, the result was that the landscape being so revered was preserved.
Folklore and Christianity.
Healing landscapes, stones, trees and springs. As Paganism gave way to Christianity many of the rituals and folklore associated with Paganism came to be transferred. Old stories were included from one set of cultural values to the next. Many of the saints associated with our island contribute to folklore and landscape being joined. The snakestones of St Hilda are a perfect example of this. There is much folklore around parish churches and events therein. The appearance of black dogs and associations with the devil being an oft repeated story.
Before taking a walk it is always worth spending some time reading about the local history of an area. Walking with a knowledge of local folklore can bring an unexpected element to the walk.
Have a fun read with the book ‘These Our Monsters’ from English Heritage.