The Devil’s Punch Bowl

Ah, Surrey! Land of the stockbroker!

Apparently it’s the most wooded county in England – and as I discovered yesterday morning, as I travelled through it on a warm and sunny spring day, it’s full of beautiful hills and vales, and neat little towns. It’s just a shame you have to be so rich to live there…

The Devil’s Punch Bowl is a deep hollow in the hills outside Hindhead. There are various stories of how it got its name, and they all involve the Devil getting up to mischief of one kind or another, and relate to other topographical features of the Surrey and Sussex landscape, including the Devil’s Jumps, at Frensham, and the Devil’s Dyke, in Poynings.

The Devil apparently amused himself by leaping between the three hills that form the Devil’s Jumps – or Three Jumps – and in doing so annoyed Thor, the Norse god of thunder, who threw a boulder at him. Not far from Frensham is the village of Thursley – from the Old English for Thunor (Thor)’s grove or field – so it isn’t difficult to see how the connection was made.

Another account tells how the Devil was chased along the Jumps by Mother Ludlam, a local witch, before finally escaping from her by diving into the Punch Bowl.

Then there is the Devil’s Dyke.

Like Tarr Steps in Somerset (see earlier post), the Devil – not being able to abide sunlight – worked through the night to try and finish a channel that would let in the sea, and flood the inland villages of Sussex.

The mud he threw up as he constructed his earthwork formed landmarks like the Isle of Wight and Chanctonbury Ring – but he was ultimately thwarted in his attempt to drown the villagers who had so incensed him by building new churches, as either St Cuthman, St Dunstan, or a local old woman – depending on which version you look at – used candlelight and the power of prayer to make the cocks crow especially early, and trick the (clearly not very bright) Devil into thinking that day had come, and so he vanished and left his work unfinished.

The Devil’s Punch Bowl does have a very real and grisly history, as the main London to Portsmouth road once ran along its edge, and used to be the haunt of highwaymen.

In September 1786 a sailor was attacked and murdered there, and the men responsible were soon caught and hanged, their tarred bodies strung up on what is still known as Gibbet Hill.

Since the opening of the Hindhead Tunnel in 2011, the London to Portsmouth road no longer runs through the Punch Bowl, and it has become a much more peaceful place as a result. Though no doubt haunted by more than a few ghosts…

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Alderley Edge

The other day I was in Cheshire for my cousin’s wedding (it was a wonderful day by the way, and the reception was held at a Tudor manor-house which, disappointingly, turned out not to be haunted), and rolling through that county on the train, I got to thinking about Alderley Edge.

The Edge is an escarpment that rises high above the Cheshire Plain; it is honeycombed with old copper mines, and these days is owned and maintained by the National Trust.

It first came to my attention through the work of Alan Garner, especially his book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which is set in and around the Edge, and was inspired by a local legend about a farmer who, taking a white horse to market, met a strange old man on the road.

The old man asked to buy the horse, but the farmer refused. So the old man told him:

“You will find no one willing to buy her today.”

And indeed, when the farmer arrived at the market, many admired the white mare, but no one would buy.

Returning home disappointed, the farmer found the old man where he had left him, by the woods near the Edge.

He led the farmer to a rock face, where great iron gates suddenly appeared and swung open, and within there lay caverns where a large company of warriors slept, and all but one had their own white horse, sleeping beside him.

The stranger then told of how they awaited the day of a terrible battle, when England would be threatened, and they would ride out to her defence.

The farmer now gladly took the offered money, and beat a hasty retreat, the gates shutting behind him; and to this day, no one has been able to locate them again…

Though the original account does not name the characters, successive versions have identified the old man as Merlin, and the leader of the sleeping warriors as King Arthur, the Once and Future King…

File:The Death of King Arthur.jpg

The Death of King Arthur, James Archer

Happy Shrovetide

It’s Shrove Tuesday today – or Pancake Day, as it tends to be known nowadays, or Fastern’s E’en, or “Jiffy Lemon Day” as my father once sarcastically referred to it – and I hope you’ve enjoyed your pancakes, whatever you’ve had with them (personally I reckon you can’t beat good old lemon and sugar, but I’m a purist).

Actually this year I’ve gone pancake-less, and had to make do with a doughnut, though this is not inappropriate, as in Baldock in Hertfordshire they cook doughnuts in hog’s lard, and call it Doughnut Day.

Traditionally, of course, cooks would use up their fat and butter before the Lenten fast, though pancakes have their origin in pre-Christian times, when wheaten cakes were eaten to mark the early spring.

In Scotland, they call it Brose Day or Bannock Tuesday, and eat brose (a kind of broth), cooking their bannocks (a sort of oatmeal cake) in the evening. The last bannock to be cooked is the so-called “dreaming-bannock”, which should be made in silence and then divided among the assembled company. If your piece contains a ring or other object it may bring you luck, or divine your future.

Shrove Tuesday also has a more anarchic side – the custom of Shroving used to involve (and in some places may still do so) gangs of children travelling around the parish threatening to throw stones or broken crockery at people’s doors unless they gave them pancakes. And in many places in Britain, Shrovetide football is still enthusiastically practised – it involves two large teams from different parts of a town or village trying to get their ball through the other side’s goal (the goals are sometimes miles apart), and there are virtually no rules other than not being allowed to kill people. For hours on end the players fight their way through the town (local shops often board up their windows) until one or other side is victorious. The folklorist Christina Hole memorably describes a similar game that once took place in Llanwennog in Wales:

Not a few of the players were injured by kicks on the shins, and sometimes two of them would break off during the game to indulge in a private bout of fisticuffs but the fierce zest for victory never failed.

Here’s a picture of a game being played in Ashbourne in Derbyshire:

These boys had only one aim in mind: give me the ball!

Photo: Andy Darlington

So enjoy the rest of Shrovetide, before the long days of Lent, and remember:

Nicka, nicka, nan,

Give me some pancake, and I’ll be gone;

But if you give me none,

I’ll throw a great stone,

And down your door shall come!