Sunday, 4 August 2019

Fairy Folklore of the Cotswolds

The Three Fairies Sculpture, The Rollright Stones

This year I decided to take a break from Scottish folklore and research an area completely new to me, the Cotswolds. I soon discovered there are plenty of supernatural tales of ghosts witches devils and black dogs, but the fairies seem to have covered their tiny little tracks well and left few tales of their adventures behind for us unfortunately! Katharine Briggs, in her Folklore of the Cotswolds (1974), reassures us that they were perhaps once more active: “Fairies and domestic spirits, which must have been pretty active in that region, have almost completely disappeared although they are supposed to be responsible for the transport of Tackley Church from its intended site”. Though even this tale has remained a mystery to me, and I have found no further details of it yet. So you will have to forgive me including tales from slightly outside the Cotswolds too, as otherwise this may be a bare blog post indeed!

One of the few detailed fairy encounters can be found in Nandor Fodor’s Between two Worlds, from an interview with Claire Cantlon, Secretary of the Faery Investigation Society, where she showed Nodor the letters (c.1929–1937) she had received including a Gloucester fairy sighting. The letter writer was staying at an old house in Gloucester and the garden backed on to the forest of Birdlip Beeches, covering part of the Cotswold Hills. She was drying her hair in the sunshine of the forest, out of sight of the house, when suddenly she felt something tugging at her hair. “A most extraordinary sight met my eyes. He was about nine inches high, and the most dreadfully ugly, dreadfully misshapen, most wrinkled and tiniest manikin I have ever seen. He was the colour of dead aspen leaves, sort of yellow brown – with a high squeaky voice. He was caught in the strands of my hair. He was struggling to escape, and he grumbled and complained all the time, telling me I had no right to be there, troubling honest folk, and, that I might have strangled him. Finally he freed himself and disappeared.” She said she mentioned this encounter afterwards to a professor of Bristol University, and he was not surprised and told her that Birdlip Beeches was one of the few places left where there were fairies, and no one could go there because of it.

Another mention of strange goings on at Birdlip has been made more recently. “Black dogs are scattered over the Cotswolds and are of different kinds; some of them human ghosts, some of them doggy, and some evil spirits. One on Birdlip Hill is a helpful spirit who guides lost travellers (Briggs, 1974).

So, the first stop on my Cotswolds visit? Birdlip! I could not find a location marked on maps as Birdlip Beeches, but there is a beautiful wild wooded area to the west of the village containing plenty of beech trees, and many a brown crinkled leaf just waiting to be caught in a passer-by’s hair.  

Fairies of a similar size were also sighted at Tuffley, a little village on the side of the aptly named Robin’s Wood Hill in Gloucestershire. Doris Poole, aged nine or ten, was sitting in a field close to a tree when “about seven little people approximately eight inches tall looked over a bluebell bank, then climbed over and came quite near to her without apparently noticing her. They reminded her of harebells blowing in the wind, but they had long, flowing hair and their dresses were in pastel shades of mauves, pinks, yellows, and blues, falling softly from their shoulders to below the knees. A little fellow dressed in red came last, carrying something in front of him. They all seemed in a hurry and disappeared behind the tree” (Johnson, 2014).

Doris had previously seen fairies in her bedroom when she was about five. “They came in,” she said, “through the window – six or seven of them – all dressed in white, and very pretty they looked, floating about the room. They didn’t flutter their wings quickly like butterflies, but moved with the grace of ballet dancers. One came down and sat on the rail at the foot of the bed.”

Doris also saw fairies in a Primrose wood on the edge of Painswick Beacon. “They had wings, and their hair was darker than that of the field fairies. Their dresses were of similar style, but in brown, green, and lemon shades. They were in among, and taller than, the primroses, and were looking down on them. Now and then one would touch a flower or a leaf and peep underneath, as though searching for something. “I was so entranced,” wrote Mrs Poole, “that the last one had gone before I realised it. My niece’s teacher told her there were no such things, but I know I wasn’t dreaming, and I have never forgotten them” (Johnson, 2014).

Unfortunately it was a bit late in the year to look for Primroses, but the woods around Painswick Beacon are enchantingly varied with open grassy areas and deep mossy woodlands, and a spiders web of footpaths. The area has a long and interesting history with some of the woodlands sitting on the edges of an Iron Age hillfort dating from around 400BC to AD43. Perhaps more unusually, the hill also features an 18-hole golf course, with golf being played on the beacon since the formation of the Painswick Golf Club in 1891. It’s a most unusual site with the ancient blending curiously with the modern, a between place if ever there was one…

If it weren’t for Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies I feel we would know little indeed of Cotswold Fairies, and once again we turn to her for our next fairy encounter. On a night before the full moon, Miss Amarilla Easthand of Gloucestershire was walking in the garden, feeling troubled and wanting to be alone. Near the garden was a wood enclosed by a fence, and around it were big oak trees, and as she passed she noticed the sparkle of a few drops of rain in the grass, and it was then she spotted something else entirely. “A gust of shining little forms swept by, dancing in and out of the trees. “I looked towards the wood,” she said, “and for a moment everything was dark, but suddenly a light shone forth and a group of gleaming fairies danced about. They floated by like a silvery cloud and then disappeared””. She was beside herself with joy and her troubles were quite forgotten, and she described herself as seeming to be in a far-off land (Johnson, 2014).

Johnson also mentions a sighting in a house on the outskirts of Cheltenham. Two sisters, Nora and Anita Bruce, had a lovely bowl of roses, which they wanted to photograph. “They fixed their camera for a time exposure and went away from the room. When the picture was developed, that, too, showed fairy life”. If only we could see what fairy life they captured in this picture! We shall have to make do with our imaginations I’m afraid.

Further north up in Chipping Campden Mrs Claudia F. Renton also had an encounter with winged fairies. She unfortunately allowed her gardener to uproot an area of overgrown flowering shrubs at the top of her garden and greatly regretted her decision afterwards. As was her custom for many years, she took a camp chair up there and sat for her afternoon rest, sleeping for a while. When she opened her eyes she was astonished to see “many little forms floating in the air”. “They were floating in all directions and all around me, dozens of them. I could follow their flight with my eyes. Some would make a circle and land on my shoulder, my arm, my hand. I knew by instinct they were fairies and had been disturbed by the uprooting of the shrubs. I could see their airy-fairy wings with the veins (or whatever they were) running through them as fine as a hair, and their tiny round heads just like black dots. In all they would be an inch long, some smaller”. She watched them for a long time and then got in the car to tell her grandchildren, who came back with her. The next day they sat in the same spot and sure enough she could see them, though in lesser numbers, but to her surprise the children could not see them, even when she pointed to one. The fairies disappeared after a few days through occasionally she saw one or two afterwards (Johnson, 2014). Though we must wonder, were they indeed fairies or a swarm of insects of some sort disturbed by the uprooting of the shrubs?

Although no direct mention is made of fairies, the following story has a feel of the fae to it I think, particularly the green livery and refusal of payment. One winter evening a traveller was riding across the Wolds to Stroud to stay with friends, when dusk appeared sooner than expected and the snow began to fall in thick blinding sheets. The weary traveller began to despair of finding any shelter when he noticed a light ahead, which he followed until he came to an inn. The door was open and a fire burning, and a little old groom appeared and led the traveller’s horse away to the stable. He checked on his horse and then stood warming himself by the fire, until he heard movement upstairs. He went up and was silently welcomed by a servant in a green livery, who showed him to a comfortable bedroom with a warm fire and good meal. He ate his supper, drank his mulled ale and fell soundly asleep in his four-poster bed. He woke before cockcrow, anxious to arrive in Stroud and reassure his friends of his wellbeing. He found the fire made up with mulled ale warming, and bread and cheese waiting ready for his breakfast, but not a soul was to be seen. He could find no one in the stable either, so ate his breakfast and left two guineas on the table, and off he went into the starry night. When he arrived in Stroud his friends were glad to see him but when he mentioned staying at an inn above Dursley his friend remarked that there was no inn in Dursley, though his friend’s wife did believe there was. So all three of them set out to put the debate to rest, and sure enough they found his horse’s hoof prints and followed the trail. But when the trail ended they found no inn, just two guineas lying on the frozen snow. “I’ve been told they come out on stormy nights”, said the lady. “And they never take payment. They never stay after cockcrow. It’s lucky you went early or you’d have waked in the snow” (Briggs, 1974).

An even more curious tale with a hint of the fae also comes from Briggs, though it does come from Ruth Tongue originally and may perhaps feel more fiction than fact. She heard it around 1941 from a family of gypsies on their way to Wales, and the tale belonged to Aaron Lee, a Wychwood gypsy in the 1860s. She comments that even as late as 1967 the Lees still believed that a fairy was a fallen angel that could win its way back to heaven.

A caravan of gypsies were struggling up the Burford to Stow hill through a snow storm one Christmas Eve, terrified by the “snow forester” ghosts all around the caravan whining and screeching and pattering on the windows. They were said to haunt the woodland coppice near Idbury. One of the boys heard a mewing and opened the door a chink, and in walked a small white kitten. His mother told him to put it out, for white cats were seen as a death token to the gypsies, but the son begged that it was lost and said he believed as it was Christmas Eve the kitten would speak to them if they spoke to it in rhyme. So he did and sure enough the cat did speak and advised them how to survive the night. “You’ll all win safe through if ye can keep on to the church bells. Hearken to the birds a-twittering and follow after them.” Above the sound of the snow foresters they heard a twittering of hundreds of little birds flying up to sing their Christmas carol at Stow Church, and the gypsies plucked up their hearts and sang all the carols they knew to keep the snow foresters at bay, as their horses heaved the van through the snow until they came to a farm on the outskirts of Stow where a farmer let them lodge in Christmas charity. The bells were ringing and the snow stopped and the little white cat was gone. The little boy said it wasn’t a witch’s cat, but a fallen angel earning her way back to heaven (Briggs, 1974).

Last but certainly not least, the fairies of the mysterious and curious Rollright Stones. Here you will find a group of curious stone monuments comprising of the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber, and the King’s Stone. These ancient megalithic stones have a myth to tell, of a King who set forth to conquer England but who met an unfortunate end in the hands of a witch who turned him and his men to stone, and then herself into an elder tree. I won’t include the full tale here as it has already been covered in great detail in Evans’ wonderful article The Rollright Stones and their Folk-lore in Vol 6 No 1 of the Folklore Journal, but I think the fairies deserve a special mention.

“The fairies dance round the King-stone of nights. Will Hughes, a man of Long Compton, now dead, had actually seen them dancing round. “They were little folk like girls to look at.” He often told a friend who related this to me about the fairies and what hours they danced. His window, Betsy Hughes, whose mother had been murdered as a witch, and who is now between seventy and eighty, told me that when she was a girl and used to work in the hedgerows she remembered a hole in the bank by the king-stone, from which it was said the fairies came out to dance at night. Many a time she and her playmates had placed a flat stone over the hole of an evening to keep the fairies in, but they always found it turned over the next morning.” (Evans, 1895) I can only imagine the frustration of the local rabbit/badger/fox whose house was getting barricaded nightly!

I did have a good look to see if any holes remain, but the banks around the stone are quite overgrown, as they should be, so the fairies entrances remain hidden at present.
 A more recent publication tells “There is a story that a baker frustrated at being unable to count the stones baked a quantity of loaves and placed one of top of each stone, assuming he could count them that way. His efforts came to nothing, when fairies kept spiriting away some of the loaves, confusing the total” (Turner, 1993) There are older versions of this tale that do not mention the fairies, and warnings that “The man will never live who shall count the stones three times and find the number the same” (Evans, 1895) so perhaps it’s for the best you don’t try this yourselves!
Evans also mentions in ‘The Rollright Stones and their Folklore’ that a series of trenched circles at the Devil’s Quoits were formerly regarded as “Fairy Rings”, but unfortunately does not elaborate further.

I will leave you with a wonderful warning from Katharine Briggs’ Folklore of the Cotswolds: “An oak coppice, where the oaks had been felled and shoots had spring up from the stumps, was thought to be a sinister place after sunset”. So consider yourselves warned!

Evans, Folklore Journal, Vol 6 No 1 1895, The Rollright Stones and their Folklore
Nodor (1964) Between Two Worlds
Briggs (1974) Folklore of the Cotswolds
Turner (1993) Folklore & Mysteries of the Cotswolds
Young, Folklore 124 August 2013, A History of the Fairy Investigation Society 1927 – 1960
Johnson (2014) Seeing Fairies