Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Fairy Music of Hen Hole

According to local folklore, hidden away in a deep chasm up in the Cheviot hills lives a group of Northumbrian fairies who play the sweetest music known to man. They run and dance through the valley, with all the grace that fairies do, but it is said these fairies have a sinister side too and once lured in a hunting party who remain trapped there to this day. According to 'Rambles in Northumberland' by Chatto (1835):

"On the north-west side of Cheviot there is a deep chasm called the Hen Hole, in which there is frequently to be seen a snow egg at midsummer. There is a tradition, that a party of hunters, when chasing a roe upon cheviot, were wiled by the fairies into the Hen Hole, and could never again find their way out."

The snow egg phrase is explained in volume 3 of the Local Historian's Table Book, legendary division, by Richardson. "This cleft is so deep and so narrow that the rays of the sun can never be said to illumine even its rugged sides, and as might be expected, there is frequently to be seen therein, a snow egg at Midsummer." Richardson also further expands on the story and claims that the hunters "heard issuing from this chasm, the sweetest music they had ever heard, and forgetting the roe which scoured away unheeded, they were impelled to enter, and could never again find their way out." The 1887 edition of the Monthly Chronicles of North-Country Lore and Legend gives further details of the fairies home:
"There is a small cavern in the face of the highest cliff on the right bank of the ravine, still accessible, we believe, to the venturesome, though dangerously so; and into this it is said that one of the early hunting Percies, along with some of his hounds, went and never returned. He and the hounds, if we may credit the legend, still lie in the cavern, bound by a magic spell - not dead, but fast asleep, and only to be released by a blast of a hunting horn, blown by some one as brave as ever Hotspur was, and more fortunate."
This makes no mention of the fairies, but interestingly does seem to merge it with another legend that is tied to various locations in Northumberland and varies but always seems to contain one or more sleeping characters hidden away who can only be woken by a horn being blown or a sword being raised. The characters are occassionally huntsmen but more often knights, or even King Arthur himself. Other locations for this tale include Brinkburn Priory (see my previous blog entry here) and Sewingshield. According to Tomlinson's Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland (1888) the cave at Hen Hole was once home to Black Adam of Cheviot, also known as the Rider of Cheviot, a murderous villain who gatecrashed a wedding and stole the women's jewels and ravished then murdered the bride, and ran away pursued by the groom, Wight Fletcher. The rider leaped the chasm of Hen Hole and escaped to his cave lair (perhaps the above mentioned cave) but the groom followed him and they fought and both fell to their deaths.

Intriguingly, Hen Hole was once known by a more sinister name, Hell Hole. The Border magazine volume 6 published November 1863 contains an article by George Tate titled Northumbrian Legends, which explains:
"Henhole is sometimes called Hellhole, which a learned friend supposes may be it's true name, derived from el or ell, water, and meaning the waterhole whence the colledge has it's source. We think, however, Henhole is the archaic name from hen, celtic, signifying old, and hence we have the old hollow."
It's also worth a mention that there is supposedly a secret underground tunnel stretching from Cateran's Hole (see my previous blog entry here) to Hen Hole, and passing under the Hurl Stone (see my blog entry here), all of which are said to be dwelling places of the fairies. So it seems that the Northumbrian fairies chose to travel underground through secret passageways, connecting their favourite fairy haunts together, allowing them to travel without discovery by humans. The entrance at Cateran's Hole has collapsed, but perhaps there is still an entrance to the tunnel hidden away in the cave at Hen Hole, this will require further field trips and research!

On Beltane morning we set off in search of Hen Hole, and found it very easily as it happens to be marked on Ordinance Survey maps! We walked a little further than planned as the walking guide failed to warn us that the road through College Valley is by permit only and closed for lambing season, so a 3 and a half mile stroll turned into an unexpected 11 mile hike! The views are breathtaking and the lambs adorable, and I soon forgot about my aching feet and walked onwards and upwards to the hill overlooking Hen Hole. The chasm was as dark and foreboding as expected, with rocky jagged crags and cascading waterfalls. It's hard to get a scale from my photographs, but the chasm is truly awe inspiring in person and you get a true feel for how far the drop is and how terrible it must have been for the hunters lured in by the fairies! From this distance I couldn't see any cave entrances, but they could easily lie concealed in the masses of boulders and rubble that has fallen into the chasm over the years. Unfortunately the public footpaths don't pass any nearer to Hen Hole so this was as close as I could get, but I plan to return another day and take the path over the top of Hen Hole and see if I can get a little closer and perhaps hear a note or two of the fairy music for myself!

Here are a few photographs taken along the path leading to Hen Hole, where I encountered a slow worm basking in the sun, a tree that appeared to be wandering down a hill, a beautiful beetle, and an extremely content looking lamb!
Sources & Further Information
Local Historian's Table Book, vol 3 legendary division, Richardson
1887 Monthly Chronicles of the North-Country
Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland, Tomlinson
The Border Magazine, vol 6 November 1863
Rambles in Northumberland, Chatto


Windsongs and Wordhoards said...

A really fascinating and enjoyable post, thankyou! Your walk looked fantastic... I love the tree 'wandering down a hill' it really is isn't it! I imagine it mumbling an ancient low treeish song as it goes :)

Scott M said...

Fantastic post and some great photos! The books and periodicals you reference - do you own them and if so would you be able to tell me where I could get my hands on them? I assume ebay would be a good play to start.

I'd quite like to catalogue all the different holes and secret passages in English folklore, it's really fascinating.



The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Swan Artworks! Hehe glad i'm not the only one who can see the wandering tree!! I half expected to turn around further down the path and see it creeping after me!! :)

Hi Scott! It's amazing how many of the books can be downloaded for free as the copyright has expired, my favourite site is the Internet Archive ( theres tons of fascinating old folklore books on there! Google books can be useful too. Some of the books are still being published and reprints can be bought from amazon, and theres a great site called Abebooks ( which is a sort of ebay for books, and yup some do pop up on ebay occassionally! I try to buy copies of the books wherever possible, and have managed to find some in barter books, a local second hand book shop, and at local book fairs but unfortunately a lot of the originals are out of my price range at the moment!! :( It's great when a bargain pops up somewhere unexpected though, like a charity shop! The majority of the books i've either downloaded, or tracked down at local libraries and university libraries. It's worth asking at local universities to see if they give permission for non-students to use the library for research, the local ones here have been very helpful and theres something great about spending a day in a huge old library full of old books with their lovely old book smell :) The library at Durham is especially beautiful!

I bet it certainly would be fascinating to catalogue all the secret passages, would love to read your research when you're done! :)

Ent said...

A brilliant site, that Internet Archive...

Any a lovely post here - good research!

Down here we are waiting for Old Drakie (Sir Francis Drake) to come back and save us, summoned by the banging of his drum... I remember in Wales it is King Arthur in his cave asleep (a farmer once found him, but "it wasn't time").

Great May Day / Beltain walk! What a lovely place.. I always thought, if I ever have to move from Dartmoor, it would have to be Wales or Northumberland - And I have only been to Northumberland once!

I have read of a few cliff leaping stories down here - either faeries, or smugglers, or lovers... It seems a good cliff needs someone to have leaped off it... (I have felt that urge.)

On Dartmoor it is often the hunters who are the ones to watch out for - they are often the Devil, and after YOU!

Ent said...

Ooo - and Scot - two holes down here off the top of my head - one in my village of Chagford connecting a manor house, a church and a pub (all connected to a woman who was shot on her wedding day), and one at start point Bolt Head.

Here is all the cave related stuff I have so far - (the bolt head one is in this lot)

The Faery Folklorist said...

The grass is always greener on the other side! Before moving to Northumberland I always wanted to move to Cornwall... or Scotland! But then again I didn't really know anything about Northumberland before moving here, I thought that Hadrian's Wall was on the Scottish border, and I never realised how beautiful the countryside is up here! Very happy where I am now, but if I had to pick anywhere else it'd definitely be Cornwall or Scotland, or maybe Glastonbury!

There definitely seems to some folk stories where a variation appears in every county, like the sleeping hero... and King Arthur, he seems to pop up in the strangest of places! Must have been a very busy man, apart from all the sleeping in caves!

Please don't jump off any cliffs!! Unless of course you're being chased by very angry faeries, or sword wielding maniacs, or hell hounds! Hell hounds are another fascination of mine, don't seem to have many up here though think it's more a westcountry thing! Love the way the wild hunt appears with so many variations and so many different characters leading the hunt, I'm sure the Devil riding across Dartmoor would be quite the sight! Not one i'd ever hope to see though. I think my favourite has to be Gwynn ap Nudd with his faery wild hunt. Speaking of faeries and devils I remember reading that faeries are supposed to sacrifice one of their own every 7 years to the devil, but instead they steal mortals to offer instead, hence all the abductions by faeries. One of the stranger bits of faery folklore I've heard!

Wow that tunnel in Chagford sounds intriguing, have you been down there? I wouldn't be able to resist sneaking into it! Do you have the story on your blog? Would love to hear it! I remember hearing of one in my old hometown of Yeovil too, apparently connecting St John's Church in Yeovil to the cellars of the nearby houses on Silver Street, no idea if its true or just an old myth told down the local pub which happened to be on Silver Street! Always wanted to own a lovely old house full of secret doors and tunnels! :)

Scott M said...

Thanks Faery and Ent. I use Google books but I never even thought to look at the internet archives (I tend to only use that for old noir movies). Thanks for your help.

Daniel Green said...

Really loving the photos, especially the one with the lamb in! :-)

Fuego Fatuo said...

Great post, Folklorist!

I've uploaded my English blog with translations of my last posts so you can understand them! ^^

(Sorry for my English is not perfect xD)

The Faery Folklorist said...

Thank you for putting English translations, I love your blogs and creations so much! They're adorable, especially the baby brownies! :)

Anonymous said...

What a great post (and indeed, great blog!). I was told a similar story about knights sleeping under a hill in my childhood at Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Here, a farmer's boy ends up selling a white horse to a wizard (Merlin, naturally), who takes boy and horse to a secret gate in the Edge. The doors open and the boy sees ranks of sleeping knights, waiting to Britain to need them again. And then there are places like Elva Hill in Cumbria, where the faeries live... they're everywhere, aren't they?

Faery Folklorist said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Faery Folklorist said...

Hiya Esmeraldamac! Thank you :) The knights sleeping in a hill story does seem to pop up all over the place, I think most counties seem to have a local version... and King Arthur and Merlin sure do seem to appear in a lot of versions of this tale! If I ever make it to Cheshire i'll have to go have a look :)

Busy planning my next aventure at the moment, this coming weekend i'm going to be visiting the Scottish borders and will be investigating Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer! Also planning to visit Abbotsford House where Sir Walter Scott used to live, which i'm super excited about as he's a bit of a hero to me in my folklore research! Hope the weather improves though or it's going to be a very soggy weekend!!

The Faery Folklorist said...

P.S. If anyone is having problems posting comments let me know! Today i've had tons of trouble posting a comment, it just keeps asking me to log in over and over again. Fixed it by switching to pop-up window comments, but worried that some people might find the window getting blocked by pop-up blockers. Let know know if you have any problems please!

simon sinkinson said...

what a wonderfull place

The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi Simon! It is a very wonderful place, we're blessed in northumberland to have so many beautiful places! I hope to return to Hen Hole later this year, trying to build up my fitness first though it's quite a trek into the Hen Hole I hear!!

Susie Warburton Brown said...

Dear faery folklorist,I'm Isabella I'm 8 I think that you blog is fandabydoodle I love the faery story about hen hole!on wednsday I do flexcy schooling I do things to do with story's!we where wondering if you could tell us some place's we could go where story's happened?we live in newcastle we want to explore northumberland.Hope you have lots of people look at your blog.Yourse senserly Isabella

The Faery Folklorist said...

Dear Isabella, it's lovely to meet you! Your schooling sounds like great fun! The easiest fairy place to visit in Newcastle is Tynemouth, I couldn't spot Jingling Geordie's cave so I think it must be well hidden now, but maybe you'll be able to find it! The story about the cave is here: There are lots of wonderful stories about dragons in Northumberland too. It's quite a long way from Newcastle but up the coast in Bamburgh a beautiful princess was turned into a wyrm (it's a type of dragon that looks a bit like a snake!) by her evil stepmother, that's one of my favourite stories and there's a beautiful old castle there too! If you like spooky stories then Dunstanburgh Castle is a great castle to visit too: I've been there lots of times but am glad to say i've never seen the ghost!! Maybe you could start writing about your adventures too, i'm sure everyone would love to read your stories :) Best wishes, Faery Folklorist

Anonymous said...

Quite an interesting story:) Very well documented and the pics are very good.

The theme of fairy music is almost always present in the fairy tales - not just in England but all across Europe. It seems the fair folk has a thing for melodic sounds:)

I have heard a stories told by my grandmother where the samodivi - the East European versions of your fae females - like to capture a handsome shepherd and make him play with his flute. Usually the story ends with the man snatched by the fair maidens and never to be seen again:)

The Faery Folklorist said...

Hi angel, wonderful stories like yours remind me that I really do need to learn more of the fairies of other countries! It does show how many similarities there are between the fairies of different countries, and how they are so often portrayed as being talented musicians, gifting the skill of music, or stealing humans to play music for them. I wonder why music is so important to the fairies, i'd love to know :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, me too:) The interesting part is that usually only the fae folk - I mean these of the fairies that are beautiful, tall, fair, etc and look very human like - are associated with music. I haven't heard of stories for dwarves or gobblins or dragons where the music plays any role.

And this makes me wonder - just theoretically of course if we assume that fairies really had existed at one point to leave such a blatant mark in the folklore - did they brought the talent for music to Humans or the other way around.

Vagia said...

Really fasinating story. This legend could be a very good base for a horror short story. Generally, music and dancing is a beloved pastime of fairies around the world. In greece also there is fairy folkore connected with music:for example, there is a folkoric song that tells the story of a young man which was lured by the fairies, because he played the flute at isolated places,despite the warnings. I dissagree with the previous comment that only the beautiful humanlike fairies are associated with music. In greece, the kalikantzaroi, the fairy creatures of christmas, which are ugly and deformed, love the music and the dancing, according to the legend.