Special Sub-Topic: British Creatures and Places in Legends, Part 2!
|We'll start in southern Nottinghamshire. What village is the fabled and traditional place of fools, known for trying to fence in cuckoos, drown fishes in water, and grind wheat with wool wheels?|
Gotham. The reputation of Gotham as a village of fools goes back to the early 16th-century and was recorded in several late-medieval books of folklore. The hills to the south of town were known as Cuckoo Hill. However, the men of Gotham are not alone: many cultures across the globe have similar towns of dunces, including the Yiddish town of Chelm, Boeo'tia in Ancient Greece, and Sabia in Germany. My wife has set up a permanent mailing address for me in pretty much every one of these.
|The small village of Ompton in Nottinghamshire placed great importance in the bees they kept and their actions. Pieces of black cloth and plates of biscuits and wine were placed near the bee hives when what event happened?|
When their keeper died. Much has been made of the language of bees: their dances and communication; their cooperation; and their usage as omens. Bees walking near the hive in pairs were seen as precursors to a death in the family; a bee that hovered near a puddle was a sign that a storm was brewing. Wild bees that crossed in flight were indicating where their hive was. When they were introduced to America by the early settlers, they made possible pollination patterns and agriculture redolent of the Old World.
|No journey of Nottinghamshire would be complete without a Robin Hood question. The River Rain is now mostly dried and diverted, but near what town on the banks of this small river did Robin Hood have his alleged battle with Friar Tuck?|
Fountain Dale. Robin Hood, of course, stems from many folkloric sources dating all the way back from Andrew of Wyntoun's chronicle circa 1420. He was not always an altruistic "outlaw" and no source ever clearly explains why he was an outlaw. Like Malory's King Arthur, Robin Hood is an amalgam of plausible history and centuries of wishful embellishments and, like Malory's Arthur, is as captivating and enticing figure now as he ever was. The River Rain now exists as a series of small lakes and ponds near Blidworth. If you see a heavy-set monk on a branch, though, I'd steer clear. That's kind of sketchy.
|Let's move on to Dorset, shall we? The Iron Age hill fort of Badbury Rings near Shapwick is at the junction of two major Roman roads. In the trees at its crest are what manifestations of King Arthur?|
nesting ravens. Supposedly the site of the Battle of Mount Badon between the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, Badbury Rings and its ravens are the site where Arthur, changed into a raven just before his death, is supposed to appear at the anniversary of the battle (whenever that is; the exact date and place is also the stuff of historical dispute). The whole Arthur/raven connection was, in part, advanced by Cervantes in "Don Quixote".
|Like the Uffington Stone Horse, the Cerne Abbas Giant could come from the pre-Christian era or could be a late 17th century mockery of Lord Cromwell. Whatever its origin, this great hillside figure was briefly neighbors with what modern hillside figure?|
Homer Simpson. In 2007, the publicity team behind the Simpsons movie enraged and amused a ton of people by painting a giant figure of Homer Simpson in biodegradable paint adjacent to the Cerne Giant. Sacrilege, artistic genius, or pop culture myopia, Homer eventually washed away and the Dorset countryside is once again dominated by just the Giant who, by the way, has been a fertility symbol for many decades. The same way Homer hasn't.
|From the unassuming town of Stourpaine, Dorset, comes a legend of a ghost of a maltreated dog periodically running through town looking for its first, kind master. Though this dog is invisible, and all that can be noticed is the eerie rattling of its chains, what does it share with other ghostly dog legends in England (hint: think Led Zeppelin)?|
It's black. Stray black dogs were terrible omens to encounter along country roads -- independent of rabies. Whether East Anglia's Old Shuck (not a true black dog per se, but a shape-shifter), Suffolk's Old Scuff, to even Doyle's Black Dog manifestation in The Hound of the Baskervilles, they all were attributed to demonic presences. However, some modern (c. 1980s) accounts peg Black Dog sightings as beneficial or helpful to travelers.
|Let's move westward on to Shropshire. Colemere, a lake near the town of Colemere (no way!), seems too shallow to have a sunken chapel lost in its depths. However, if you listen closely on windy, moonlit nights, what can you hear emanating from the dark depths? |
the chapel's bells. Sunken churches, chapels, and bells abound throughout England, especially (and not surprisingly) in and around coastal and boggy areas. Many of these structures were said to have been swallowed by earth- or landquakes, and the malignancy of the realm of fairies was also implicated. If there are bells to be heard, they usually peal forth at the anniversary of the building's sinking or as a portent of a significant event. I actually boated around Colemere one moonlit night with my girlfriend and other than the sounds of cars driving nearby, there was nothing to be heard except for the clink of wine glasses. Except we had brought no wine or glasses with us. Hmmm.
|Now for two Cornwall bits of folklore. Looming from Carn Brea like an ancient mother-in-law is a castle that dates back to Neolithic times. After being edified in Iron Age times, a small medieval castle completed the building, rising up from massive slabs of granite outcroppings. These stones, especially on the western end, are evidence of which legendary race? |
giants. There are Giant legends throughout England. Sometimes precipitated by huge rock formations, sometimes by ring forts and burial mounds, sometimes by huge carvings or chalk figures, they were not really taken seriously except by Cornwall and parts of Devon and Wales. Earthworks, barrows, mound-shaped hills, megalithic tombs, large clods of dirt, overly excited badgers - basically anything large and curious also acquired Giant connotations.
|Not surprisingly, Cornwall has a a wealth of nautical folklore and legends. One of the most interesting concerns Porthcurno. Believed to have once been the main port of Cornwall, the cove was filled with sand over the centuries, allowing what to be seen on the beach and in the inland valleys? |
ghost ships. Okay, so the question wasn't all that interesting. But Porthcurno is such a wildly beautiful place that I had to throw a question about it in here. First off, Minack's Theatre is one of the most amazing places to see a show, backgrounded by the dramatic rocks and sea of the bay. Second, the cliff walks are spectacular and the beach is almost Mediterranean (well, except for the sand). Oh, and some accounts have the Holy Grail hidden in somewhere in the cliffs around this place.
|Finally, what figure of legend underwent a radical shift in perception, changing from an early 19th century, blue-fire breathing, demonic figure with metal claws, glowing eyes and an incredible vertical leap, to a late 19th century Robin Hood-type character who defeats the wicked whilst in disguise?|
Spring-Heeled Jack. First heard of in London rumours in 1837, Spring-heeled Jack caused many a young woman to go into fits of panic and fear when she opened her door. Whatever or whomever he was, Spring-Heeled Jack entered the popular imagination of the countryside and appeared sporadically the rest of the 19th century before being remade into the nobleman-in-disguise hero figure in the 1870s. I have no idea why this bit of arcane knowledge will help you anywhere, but Hollywood will eventually get a hold of it somehow.
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