Valentine’s Day! It’s got absolutely nothing to do with St Valentine…

Surprising Facts About St. Valentine - History in the Headlines


Strange but true – there is no evidence to link St Valentine with lovers or courtship, though both St Valentines – there are more than one – in the Roman Martyrology (one was a Roman priest who died in AD 269, the other an Umbrian bishop who was executed a few years later in AD 273) are said to have met their end on the 14th February, a date which since the 1300’s has been associated with love, apparently arising out of the mistaken but charming belief that birds chose their mates on this day.

It is also historically the Eve of the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia, in which young men dressed in goat-skin thongs went about striking women to make them fruitful (please don’t try this at home), and people chose lovers by lot.

In the 1380’s Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a poem called The Parlement of Foules, in which the birds squabble over their suitors. And in 1477 Margery Brews wrote to her fiance John Paston, addressing him as her “right wellbelovyd Voluntyn”.

What began in courtly circles in England and France soon spread, and by the 1660’s Samuel Pepys is mentioning in his diary Valentine’s customs whereby both married and unmarried people have to draw lots and present their “Valentine” with – sometimes quite lavish – gifts (Pepys himself complains of the cost of buying one Martha Batten seven pairs of gloves for the princely sum of 40 shillings in 1661). He also refers to the custom that the first person one sees on 14th February will be your Valentine – his wife had to spend most of the day in 1662 with her hands over her eyes for fear of seeing the wrong person (she and Samuel had the painters in at the time).

There are fascinating local examples of Valentine’s Day traditions from across Britain, and not all are for lovers or sweethearts.

In Street in Somerset, talking to someone of the opposite sex before noon on February 14th was thought to be unlucky, but in some areas of the country children used to go from house to house before dawn, singing:

Good morrow, Valentine,

First ’tis yours, then ’tis mine,

Please to give me a Valentine.

They would expect gifts of fruit, money, or special cakes called Valentine Buns or Plum Shittles in return. In Norfolk, if they appeared after the sun came up they could be refused gifts on the grounds that they were “sunburnt”. Likewise, on St Valentine’s Eve there was a tradition in the county of leaving presents on people’s doorsteps, knocking on the door, and then running away – secrecy (or supposed secrecy) being an important ingredient of the celebrations, then as now. In Derbyshire, if a girl did not receive a visit or a kiss from her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day she was said to be “dusty”, and her friends would then sweep her with a broom or piece of straw.

By the Eighteenth Century, sending cards to one’s Valentine instead of expensive gifts was increasingly popular, and what at first were handmade and handwritten items became, from the 1840’s onward, commercially produced. These were embossed and gilded, and sometimes perfumed – but, as the Nineteenth Century wore on, their quality decreased, and humorous and sometimes unpleasant “Anti-Valentine” cards led to a decline in the Day’s popularity by the turn of the century.

By the late 1920’s, however, Valentine’s Day was starting to once more regain its former status, and though the folklorist Christina Hole – writing as recently as 1976 – claims that “it has not yet recovered (and probably never will) the enormous popularity of its Victorian hey-day”, today, in 2017, she might have cause to revise her opinion. The traditional date of the St Valentines’ martyrdom is now a multimillion-pound industry of flowers, chocolates, cards and dinners à deux, and one you may embrace or reject depending on your point of view and/or romantic status.



It’s elemental… Water

Andy Scott's magnificent Kelpies at Grangemouth

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland ( Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.

Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.

We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:

…many wondrous creatures

Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents

with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…

Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.

Danish Lake

Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)

Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.

In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.

Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:

“‘I saw no face,’ I said.

‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”

At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:

“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.

Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”

Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!

St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo:


The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)

A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)

Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4

The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)

The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)

The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)



Traditionally, Hallowe’en is part of a three-day festival called Hallowtide, which lasts beyond October 31st and on through All Saints’ & All Souls’ Days, on November 1st & 2nd respectively.

I have grumbled on occasion – including on this blog – about the increasing commercialization of Hallowe’en, but as an amateur folklorist I remain fascinated with the origins of the feast, in the pagan festival of Samhain, that celebrates the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter and the new year. Many Hallowe’en traditions derive from these old beliefs, including (shudders) trick or treating.

I remember back in 1983, when I was nine, one of my friends at school, who had lived in the States, telling us about this custom he had encountered there, and we listened, thrilled and horrified, to tales (possibly exaggerated) of people who had refused to hand out treats, and had their doors smeared with excrement in response. Good grief, we thought, such things couldn’t happen here, where Hallowe’en consisted of a bit of dressing up, a few party games, and perhaps a spot of apple bobbing! The folklorist Christina Hole, writing in 1976, observes:

“In many parts of the country Hallowe’en is almost entirely neglected as a festival night…”

(Christina Hole, British Folk Customs)

But, sure enough, trick or treating became more and more popular in the UK in subsequent years, and the fact is, it does have its origins in British and Irish traditions. Christina Hole relates that:

“Hallowe’en was, and still is in some places, a time when mischievous pranks of many kinds are played and tolerated… young men, and sometimes young women as well… went about the parish in disguise, fantastically dressed, or wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, with their faces blackened by soot or covered by grotesque masks. They went… from house to house, collecting money or gifts of food…”

In parts of the North and Midlands of England, this is known as Mischief Night, which can be a pretty anarchic affair, according to Hole:

“Fireworks are let off in the streets; paint or whitewash is slapped on to doors or windows; door-knobs are smeared with treacle, and drainpipes are stuffed with smouldering paper…”

In my own county of Somerset, we have Punkie Night, after the lanterns, or “punkies”, carved out of turnips or swedes (not pumpkins), which are then put on posts, to ward off the evil spirits that are supposed to be abroad at Hallowe’en – though another story, connected with the villages of Hinton St George and Lopen, tells of local men who had visited Chiselborough fair, which was held every October 29th, and drank so much cider they couldn’t find their way back, so that their wives “…scooped out mangolds which were growing in the fields and, placing candles inside them, went out to guide their recalcitrant husbands home” (Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset).

This led to the tradition of local children, at the end of October, going around the streets after nightfall singing:

It’s Punkie Night tonight

It’s Punkie Night tonight

Give us a candle, give us a light

It’s Punkie Night tonight.

They ask for some money, and threaten a “fright” if no gift is given!

The old Hallowe’en fires are now lit on the 5th November – Bonfire Night – to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but until the late 1800’s it was at dusk on All Hallows’ Eve that they burned, to bless the land and people of the district, and to keep away witches, which the purifying flames were supposed to destroy (in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, boys would beg for fuel for these fires with the words, “Gie’s a peat t’burn the witches!”).

Divination is also traditionally practised at Hallowe’en, and again this is often connected with the fear of evil – in Wales and Scotland, one ceremony involved marking a white stone and throwing it into the fire. If it was still there, and in one piece, the next day, then all would be well – but if it was cracked, or damaged, then its owner would die before the next Hallow Fire. In northern Lancashire, folk used to (and perhaps still do) perform a custom called Lating the Witches, where large candles are carried over the local hills between eleven o’clock and midnight. If your candle burns all the way, then you will be protected against witchcraft for the coming year – but if it goes out, bad luck will find you…

Other divination rites are somewhat less macabre, and involve searching out a future mate. For example, two nuts – one for a young man, the other for a young woman – are placed on the bars or in the embers of a fire, and if they burn quietly, then the couple will marry – but if they explode, or flare up, then the relationship will not last. Likewise, if you peel an apple, and throw the peel over your left shoulder at midnight on Hallowe’en, it will form the first letter of your future partner’s name as it lands.

I love all these stories, and I wish some of these customs, where they have died out, could be revived – but new ones, I suppose, will always emerge. But I think we should resist those who use Hallowe’en as just another excuse to wring cash out of people. It should be so much more than that.

Punky Night | Punkie Night, (aka Punky Night) Hinton St Geor ...

Punkie Night, Hinton St George

“The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth – review

The Wake: A Novel by Paul Kingsnorth

I moved to London back in 1998 – prior to that, I had grown up in Somerset, and spent three years at university in Sussex.

I was 24, and had never lived anywhere so big before. I found the capital simultaneously exciting and scary, and on my second day managed to get punched in the face at a bus stop. Welcome to London! After living in places that were culturally and ethnically pretty homogeneous, the mix of colours, creeds and languages was strange and novel, but also disorientating, and, perhaps inevitably, it made me think, in a way that I hadn’t before, about who I was, and where I fitted in to modern British society.

Politically, this was a period of devolution, with new assemblies being set up in Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and a new parliament for Scotland. There was a brief attempt to repeat the trick in the rest of England – where most of the population of the UK live and work – but it was stillborn: in 2004, the people of the North East firmly rejected a plan for an elected assembly for the region, and the government backed away from trying to introduce them elsewhere (though they did introduce unelected assemblies instead, made up of local councillors, businessmen, etc.).

There have been attempts since to answer the West Lothian question – whereby England is seen to be disadvantaged by devolution to the other home nations – from the Campaign for an English Parliament to the “northern powerhouse”, a phrase repeated to the point of meaninglessness by the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. But what does seem clear is that the UK is increasingly moving towards a federal or quasi-federal constitutional settlement – or, failing that, to complete breakup (the Scottish National Party now hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats).

Against this background, I, like many others in England I suspect, have been wrestling with questions of English  – and my own – identity for the past 15 years or so. And much of this search – for me at least, as someone who usually recoils at the word “nationalist” – has manifested itself in cultural terms – folk music, history, literature – and also in the English landscape, its beauty, and strange, eerie pull.

And so I found myself reading some of the books Paul Kingsnorth mentions in the bibliography at the back of his debut novel, The Wake – Frank Stenton’s Anglo-Saxon England, Michael Wood’s In Search of England, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. I wasn’t looking for answers as such – I was looking for something to call my own. What did it mean, in the 21st Century, to be English? Were we all now living, as Michael Wood claims, in “After England”?

The blurb on the cover of my edition of The Wake describes it as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago”, and it traces the history of Buccmaster of Holland, a free farmer, or sokeman, in Lincolnshire at the time of the Norman Conquest. He loses first his sons, and then his wife and land, to the Normans, and becomes the leader of a gang of outlaws in the fens and woods around his home. As everything that is familiar to him crumbles, he struggles to hold on to the “eald ways… the eald hus”, and sees visions of Weyland the Smith, telling him to “feoht… be triewe”.

The novel is written in what Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue”, a mixture of Old and modern English that may put some readers off, but which the author argues is essential to try to get inside the minds of the Eleventh Century Anglo-Saxons. Having finished the novel, I have to say I agree – and frankly I don’t think it matters if some words defeat you (though a glossary is provided), it’s impossible to imagine this story told any other way. Buccmaster’s character – his contradictions, bloody-mindedness, and attachment to the old, pagan gods – come through in the choppy, percussive sounds of his words, and though his creator’s sympathies undoubtedly lie with his struggle – doomed though it is – he is also happy to let us see the damage of his mind, for this I think is the central theme of the book: that the conquest of one people by another is a tragedy not just in the loss of the physical, exterior world (and the Normans, of course, understood the architecture of power – Kingsnorth memorably describes the building of one of their castles: “it was lic sum wilde wiht had toc a great bite from this place and many folcs with it”), but in its corollary – the interior loss, of identity, language, place, and indeed often sanity itself (“there is no gods… but in thy deorc heorte man” one of Buccmaster’s followers says to him).

Kingsnorth is one of the founders of the Dark Mountain project, a group of writers and artists who “have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself”. According to Naomi Klein, it provides “a space in which we can grieve” in the face of all but inevitable environmental and political collapse. While this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it finds an echo in The Wake – Buccmaster’s struggle has value, despite, or even perhaps because of, its ultimate futility. It is a gripping and sorrowful book, beautifully written, and full of anger and wonder, and if it doesn’t quite capture the melancholic spirit of the great Anglo-Saxon poems, the fact that I’m mentioning it in the same sentence ought to be recommendation enough.

In an interview with the New York Times, Kingsnorth says: “I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough.” More than enough, I would have thought.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Somerset

I’ve been wanting for a while now to write about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his connections with my home county of Somerset, where he lived from 1797 to 1798, and where he wrote his greatest poems, including Frost at Midnight, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, and the first part of Christabel.

It’s strange to me that Coleridge is frequently referred to as one of the “Lake Poets” – for despite spending time living in the Lake District, and forging important friendships with both William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, he grew up in the West Country, and it was here he found his truest inspiration as a poet.

He was born in Ottery St Mary in Devon in 1772, the youngest child of the Reverend John Coleridge, vicar of the parish. When his father died in 1781, the young Coleridge was sent to Christ’s Hospital in London, where he received an excellent education, but was often homesick, and grief-stricken at the loss of his father, whom he had greatly loved.

He went up to Cambridge in 1791, but never completed his degree, and at one point (and this is my favourite piece of Coleridge-related trivia) left the university to enlist in the cavalry under the pseudonym Silas Tomkyn Comberbacke, but kept falling off his horse, and was only really useful at writing love letters for the other dragoons. His brothers eventually bought him out.

He became friends with fellow poet Robert Southey, whose politics in those days were, like Coleridge’s, very radical, and the two planned to found a commune in Pennsylvania, though in the end this came to nothing. But Coleridge did agree – to his lasting regret, for the two were not suited – to marry Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancée Edith, and the two poets had a joint wedding in St Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol, in 1795.

This was the same year that Coleridge met Wordsworth, and the key relationship of his writing career began. And in 1797, he moved to Somerset.

The house where he lived, in Nether Stowey, is now known as Coleridge Cottage, and is owned by the National Trust. William and Dorothy Wordsworth came to visit him there, and were taken enough by the surrounding countryside that they decided to rent nearby Alfoxton House, and for a year the two poets saw each other every day, and took long walks in the hills and along the coast, inviting the suspicion of a government paranoid about potential French invasion – the radical young writers were suspected of being spies, and were followed for a while by a government agent, who eventually concluded that they were only “mere poets”!

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, especially, was inspired by real locations in Somerset, like Watchet harbour, which became the port from which the Mariner sets sail, as this statue in the town commemorates –


Likewise, the woods of North Hill, above the nearby town of Minehead, become in the poem the home of the Hermit:

This Hermit good lives in that wood / Which slopes down to the sea.


Kubla Khan, of course, was never completed – at the time he wrote it, Coleridge had moved a few miles west of Nether Stowey, staying in a farmhouse “between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire”. He had been taken ill, and tells us that “an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair” (though we know from his notes that his “profound sleep” was actually an hallucinatory dream brought on by opium). Having nodded off over Samuel Purchas’s account of “Cublai Can”‘s “stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall”, Coleridge woke with a vivid recollection of having composed a long poem on the subject during his “sleep”, and immediately set about writing it down. But famously he was interrupted “by a person on business from Porlock”, and by the time he returned to his desk he had forgotten the rest. Nevertheless, what remains is one of the most memorable visionary poems of the Romantic period:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

After leaving Somerset, Coleridge spent some time travelling in Germany, before settling in Keswick, in Cumbria, on his return to England in 1800. Here he completed Christabel, and could be near his friends the Wordsworths, and Southey. But his life had already started to fall apart – his marriage was unhappy, and he and Wordsworth fell out in 1810, and weren’t properly reconciled for another eighteen years. His addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in brandy) took its toll on his health, and after a spell in Malta he moved to London, eventually becoming part of the household of physician James Gillman. He kept working, and writing, until his death in 1834, and his criticism and philosophy were a major influence on younger writers like Thomas Carlyle, but he wrote little poetry after 1807.

Still, despite abandoning his family (his friend Southey took them in), Coleridge remains, in the words of Harold Bloom and Lionel Trilling, in the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, “lovable”: “Literature necessarily is as much a matter of personality as it is of character,” they write. “Coleridge has, as Walter Pater observed, a ‘peculiar charm’; he seems to lend himself to myths of failure.”

What a brilliant failure, though.

Coleridge Cottage