The legend of Mother Leakey

Every town, I think, should have its own ghost. The town of Minehead in Somerset has at least one – her name is Mother Leakey, and this is her story. She died in 1634, and soon afterwards was seen whistling up storms that destroyed her son’s shipping business, strangling her grandson in the cradle for good measure. Then she appeared to the local doctor while he was out walking – she sat on a stile and refused to move, and when he pushed past her, she gave him a hefty kick up the backside. Such was her infamy that, long after her death, Sir Walter Scott wrote about her, and the cartoonist George Cruickshank drew her.

In 1637, a Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate the appearances, chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It eventually concluded that there was no substance in the story, and it was dismissed. Even so, tales of Mother Leakey have persisted, and within living memory the old woman was still blamed if there was bad weather in Minehead. Quite what might have made her so vengeful is unclear, however…!

Looking into the dark

St John the Baptist, Carhampton

Hello again.

This time last week I’d just arrived in Somerset for some well-earned r’n’r, and the chance to catch up with some dear friends I see all too rarely these days. Two of them very kindly let me have the use of their converted barn for a few days, and so I spent a happy time shuttling backwards and forwards on the bus, and a few cadged lifts, to see as many folk as I could in the time available.

The clocks went back here in the UK last Sunday, and so the evenings, already getting darker, are now creeping in well before 5 o’clock. As I lay awake listening to the wind rattling the casements of the barn, and to the chimes of the church clock, I started thinking about the history of the local area.

One of the places I visited was the small village of Carhampton, a few miles east of Minehead. Today it is home to around 800 or so people, and is a lovely place to live but no longer of great importance. Historically, however, it gave its name to the local hundred – an administrative division of roughly a hundred hides, or households (a hide being the amount of land needed to sustain a household), dating from the Anglo-Saxon period. It was the site of two major battles against the Vikings, in 833 and 840, both of which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Vikings won (“…great slaughter was made there, and the Danish had possession of the place of slaughter”), and, as a royal estate, was later left by Alfred the Great to his son Edward in his will.

It also plays a small role in the Arthurian legends – when St Carantoc came to Somerset from Wales, so the story goes, he lost a magical altar which had been sent to him from Heaven, and asked Arthur if it had been found washed ashore. It had, but to reclaim it he first had to defeat a dangerous serpent (or possibly dragon – the two are often interchangeable in folklore) living on Ker Moor, between Carhampton and Dunster. This he achieved by placing his stole (the scarf-like vestment worn by priests) around its neck, thus rendering it harmless. He was rewarded by the return of his altar, and built a chapel in Carhampton to house it, though, if such a place ever existed, it has long since disappeared – the present parish church (see photo above) has no connection with either the saint or the story associated with him.

A custom that is still continued in the village today, however, is that of apple-wassailing, which happens every January 17th (Old Twelfth Night), and involves placing toast or cake soaked in cider into the branches of the best tree (for the robins), and pouring cider around its roots. Then, when the assembled company have drunk a toast to the tree and sung the wassailing song, in hopes of a healthy crop for the next autumn, shotguns are fired into the air, to ward off evil spirits.

Apple tree, apple tree we wassail thee,

To bear and to bow,

This year and another year,

Hatsfuls, capsfuls and three corner sacksful

And a little heap under the stairs.

So holler boys, holler boys,

Hip hip hooray!