Keswick & Castlerigg

I first visited Keswick, on the shores of Derwentwater (pictured above) in Cumbria, back in 2011, and fell in love immediately. It felt like coming home.

My friend Susan recommended it to me, and I soon fell into the rhythm of being back in a small town, surrounded as it is by beautiful fells, and walking along by the lake, the local Herdwick sheep wandering near its edge.

There are several islands in the lake – two to my knowledge have some folkloric attachment.

Firstly, St Herbert’s Isle takes its name from a saint of the Seventh Century, a contemporary and friend of the better known St Cuthbert. He is supposed to have prayed that they would not outlive each other, and according to tradition they both died on the same hour of the same day.

Then there is Lord’s Island, where the Earls of Derwentwater once had a mansion. The third – and last – Earl met an unfortunate end, executed in 1716 for his part in the Jacobite uprising. He was popular and well loved, and local people blamed his wife for having encouraged him to join the rebels. Above the lake is Walla Crag, which has an opening or pass on its summit named the Lady’s Rake. Here she is supposed to have escaped from an angry mob with as many jewels as she could carry…

On the edge of Keswick is Castlerigg, once the site of a castle owned by the Earls of Derwentwater. Far more ancient is the stone circle there, dating from c. 3200 BC. In common with many other similar monuments, legend has it that it is impossible to accurately count the number of its stones, and that bad luck will befall you if you try.

Nearby is another one of Cumbria’s megalithic structures, Long Meg and Her Daughters, whose stones also cannot be counted. Like those at Stanton Drew (see earlier post), these stones are supposed to have once been people, in this case a coven of witches, petrified for defiling a holy place – or possibly the Sabbath – by a local saint, or, in some accounts, the medieval wizard, Michael Scot…


Life on the Levels

Flooding in the village of Muchelney

I spent the first two years of my life on the Somerset Levels. My mother’s grave is there. I still have friends and connections in the area, and it is heartbreaking to see the suffering of people and animals during the ongoing floods, surely the worst in living memory, now covering 25 square miles of my home county.

This is the place where Alfred the Great hid from the Danes in 878; where the Duke of Monmouth led the ill-fated “pitchfork rebellion” against James II in 1685; where Cecil Sharp was first inspired to begin his work as a folk-song collector in 1903.

It is an extraordinary, haunting landscape, heavy with the ghosts and myths of the past.

The recent photograph above shows one of the roads leading to Muchelney on the Levels – the village’s name means “Great Island” in Old English, and for the time being it is an island once again, completely cut off by the floodwaters.

It will probably be weeks before the waters recede, and when they do many will be returning to wrecked homes and damaged livelihoods. My thoughts are with them. These are some very moving photos of the current floods, taken by Matilda Temperley, who grew up in the area:

Black Dogs & the Yeth Hounds

The village of Selworthy in Somerset, pictured above, is the kind of place usually described as “chocolate box”, and with its thatched cottages and whitewashed medieval church, it certainly looks the part.

But it was here, in the Nineteenth Century, that a traveller saw a ghostly black dog on Budleigh Hill, and was told later by the local sexton that a while before they had been carrying a coffin that way, and a handle worked itself loose; banging it in again with a stone, the nail pierced the corpse’s skull, and the spirit escaped to roam in the form of a dog, with “great fiery eyes as big as saucers”…

Tales of Black Dogs are common throughout England, and are often seen as harbingers of death or ill-fortune, or otherwise as the Devil in disguise.

One of the most celebrated sightings was in 1577, in the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk, when a terrible storm broke one Sunday morning, and a Black Dog or “Shuck” (derived from the Old English for “devil” or “fiend”, and also from a local dialect word meaning “shaggy” – a reference to the appearance of its coat) broke into the local churches, killing and maiming several people, and leaving the marks of its claws in the doors and stonework.

There have been several different accounts of this incident over the years (always a sign, according to Jacqueline Simpson, that a story has become folklore), and in Bungay especially the creature is now part of the village’s identity (its coat of arms features a picture of the Dog standing on forked lightning). One of the more recent versions is the song Black Shuck by rock band The Darkness…

Black Dogs are solitary, unlike those of the Wild Hunt – known as Yeth Hounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

They ride as part of the Hunt, with ghostly horsemen, and like Black Dogs they are an ill omen, charging across the sky. Those who hunt on a Sunday, or are cruel and quick-tempered, may end up riding with them…

This was said to be the fate of a butcher’s boy from Rodhuish in Somerset.

A local bully, he tried to scare a young ploughboy who was at the blacksmith’s to mend the coulter on his plough.

He told him that the Devil would appear to him as he walked home over Croydon Hill, but this failed to frighten the lad, who set off regardless, carrying his mended coulter.

A while later he came running back, crying, “I’ve a-killed the Devil!”

The Devil, apparently, had appeared to him on Croydon Hill, and he thought he had struck him dead with his coulter. But it turned out that the butcher’s boy had dressed himself in the carcass of a dead bullock, and had leapt out at the ploughboy as he made his way home. And when the blacksmith and other men from the village went to see what had happened, they found only the bullock’s remains, its skull smashed, and no sign of the butcher’s boy.

Ever since it has been said that the Devil claimed him, and he rides over Croydon Hill with the Wild Hunt on stormy nights. A nice warning about what can happen to bullies!