People have always lived in the area that is now known as London, a visit to the London Museum will tell all you need to know about London before it was London. However, it was the Romans who gave the area its name – Londinium – and apart from a small hiccup in the first century AD they provided the structure that would become one of the most famous cities in the world.
Although later parts of the cities history can be easier to spot, the evidence for Roman London is possible to find. The following is not an exhaustive guide, just a few pictures and the like of places as and when they were found.
The most obvious evidence for the Romans can be found in the bits of surviving wall that once surrounded the town. Short sections of the wall survive in various places (one section is in an underground carpark) and are really the only upstanding remains left – all else having been destroyed and built over by later generations. The wall remained (with later additions and repairs) because it was useful. For those wishing to walk the wall – follow the road ‘London Wall’ which leads to and from the Museum of London, along the way are several signposted places of interest.
The above photos show a section of the wall at Tower Hill (first three pictures) and one of the bastions and wall section of the Cripplegate fort. The Roman fort formed part of the wall defences when it was built in the second century AD. Follow this link for an interactive map of other locations of the wall sections. Do keep in mind though that the Roman parts of the London wall are generally speaking the lower sections, later Londoners did alter, reinforce and reconstruct much of the upper sections as and when was necessary.
As mentioned before an essential place to start if you want to know more of London’s history is with the London Museum. More so if you want to learn about the Roman period and earlier as much of the evidence comes from excavations. The Roman galleries paint a fascinating picture of life at the time with the added bonus of a section of the Roman wall being just outside the museum (see above photo).
Part of the gallery is laid out as a series of ‘rooms’ where objects are given life like context. For example, cooking pots and utensils are placed within the context of kitchen befitting a Roman home.
There are also many of the usual museum type exhibits. It was particularly interesting to see the exhibit on the burial of the Roman woman found at Spitalfields.
The above photos show a reconstruction of the Spitalfields woman may have looked like. Roman London was a cosmopolitan city and by AD120 the population was around 45,000. Many of the people living in Londinium came from all over the known world. The Spitalfields lady’s burial was of high status, not only did she have a stone sarcophagus but also a highly decorated lead coffin (above). Fragile glass vials were found with her as were pieces of Damascus silk. Chemical analysis indicated that she was one of the few known people to have actually come from Rome. Read here for more of her story.
Every generation since London’s inception has reimagined the city, demolishing that which did not fit or was not useful and rebuilding for their own purposes. Resulting in thick layers of history beneath the roads and buildings we see today. Every time a new road, building or train line is built the archaeologists move in to hastily uncover what can be seen, such as during the Cross Rail project. Many of these reports can be accessed via the Archaeological Data Service along with others such as 1 Poultry Lane and Tower Hamlets excavations.
Most of what is excavated does not survive the process for numerous reasons, however in one case the remains of Roman temple has been preserved deep underground – the London Mithraeum. Located beneath Bloombergs European headquarters in the heart of the city is the well preserved and intriguing site of a temple dedicated to the eastern god Mithras.
The mysterious cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century AD. It spread across the Empire over the next 300 years, predominantly attracting merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Meeting in temples which were often constructed below ground, these were private, dark and windowless spaces. (From londonmithraeum.com).
The temple was built in the third century AD and it lies on reclaimed land over what was once the river Walbrook; because of this a number of wooden artefacts survived. After the 1954 excavations the site was physically moved and reconstructed in the 1960s on the far side of the plaza from where it sits now. During the construction of the Bloomberg center even more excavations were undertaken revealing even more about the sites fascinating past. As part of this process, it was decided to move the mithraeum back to (as close as possible) to its original position seven meters below modern ground level and open it to the public as educational and exciting place to learn about Roman London.
The experience is immersive – the visitor stands in a darkened room, surrounded by the sounds of the temple as it may have been, judicious use of lighting draws your attention to various spaces. Each session is timed and numbers limited (booking is essential but free). This allows for an unhurried and unharried visit of the mithraeum – evoking an atmosphere of quiet contemplation, similar to that felt when visiting a church.
Although there is a small display of some of the many artefacts found during the 1954 excavations the sculpture featuring Mithras and the bull can be seen at the London Museum.
Another feature of Roman London which can still be traced above ground, so to speak, is that of the roads which ran in and out of the city. Some of the names may be familiar – Ermine St (now the A10/Kingsland Rd), Watling St (of which there are two…), not always easy to see or follow, later changes to the topography can blur the picture but it is always lovely when you accidentally find one such road…
Here is the Watling Street which most likely ran south east past the mithraeum and across London Bridge heading towards Durovernum (Canterbury) and the coast. The site of todays London Bridge is roughly in the same position of the first proper bridge across the Thames built by the Romans.
Unlike later periods of London’s history the Roman story can be a little harder to find however it is well worth the effort should you make the attempt.
Experimental archaeology is the one path that virtually anyone can take to travel back in time; to get an idea of what life may have been like in the distant past. One such place which encapsulates this philosophy is Butser Ancient Farm, a place I had the chance to visit recently.
Butser began life in 1972, in a different location by the late Peter Reynolds, whose passion for experimental archaeology was contagious. The original farm was situated on Butser Hill, in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, in part because of the evidence for extensive Iron Age field systems on Butser Hill, still visible in the prehistoric field boundaries and earthworks that cover the landscape. However, it did not open to the public until 1974 and because of its popularity moved to a more accessible site at the bottom of Butser Hill. In 1991 the farm moved to its present location (near Chalton, Hampshire – just off the A3).
At Butser it is possible to see ten thousand years of history come to life; to see plans of archaeological sites rise up from the ground; to feel, touch, smell and absorb some of what it may have been like in the past is an experience that should not be missed. All of the buildings which have been reconstructed are based on actual archaeological sites that have been discovered through excavation.
These excavations often only reveal the faintest of remains, the postholes and their layout is usually all archaeologists have to go on as to the type of building. The artefacts found and their position in the structure can also provide clues as to the use of the space inside and outside. Understanding all the fragmentary pieces of evidence can often take a leap of faith particularly for the general public. In this case Butser provides a physical and tangible connection to the past for the visitor.
However, it is much more than that, it is a place where those who study the past can test theories in, not only ancient technologies and construction techniques but also in how sites degrade. Our understanding of how archaeological sites are formed depend very much on understanding how a place degrades, becoming the humps and bumps we see in the landscape.
In addition to the buildings, there are also gardens containing plants that would have been in use at a particular time – known from faunal analysis during excavations. Ancient breeds of sheep, goat and pig are also a feature of the farm, giving the visitor a well-rounded experience. At certain times of the year, they also host various events such as flint knapping weekends, re-enactment groups, storytelling, solstice celebrations and more.
The following are few photos from my visit this year…beginning in the very distant past of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
In the days preceding my visit the team at Butser along with volunteers from the HMS Queen Elizabeth had a go at erecting a megalith using only the types of technology available in the Neolithic. They moved and raised a 3.5 ton piece of Purbeck limestone using theorised prehistoric techniques. The stone is roughly the same weight as the smaller bluestones at Stonehenge, which were moved over 140 miles around 5000 years ago.
When performing such tasks it is also useful to observe what is left behind, these ephemeral remains are often the hardest to interpret.
From the Neolithic we carefully saunter into the Bronze Age, the time of the roundhouse and metal working…
The Iron Age –
The Roman villa – as with all the structures at Butser the villa was built using only construction techniques known to be used in the Romano-British period. The mosaic is the only known reconstruction in the UK and the aim was to understand some of the finer points in mosaic construction but also to see what happens to it over time.
The Anglo-Saxon halls are the most recent addition to the farm and demonstrate two different types of building style.
As mentioned before Butser also engages in research and education, none of the buildings, gardens or spaces are static museum pieces, they are constantly evolving – adding to our knowledge. Most years the farm is well attended by schools wide and far who get a hands on perspective of life in the past, archaeology and history.
The gardens and the animals are an equally fascinating aspect to the farm, endeavoring to give a much more rounded picture of the past.
For more information I would highly recommend their website (and archive) – Butser Ancient Farm
In today’s world where the internet rules, the desire to send and receive Christmas cards is fast losing favour. Instead people send memes, GIFs and quick texts to celebrate the event. However, a study of old Christmas cards can be informative of times past. The earliest cards rarely featured winter or religious themes, often preferring scenes of fairies, flowers and such as a reminder that Spring was on the way (like many midwinter traditions). War time cards had a strong patriotic theme, whilst later cards gave emphasis to the religious aspects and others encourage values that were felt to be important to a well functioning society – the first commercial card produced showed a scene of three generations of a family toasting the recipient with scenes of charity to one side. But perhaps for me personally it is the quirky cards from the Victorian era which often has me wondering what the card designers were thinking.
The following is less a history of the Christmas card then a gallery of some of the strange, bizarre and downright weird designs found on Christmas cards.
Frogs tend to feature quite often in Christmas card design – although it is hard to say what exactly is being said with the first card…
The following few card designs feature food but not in ways you would expect.
Kittens often feature on Christmas cards, sometimes cute, sometimes not and as the card above shows not always in ways we expect either.
The following cards are simply those which are too weird for explanations.
For more interesting and quirky facts about Christmas please check out the other blog on Christmas traditions here (there are also some more carzy cards…)
The British countryside is littered with the enigmatic remnants of its ancient past, there are somewhere in the region of ten thousand pre-Roman standing monuments. Modern archaeological techniques and science may be helping us to understand such sites today but once upon a time the people who lived with them found other ways to explain their redoubtable presence. Dating back thousands of years, monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, burial mounds (round and long barrows), stone rows and other such megalithic remains, provide a wealth of folklore as answers to the how, why and who questions of the past.
There are many tales to be told but the following is simply a selection of some well known and some not so well known.
One of the most well-known megalithic sites in Britain is that of Stonehenge with its own fair share of fantastical tales attached. In the 12th century Stonehenge was referred to as the ‘Hanging Stones’ because they appeared to float in the air. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the same century declared that Merlin (of Arthurian fame) was responsible for the building of the stones, something which was taken as fact for many centuries.
In Geoffrey’s account the king Aurelius Ambrosius told Merlin he wanted to raise a monument for his nobles who had been killed at Amesbury by the Saxon invader Hengist. Merlin tells the king to fetch a circle of stones in Ireland called the Dance of Giants that had healing properties. Aurelius went to Ireland with an army and fought the local Irish who did not want to give up the Dance of Giants eventually winning. On seeing the size of the stones, they found it impossible to move them, but Merlin was at hand who with the use of ‘his own engines, laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe’.
Of course, we know through scientific endeavor that the largest stones come from nearby Marlborough Downs and the smaller blue stones are from the mountains in Wales, not Ireland. However, it is interesting that there did still seem to be some knowledge, a folk memory, that a part of Stonehenge came from far enough away to be a wonder. It is also of interest that these stones were believed to have healing qualities, as new theories suggest that there was strong connection between healing and the presence of the blue stones in the early phases of construction. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that they washed the stones and poured the water into baths ‘whereby those who were sick were cured’.
The healing power of certain stones is an enduring feature of the tales associated with them. The most well known is that of Men-an-Tol in West Cornwall, here there is a round upright stone with a hole in it situated between two small uprights. Children were passed through the hole as a cure for rickets; it was also believed to be good for a ‘crick in the neck’ and was sometimes referred to as the Crick Stone – having personally struggled through the aforementioned holed stone, it can be suggested that it causes the ‘crick in the neck’ rather than cures. At Horton in North Somerset there is a similar stone known as the Crick Stone.
In Scotland, at the chamber tomb of Carraig an Talaidh, the portal stone is known as the Toothie Stane as a result of local people who were suffering from toothache would drive a nail into the stone. The idea being that in causing pain to the stone their own would cease. At the Rollright Stones it is said that they confer fertility upon women who touch them with their bare breasts at midnight. In addition, they are offer the power of prayer for the sick a boost if the prayers are said at the center of the Kings Men (the stone circle). The Kings Stone has a peculiar kink as result of the practice of chipping off pieces as good luck charms and amulets against the devil.
One of the most enduring tales associated with stone circles and standing stones is that of dancing. The Merry Maidens, a stone circle near St Buryan in West Cornwall, is said to be a circle of young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. In field nearby are several standing stones known as the Blind Fiddler and the Pipers who were playing music for the dancers and when they saw their fate, they tried run but God struck them down turning them into stone. A similar tale is told of the Nine Maidens, also in Cornwall.
A common theme in the folklore of standing stones is of people who broke the Sabbath being punished by being turned to stone, something which would have been encouraged by the Church at the time. The stones represented the pagan and ungodly past, any idolatry of such places was to be discouraged. A classic example of the pagan vs the Christian can be seen in the story of Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria. It was the wizard Michael Scott who when passing the place saw it was a witches sabbath and turned the participants into stone – the use of magic in this instance would appear to not sit comfortably alongside Christian beliefs but then if it is used to do God’s work.
In some cases, Christianity has taken an active role in the creation of the folktales surrounding sites. For example, the Long Stone near St Austell in Cornwall is said to once have been the staff and hat of the Saint Austell. The tale states that the saint was one day walking over the downs when his hat was blown off by a sudden violent gust of wind, he thrust his staff into the ground and chased after it. Unfortunately, the violent wind turned into an equally violent storm, driving the saint back to his home without both his staff and his hat. On returning the next day to retrieve his hat and staff he found that the Devil had turned them into stone.
The Devil also features in a legend regarding the Rudston in Yorkshire, this huge monolith stands tall in the local churchyard and the story says that the Devil was up to his usual tricks of throwing stones at Christian places. Picking up a large stone he hurled it at Rudston church, but his aim was lousy, and he missed. The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge consists of three stones and is all that remains of what would have been a very impressive stone row. Legend says that these stones were bolts thrown by an irate Devil aiming for the town at Aldborough and as we have already established his aim was lousy…
An example wrong doer being turned to stone comes from Gwynedd in Wales. The Carreg Y Lleidr stone is said to be a thief who stole some books from a neighboring church and was turned to stone along with the sack of books slung over his shoulder. Here folklore is being used to deter would be thieves and encourage moral behavior.
The connection between dancing and standing stones can also be seen in the notion that at certain times of the year certain stones are reanimated. Thus, Wrington’s Waterstone comes to life and dances on Midsummer’s Day but only when it coincides with a full moon. The previously mentioned Nine Maidens are said to sometimes dance at noon. On Orkney the Yetnasteen, a standing stone in Rousay, comes to life on New Year’s morning when it goes to the Loch of Scockness for a drink. Whilst at the Rollright Stones, the Kings Men are said to resume their human form on occasion, hold hands and dance to a nearby spring to drink.
The Rollright Stones (Oxfordshire) have their own creation myth associated with witches and magic. The name itself refers to a group of megalithic structures which includes a circle of seventy-seven stones called the King’s Men, a trio of standing stones which lean together and are called the Whispering Knights and a single standing stone called the King Stone. The legend first recorded in 1586 in Camden’s Britannia tells of how a king was once heading off in an expedition to become the High King of England. When he and his men reached the site where the stones are today, the owner of the land, a formidable witch appeared and told the king:
‘Seven long strides thou shalt take,
And if Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be.’
Determined to do just that, he strode forth but as he took his final step a large hillock appeared magically, hiding Long Compton from view. The witch then said:
‘Rise up, stick, and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stone shall be
And I myself and elder tree’
Thus, the King and his men were turned to stone and between them up sprouted an elder tree.
Although the elder tree is no longer present, its inclusion in the tale is significant as it represents the pagan aspects of the site. Elder trees were regarded as the most sacred of trees and there are many superstitions and folklore associated with them. The Whispering Knights are said to either be knights who were plotting against the king or praying for him depending on who you talk to. A local legend tells of women who question the stones, leaning in close to receive their wisdom. The King Stone was known as the meeting place of Long Compton’s witches but was also believed to mark one of the entrances to the fairy halls under the circle.
The Rollright stones also have a connection with King Arthur; the tale of King Arthur finishes with him and his knights lying in an underground chamber waiting for time when Britain is in great need. Where this is exactly is of course left to the imagination but for Oxfordshire locals the chamber is located beneath the Rollrights. There are many sites around Britain which attest some connection with the legend of King Arthur, far too many to go into detail here (may be in another post). Suffice it to say that there are very few counties that do not have a stone or two attached to the name Arthur.
As mentioned before Christianity has on numerous occasions used the presence of stone megaliths to demonstrate their own power of good over evil and the importance of being pious. However, they do not always have it their own way. It was the practice of the early church to build their churches on sites of pagan significance, not always with good results. In Scotland near Garioch there is a site called Chapel o’ Sink stone circle, so named because once there were attempts to build a chapel within the stone circle but each night the walls would sink into the ground to such an extent that work was eventually halted, never to be resumed. There are several other similar legends connected with stone circles in Scotland – those called the ‘Sunken Kirk’.
There are also numerous tales of folk who have interfered with the stones much to their own detriment. Death and sudden illness were not uncommon, acting as a deterrent for those who respected the legends. Animals in particular, are said to be affected by changes made to megalithic sites. When the sites of Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall and the Cairnford stone circle in Grampian were threatened with destruction the local farm animals all fell ill – in time when your livelihood depended on those animals this was a disaster. Another tale tells of two stones being removed the Mains of Hatton stone circle in Scotland and being used as gate posts, they had to be replaced as the horses refused to go through them. Similarly in Scotland a stone was taken from the Grenish circle and used as a lintel over the entrance to a cow shed, but no animal would enter from that day on.
At the Rollrights there are also tales of farmers trying to take the stones to use in farm buildings; one farmer in particular, tried to use the capstone from the Whispering Knights as a mill dam, but every night the uncooperative stone returned to its proper place.
The final site type to consider is that of the barrow. A barrow is in essence a burial mound, some look like pimples on the face of a smooth landscape and others are long mounds built as a statement, many have long gone under the plough and only archaeology can tell they are there. They can range in date from the Neolithic up to the Anglo-Saxon period. The most common stories associated with these types of sites associated these places as the entrances to the Otherworld, a place where the fairy folk abide. Perhaps recalling the stories of the Tuatha De Danaan who were said to have retreated underground on their defeat by the Milesians.
In Tyne and Wear there is a barrow that goes by the name of the Fairies Cradle, it is said that on moonlit nights it is a favorite spot for fairy parades and celebrations. Near Carmyle in Strathclyde there is another barrow called the Fairy Folk Hillock where similarly revels are held by the fairy folk. These are just two examples of the many stories relating to fairy revels at ancient burial sites.
In Humberside the story goes a bit further, here there is a Neolithic long mound called Willy Howe. A chronicler writing in the twelfth century recorded how a man passing the mound found a doorway open on the side, curiosity got the better of him and peered in to find a brilliantly lit chamber in which a gathering of fairies were enjoying a feast. However, he was soon spotted gaping at the door and invited in. His hosts offered him a goblet of wine – anyone who knows anything about the fairy world knows that accepting food or drink there will seal your fate – but not wanting to offend his hosts he accepted and whilst they were not looking emptied the wine onto the ground, fleeing with the goblet. When his story got around, and the goblet inspected no one could identify the metal it was made from. The last recorded location of the goblet was when it was in the possession of Henry II.
The theme of treasure in these enigmatic humps in the landscape is highlighted by the stories of a King Sil and his treasure who was believed to be buried under Silbury Hill in Wiltshire or the gold horse and rider also said to be under Silbury. There are many tales of gold or treasure within the barrows, often such tales resulted in unscrupulous people digging into the mounds in search of such treasure but also tales of the retribution of the fairy folk for those who would dare to interfere with their sacred places. The traditional guardians of hidden treasure are the Spriggans – they would wait whilst the treasure hunter had dug a substantial hole before appearing threatening the would-be robber. Their appearance is said to be so ghastly that the mortal would depart with haste, and should he return later he would find his hole filled in. The stories tell how Spriggans had the ability to grow in size at will and in other tales they are referred to as the ghosts of the ancient giants.
On Dartmoor there is a triple stone row at Challacombe and at its northern end is Chaw Gully, said to be a ‘dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirits, where rumors of buried gold have led many greedy treasure hunters to their doom’ (A Burnham ed The Old Stones – A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland).
In Fife there is a hill named Largo Law where it is ‘said that there so much gold buried in it that the wool of sheep turned yellow through eating the grass that grew upon it’ (M Alexander A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain 2002). But there is also a rhyme that warns against blowing a horn at Largo Law – something a young man named Norrie failed to heed. Norrie blew his horn, no sooner had he finished then he fell down dead, buried where he lay and covered by a cairn now known as Norrie’s Law. Interestingly, a silver hoard was found nearby in 1819, giving some credence to the legend of treasure.
As we read and listen to the stories connected to these ancient monuments we begin to see the world as it may have been to those who came before. The need to explain their presence in the landscape, to understand how they were built and why within a world view that was perhaps much narrower than ours. Even though the number of fringe explanations in todays world would suggest otherwise – the continued insistence that Stonehenge was built by aliens etc is but one example. Telling stories is an integral part of the human world, often as a way of teaching morals and histories, the difference between right and wrong. Thus, whilst some might dismiss folklore as simply fantastical stories they do provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of our ancestors, helping us to understand the past in different ways, to give the past color and multiple facets.
A recent discovery (and purchase) of three booklets in a local charity shop is my inspiration for this post. Folklore, legends, customs and superstitions have always interested me and if it they have anything to do with my favourite place in the UK – Cornwall – all the better. Reading through them I became aware that perhaps on an unconscious level such stories may have influenced parts of ‘The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne’. In particular, the character of Nan who is a practitioner of the craft in her own very personal way; the West Penwith landscape and places such as Zennor and the great granite tors.
What follows is a brief look at some of these stories, but first an introduction to the person who recorded them over a hundred years ago.
In 1865 Robert Hunt wrote ‘Popular Romances of the West of England’ as a result of a period of convalescence where for ten months he wandered around Cornwall and up to the borders of Dartmoor listening to ordinary people and recording their stories. In his own words, “drinking deeply from the stream of legendary lore which at that time flowing as from a well of living water”. He recorded many interesting and quirky tales, some about giants, some about the fairy folk, some about the enigmatic megaliths and some about witches and magic.
As mentioned above, witchcraft and magic are very much part of my writing, thus for the purpose of this article lets look at some of these tales of witches in Cornwall…
One of the first stories to grab my attention was the tale of the Zennor charmers – afterall, Sarah’s Nan lives in Zennor as did her ancestors. According to Hunt it is said that the men and women of this parish had the ability to stop blood, however fast it flowed. But it seemed that the charms were closely guarded secret and not even amongst themselves would be shared. People travelled from miles to have themselves or their children charmed for things such as ringworm, pains in the limbs or teeth and ulcerations. Hunt recorded that a correspondent of his wrote of ‘…a lady charmer, on whom I called. I found her to be a really clever, sensible woman. She was reading a learned treatise on ancient history. She told me there were but three charmers left in the west, – one at New Mills, one in Morva and herself’.
Charms are a common form of magic found in the relatively recent past, most have a religious element invoking angels and the use of holy water – possibly as a means of not upsetting the religious sensibilities of the community who would suffer their presence provided they were not openly subversive. Others use more natural elements such as the ash tree, the moon and even fire (ie candles) – a reflection of older pre-christian beliefs but still acceptable providing no harm was done. Their use is mainly used as a curative for various ailments or to find love. There are those that could be used to harm others but these are rare and fraught with danger as often such things have been known to rebound on the user in unimaginable ways.
Charmers (also sometimes called pellars) were the more acceptable face of magic – tolerated by the church and society in general – unlike the witch or sorcerer…
How to Become a Witch
Here we find that the mysterious granite rocks play a part.
“Touch a Logan stone nine times at midnight, and any woman will become a witch. A more certain plan is said to be – to get on the Giant’s Rock at Zennor Churchtown nine times without shaking it. Seeing that this rock was at one time a very sensitive Logan stone, the task was somewhat difficult” (Cornish Legends p27)
A Logan stone is simply put a large slab of granite which is perched so perfectly on top of another, with only a single point of contact, that it rocks when touched and does not fall. There are several examples of Logan stones in Cornwall, the most famous is found at Treryn Dinas, the headland beyond the village of Treen. This particular one features in our next tale of Cornish witches.
The Witches of the Logan Stone
In his descriptions Hunt speaks of the ‘wild reverence of this mass of rock’ by Druids and people of the past. But it is the peak of granite just south of the Logan Stone, known as Castle Peak that he tells has been the place of midnight rendezvous for witches. He refers to them as the witches of St Levan who would fly into Castle Peak on stems of ragwort, bringing with them the things necessary to make their charms potent and strong.
From this peak many a struggling ship has been watched by a malignant crone, while she has been brewing the tempest to destroy it; and many a rejoicing chorus has been echoed, in horror, by the cliffs around, when the the witches have been croaking their miserable delight over the perishing of crews, as they have watched man, woman and child drowning, whom they were presently to rob of the treasures they were bringing home from other lands.
Cornish Legends Robert Hunt 1865 p29
The latter paragraph seems to confuse the witches of St Levan gathering at a dangerous stretch of Cornish coast with a band of wreckers, the similarities are obvious. Perhaps the stories were spread by the those who would not wish for anyone to pay to close attention to a particular locale.
There are many tales told about Pengersick Castle near Praa Sands. It is particularly well known for its many ghostly stories, I myself have had several odd encounters in and around the castle which you can read about online at The Celtic Guide (Halloween edition 2014). Hunt however, wrote of the first Pengerswick and his desire to improve his familys status. It seems that an ‘elderly maiden’ connected with the very influential Godolphin family wished to marry the elder son, a match his father encouraged. Unfortunately, the son could not be swayed, even when love potions brewed by the Witch of Fraddam were used. Eventually she married the old Lord himself.
Now the witch had a niece call Bitha who had been called upon to aid the lady of Godolphin and her aunt with their spells on the son, however she fell in love with him too. When the lady of Godolphin became the Lady of Pengerswick she employed Bitha as her maid. Yet the lady was still infatuated with the son and soon this turned to hate and then jealousy when she saw him with Bitha. In her bitterness she attempted all manner of spells but Bitha’s skill learnt from her aunt kept him safe. Eventually, the young man left Pengersick only returning on the death of his father.
During his absence the mistress and the maid spent a great deal of time plotting and counter-plotting to secure the wealth of the old Lord. When the son returned from distant Eastern lands with a princess for a wife and learned in all the magic sciences, he found his stepmother locked away in the tower, her skin covered in scales like a serpent as a result of the poisons she had distilled so often for the father and the son. She eventually cast herself into the sea, ‘to the relief of all parties’. Bitha did not fare much better, her skin had become the colour of a toad due to all the poisonous fumes she had inhaled and from her dealings with the devil.
The Witch of Treva
Once upon a time, long ago, there lived at Treva, a hamlet in Zennor, a wonderful old lady deeply skilled in necromancy. Her charms, spells and dark incantations made her the terror of the neighbourhood. However, this old lady failed to impress her husband with any belief in her supernatural powers, nor did he fail to proclaim his unbelief aloud”.
Robert Hunt ‘Cornish Legends’ p42
All of that changed one evening when the husband returned to find no dinner on the table. His wife, the witch, was unrepentant merely stating ‘I couldn’t get meat out of the stone, could?’ The husband then resolved to use this as a way of proving once and for all his wife’s powers. He told her that if she could procure him some good cooked meat within the half hour he would believe all she said of her power and be submissive to her forever. Confident she couldn’t accomplish such a thing, St Ives, the nearest market town was some five miles away and she had only her feet for transport, he sat and watched as she put on her cloak and headed out the cottage door and down the hill. He also watched as she placed herself on the ground and disappeared, in her place was hare which ran off at full speed.
Naturally he was a little startled but sat down to wait, within the half hour in walked his wife with ‘good flesh and taties all ready for aiting’.
Trewa, The Home of Witches
Not to be confused by the previous Treva (both pronounced ‘truee’) this particular place is now known as Trewey Common. Situated high on the moor between Nancledra and Zennor, it is landscape dotted with the remains of the ever present mining industry sitting alongside great outcrops of granite, some used in the construction of ancient monuments. Hunt described the scenery as ‘of the wildest description’, he is not wrong – even the modern mind can run wild with imagination in the evening twilight or on a moody day when the sky is as grey as the granite.
Hunt tells us that regardless of what local historians may say local tradition says that on Mid-summer Eve all the witches in Penwith gather here, lighting fires on every cromlech (quoit or tomb) and in every rock basin ‘until the hills were alive with flame’. Their purpose was to renew their vows to the ‘evil ones from whom they derived their power’.
It seems there was also another much larger pile of granite known as the ‘Witches Rock’ which no longer exists, having been removed quite some time ago. It was the removal of the rock which caused the witches to depart.
“…the last real witch in Zennor having passed away, as I have been told, about thirty years since, and with her, some say, the fairies fled. I have, however, many reasons for believing that our little friends have still a few haunts in this locality.”
R Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’
Hunt did go on to say that there was one reason why all should regret the removal of the Witches Rock, it seems that touching the rock nine times at midnight was insurance against bad luck…
Sorcerers were the male equivalent of the witch, however with the addition that the powers were passed from father to son (more a reflection of the patriarchal nature of society at the time).
“There are many families – the descendants from the ancient Cornish people – who are even yet supposed to possess remarkable powers of one kind or another.”
Robert Hunt 1865 ‘Cornish Folklore’
Unfortunately, apart from mentioning the family of Pengersick (which had by this time died out) and alluding to their wicked deeds he does not go into any great length about any of the other ancient Cornish families. Perhaps wisely, for if these unmentioned families did have remarkable powers it would not pay to offend…
It is perhaps not surprising that certain parts of the Cornish landscape is given to fantastical tales of giants, witches and the fairy folk. The many ancient monuments, the craggy granite outcrops and the vast expanses of moorland lend themselves to an active imagination. The stories also serve as a caution against unchristian behaviour. As in the case of the witch of Treva who it is said when she died a black cloud rested over her house when everywhere else it was clear and blue. When the time came to carry her coffin to the churchyard, several unusual events occurred such as the sudden appearance of a cat on her coffin. It was only with the parson repeating the Lords Prayer over and over were they able to get her to the churchyard without any further incidents until they paused at the church stile and a hare appeared which as soon as the parson began the prayer once more gave a ‘diabolical howl, changed into a black unshapen creature and disappeared’.
Its that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that some folks thoughts turn towards all things supernatural. Halloween or Samhain, to give it its traditional name, is said to be a time when the veil between the world of the ancestors and our world is at its thinnest. The celebration of this festival varies from person to person depending on age, background and of course where you live. Some choose to trick or treat, some go on a ghost hunt, whilst others use this time to remember and celebrate their ancestors.
The history of the festival of Samhain is comprehensively covered in main different parts of the internet and it is not my intention to rehash the topic here. Instead want to consider the idea of hauntings and deep past, after all the roots of Samhain can be found within the distant past with the ancestors.
Hauntings and ghosts in the UK are most commonly associated with castles, old country houses, old pubs and the like – the age and history of these places are enough to provide copious amounts of storytelling fodder. But what about the truly ancient places in the landscape? Surely based on age alone they too should have their fair share of tales…
Stonehenge is probably one of the most famous ancient sites in the UK (for more information feel free to check one of my earlier articles here). However, it does come with some of its own spooky stories…
In 1971, when it was far easier to get up close and personal with the stones, a group of hippies decided to camp out in the center of the circle. All was going well until at sometime around 2am a violent and sudden thunderstorm struck the Salisbury Plains. At the same time a farmer was checking on his stock and a policeman was in the area. Both spoke of a bright blue light illuminating the stones and of hearing screams from the campers. When they rushed to the campsite all they found were the ashes of the fire and smoldering tent pegs – the hippies had vanished.
Stonehenge sits within a much wider ‘ritual’ landscape, surrounded by numerous Bronze Age burial mounds known as barrows. One such group of barrows sits on a ridge known as Kings Barrow Ridge and it was in the woods nearby that a man in the 1950s had a strange encounter. It was late at night and the man in question was on his way home when he became disorientated. Climbing one of the barrows to get a better idea of where he was, he saw some lights in the distance and assumed them to be a farmhouse. Climbing down the barrow he became alarmed when he realised that the lights were moving towards him and they were not electric lights but flaming torches. Assuming they were a group of modern druids enacting some pagan ritual and not wanting to disturb them he hid and waited for them to pass.
Once they had passed he quietly followed them hoping they would be heading back to the main road from whence he would be able to get himself home. After awhile the silent procession reached the edge of the wood and the man recognising where he was, slipped away not wanting to disturb them. Unfortunately, he made that small mistake of looking back, he watched in horror as one by one the torches flickered out and the robed figures disappeared into thin air.
Other interesting phenomena associated with Kings Barrow Ridge are the strange blue flashes of light that are occasionally seen arcing across the barrows and the simultaneous loss of electrical current.
Another well know stone circle is that of Avebury, not far from Stonehenge (please check out my earlier article for more information about Avebury here). Perhaps one of the salient points to remember about Avebury is that a number of the stones have been removed, broken up and used as building material whilst others have simply been pulled over and buried where they lay as a result of anti-pagan fervor during the medieval period. It is said that the buildings which were built using the old standing stones are subject to a poltergeist type manifestation known as ‘The Haunt’. Then there are a number of stories which include moving lights, phantom singing and spectral figures around and within the stones themselves.
One such figure may even be the ghost of the man who died some time in the 1320s. When Alexander Keiller decided to re-erect some of the stones in the circle. Under one such stone the skeleton remains of man were found, the coins and tools on him dated his death to the 1320s, his trade as a barber-surgeon (this stone is now known as the Barber stone). It seems he was helping to dig the burial pit for the stone when it fell and crushed him. His compatriots deciding it was not worth the effort to dig him out for a proper burial and perhaps superstition got the better of them.
A similar story is told about the Caratus Stone (possibly a fifth century AD memorial stone) in Somerset. Here the tale tells of a foolish carter who tried to uproot the stone to get at the treasure which supposedly lay beneath it. Unfortunately for him, the stone (or should that be the ancestors) had different ideas, it fell on him crushing him to death. His apparition is said to frequent the area on foggy nights.
Another story regarding Avebury tells of a young woman called Edith Olivier who during World War One decided to drive to Avebury for the first time. She wrote of the looming avenue of megaliths that lined her route from the west and how once in the village she noticed a crowd of villagers attending a fair. It was not until sometime later she discovered that not only had the avenue she had seen disappeared by 1800 but that there had been no fair in the village since 1850.
Barrows and the Fae
There are many tales of the fairy folk and in different parts of the UK they often have local names, such as in Cornwall where you get piskies who have acquired the status of ‘supernatural vermin’. Also in Cornwall there is a variation of the piskie called a spriggan (a more malevolent type of fae) and it is these which are said to guard the treasures hiding in the barrows. Such traditions of fairy folk protecting the barrows of the ancestors are widespread and perhaps hark back to a distant religion.
On Wick Moor in Somerset there is a barrow surrounded by barbed wire and set within the middle of the Hinkley Nuclear Power Station. Known as Pixie’s Mound, the story goes a man found a small broken toy spade. He mended it and left it by the barrow. When he next passed that way he found the spade gone and a plate of cakes in its place, these he ate and forevermore enjoyed good fortune. During the power stations construction the builders were warned that if they built over the barrow nothing would work. Advice which they took seriously.
Throughout the UK there are many landscapes and places associated with the fairy folk. Often it is the vast lonely moorlands which seem to have more than their fair share of tales told of unwary travellers being befuddled and lead astray by the fae. In the far west of Cornwall there is a lonely stretch of moorland between Woon Gumpus and Carn Kenidjack, here not only does the Devil ride the fairy path on a black horse but dancing lights are often seen while the granite tor wails in the wind. Fairy paths are the dead straight paths which lead between fairy forts and barrows; it is on these you are most likely to encounter the fae.
Bona fide prehistoric ghosts are a rare phenomena but one of the best substantiated ghosts in the Dorset area and most probably the oldest is that of Bronze Age ghost seen on Bottlebrush Down. Here a respected archaeologist R C Clay witnessed (in 1924) whilst driving home one evening from an excavation the apparition of man on horseback galloping beside his vehicle. He wore a long dark cloak and rode bareback, brandishing a weapon angrily. Approaching a barrow Mr Clay was astonished to see the horse and rider suddenly vanish into the burial mound. He is only one of many who have seen this particular spectre.
Other ghostly figures at archaeological sites include a horse and chariot at Ruborough Camp in Somerset which is said to be guarding treasure buried there. Near Thetford in Norfolk on the banks of the river Thet there is a barrow known as Thet Hill. It is regarded as being very haunted, here a red-haired chieftan has been seen. In Wroxham (Norfolk) you may come across the apparition of a Roman soldier who will order you away, it seems he is clearing a passage for a ghostly procession of prancing horse, chariots, gladiators, lions, centurions and their prisoners who make their way from Brancaster to the arena which once stood there.
In the Welsh county of Glamorgan is one of the UK’s oldest archaeological sites. On the coast are the Paviland Caves where a burial of Paleolithic hunter was found and excavated at the end of the 19th century. Labelled the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ stories abounded about it being a woman imprisoned there during a storm whilst hunting for treasure amongst other things and of course she was said to haunt the cave. However, this is definitely one of those cases where the human imagination was allowed a little too much free reign. The Red Lady was later proven to be a man and considerably older then first imagined.
Worth a mention though and not far from the above site is Rhossli, behind the village is a moorland area which the locals admit to feelings of being watched and menace. Here it is said the air seems full of evil foreboding…
Over the years I have visited many prehistoric sites and have heard the stories of many others. There are often those who speak of feelings of foreboding, of not being welcome. At West Kennet long barrow several people have said they have felt unwelcome. But it would seem that this depends on the person and the when of the visit. I know from my own experience that walking into a stone circle invites contemplation and even unruly children become quiet and reflective without being told. Perhaps this too is a type of haunting when only the energy remains.
Landscapes imbued with meaning, with the rituals of the past; vast stretches of empty wild rugged land; brooding moorland; mysterious stones; cursed burial mounds; noises in the mist; shadows at the corner of your eye…Samhain…a time when the veil is thin…a time to honour the ancestors…