Mysteries, Legends and the Paranormal



Folklore, a mysterious subject that is not easily understood. A complicated blend of storytelling, superstition, convention and custom that has its roots in practices that went on well before recorded history. Somehow, many of these fascinating beliefs are still existent – and in some cases, even believed – to this day. Whilst some stories and customs are quaint, others are creepy, passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. Somerset’s landscape forms the backdrop to many vivid and exciting myths, legends and folktales.

When Giants Roamed The Land.

The idea of giants having some form of historical reality has largely been regarded as anti-scientific, mythological, naïve or even worse. A wealth of folklore from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland talk about sophisticated cultures of giants with supernatural powers and advanced technology who had control over thunder and lightning, as witnessed when their tombs were disturbed by later generations. They were often high kings and queens who were master geomancers, surveyors, architects and astronomers who ruled from their mountain-top fortresses. Whilst others were cannibals with violent tendencies who enjoyed throwing gigantic rocks across the landscape into geometrical configurations. But, Giants are at the heart of national folklore concerning the founding of Britain and archaic traditions state they have inhabited the country since deep antiquity. The earliest traditions agree that the first inhabitants of Britain were of a tall stature. Britain’s oldest acknowledged name is thought to be taken from a prehistoric giant king called ‘Albion’ who made his way to the island after being banished from his homeland of Greece. There are stories of giants all over Britain, but there is a distinct and unusual trail of giant stories that threads its way along the south coast of England, from Sussex to Cornwall, and then up the shores of the River Severn to Bristol and barrows, especially long barrows, are sometimes associated with Giants in England.

I have detailed the exploits of Goram and Ghyston in a previous article and who are legendary giants in the folklore of the Bristol area, but their tales are also intermingled with those of other Giants in the Somerset landscape. The earliest reference to a giant named Ghyst who once built Clifton Camp, a large pre-Roman fortification known to the Britons as Caer Oder, is William Worcestre’s ‘Topography of Medieval Bristol’ (1480). In 1765, the antiquarian John Wood described one ‘Hakill a Giant’, said by local people to have thrown a stone which became ‘Hauteville’s Quoit’, a standing stone near Stanton Drew stone circle. This tale is also attributed to Sir John Hauteville, the crusader, who is surrounded by legends that might do honour to the hero of some old Norse Saga. He was a mythical giant: taller and stronger than any other man of his time: no task was too heavy for him, and no obstacle ever stood in his way. We are told how he carried three stout men to the top of Norton Tower, one held under each arm and the third between his teeth and how he heaved up a mighty stone of thirty tons in weight and flung it a distance of more than a mile, from his house at Maes Knoll to Stanton Drew a mile and a half away. This was a rehearsal for a match with the Devil, which Sir John won, for he threw his rock from Shute Shelve to Compton Bishop – again a mile and a half – and the Devil’s throw was three furlongs shorter. Here the stone (once part of a Druidical circle, but now much chipped and dwindled by frequent use in road-mending) is still known as ‘Hauteville’s Quoit’ and the crest of the hill is shown as the clearings of Hauteville’s spade. Goram / Gorm is also attributed to making Maes Knoll, while walking across the Mendip Hills with a shovel full of earth he disturbs Ghyston / Vincent, who has now become the Lord of the Avon and as he runs away, he trips and falls to the ground. The earth then comes off of the shovel and lands on the ground to become Maes Knoll. Where the shovel scraped the ground, it became known as Wansdyke. Gorm / Gorme (a corruption of the spelling of Goram) has three graves ascribed to him in Somerset. In Irish Mythology, the number 3 is associated with the Winter Goddess of Death, pictured as The Three Fates, or The Three Furies, or The Three Graeae, or The Three-headed Bitch. One grave is on Charnborough Hill, near Holcombe. A tumulus which stands on a ley line, running centre of two tumuli near East Horrington, the ley line passes Athwick Church, a tumulus, Holcombe, Luckington Cross, Mells Down, until it reaches a Long Barrow. The Giant’s Grave long barrow at Charnborough Hill, is also said to be the site of a great battle and is situated in a field called ‘Giants Ground’. The second grave, now destroyed at Combe St: Nicholas, was probably a tumulus. Whereas, the third, was two groups of tumuli on either side of Cam Brook, a branch of the Wellow.

‘The Hurdlestones’ on the Mendip Hills were used by the Devil in a game of quoits with the Giant of Grabbist. While at Brent Knoll, – an Iron Age Hillfort and a candidate for the ‘Battle of Badon’ – Ider, son of Nuth, the Arthurian knight killed three giants on this hill, known at the time by the Romans as the ‘Mount of Frogs’, it has also been called ‘Frog Island’. At Nether Stowey & Stogursey, giants lived under a huge mound of earth and terrorised the local people, eating cows and then developing a taste for human flesh. They were eventually overcome but people were always wary of the area. Battlegore Burial Chamber is a Bronze Age burial chamber located in Williton, according to legend they were thrown here in a contest between the Devil and a giant. On the leaning stone the Devil’s handprint can apparently be seen. At Grabbist Hill, a giant was said to sit there, using the nearby River Avill to cool his feet and Dunster Castle as a drying rack for his clothing. – Grabbist is thought to be a shortening of the word Grabhurst. While ‘Robin Hood’s Butts’ are a group of nine Bronze Age barrows near Otterford on the Blackdown Hills. Robin Hood was said to have used these three barrows for target practice. Another tradition is that they were formed by giants throwing clods of earth at one another. The largest mound is supposed to conceal a hoard of gold but no one could reach it because however much they dug, the holes would fill up again overnight.

William of Malmesbury wrote in 1125: ‘But Arthur’s grave is nowhere seen’. By 1184 a massive fire destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed at Glastonbury Abbey. Now competing with Westminster Abbey with its soaring architecture, in 1191 the monks claimed to have discovered a grave with an oak coffin holding the remains of a gigantic man who had been severely wounded in the head. Buried beside him was a woman with a plait of golden hair. Also found was a lead cross bearing the inscription, ‘Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife, in the Isle of Avalon.’ The site became a place of pilgrimage, though there were doubts about the identity of the remains. The monks had financial problems and the site brought in much needed income. The style and wording of the lead cross inscription convinced medieval people that this was the grave of Arthur. It is now believed that the cross was a forgery of an earlier artefact. Similar crosses with this style of writing have been found in 11th: Century monks’ graves at Canterbury. So, whether or not the bones belonged to the legendary Arthur, it appears that the skeletal remains of a nine-foot-tall male was unearthed at Glastonbury nearly 1,000 years ago and most of what we know comes from De instructione principis’ written by Gerald of Wales, although there are other sites that claim to be the final resting place of Arthur. The abbey gardens are full of Arthurian herbs which were used in that time period. – Lavender used for cuts, burns, headaches and insomnia: Lady’s Bedstraw limited to nosebleeds and urinary problems: Lemon Balm for a nervous system, gas, bile, colds and flu: Yarrow, a holy herb used by the Druids, to staunch bleeding from injuries sustained in battles: Meadowsweet is another plant sacred to the Druids, believed to bring peace and harmony to a home if gathered on Midsummer. Used for pain, inflamed eyes, sores and ulcers: Lovage used as both a culinary and therapeutic plant: Vervain an important plant to the Druid priests for prophecy and protection and worn to keep away bad spirits: Comfrey aiding the healing of wounds, sprains and bruises: Elecampane called ‘elfwort’, held sacred by the ancient Celtic people: Betony used for head colds: Woad, The Britons believed woad would staunch bleeding, therefore, before battles, they would paint themselves blue. While Arthur himself is associated with the raven or crow in medieval Welsh literature, in Somerset men tipped their hats as the bird flew by. As we look for solutions in a world in strife, from the climate crisis to gross inequality and suffering. There is an ongoing discussion regarding the value of myth and storytelling in world building. If we choose our re-tellings wisely, from these ever-enduring stories, we may still find a song to awaken the land.

‘The Oaks of Avalon’ is the collective name given to a pair of ancient oak trees, Gog and Magog, which stand in Glastonbury. The trees were named after the ancient apocalyptic figures Gog and Magog, well-known to Old Testament historians as evil powers to be overcome in the Book of Ezekiel and also in the New Testament Book of Revelation, as well as the Qur’an and they also, sometimes represent individuals, peoples and geographic regions. The trees are believed to have been originally part of a ceremonial avenue towards Glastonbury Tor and beyond, which was used as a processional way by the Druids and were also sacred to worshippers of the Great Mother. – Oak groves were sacred, the sites of the Goddess’ perpetually burning fires and the rites of the Druids who used oak leaves in their rituals. The avenue was cut down in 1906 to make way for a farm, with the timber being sold to J. Snow & Son, a local timber merchant. At the time of the felling of the avenue one of the oak trees was measured at 11ft: in diameter and had more than 2,000 season growth rings. A mythological belief has Joseph of Arimathea following the row of trees towards the Tor upon his arrival in Albion. These oaks on Stonedown stood over 114ft: above sea level and in times when the sea invaded the Levels, this eastern access to the promontory of the Isle of Avalon would have been the only route over dry land to get onto the Isle from West Pennard.

There are many other tales and places around England and Ireland associated with the giants, Gog and Magog or Gogmagog – Goëmagot the Albion was a legendary giant in Welsh and later English folklore, being descended from one of the daughters of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305CE). According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, he was the last of the giants who inhabited Albion and was thrown off a cliff by Corineus – who was in the army of Brutus of Troy when they came to Britain in around 1130 B.C. Corineus was subsequently granted a piece of land that was named ‘Cornwall’ eponymously after him. (Note:- The two dates are conflicting).

On 26 April 2017, though already dead, Gog was badly damaged by fire from a candle offering. The fire is believed to have been accidental and was put out by the Devon and Somerset Fire Service. While Magog is also close to the end of her life.

When Stones Go Wandering.

Throughout British folklore there are stones which walk, turn, dance, cross over roads, drink or bathe at a nearby river or dance because they were, in some sense, alive, whether they are ancient or modern. Earth currents pulsed through them. The exact time varies from stone to stone – it may be on Midsummer Night, or it may be at Hallowe’en, or New Year’s Eve, or some other time when you would expect marvellous things to happen. Sometimes it happens at a particular time of day. The best known tradition of stone circles occurred across Britain in the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age with over 1,000 surviving examples, including Avebury, the Ring of Brodgar and Stonehenge.

Somerset is not without its Standing Stones and Stone Circles. There are stones associated with the Devil at Staple Fitzpaine and Compton Bishop and stones like the ‘Whit Stones Standing Stones’ at Hurlstone Point which are said to have been used in a throwing contest. Others have a story to tell like ‘Swayne’s Jumps’ in Loxley Woods where during the English Civil War a rebel called Jan Swayne lived at the bottom of the hill in the village of Moorlinch. He was dragged from his bed to be hanged.  But he escaped with a hop, skip and a jump into the swampy Loxley Woods. The stones mark his huge triple jump leaps. (Berta Lawrence ‘Somerset Legends’. (1973)). Circles and stones can also be found at Radstock, Gorsey Bigbury, Priddy, Ebbor Gorge, Triscombe and Williton. While ‘Porlock Stone Circle’ and ‘Withypool Stone Circle’ are the only two ‘miniliths’ on the Somerset side of Exmoor. – A ‘minilith’ is a small stone that has been used to construct an alignment (also known as a setting). Component stones are typically 20cm high or less. The size at which a stone is classified as a ‘minilith’ rather than a megalith is not well defined. The term was coined by Aubrey Burl. In ‘Neolithic and Early Bronze Age’ edited by Joshua Pollard and Frances Healy, they mention a ‘cup-marked Standing Stone on Longstone Hill, Kilve’. ‘The exceptional preservation of the Somerset Levels has led to the survival of an hermaphrodite wooden ‘god-dolly’ found sandwiched between two trackways. Dates for the two tracks place the figure in the mid-3rd: millennium BC, making it so far the earliest wooden figure from Britain or Ireland’ and that ‘the region has one of the most securely-dated Early Neolithic structures in the form of the ‘Sweet Track’ in the Somerset Levels’.

To know more of Somerset’s prehistoric monuments we must look towards a paper by Dr: EK. Tratman ‘The Lost Stone Circles Of North Somerset’. 1958. In it he describes the following as ‘lost’: Bathampton Down. Leigh Down. Chew Stoke, ‘a legend may have been attached to them’. Water Stone Dolmen, (‘some stones removed in 1900’). Mendip, (‘Priddy Circles’). Regilbury Court and Fairy Toot Long Barrow (‘contained a Porthole Stone’). Along with Long and Round Barrows. Chambered Cairn and Beaker Burials. Tratman goes on to state, ‘The distribution does suggest arrival by sea and penetration inland from the Bristol Channel perhaps by routes either up the River Yeo or perhaps through such valleys as Goblin Combe’.

Modern stone circles can be found at Ham Hill, The Swan Circle at Pilton, on the Glastonbury – Street Road (A39) and Ashill.

Below are a few (ancient and modern) that have a story to tell:-

* Stanton Drew Stone Circle. – There are three stone circles at Stanton Drew, the ‘Great Circle’ is surrounded by a ditch and is accompanied by two smaller stone circles to the north-east and south-west along with ‘The Cove’ and ‘Hautville’s Quoit’ which lies across the river to the north and together is the third largest complex of standing stones in England and was built about 4,500 years ago, although the majority are now recumbent and some are no longer present, it is still twice the size of Avebury or Stonehenge. There are several local traditional stories about the megalithic complex. The best known tells how a wedding party was turned to stone: the party was held throughout Saturday, but a man clothed in black (the Devil in disguise) came and started to play his violin for the merrymakers after midnight, continuing into Sunday morning. When dawn broke, everybody had been turned to stone by the Devil: so the stone circles are the dancers, the avenues are the fiddlers and ‘The Cove’ is the bride and the groom with the drunken churchman at their feet. They are still awaiting the Devil who promised to come back someday and play again for them. Some say that the stones can never be counted accurately since attempts to do so will always yield a different total.

John Aubrey in 1664 noted a local legend that stated that at midnight on the sixth day after a full moon, the stones come alive and can be seen walking down to the River Chew to take a drink. While in 1750 John Wood tried to count the stones when a thunderstorm broke out.

* The Wimblestone. – (wimble means ‘giddy’ or ‘lively’, it is also the name of a stonecutter’s tool) – can be found on a hillside at Shipham in Somerset: at least, that is where it can be seen during daylight hours. At night the old stone roams the hills, going over to see the ‘Waterstone’ at Wrington which always has water in the hollow of the capstone and stopping off for a drink before it returns home. Farm-workers who pass by late at night have seen it rustling along the hedgerows, a huge dark shape lumbering towards them. When the moon is full on a Midsummer Night, it dances around the field and for a brief hour all the gold that lies hidden in the hole underneath can be plainly seen, glittering in the moonlight. But it would be death to rush across and try to grab a coin. The stone is very nimble and resents intruders. (Tongue and Briggs. 1965).

These seemingly supernatural powers of movement extend to more recent man-made stoneworks such as statues as well. But, while there is a massive historical and cultural gulf between a modern piece of public art and an ancient dolmen erected in the earliest years of human civilization, it would seem that they often share the same folkloric tradition of moving themselves about by magic.

* St: Barnabas’ Church, Queen Camel. – The church itself was built in the 14th: Century has a 96 ft: high tower, built in five stages, which dates from around 1491. (‘The Parish Church Towers of Somerset, Their construction, craftsmanship and chronology 1350 – 1550’. Peter Poyntz Wright, 1981). At the top stands a weathercock, which it is said, goes to drink from the River Cam when it hears the clock strike twelve. (Read. 1923).

* Jack the Treacle Eater Tower. –  At Barwick near Yeovil, this tower was built around 1775 and is a folly, one of four, that  was built with Ham stone and ashlar with a rubble arch and has a circular crenellated turret on top of it and on top of this is a conical roof crowned with a statue of Mercury, the Roman messenger of the Gods (or possibly Hermes, the equivalent Greek God). The story goes that the Messiter family employed a messenger boy called Jack, who ate treacle to give him the energy to run errands between Barwick and London. According to legend, at midnight the statue climbs down to either take a drink from the nearby lake, or according to some go hunting for any left-over treacle. The story is the subject of a poem by Charles Causley, (1917 – 2003).

‘Here comes Jack the Treacle Eater,
Never swifter, never sweeter,
With a pack of messages,
Some long, some shorter,
From my Lord and Master’s quarter
(Built like a minaret)
Somewhere in Somerset’.


(From ‘Jack The Treacle Eater, and Other Poems’ by Charles Causley. 2002).

But, nobody is ever going to prove that modern legends of walking megaliths go back to a remote antiquity and while I have tried to relate some of the legends of old stones and modern statues, one can identify some common threads running throughout the folklore and it is not unreasonable to assume that many other tales of living statues are similar tall tales told to amuse or a remnant of tradition.


Bladud was said to be a legendary king of the Britons, for whom there is no historical evidence of his existence and was first mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, his father being Rud Hud Hudibras. There is a Bleydiud the son of Caratauc mentioned in the Welsh ‘Harleian MS 3859’ genealogies, suggesting to some that Geoffrey may have misinterpreted his source. The Welsh form of the name is given as Blaiddyd. The meaning of the name is ‘Wolf-lord’ (Welsh blaidd ‘wolf’ + iudd ‘lord’). In the text he is said to have founded the city of Bath and was succeeded by his son Leir.

According to legend, Bladud’s father sent his son to be educated in the liberal arts in Athens, while there he contracted leprosy. After his father’s death he returned with four philosophers and was imprisoned for his disease, but escaped and went far off to go into hiding. He found employment as a swineherd at Swainswick, about two miles from the later site of Bath and noticed that his pigs would go into an alder-moor in cold weather and return covered in black mud. He found that this mud was warm and that the pigs wallowed in it to enjoy the heat. He also noticed that the pigs which did this did not suffer from skin diseases as others did and on trying the mud-bath himself found that he was cured of his leprosy. He was then restored to his position as heir-apparent to his father and founded Bath (Kaerbadum / Caervaddon) so that others might also benefit as he had done, creating the hot springs there by the use of magic. He dedicated the city to the goddess Athena / Minerva and in honour of her, lit undying fires, whose flames turned to balls of stone as they grew low, with new ones springing up in their stead. Bladud also founded a university at Stamford in Lincolnshire, which flourished until St: Augustine of Canterbury suppressed it on account of heresies which were taught there.

The tale claims that Bladud also encouraged the practice of necromancy, or divination through the spirits of the dead. Through this practice, he is said to have constructed wings for himself and to have tried to fly to (or from) the Temple of Apollo in Trinovantum (London) / Troja Nova (New Troy), but to have been killed when he fell and broke his neck. – The Temple of Apollo is thought to have been where Westminster Abbey is now and there is no doubt that the Abbey was built on an already sacred site, the present abbey was built on the site of an earlier Late Anglo-Saxon church (Edward the Confessor). This in turn replaced an earlier church which legend says was consecrated by St: Peter the Apostle. The earliest reference to the temple comes from Tysilio in his ‘Chronicles of the Early Britons’ (Jesus College MS LXI, formerly known as the ‘Tysilio Chronicle’).

‘And Bladud was a deep and cunning man, the first in all Britain to talk with the dead. And he did not cease from doing such things until he had made for himself pinions and wings and flew high in the air, from where he fell to earth onto the Temple of Apollo in London, and was broken into a hundred pieces’.

He was supposedly buried at New Troy and succeeded by his son, Leir (the Shakespearean King Lear), having ruled for twenty years from 863 BC.

Reign of Fire. 

The most frequently encountered type of dragon in English folklore is the creeping and poisonous kind. It tends not to have wings and it lurks in caves, marshes or fens. It devours cattle and maidens until a hero manages to dispatch it, or until a saint invokes the power of God to force it to move away and there are many different dragons that appear in English mythology. The Celtic Dragon is a mighty mystical creature that represents sovereignty, power, or a chief or leader of a clan, such as Pendragon, the Celtic word meaning ‘chief.’ While raising power is to invoke the ‘Eye of the Dragon.’ A Dragon was said to have two wings and four legs, while a Wyrm had no wings or legs. A famous sighting of a dragon was in 793. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ claimed a fire-breathing dragon was spotted flying above Northumbria. It is more likely to have actually been a comet.

‘Year 793. – Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the Ides of January, – 13 January and sacred to the god Jupiter – the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne Island by fierce robbery and slaughter. And Sicga (a Nobleman) died on the eighth day before the Calends of March – a time for settling debts’.

‘Lludd and Llefelys’ from ‘The Mabinogion’ details a war between the red dragon and the invading white dragon. In the story, the foreign white dragon is so fearsome that its cries cause women to miscarry and its mere presence is enough to kill livestock and ruin crops. Determined to rid his kingdom of this menace, King Lludd of Britain visits his brother Llefelys in France. Llefelys tells his brother to prepare a pit filled with mead and cover it with cloth. After Lludd completes this task, the white dragon begins to drink from the pit and falls into a drunken stupor. With the monster asleep, Lludd captures the dragon and imprisons it in Dinas Emrys, a wooden hillock in Wales. One of the more common interpretations of this story is that the red dragon represents the native Celtic inhabitants of Britain while the white dragon is a symbol of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons who began invading England in the fifth century. A related idea is that the white dragon is the symbol of the Saxon warlord Vortigern while the red dragon is the flag of King Arthur’s forces.

No other country has such a rich dragon lore as the British Isles. Even the design of the Somerset flag is ultimately derived from the banners borne by Alfred the Great and his kinsmen during the era of the Viking Wars, which were variously described as bearing red or gold dragons or wyverns and as early as the 18th: Century, critical thinkers such as Denis Diderot were already asserting that too much literature had been published on dragons: ’There are already in books all too many fabulous stories of dragons’.

Starting in the north of the county, there are a number of Guardian Dragons who protect various secret treasures. One such dragon was said to patrol the area between Dolebury Hill, an Iron Age hillfort and Cadbury Camp, an Iron Age univallate enclosure, guarding ancient treasures said to be buried at both sites.

On the southern edge of the Mendip Hills, Bishop Jocelyn supposedly drove out a dragon which had the face of a woman and had been terrorizing locals around the seven holy springs – many holy wells date back to pagan times when they were associated with a local deity or water spirit – with a sacred sword from Glastonbury. A cathedral at Wells was built next to the springs. Known as ‘Bishop Jocelyn’s Wyrm’, this dragon is depicted in a mosaic floor laid into the ground to the east of the Bishop’s Palace moat.

The Quantock Hills have several tales. At Kingston St: Mary, a savage fire-breathing dragon terrorized this area until a champion came forth to tackle it. The hero rolled a boulder up a hill opposite to the dragon’s lair and shouted out to the monster. As the dragon emerged, jaws agape, the champion rolled the boulder down into its open maw, choking it before it could roast him with its flame. The village of Klive tells of a fire-breathing dragon called ‘Old Ben’ (or ‘Blue Ben’) who lived on Putsham Hill and was supposedly the steed of the devil, called upon to pull Satan’s chariot around Hell. Unusually, he wasn’t killed by a hero, but died accidentally. After going to cool down in the sea, he fell from a causeway of rocks and drowned in the mudflats. His skull (actually a fossil of an ichthyosaur) was uncovered and is on display at Taunton Museum. While both Aller and Crowcombe lay claim to this next folk tale. ‘The Gurt Wurm Of Shervage Wood’, which was a flying serpent with vast leathery wings and breathed flames and poisonous fumes – yet, curiously, was a milk addict. It lived in a hillside cave at Athelney Fens and attacked milkmaids, but was more interested in their buckets of milk than their bodies. It was even known to suck cows completely dry. It was finally slain by John of Aller (in one version of the story a knight, in the other a lowly peasant) who smeared his body with pitch and put on a thick mask to protect himself from the fire. A carved bench end from 1534 in the Church of the Holy Ghost in Crowcombe depicts two men battling a fierce two-headed dragon known as ‘The Crowcombe Worm’. The legend goes: In Shervage Wood near Crowcombe there dwelt a worm thicker about the middle than an oak tree. It fed on local livestock and then expanded its diet to humans, eating two gypsies and a shepherd as it hunted at night. The locals became too afraid to enter the wood to pick the whortleberries with which they made pies. One day in late September, a woodcutter known as Joe Tottle from Stogumber was visiting widow Maggie Conibeer, who made wonderful whortleberry tarts, at her cottage in Crowcombe. They agreed that, in exchange for a share of the profits, Joe would go into the woods to gather whortleberries for Maggie and chop some wood, to sell at Bridgwater Fair. The kind hearted man agreed. After picking an abundance of the fruit he sat down to eat bread and cheese and to drink cider. The man thought he was sitting on a dead tree but when it began to writhe about he realised, to his horror, that the ‘log’ was in fact the worm. He hoisted his axe and cleaved the monster in two. The howls of pain were heard all over the Quantocks as the two halves of the dying dragon headed off in different directions, one half ending up in Kingston St: Mary and the other half in Bilbrook near Minehead. – At Bicknoller there is a legend that a dying dragon will try to reach the sea, which is why there is a Dragon’s Cross at Bilbrook. Again, in another version of the story – after a terrible battle, John is burnt to death by the dragon’s flames at the moment his long spear is thrust down the dragon’s throat and kills the beast. In yet another version, he survives to find a brood of dragon hatchlings in the cave, which is subsequently blocked up. The nine-foot long Spear of Aller is still preserved in Low Ham Church – which is not dedicated to any saint – although recent study by Michael Sackett suggests that this spear is actually a Victorian cavalry practice lance.

Carhampton lays claim to the Arthurian legend of St: Carantoc when he visited this part of Somerset whilst looking for his altar. – ‘Life of St: Carantoc’. In this famous incident of Carantoc’s life, the saint, having returned to Wales, crossed over the Bristol Channel, looking for his portable altar. When arriving on the banks of the River Willett, he came into conflict with both King Cado(r) of Dumnonia and King Arthur at Dunster in Somerset. Arthur knew the whereabouts of the Saint’s altar and said he would reveal its location if Carantoc could rid him of a dragon. Carantoc tamed the dragon by putting his stole around its neck and leading it to Dunster Castle. An angry mob wanted to attack the now placid beast, but the Saint would not let them. He released the dragon telling it never to harm anyone ever again. In return, he was given land at nearby Carhampton to found a monastery.

In 1827, when the church of St. Andrew, Wiveliscombe was being rebuilt, the devil manifested himself riding a green dragon and began hurling rocks at the church. St: Andrew then materialised and drove them off with a cross.

At Trull, a dragon was supposedly slain on Castleman’s Hill, but no details remain of it. All Saints Church has a stained glass window showing the Saints George, Michael and Margaret killing dragons.

A sixteenth-century rood screen in the Church of All Saints, Norton Fitzwarren depicts the story of a local dragon. Here the Roman general Ostorius, who governed Britain from 47AD until his death in 52AD, was said to have killed hundreds of ancient Britons, their bodies left to pile up at Norton Camp. Over the centuries a dragon was said to have grown from the corruption of the rotting bodies (this spontaneous growth of creatures from rotting matter was a common belief in Medieval times). The dragon took up residence in an Iron Age hillfort and preyed on the populace, devouring children and destroying crops. Finally, Fulk Fitzwarine, a 13th: century knight, slew the creature by piercing its heart and cutting off its head. Despite his brave deed, Fulk fell foul of John, King of England and was exiled. He continued his adventures abroad when he saved the Duke of Iberia’s daughter from a dragon near Carthage.

Among the Blackdown Hills come the tales of two dragons. A dragon once resided in the place where Stapley Farm, Churchstanton now stands. After causing the usual havoc it was slain by an anonymous knight. The lashing of the dragon’s tail is said to have carved out a hollow in a field known as Wormstall and at Castle Neroche, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle on the site of an earlier hillfort, a dragon stole treasure from passing travellers but it was eventually drowned by local villagers.

St: Keyne.

Keyne (Ceinwen) was a late 5th: Century holy woman and hermitess and the daughter of Brychan of Brycheiniog. – ‘The Situ Brecheniauc’ – Although she was of great beauty and received many offers of marriage, Keyne took a vow of virginity and pursued a religious life. Some sources credit her as the patron saint of Keynsham, where she is said to have resided near the banks of the River Avon, which was swarming with serpents and uninhabitable. After she issued a fervent prayer, the serpents were turned to stone and the area became habitable. – ‘Early British Kingdoms. St: Keyne Wyry’. David Nash Ford. 2001. – Today, these are considered to be the remains of ammonites. When she finally died, it is said that a gracious smile and a beautiful rosy colour appeared on her face. No contemporary sources about her or her life have survived.

Holy Wells and Healing Springs.

‘Holy Wells’ are not as common in Somerset as they are in Cornwall, where nearly every village seems to have one. But, by 1923 many of Somerset’s holy wells had been filled in, covered over or their exact locations forgotten. Some place names suggest that they were named after holy wells but the evidence for this is sometimes rather tenuous eg: Luckwell Bridge near Wheddon Cross (‘St: Luke’s Well’), Holywell Lake near Wellington, Rumwell near Taunton (‘St: Rumbold’s Well’), Pedwell (‘St: Peter’s Well’), Holwell near Cloford and ‘St: Catherine Well’, Swell. What exactly is a holy well? There is no definitive answer to this question but holy wells had some significance in the folklore of the area where it was located and are usually believed to have curative powers or they were originally used for baptismal purposes or they are associated with and dedicated to a particular guardian spirit or Christian saint or associated legend, ceremony or ritual centred on the well site. Many of the locations were probably already significant in the pre-Christian era.

In folk-tradition, the wells were only visited at special times of the year: January 1, Imbolc, May 1 (or its first Sunday) and Midsummer (Eve or Day), the turning-points of the Celtic year when the gates of the Otherworld were open wide. At these times, too, those Otherworld denizens, the fairies or pixies, were frequently sighted at holy wells. It is not surprising then that a guardian of the Otherworld is usually found overseeing the holy wells of the British Isles. Although since the Christianization of the wells this figure is generally a saint of either gender, the well-guardian was originally female. Most dealings with the Otherworld in the Celtic tradition are facilitated by a female spirit or goddess. This is particularly so when the Otherworld is located beneath the earth, which in pagan Britain and Ireland, as in most cultures worldwide, was always regarded as feminine. This is particularly appropriate because in Celtic mythology the ‘Well of Wisdom’ stands at the centre of the Celtic Otherworld, the spiritual source of all, of which the holy wells of Britain and Ireland are mere tributaries. Hence it is the healing and wisdom of the Otherworld that has been sought by petitioners of the holy wells throughout the centuries.

The Protestant Reformers of the 16th: Century often assumed that medieval Catholic practices embodied lingering remains of pagan religious practices and thought of holy wells in that way. The Celts had a unique sensitivity to the sacred well cult – The cult of holy wells continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the Reformation (circa 1540) ended new foundations but local reverence and folklore customs at existing holy wells often continued. Being often unmarked on maps and undistinguished by archaeological features, holy wells are a uniquely vulnerable category of ancient site. They continue to be lost to farming, drainage work, development or neglect. People visited the wells for their traditional virtues of healing and divination. If a physical cure was sought, the believer would drink or sometimes bathe in the water. In fact, the water of some holy wells have indeed been found to contain curative properties, mostly due to the presence of certain minerals. But the healing influence of the wells was due to more than their medicinal qualities.The well itself was viewed as a shrine dedicated to the miraculous emergence of living water, in all cultures a symbol of generation, purification and the matrix of life itself.

Some of the springs are of clear pure water while others contain various minerals eg: the ‘Chalice Well’ (also known as the ‘Red Spring’) at Glastonbury (the most famous well in Somerset and one of the oldest continuously used holy wells in Britain) is a chalybeate spring, which means the water contains iron and comes out a reddish colour and is at the centre of a Neopagan- and New Age-orientated spirituality and retreat centre. While the water issuing from the ‘Black Well’ at Queen Camel contains sulphur and is reputed to be a wishing well (see below), while that from the spring at Barrows Farm between Middle and East Chinnock is salty. Along the Polden Hills lie a chain of holy wells that perhaps serviced the needs of medieval pilgrims travelling to Glastonbury, after landing from the sea somewhere near Bridgwater. At ‘Edington Holy Well’ on the Polden Hills, the water was said to apparently contain sulphur. Since recent drainage works were carried out for Wessex Water, it no longer functions. Another along the hills is at Chilton Polden which is a sulphur spring and good for the eyes. While at Cossington the holy well is said to have healing qualities.

Below, are further holy wells that can be found throughout the county.

Starting in the north of the county, ‘St: Catherine’s Well’ just north of Bath is an ancient well. The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one of these is ‘St: Mary’s Well’. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes and some twenty years ago people were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a wishing well and that the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. ‘St: Alphege’s Well’, Alphege was a local saint living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900’s. He is said to have lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was later associated with the building of Bath Abbey. The final well is now lost ‘St: Winefredes / Winifred’s Well’, Sion Hill, Lansdown, much frequented in the Spring by people who drank the water, some with sugar and some without. This would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar Wells – i.e. those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. ‘St: Pancras Well’, Old Cleeve, it is said that the water is purer than any around. ‘St: Chad’s Well’, Midsomer Norton, it is difficult to know why it is named St: Chad but the waters are for general tonic and curative purposes. ‘Bully Well’, Chew Magna is said to be good for the eyes. While at East Brent there is a ‘Lady Well’. At Wedmore, ‘Dunnick’s Well’ was said to cure weeping eyes if you bathed there before sunrise.

Moving eastwards, ‘Fair Lady’s Well’ is located on a public footpath that forms part of the Monarch’s Way, about a mile to the east of the village of Priddy. There is a ‘St: Aldhelm’s Well’ at Doulting, St Aldhelm was the Bishop of Sherborne. He died at the site of the holy well on 25 May 709. There are two holy wells and a spring at Glastonbury, (for the ‘Chalice Well’ see above), ‘St: Joseph’s Well’ is similar to other Roman wells excavated in the region, supporting the idea that the well is of an early date. Perhaps its presence was a reason for siting the original church next to this spot? A holy well at Pilton was filled in years ago and now lost. In Bruton there is ‘Patwell’, while ½ mile north was ‘Lady Well’ until it was destroyed in 1914. ‘Shadwell ‘can be found in Wincanton next to the railway embankment. ‘St: Andrew’s Well’, Ansford is now disused.

In the south and at ‘Skimmington Well’, Curry Mallet, an old witch would advise to bathe in the waters if you wanted to be cured of your ills. Also, on Midsummer Day people would go there to dance. On the first three Sundays in May at Ashill, ‘St: Nipperham’s /  Skiverton’s / Skipperton’s’ – all of which are taken to be corruptions of ‘St: Cyprion’s Well’, the inhabitants still visit this well, drinking and bathing in its waters for their healing virtues. Stocklinch Ottersey used to have a well. In West Coker there is a holy well where the water is said to be good for making tea.

The largest number of holy wells can be found in the west of the county. ‘Agnes Well’ or ‘St: Agnes Fountain’ at Allerford is now a mere trickle. ‘St: Michael’s Well’, Minehead has been lost due to drainage work in 1904. ‘St: Leonard’s Well’, Dunster, the water was used for eye complaints. ‘St: Decuman’s Holy Well’, Watchet, St: Decuman was born in the 7th: Century in Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire.  He felt called to evangelise the people of Somerset. However he was not welcomed by everyone and was beheaded. Undaunted he picked up his head, washed the blood from it in the waters of the well and put it back on his shoulders. ‘Harry Hill’s Well’, Stogumber has a tradition in the village that some time in the 16th: Century a man named Harry Hill was cured of leprosy by using the waters of this spring. ‘Lady’s Fountain’ on Kilve Common. ‘St: David’s Well’ and ‘St: Peter’s Well’, Over Stowey, the latter has an account of how a maid and a man both getting on in years finally met on St: Agnes’ Eve at the well and a happy marriage resulted. Are these two wells part of ‘Seven Wells Combe’? ‘St: Agnes Well’ at Cothelstone is medieval and has been dated to between 1300 and 1500 AD. It is traditionally said to have magic properties eg: the ability to divine the love of a person and to aid fertility. Young women used to visit on the Eve of St: Agnes Day – 21 January – and used divination to find out who their future husbands would be. A stream nearby was called the ‘Pixie Stream’ and it was thought that the well was where pixies lived! ‘Furbe’s Well ‘at Milverton is said to be ‘dangerous’. ‘Halse Holy Well’ remains in name only. ‘St: Andrew’s Well’ at Stogursey has the same dedication as the village’s parish church and has been a holy well for many centuries, if not millennia. Described as providing the only good drinking water in the village. Near Wembdon is ‘St: John’s Well’.

Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both a source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to be healing and holy, wells also have a darker side. Of these ‘Puck or Pook Wells’ are the commonest – ‘Puck’s Well’, Rode. Joining the Puck wells are the more general ‘Pisky or Pixy Well’ – ‘Pixy Well’, Allerford. – In Crowcombe, there is a pixy well and a wishing well. ‘Julian’s Well’, Wellow is said to have a ghost, as has ‘Agnes’s Well’, Whitestaunton. The witch is sometimes associated with wells – ‘St: John’s Well’ or ‘The Witches Well’ at Padlestone on the Quantocks, where an oral tradition is that a gifted man saying the right words and throwing salt into the well, drove away the witches whose haunt it was. Since 1950 people believed the well was now safe as ash trees grew around it.

‘Healing Springs’ or mineral springs are naturally occurring springs that produce water containing minerals, or other dissolved substances, that alter its taste or give it a purported therapeutic value. Salts, sulphur compounds and gases are among the substances that can be dissolved in the spring water during its passage underground. Stock Dennis –  frequented by pigeons but avoided by cattle. Which is not only brackish, but smells of gunpowder. Alford – another spring where pigeons visit. The water being saturated with salt, has a strong purging effect and also as a relief of constipation. ‘East Chinnock Salt Spring’ – nearby was a Salt House.

Wells – in Anglo-Saxon, wella – Springs to which the city owes both its name and its origins, bubble up continuously at a point which is now in the garden of the Bishop’s Palace. The most northerly spring was held to be a holy well and was dedicated to St: Andrew. While in Glastonbury, the ‘White Spring’ water is clear and contains calcium carbonate. Its source is Glastonbury Tor. Crewkerne has a ‘Beauty Spring’ which is said to bestow beauty upon those who bathed their faces therein at sunrise on the first of March.

A ‘Dip-Well’ is a well or spring from which water is obtained by dipping. At Dulverton there is a dip well, reputed for healing properties, it was necessary to leave a red rag (see also rag wells below) to effect a cure and the well would only heal the good. There was a medieval dip-well at Brandish Street, but sadly it has been filled in at some point and is now dry.

Native British tribes worshipped nature spirits, dedicating shrines near rivers, streams and springs. The custom of ‘Well-Dressing’ is traditional to the Peak District of Derbyshire, since 1985 ‘St: Aldhelm’s Well’ in Frome, has been dressed for the saint’s feast day (25 May). The well is dressed by petals, seeds, etc: pressed into a clay foundation to create an appropriate design. The work is placed in position early in the morning of the chosen day and the clergy and town mayor, accompanied by the wardens, servers and choir, process from the church to the well where a short service of blessing of the spring and town is held. Other well-dressing ceremonies have / are carried out at Ninesprings in Yeovil and at Chalice Well, Glastonbury.

‘Clootie Wells’ (‘Rag Wells’) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas. They are wells or springs, almost always with a tree growing beside them, where strips of cloth or rags have been left, usually tied to the branches of the tree as part of a healing ritual. In Scots nomenclature, a ‘clootie’ or ‘cloot’ is a strip of cloth or rag. The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain. It is possible that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring. There is a rag well at Compton Martin, the custom would involve a piece of rag being dipped upon the well’s water, rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As the cloth rotted, it was thought the ailment would disappear. (Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria has one such site). Another rag well is at Nether Stowey, the ‘Blind Well’ is a curative fairy well where rags are left on a tree and pins dropped into the water.

A ‘Wishing Well’ is a term from European folklore to describe wells where it was thought that any spoken wish would be granted. The idea that a wish would be granted came from the notion that water housed deities or had been placed there as a gift from the gods. There are two such wells at South Cadbury – ‘Arthur’s Well’ and ‘Queen (St:) Anne’s Well’.

But, I leave the most interesting well until last. ‘The Devil’s Whispering Well’, Bishops Lydeard. But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a ‘Cursing Well’. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets, inscribed lead tablets that were thrown into the water. There were certainly water-cults before the Romans and it is possible that cursing wells also have their origins way back in prehistory. Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping re-dedication.

Further reading: ‘Somerset Holy Wells and other Named Springs’. Dom Ethelbert Horne, published in 1923.

Hollow Hills & Holy Islands. 

* Hollow Hills. –   Hollow Hills are scattered all over the landscapes of the United Kingdom, Ireland and other places in Continental Europe. These Hollow Hills are chambered burial mounds. They are also sometimes called barrows, passage tombs, fairy mounds or chambered cairns. It is said that ancient peoples often thought that these mounds were a place between this world and the other world. It was thought that the gods or ancestors resided in these mounds and this was a place to meet with and honour them.

In legend Cadbury Castle is the site of Camelot and one of the hills under which Arthur and his men are said to sleep awaiting the allotted time to fight for the nation once again. In some stories the entrance to this cave is guarded by a giant Iron Gate, which opens once every seven years on Midsummer’s Day to let Arthur and his warriors ride the night. They ride from Cadbury Castle to a spring near the Church of the Holy Trinity at Sutton Montis to water their weary horses. Here we may see an older tradition of the phantom wild hunt mingling with the legend of Arthur and indeed Arthur is said to lead the wild hunt from the castle along a track called ‘Arthur’s Causeway’ or ‘Hunting Path’, an old bridle path also known as ‘King Arthur’s Lane’ which leads to Glastonbury. Arthur’s chief hound was called Rhos Gafalt. The ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ entry for the year 1127 records an apparent sighting of the ‘Wild Hunt’:

‘Let no one be surprised at what we are about to relate, for it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after 6 February many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this wild tantivy as near as they could tell.’

Underneath a natural bower, on the bank of the lowest rampart but one at Cadbury Castle, is a small arch of stone, covering a well of clearest water. This is ‘King Arthur’s Well’. A miraculous fountain, into the depths of which you may still peer and see things strange and wonderful. In a basin, some two feet deep, the sheltered water, never moved by wind, lies still and pure as a transparent magic crystal.

From ‘Somerset: Highways, Byways, and Waterways. Edinburgh Review 181. (April 1895).’ The rustics have other legends of a more interesting kind. They are convinced that the hill is hollow and teeming with fairy gold, though the latter belief may be only a reminiscence of the fine coins of Antoninus. […] Mr Bennett told a story about a broken quern which had found near a hut site on the hill. A labourer said, ‘Now, Sir, I see what I could never make out afore; what it was the fairies wanted with carrying corn up here out of Foreside.’ ‘Why,’ said Mr. Bennett, ‘do the fairies bring corn up here?’ ‘Yes, Sir, we all know that; but I never could make out for why; but now I see, for here is their grindstone.’

A well known rhyme tells of the immense wealth hidden beneath the hill:

‘If Cadbury and Dolbury dolven were
All England would have a golden share’.

Cadbury’s treasure is impossible to retrieve however as the harder it is dug for, the farther it sinks into the earth of the hill. Other such sites include Rugborough Camp, Broomfield and Castle Neroche. Here treasure seekers fled in fear and empty handed after hearing strange noises and ghostly voices, but not soon enough for within a month each of the men were dead.

Glastonbury Tor seems to have been called Ynys yr Afalon’ (meaning ‘The Isle of Avalon’) by the Britons and is believed by some, including the 12th: and 13th: Century writer Gerald of Wales, to be the Avalon of Arthurian legend. At the end of the 12th: Century, Gerald of Wales wrote in ‘De instructione principis’:

‘What is now known as Glastonbury was, in ancient times, called the Isle of Avalon. It is virtually an island, for it is completely surrounded by marshlands. In Welsh it is called Ynys Afallach, which means the Island of Apples and this fruit once grew in great abundance. After the Battle of Camlann, a noblewoman called Morgan, later the ruler and patroness of these parts as well as being a close blood-relation of King Arthur, carried him off to the island, now known as Glastonbury, so that his wounds could be cared for. Years ago the district had also been called Ynys Gutrin in Welsh, that is the Island of Glass, and from these words the invading Saxons later coined the place-name Glastingebury’.

With the 19th: Century resurgence of interest in Celtic mythology, the Tor became associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, King of the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fair folk’ and ruler of the Welsh Otherworld (Annwn). The term ‘tylwyth teg’ is first attested in a poem attributed to the 14th: Century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, in which the principal character gets perilously but comically lost while going to visit his girlfriend:

‘Hudol gwan yn ehedeg,
hir barthlwyth y Tylwyth Teg’.

‘(The) weak enchantment (now) flees,
(the) long burden of the Tylwyth Teg (departs) into the mist’.

The Tor came to be represented as an entrance to Annwn or to Avalon, the land of the fairies which is supposedly a gateway into ‘The Land of the Dead (Avalon)’. Later, in ‘The Mabinogion’ translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, Gwen ap Nudd appears as a simpler figure in which he and his retinue are vanquished from Glastonbury Tor with the use of holy water.

‘Then said St: Collen. ‘The red on the one part signifies burning and the blue on the other signifies coldness.’ And with that Collen drew out his flask and threw the holy water on their heads, whereupon they vanished from his sight, so that there was neither castle, nor troops, nor men, nor maidens, nor music, nor song, nor steeds, nor youths, nor banquet, nor the appearance of any thing whatever, but the green hillocks’.

While Cleeve Toot – an Iron Age univallate hillfort – in Goblin Combe, Cleeve has a local legend that tells of a group of children picking primroses and one little girl, who wandered away, found herself alone and lost. Crying, she banged her head on a rock and the rock opened and fairies came out and gave her a golden ball, then dried her tears and led her home. There was much amazement in the village and one man thinking to get a golden ball himself, gathered some primroses and made his way to the rock. The hollow hill opened for him, but he was taken and kept by the fairies.

As you can see, the name Hollow Hills can have different meanings for different people, but we all can come to the same conclusion: they are special and magical places.

* Holy Islands. –    The ‘Seven Holy Islands’ were clearly very important to Glastonbury Abbey and the monks, which were granted to the Abbey by the Saxon King, Cenweath, at least in the early (pre-Benedictine) days and before then, sacred to the Druids and purported to have been given to Joseph of Arimathea as a gift. Who is connected with Glastonbury and also with the Holy Grail legend. – On arrival Joseph stuck his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill where it rooted and bloomed. There is still a cutting in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey which descended from the original hawthorn. There have also been suggestions that the Holy Cross and associated artefacts found on St: Michaels Hill in the 11th: Century were grave goods from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. – They were Glastonbury, Beckery, Meare, Godney, Bleadney, Martinsey and Nyland. All of them had chapels built upon them, hidden away in the marshes and often treacherous to reach. They are all near to the original course of the River Brue, but their significance must have been reduced considerably by the time the river’s course was changed during the Middle Ages, – as the Brue was redirected and no longer joins the River Axe as it did, in other words the source and the mouth are disconnected from each other, – as their channels, tributaries and distributaries in a marshy landscape flowed into the Brue and River Axe from a marshy landscape. These holy rivers, perhaps derived from Varuna and Asi and along with the holy city (glas), were the original Summerland, the earthly symbolic representation of the heavenly Otherworld, from which Somerset got its name.

A ley line runs from Nyland through Barrow and Godney to the old church at Glastonbury Abbey. The pattern of the seven holy islands mirror that of the stars of Ursa Major, The Plough. It is possible that each island symbolises the aspect of an initiate’s spiritual journey to enlightenment. Some of the islands suggest such symbolic meaning. Meare for stilling the mind; Nayland for the ‘third eye’ – the door to an inner world; Martinsey named from St: Martin – third bishop of Tours, withdrawal from the world; Beckery – here a chapel was dedicated to St: Brigid – who shares her name with the Celtic goddess from whom many legends and folk customs are associated, – which had a special opening in the southern wall which healed those who passed through it – meaning ‘beekeeper’s island’, for the nectar of divine bliss as devotees cross Pomparles Bridge, the ‘perilous bridge’ – guarding Glastonbury from the south, – letting go of all ego and entering oneness before full enlightenment, the city of light, Glas[ton]bury. Possibly, Godney, ‘God’s Isle’, was symbolic of devotion and prayer, while Barrow was self-discipline. If these ‘islands’ mirror the constellation, Nayland corresponds to the only star that can fairly be called the beginning of the constellation, making it the natural gateway to this enchanted landscape and the line from Beckery to Glastonbury corresponds to the line that points to the Pole Star, Polaris. The Plough is said to represent the chariot of King Arthur (the Bear) – the hero warrior – during the precession of the equinoxes.

It is also possible to correspond the symbols of the seven holy islands to that of the seven ‘kaers’ in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwn’, attributed to Taliesin – an early Brythonic poet of Sub-Roman Britain. Kaer Sidi is the ultimate spiritual destination, corresponding to the Isle of Glastonbury. Nyland could be Kaer Pedryuan, the ‘four-cornered’ kaer. Kaer Vedwit is Meare, the pool of stillness. Kaer Rigor, by location and symbolic meaning is Beckery. Barrow might symbolically be Kaer Golud, with Godney being Kaer Vandwy. Finally, Kaer Ochren has to be Martinsey.

This would make it an important focus of regeneration and life, both symbolically and practically.

The Land of the Fair Folk. 

Myths and stories about fairies do not have a single origin, but are rather a collection of folk beliefs from disparate sources. Various folk theories about the origins of fairies include casting them as either demoted angels or demons in a Christian tradition, as deities in Pagan belief systems, as spirits of the dead, as prehistoric precursors to humans, or as spirits of nature. Most of the nature fairies are perhaps descendents of pre-Christian gods and goddesses or are the spirits of trees and streams. The oldest fairies on record in England were first described by the historian Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th: Century. While considering the fate of fairies in late-Elizabethan and 17th: Century England, these ‘doubtful spirits’ were demonised in the period. English Protestants associated fairies with Satan, but this did not necessarily imply that fairies were reclassified as demons. Rather, they were embedded in a complex of beliefs that connected them with falsehood, Catholicism and the invisible wiles of the Devil.

A recurring motif of legends about fairies is the need to ward off fairies using protective charms. Common examples of such charms include church bells, wearing clothing inside out, four-leaf clover and food. Fairies were also sometimes thought to haunt specific locations, and to lead travellers astray using will-o’-the-wisps – an atmospheric ghost light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. In her book A Dictionary of Fairies’, KM. Briggs provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon. – Before the advent of modern medicine, fairies were often blamed for sickness, particularly tuberculosis and birth deformities. The English ‘fairy’ derives from the Early Modern English ‘faerie’, meaning ‘realm of the fays’.

Tongue (1965) describes pixies as ‘red-headed, with pointed ears, short faces and turned up noses, often cross-eyed’. She describes pixies as wearing green, while the fairies of Somerset wear red. Katharine Briggs (1967) describes the fairies of Somerset as seen in ‘the twinkling of an eye, they were smaller, about the size of a partridge and of a reddish brown colour’.

If HW. Kille is to be believed, then the fairies of Exmoor are no more and only the pixies live there now. Kille told Ruth Tongue in 1961, ‘that the fairies of Somerset were last seen in Buckland St Mary, and they no longer inhabit Somerset. They were defeated in a pitched battle with the Pixies and now everywhere west of the River Parrett is Pixyland’. Mrs: Bray in her book ‘A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West’ (1853), tells us that the king of the fairies was none other than Oberon and it was during this battle ‘his majesty received a wound in the leg which proved incurable; none of the herbs in his dominions have hitherto had the least beneficial effects, though his principal secretary and attendant, Puck, has been in search of one of a healing nature ever since’.

Tongue recorded in ‘Folklore. Volume 67. Issue 4. 1956’ that there were traces of Fairy Hounds in West Somerset, at Young Oaks near Wellington comes the tale that the nearby lanes are haunted by a pack of large white hounds with red ears that rush along with flames coming from their mouths and somewhat shadowy of outline who will give chase to anyone who runs away from them in fear. The black hound of Rodway Hill in the Quantocks was said to have left a man paralysed for the remainder of his life after it brushed against him. Tongue also noted a modern sighting near Priddy. The eyewitness was a man who had seen two huge dogs, taller than Irish wolfhounds but with a rough white coat and red ears, walking by him, on the other side of the road, making no noise. According to local lore, he had been very lucky, because if they had walked by him on the same side of the road, or had uttered any sound, he would have surely died. These Fairy Hounds are said to be the hunting dogs of the Little People, who dwell in hollow hills and according to Welsh mythology, a pack of these ethereal creatures, known as the ‘Cwn Annwn’, was also owned by Arawn, King of Annwn – the Celtic Otherworld. Resembling large white hounds with long slim legs, they are characterised by their ruby-red ears and eyes. While ‘The Gurt Dog’ (‘Great Dog’) is an example of a benevolent dog. It was said that mothers would allow their children to play unsupervised on the Quantock Hills because they believed ‘The Gurt Dog’ would protect them. It would also accompany lone travellers in the area, acting as a protector and guide. The Wambarrows, (‘Wamburg’) a group of three Bronze Age bowl barrows at Winsford, were mentioned in a boundary perambulation of 1219. The locality is said to be haunted by the Black Dog which may be guarding treasure. (See ‘The Historic Environment Record for Exmoor National Park’). There is a hearth sprite ‘Chimbley Charlie’ at the Holman Clavel Inn on the Blackdown Hills and a Combe St: Nicholas man visited a market at Pitminster which was full of little folk who disappeared as he passed through, only to appear behind him and invisible hands pinched and poked him. While as recently as 1962 a Somerset farmer’s wife told how she had lost her way on the Berkshire Downs and was put on the right track by a small man in green who appeared suddenly at her elbow and then disappeared!

Belief in fairies has not completely died out. These magical and elusive creatures of cautionary tales, nursery rhymes and bedside stories stretch back over 800 years.

‘All hand in hand they traced on,
a tricksy ancient round:
And soon as shadows were they gone,
and might no more be found.
And in their place came fearful bugs,
as black as any pitch:
With bellies big and swagging dugs,
more loathsome then a witch’.

A Dreame, 1593.
Thomas Churchyard.


Big Cats and Bigfoot.

* Big Cats. – The earliest mention of a Big Cat in Britain comes from the late 13th: Century ‘Welsh Triads’ (‘Trioedd Ynys Prydain’). ‘Cath Palug’s’ birth origins are given in ‘The Three Powerful Swineherds’ According to this source, it started life as a black kitten, given birth by the great white sow Henwen at the black rock in Llanfair-is-gaer. There the kitten was cast into the sea, but it crossed the Menai Strait and was found on Ynys Môn (Anglesey), where the sons of Palug raised it, not realising ‘Cath Palug’ was to become one of the three great plagues of the island. While the medieval Welsh poem ‘Pa Gwr’ in the Black Book of Carmarthen’ – mid:-19th: Century – mentions a ‘Cath Palug’, meaning ‘Palug’s cat’ or ‘clawing cat’, which roamed Anglesey until slain by Cei.

‘His shield was ready
Against Cath Palug’.

For decades there have been reports of Big Cat sightings across Somerset but nobody has so far solved the mystery. Rumours of fabulous panther-like cats on the moor have been prevalent for decades. Dramatically dubbed ‘The Exmoor Beast’, sightings are still often reported, frequently in a fashion sufficiently factual and unembellished to render accounts very believable. The term ‘panther’ is generic and does not refer to a particular species of big cat but is commonly used to describe two different types of cat in the wild: melanistic (black) leopards and more thick-set jaguars. It is the more slim-line black leopard which is the main candidate for black cats reported in Britain, together with tan-coloured pumas. Releases probably began in wartime when people could not feed meat to these strict carnivores. Since then, there have been alleged and some admitted, episodes of releases of such cats, from their lives as ‘trophy’ pets and guard animals. The earliest credible report from Exmoor is 1966, when an early-morning postman saw a black panther. Later, the ‘1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act’ was a major reason for releases – owners perhaps could not afford a licence, so released the cats.The Ministry continued to study reported sightings into the mid-1990’s, before concluding that the Beast was either a hoax or myth and that the alleged sightings had been mistaken identifications of creatures native to the Exmoor area.

‘The Beast of Brassknocker Hill’. – During the Summer of 1979, a series of unusual animal sightings occurred in the Somerset countryside. Rumours began to circulate that some sort of large, dangerous creature was stalking the woodland that surrounded Brassknocker Hill, a small settlement lying outside the city of Bath. The mystery began when locals Ron and Betty Harper discovered that an unknown creature had stripped whole sections of their ancient oak tree, leaving large gouge marks in the trunk. They also noticed that the area, which was usually alive with birds and small wildlife, had become mysteriously barren. By 1 August, over fifty trees had been stripped of their branches in the area. Later that month it was described by an eyewitness as they were driving along a desolate stretch of road through Monkton Combe at night, as a bear-like creature, which was approximately 4 feet in length with huge teeth and bore two, striking, circular white rings around its eyes.

The modern wave of Big Cat reports stem from the late 1950’s, with regular news stories of the ‘Surrey Puma’ and the ‘Fen Tiger’. Research released between April 2004 and July 2005 stated that there were 91 sightings of Big Cats in Somerset. ‘FOI531-11’ from Avon and Somerset Police report 13 sightings between 2006 – 2010 and since 2013 there have been a further 8 reports of Black Cat sightings throughout Somerset.

* Bigfoot. – Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience and subculture that searches for and studies unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose present existence is disputed or unsubstantiated, particularly those popular in folklore, such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, etc: In their search for these entities, cryptozoologists may employ devices such as motion-sensitive cameras, night-vision equipment and audio-recording equipment. Since 2012 there have been fifteen significant sightings of a British Bigfoot, although there have been sightings of this ape-like creature at Tunbridge Wells for over 70 years, from the dense woods of Suffolk and Staffordshire to the remote hills of Scotland.

At Leigh Woods, near Bristol On 17 August 2015, a Bristol resident witnessed an ape-like creature digging in the earth with a twig. Harry says he was about 200 yards away and managed to discern the physical features of the creature. ‘When it stood up I’d say it was about 6 feet tall. It was old looking and it had a grey skin. I could see that it had human features, but its face looked more ape-like with a broader nose and cheeks and a jaw that jutted out and looked like it was curved’.

A quote from the ‘Bristol Post’ stated that ‘Leigh Woods has had a reputation for being haunted for some time. Years ago, tramps lived in the woods favouring the Abbots Leigh end and avoiding the Leigh Woods part because of its evil reputation. It was said that loud screams could be heard in the night‘.

In November 2017, several decades after Bigfoot first stepped into the public consciousness, a man said he saw the mysterious creature on his train journey through Somerset. The witness said he was on a train to Bristol Temple Meads, which was approaching the city, when he saw a massive creature taking huge strides along a hedgerow.

‘About ten miles from Bristol we were travelling through an area and in the fields to my right I saw something large in the middle of the field walking, it was walking kind of hunched over, and all I could tell you was it was a black figure. At a guess I would’ve said it was 70 to 100 metres away from the train. My eyes were glued on it at this point. I was watching the way the ‘thing’ was walking, almost towards the side of the field, it was edged right up to the hedgerow as if to walk alongside the hedge itself, almost like it was using the hedge for cover? I would imagine five to ten seconds was all I saw it for. I’m 100 percent sure what I saw was the English Bigfoot – and what makes me so confident is the way it walked, with slightly bent legs, long strides but a graceful fluid walking motion’ the witness stated.

In 2012, the Government produced the ‘National Eco-System Assessment’ and it showed that only between six and eight percent of the land in Britain is actually built on – the rest is either forest, farmland or wild mountains or downs. While reports of a hairy creature that walks on two legs are commonplace in North America, even seasoned Bigfoot experts have questioned whether the animal could exist in the British Isles.

* Dogman. – Approximately 01.40 Sunday mid-July 2015. Yeovil / Sherborne area. The witness, on investigating a low rumbling growl from behind the stables, went to investigate the sound. As he walked towards the stables with a flashlight in hand, a creature appeared coming towards him. Its head was about 3 feet off the ground and was on all fours. Once it had completely appeared, its body was huge, lean and covered in thin, almost non-existing hair, but up towards the shoulders and head it had thick, black fur, pointy ears and a large snout, human-like arms and shoulder sockets and gave another low growl and bared its teeth. The witness then ran back to the house, locking the door and window. For the rest of the night sounds of the beast could be heard circling the house until 04.30 when all fell silent. Name withheld.

* The Ninesprings Monkey. – Animals that are not native to the United Kingdom have been able to adapt to the climate and habitat in the past and can also displace species within an area through predation. One animal that did become adjusted to its new conditions was ‘The Ninesprings Monkey’. – Ninesprings is, essentially, a broad-leaved woodland valley of some twenty acres on the south-east edge of Yeovil with nine springs supplying water to small streams and ponds. Within this area was a thatched cottage that once served cream teas where a small monkey frequented the holly bushes behind the cottage, but seemed to have stayed within the bounds of the building and the lake. Today, a headstone for the monkey can be seen built into a stone bridge that crosses the lake.

The Witch of Wookey Hole.

‘I shall go into a hare,
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.’

Isobel Gowdie, 1662.


That witches appear in the shape of an owl or a hare is a very old belief in Somerset.

The ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, usually translated as the ‘Hammer of Witches’, a medieval handbook, was used to try and execute supposed witches. Its influence lasted for centuries and was written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer (under his Latinized name Henricus Institor) and first published in the German city of Speyer in 1486. The book recommended not only torture but also deception in order to obtain confessions. Another form dating from medieval times until the early 18th: Century, was ducking, a way used to establish whether a suspect was a witch. The ‘ducking stools’ were first used for this purpose but ducking was later inflicted without the chair. In this instance the subject’s right thumb was bound to her left big toe. A rope was tied around the waist of the accused and she was thrown into a river or deep pond. If she floated, it was deemed that she was in league with the devil, rejecting the baptismal water. If she sank, she was ‘cleared’. But also dead. Slippery Lane, a narrow stone flagged thoroughfare with high medieval walls just off Northgate Street in Bath runs down to the River Avon where those accused of witchcraft made their final journey to the ‘ducking stool’.

Bookseller Thomas Nelson published a strange and disturbing piece of news titled  ‘A true and most Dreadfull discourse of a woman possessed with the Deuill:’ in 1584. The report told of a woman, Margaret Cooper, who lived in Ditcheat and was possessed by the Devil, although this was not what made it particularly strange. Rather, it was the apparition which haunted her bedside which makes this pamphlet stand out: a bear without a head. Demonic bears appear occasionally in witchcraft narratives during the 1640’s.

There were some well known witch trials in Somerset and although Mathew Hopkins was the most notorious Witch Finder General in Britain, Somerset had its own witch finder; Richard Hunt JP. He personally led a zealous hunt for eight years, tracking down ‘a hellish knot of witches’ in Somerset and presided over the  many cases of suspected witchcraft  brought forward at the Assizes  held in Taunton Castle. The alleged witchcraft conspiracy in villages around Bruton and Wincanton at the start of the 1660’s bears comparison with the supposed gathering of witches at Pendle, Lancashire, who were tried in 1612. Two people were hanged at Taunton in the mid-17th: Century on charges connected to witchery, Edmund Bull in 1631 and Julian Cox in 1663. Stonegallows was Taunton’s execution site from 1575 until 1810. The origin of the name Stonegallows is not certain. It may have been named after a large boulder stone nearby. Alternatively the uprights of the gallows may have been made of stone or it could have been named thus because it stood on a ‘stoned’ or main road. The Gallows were probably removed in 1814 and executions then took place at Taunton Castle. In 1657 it was claimed that an old woman had offered a magic apple to a young boy in Yeovil who, despite having been warned, took a bite of it, whereupon ‘he rose in the air and flew about 300 yards’ according to evidence given at the old woman’s trial. She was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged at Chard in 1658. Elizabeth Style / Stile had also been accused of witchcraft but died in Taunton Gaol in 1664. Several alleged witches in 1664, it was claimed, met at Leigh Common, which is also known as ‘Witches’ Corner’ just outside Stoke Trister near Wincanton to practise their sorcery. Notestein describes one witch as ‘ferreted out in Somerset by the aggressive justice Robert Hunt’ and that Hunt demanded the ‘wild confession’ of Elizabeth Style. There is still evidence of another witch in mid-Somerset, this time Nancy Camel , who it is said, was dragged from her cave above Shepton Mallet by the devil himself during a terrific storm. Jane Brooks and Alice Coward lived in Shepton Mallet during the 17th: Century, The pair were accused of casting malicious magic spells. Some of the above trials were documented in ‘Saducismus Triumphatus, or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions in Two Parts’ by Joseph Glanvill, 1681. Evidence was given against Julian Cox by a victim known as Anonymous 33, ‘A young maid from Taunton who suffered from strange fits. She lost her health and languished when bewitched by Julian Cox’. While Cox himself gave evidence stating that ‘A seventy year old woman from Taunton, practised witchcraft on a young maid’. The woman was found guilty. ‘Witch Searchers’ Bridget Prankard, Elizabeth Tordwood, Mary Day, Mary Bolster and Catharine White searched Elizabeth Stiles for witch’s marks. ‘The women find a mark which they prick with a pin. They leave the pin in the mark to show others’. ‘A woman from Wincaunton (Alice Duke) confesses to keeping company with Elizabeth Stile’. Duke is also deemed a witch. In the case of Jane Brooks and Alice Coward, accused of bewitching a young boy named Richard Jones, evidence came from a man (Gibson) who ‘witnesses Richard Jones’ fits. He also stabs the wall when Richard Jones claims to see Jane Brooks appear there’. Henry Jones (father) ‘who witnesses Richard Jones’ fits’ and also from the victim. While Catherine Green from Brewham is regarded as a witch because she ‘convinces Christian Green to give her soul to the devil’. Brewham was the setting for a witchcraft coven and sabbat activity heard at the trials of Christian Green and Margaret Agar in 1665. During 1670 Anne Slade was charged and acquitted in Somerset on two witchcraft charges, while in 1672 Margaret / Margeria Stevens, wife of John Stevens, was charged and acquitted in Somerset on charges of laming Jane Bayneham and Mary Bridge by witchcraft. Beckington, circa 1689, was the scene of the bewitchment of two eighteen-year-olds, William Spicer and Mary Hill and the subsequent arrest of three women, Elizabeth Carrier, Margery Coombes and Ann More, the case was heard at Bruton. (See ‘The Witches of Selwood Forest: Witchcraft and Demonism in the West of England, 1625 – 1700’ by Andrew Pickering, published 2017). The ancient forest of Selwood ran approximately between Gillingham in Dorset and Chippenham in Wiltshire and straddled the borders of Somerset and Wiltshire. The case in the village of Beckington in 1689 shows how this was not a late, isolated episode but an integral part of the wider Selwood Forest witchcraft story. About 1683, a ‘wizard’ was tried at Taunton and was rescued from death only by the sceptical ingenuity of the judge, Lord Guilford. Also during the 17th: Century there lived in Waterrow a ‘Conjuror’ or white witch by the name of Burge, (from the ‘Book of Exmore’). Whereas the Quantock witches were rather the tales of gossip and folklore, people, maybe real, became myth. In 1707, Taunton had been the site of one of the last witch trials in England for the belief in ‘sympathetic magic’. As late as 1730 at Frome, a poor old woman, suspected of being a witch, was, by the advice of a ‘cunning man’ thrown into a pool and drowned by 20 of her neighbours, in the presence of 200 persons, who made no attempt to save her life.

These stories are simply the tip of the iceberg – more than 400 people were put to death in England for alleged witchcraft and more than 2,000 executed in Scotland, before the ‘1735 Witchcraft Act’ put an end to the trials. After 1736, ‘witches’ could no longer be hanged but it was not the end of their persecution. In ‘Ghosts And Legends Of South Somerset’ by George F Munford and first published in 1922 he wrote about a solitary hut that stood on Hamdon Hill and was inhabited in 1780 by a quaint middle-aged woman, known as ‘Rebecca of the Hill’. ‘As a rule, she was fond of retirement, and in her manners and dress was very eccentric. It was said that she had often been seen to run along the summit of the Hill making wild gestures with out-stretched hands, and, at the same time, muttering incantations totally unintelligible to those who happened to hear them. She always wore a long dark cloak over her shoulders – would never permit her head to wear a covering of any sort – and allowed her long raven-black hair to hang loosely around her neck. This mysterious conduct, and nobody knowing whence she came, was conclusive evidence of her supernatural powers. She was not regarded as a common enchantress. There was something so superior in her bearing, her language was so free from coarseness, her voice was so rich and musical, that she was stamped as one of no mean birth, and the mystery of her origin thereby was deepened’. Everyone in Taunton knew that Betty Townsend was a witch and it went without saying that back in 1811, the residents of the town were more than a little afraid of her. Anne Burge of Wiveliscombe was accused of witchcraft in 1823, her case was heard at Taunton. There is one recorded instance of a ‘witch mobbing’ at Somerton in September 1867, when a woman told a crowd she had been bewitched by one Jane Gillett. People would soon have to come to terms with the fact that within their communities disease would be endemic among crops, cattle and people and that the scapegoat was not the lonely person who had a black cat or was familiar with herbal lore.

In an old house in Wellington that was to be demolished in 1878, a ‘witch’s ladder’ – a one-and-a-half-metre-long piece of string with chicken feathers woven into it – was found by workmen in the attic. The workmen who found the object, thought it was used by witches to help them get across roofs. Today, after all the speculation that appeared and until more evidence appears, it is unlikely we will ever know whether the ‘witch’s ladder’ really was an instrument of magic. A number of ‘witch bottles’ have been discovered hidden in old buildings, these were a favourite tool to counter any evil spells. Shoes, mummified cats and horse skulls have been concealed inside walls and chimneys and are also well documented. ‘Witch marks’, ritual protection symbols or apotropaic items have been found in many historic places, medieval churches, domestic houses, agricultural barns and even caves, including Somerset’s infamous Wookey Hole Cave – which date from 1550 to 1750 and were found in 2007 with a large concentration in ‘The Witch’s Chimney’ – and surprisingly in Wells Cathedral and Bath Abbey, along with Goatchurch Cavern at Burrington Combe – which were found by Christopher Binding and Linda Wilson of the University of Bristol in November 2003. (‘Ritual Protection Marks in Goatchurch Cavern, Burrington Combe, North Somerset’. University of Bristol Spelaeological Society. Vol: 23. No: 2. 2004’) and Long Hole at Cheddar Gorge. The most obvious marks are the ‘Daisy Wheel’ or ‘Hexafoil’, a compass-drawn circle usually with six petals within it. Groups of ‘Hexafoils’ are often created as conjoined circles and typically incomplete. It is believed they originated as a solar symbol which could dispel darkness. Another common pattern is the ‘Marian Symbol’ which is associated with the Virgin Mary or Marian Cult. These markings date back to times when belief in witchcraft and the supernatural was widespread. Magical symbols and ritual objects were a common part of life and many examples have been identified covering a huge period in British history from at least the 16th: Century and continuing well into the 18th: Century. However, apotropaic carvings or witch markings can be notoriously difficult to date because although the stone or timber may be medieval, for example, it does not necessarily follow that the etchings are. Additionally ritual protection markings are often misidentified as construction marks or historical graffiti and thus get overlooked.

* The Witch of Wookey Hole. – But what of the Witch, a roughly human-shaped stalagmite and her ‘dog’? Where a little ‘bowl’ was uncovered at its side and bones discovered in the dirt around the figure. It has been suggested that it was a tradition at some point in the caves’ long history to bring bones for the dog, in order to appease his mistress. Was the witch a real person?

In one version of the legend, the witch lived in the caves. In earlier years, she had been crossed in love and she had developed an all-consuming hatred of happy couples. She cast curses on the villagers of Wookey from her home in the caves. Eventually, the people grew tired of her and appealed to the Abbot of Glastonbury. The Abbot sent a monk to the caves. The witch threw spell after spell at the monk, but she could not penetrate his air of goodness. He sprinkled her with holy water as she tried to leave the caves and she turned to stone. In another version of the story, a man from nearby Glastonbury had gotten engaged to a young woman from Wookey. The witch, having been jilted in the past, cursed the romance and it fell apart. The man became a monk and stalked the witch, seeking revenge. He blessed one of the rivers in the cave and sprinkled it around the cave, splashing the witch who hid in the shadows. She turned to stone where she stood. Yet another version tells of the Abbot of Glastonbury appointing Father Bernard to exorcise the witch. Some stories claim she was just an old woman who lived in the cave, blamed for everything that went wrong by the locals, but others say she was a witch who tormented the villagers. They did battle in the cave, but ultimately, Father Bernard’s divine authority won the day and the Witch was petrified in the cave.

But, how old is the story? ‘The Witch of Wookey Hole’ was first mentioned in 1480 by William of Worcester. According to him, people called a rock at the entrance of the caves ‘The Porter’. Visitors needed to ask ‘The Porter’ for permission to enter the hall of Wookey. He also noted a well in an inner cave that no one could tell how deep it was. At the time, people believed it to be a holy well. The witch was not always described as one. Worcester talked about a stalagmite in the cave’s first chamber. To him, this represented a woman spinning with a drop spindle. There was no mention of her being a witch. While Thomas Scott Holmes in The History of the Parish and Manor of Wookey’ traces the legend to 1612, although this is only a passing reference. We have to move into the 18th: Century to find the real fixation on the legend. Dr: Henry Harington wrote the poem ‘The Witch of Wokey’ in 1748, which was published in 1756. Harington describes her as being a hag so ugly she could not get a lover. He apparently took his inspiration from the local legend. In the poem, a ‘learned wight’ turns her to stone, sent from Glastonbury to deal with her. The poem, typically for its time, blames frustrated womanhood as if it was her loneliness and inability to find a partner that led her to cursing happy young couples.

‘Her haggard face was foull to see;
Her mouth unmeet a mouth to bee;
Her eyne of deadly leer.
She nought devis’d but neighbour’s ill,
She wreak’d on all her wayward will,
And marr’d all goodly chear.
 All in her prime, have poets sung,
No gaudy youth, gallant and young,
E’er blest her longing armes;
And hence arose her spight to vex,
And blast the youth of either sex,
By dint of hellish charms’.

‘The Witch of Wokey’.

Is there any actual evidence of a witch at Wookey Hole? There is nothing to say there was not a ‘Witch of Wookey Hole’. Given the history of people living in the caves, it is entirely possible there have been people there that some may have thought were witches. But, perhaps over time, people conflated stories of those living in the caves with tales of stalagmites that look like figures.

Popular belief remained alive and well in Somerset long into the Victorian era regarding witchcraft and magic with a wealth of court cases and ethnographic material about the complex relationship between the supernatural, agriculture, neighbourly relations, urbanisation, policing and rural change. RL. Tongue writing in ‘Folklore. Volume 74. 1963. Issue 1’, stated ‘Belief in Witchcraft is still strong in Somerset’. After more than four hundred years some modern-day witches say they are still facing persecution.

Do You Believe In Ghosts?

Somerset ranks as one of the highest haunted places in the UK with paranormal and cryptozoological sightings. Data reveals that there have been 12,157 known sightings across the UK to date between the 59 county boundaries analysed. Yorkshire stands as the area with the most with 790 activities – 303% higher than the UK average. While at the other end is Rutland with a total of only six. In Somerset, there were 397 sightings reported making it the ninth most haunted county with its ghosts, mythical creatures, preternatural spirits, phantom riders, poltergeists and prophecies. Paranormal activities such as the ‘Phantom Butterfly’ at the Theatre Royal, Bath, Brockley Combe which is another place with many encounters, the ghost of a monk killed by Henry VIII at Glastonbury Abbey or Shepton Mallet Prison. Below are just a few examples. I make no attempt in trying to explain the following events or detail what I have heard and seen, only that it is unfortunate that programmes like ‘Most Haunted’ and more recently ‘Expedition X’ prey on people’s beliefs and emotions and turn something that is impossible to explain by known natural forces or by science and spin it into a circuslike sideshow.

* Mother Shipton. – Ursula Southeil, popularly known as Mother Shipton was well known in the Langport area as a fortune teller and Prophet. She was born in 1488 to an orphan fifteen-year-old girl named Agatha Soothtale in a cave in North Yorkshire outside the town of Knaresborough.

The first known edition of her prophecies, ‘A True Coppy Of Mother Shiptons Last Prophesies’, was printed in 1641, eighty years after her reported death and contained numerous mainly regional predictions and only two prophetic verses. She predicted that on Good Friday 1879, Ham Hill in Somerset would be swallowed up in a giant earthquake while the neighbouring town of Yeovil would be swept away in a great flood.

Rumours of these disastrous events began to circulate some six weeks before Easter 1879 and there were reports of people leaving their homes for safer parts, removing household goods to prevent them being destroyed in the impending earthquake and delaying planting crops in their gardens. The day passed uneventfully to the great relief of many people, Ham Hill was not swallowed up and Yeovil was not washed away.

A correspondent of the Western Gazette’ wrote at the time, ‘It was evident that a strong belief existed in a portion of the lower classes in the parish that the thing might occur but they were disinclined to admit they were superstitious’.

* Most Haunted Pub In Britain. – In Chard stands the 16th: Century Choughs Hotel, a mysterious building of solid stone, riddled with secret passageways and hidden rooms, period furnishings and dark timbers, which is said to be one of the most haunted pubs in Britain and has more than 400 years of tales to tell. But it has not always been an hotel. At one time, it actually served as a school and in another period it was a brothel.

In the long room upstairs, which backs on to the Conservative Club, you can sometimes smell burning. When the Chard Fire destroyed much of the town in 1577, the Conservative Club burnt down, but the fire stopped just before the back wall of the long room. In an upstairs corridor a mysterious figure of a knight stands dressed in armour, when spoken to he simply vanishes. The ghost of a sinister-looking old man has been seen crouched by the fireplace in the bar. Some say that this particular entity is that of Judge Jeffreys. He supposedly stayed at the Choughs in a room where his coat of arms can still be seen in bas-relief on the wall. In the aftermath of the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, Jeffries came to Chard and conducted the Bloody Assizes – the term was first used in ‘Ecclesiastica, or the Book of Remembrance’, compiled in 1687 but not published until 1874. The author described Jeffreys as a ‘man of violence and blood. . . . being the principle person in the management of those bloody assizes’. (p. 84) – and there was a definite report of 12 men who were tried at the Old Courthouse down the road and they were all hanged – some of them tortured, some of them hung, drawn and quartered in great agony, although the men were not from the town, they were from the towns and villages of Wellington, Upottery, Kenton, Chilton Polden, Thorncombe, Taunton and Durleigh. In total across the South-West of England 315 men and women were executed by James II and a further 856 were transported to the West Indies and Virginia as indentured convicts (no better than slaves). The Old Courthouse is in Fore Street and is hidden from view from the street. Historical evidence shows that the building was in existence around the 16th: / 17th: Centuries and was used as a court of justice. There can be heard the sound of a woman’s voice, alternating between whispering and laughing in one of the rooms which is accompanied by the more forceful and menacing voice of a man who appears to be remonstrating with her.The ghost of a girl called Elizabeth has been seen walking through a room at the hotel and has been known to play with children who live there. Apparently she killed herself in 1845 by drinking poison as she did not want to end up being a prostitute like her mother and sister. There is a report that somebody was stabbed to death in one of the bedrooms and in the attic on occasion is the grisly apparition of a hanged man. On many occasions people sleeping in one of the bedrooms have seen a dark shape, hovering in the corner of the room and moving across the room towards the foot of the bed. Ethereal figures have been seen drifting about other parts of the hotel, objects that move of their own accord and doors that slam in the night, along with the ghostly figures of an elderly couple. A black cat has been seen in some of the rooms and also that of a ghostly woman. During the 1890’s a sealed room was found and opened up.

Set into the wall of an ancient fireplace is what appears to be an inverted tombstone, on which can be discerned a weathered inscription that looks like the name ‘Winnefrid’. It is said that anybody who attempts to take a picture of this mysterious relic using flash photography is destined to fail. The most sophisticated camera equipment has been known to malfunction and even if the flash does go off, the resulting images are either very foggy or else do not appear on the negative at all. During renovations to the pub the coffin of a dead bird was found behind the brickwork in the fireplace.

I have been interested in the ‘coffin’ since living in Yeovil between 1966 and 1968  and have at times wondered if the bird was that of a witch’s familiar? When the programme ‘Most Haunted’ was aired on 26 October 2004 they looked into the various stories but shone no new light onto them.

* My Sweetheart Haunts The Levels. – Sedgemoor was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion, by which the rebel James Scott, 1st: Duke of Monmouth, attempted to seize the English throne from his uncle James II of England.

After Monmouth landed from the Netherlands at Lyme Regis, there had been a series of marches and skirmishes throughout Dorset and Somerset. Eventually Monmouth’s poorly equipped army was pushed back to the Somerset Levels, becoming hemmed in at Bridgwater on 3 July 1685. He ordered his troops to fortify the town. The force was made up of around 3,500, mostly nonconformists, artisans and farm workers armed with farm tools (such as pitchforks).

The royalist troops, led by Louis de Duras, 2nd: Earl of Feversham and Colonel John Churchill, were camped behind the Bussex Rhine at Westonzoyland.

The Duke eventually led his untrained and ill-equipped troops out of Bridgwater at around 22:00 to undertake a night-time attack on the King’s army. They were guided by Richard Godfrey, the servant of a local farmer, along the Old Bristol Road towards Bawdrip. With their limited cavalry in the vanguard, they turned south along Bradney Lane and Marsh Lane, coming to the open moor with its deep and dangerous rhynes.
The superior training of the regular army and their horses routed the rebel forces by outflanking them. After the battle, about 500 of Monmouth’s troops were captured and imprisoned in St: Mary’s Parish Church, Westonzoyland, while others were hunted and shot in the ditches where they were hiding. More were hung from gibbets erected along the roadside. The Royalist troops were rewarded. Monmouth escaped from the battlefield with Grey and they headed for the south coast disguised as peasants. They were captured near Ringwood, Hampshire. Monmouth was taken to the Tower of London, where he was, after several blows of the axe, beheaded.

The king sent Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys (1st: Baron Jeffreys of Wem) to round up the Duke’s supporters throughout the South-West and try them in the ‘Bloody Assizes’ at Taunton Castle and elsewhere. About 1,300 people were found guilty, many being transported abroad, while some were executed by drawing and quartering. A verdict of guilty was given to Dame Alice Lisle, who was accused of harbouring rebels at her home, Moyles Court in Hampshire. The jury had found her innocent. But Jeffreys told them to change their verdict and she was beheaded. In many Dorset villages, neighbour had fought neighbour, causing much resentment for years after. In the small West Dorset village of Corscombe, Robert Fawn was hanged with twelve others. Azariah Pinney of Broadwindsor, Dorset, the son of John Pinney the local minister,  was sentenced to be deported for his part in the fighting. But because of his family’s prominent ‘position’ as landowners and lace makers he was given preferential treatment and transported to the West Indies as a free emigrant. Heddon Oak, near Crowcombe, is one of the trees still pointed out as a ‘Gallows Tree’. It is said that sometimes the clank of chains and gasps of choking men can be heard there. Another fugitive from the battle, John Plumley the Lord of Locking Manor escaped to his home and hid nearby, but his pet dog gave away his hiding place and he was also hanged. While the Great Hall at Taunton Castle echoes to the steady tramp of invisible boots, as unseen soldiers drag the hapless before the diabolical Judge. At Shute Barton in Devon, the ghost of a ‘grey lady’ wanders the gardens, some think she is the spirit of Lady de la Pole who was executed in the garden for being a Royalist during the English Civil War. The Old Vicarage Hotel, Bridgwater claims to have ghost soldiers from the Battle of Sedgemoor. Following the Battle of Sedgemoor authorities hanged a number of men at The George in Nunney. Their ghosts are still in residence and witnesses have seen them hanging from nooses.

Like many other battlefields in Britain, Sedgemoor has gathered its own folklore traditions and legends. A ghostly band of soldiers are said to haunt the area around King’s Sedgemoor Drain, phantom cavalry can be seen galloping across the moors, jumping the ditches and then disappearing into the mists, shouts and screams of men, gunshots, the sound of horses hooves and neighing, ghostly cries of ‘Come on over and fight!’ float across the landscape near the River Carey – a local tradition recorded in 1890 and later mentioned by Ruth Tongue in her book ‘Somerset Folklore’ published in 1965, the ghost of a man wearing a mud-splattered brown coat staggering to where he died, even Monmouth is said to appear on the anniversary of the battle, seen making his escape, stooped and slinking over the land as he fled the field of battle in dishonour. Monmouth actually managed to escape the battle with his life but was captured a few days later hiding in a ditch. Battle weary and defeated, men can be heard singing hymns to try and boost their morale.

But the most poignant legend is that of a local lad fighting with Monmouth’s army, who was captured after the battle. He was famed throughout Somerset as an exceptional runner and to amuse themselves his captors told him that his life would be spared if he could outrun a horse. With his local knowledge he picked the most sodden, waterlogged area. Rising to the task, he managed to beat their finest horse which became bogged down. This remarkable feat of athleticism was not to save his life however, for after the race he was put to the sword just the same, his captors reigning on their promise to spare his life. His sweetheart was so devastated by the news of her lovers death that she drowned herself in the shallow waters of the Levels, her ghost remaining to haunt the Levels gliding along the path of the race, while the heavy breathing of the runner can be heard over hoofbeats on the turf. Or it might be just the sighing of the wind over the grasses.

The ‘Battle of Sedgemoor Stone of Remembrance’ states, ‘To the glory of God and in memory of all those who doing the right as they gave it fell in the battle of Sedgemoor 6th: July 1685’.

* Sally In The Woods. – Near the village of Bathford you will find a road which many locals are reluctant to drive down – especially at night. Known as ‘Sally in the Wood’, the road cuts through Browne’s Folly, on the Farleigh Rise, a patch of woodland supposedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered girl. Many say that the birds in the woods can not sing and the road through it has garnered a local reputation as a dangerous place to drive after dark. Drivers have reported hearing a child’s scream from the darkness of the woods and some swear they have seen the ghost of a young girl, dressed in white, running out into the road.

Legend has it that Sally, a murdered girl, haunts the woods at night, causing crashes on the unlit stretch of road when she ventures out from between the trees. For terrified locals, the ghost story is all too real – and it is not uncommon for drivers to refuse to pass through the woods once the sun has set. The story of ‘Sally in the Wood’ centres on a sinister tower in Browne’s Folly, where Sally, a gypsy girl, was supposedly imprisoned in the 19th: Century. Locked up without food and water, the girl was left to die in the tower. They say the murdered child became a ghost, restlessly roaming the woods at night and often straying out into the unlit stretch of road which cuts through it. Driving past, many claim to have heard crying sounds coming from the tower and they say that even birds avoid the pitch-black darkness of Browne’s Folly, which was built in 1845 by Colonel Wade Browne, the squire of Monkton Farleigh Manor, to provide employment during an agricultural recession. It replaced a semaphore tower which had previously stood on the site.

A second tale sees Sally as a real person, who spent much of her time in a little hut in the woods and was believed by local children to be a witch. The real-life Sally (Sarah) Gibson, nee Webb, – baptised at nearby Monkton Farleigh in 1732 , married a gamekeeper, John Gibson, from Warleigh Manor in 1762 and died at the age of 100 according to local records. Sally used to ask the carters going down the hill towards Bathford, if they would fetch her shopping sometimes. If they forgot, something would go wrong for them. If they refused, their horses stopped altogether on the way back and refused to move. Henry Duncan Skrine of Warleigh Manor, who was a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lieutenant of Somerset in the 19th: Century, recalled his childhood memories of Sarah Gibson in which she was accounted a witch. ‘Her smoke-dried hut was like an awful cave to us children, and her thin shrill sepulchral voice still rings in my ears. At her death the carpenter who acted as sub-bailiff burned the cottage down, and declared to us children that he saw something on a broomstick go out of the chimney’! (Howells, 2010).

A Civil War element to the origin of the name has also been suggested. It relates to a skirmish that took place before the Battle of Lansdown on 5 July 1643 when the Roundheads were ambushed by the Royalists. ‘Waller had made a temporary bridge across the Avon below Claverton, and crossed his troops by it to the Monkton Farleigh side, where they laid an ambush for their opponents, ‘in the Woodland-wald-grownd in the foote of the hill’’. The following day a fight appears to have begun and continued up to Monkton Farleigh and over to Batheaston. The term ‘sally’ at that time had the meaning of ‘a sudden rush out from a besieged place upon the enemy’. While at Court Farm, Longwell Green in Gloucestershire  there is the tale of ‘Sally On The Barn’ which also has associations with the English Civil War.

But, naturally, it is not the other two stories which have really captured local imaginations. Instead, it is the ghostly legend of a murdered child which has lead to the roads infamy in that part of the woods. Car crashes, spooky sightings and screams from the darkness only add to the story, with the tale passed down locally from generation to generation.

‘Sally in the Wood’ was a great secret. Nobody was meant to know she was there at all. Which is why she became so well-known and yet such a mystery.

Sally may be long dead. But chilling stories of her legacy live on.

*  Walk By Day And Not By Night. – The most spectacular hill in Yeovil is Summerhouse Hill on the immediate southern edge of the town – the summit stands at 353 feet. On the summit is the ‘Summer House’, also known as the ‘Round House’, which was built by the Harbin family of Newton Surmaville, who owned the hill. In 1897 a huge underground reservoir was constructed on the top of Summerhouse Hill. The landscape on the right is diversified by Newton Copse, the property of George Harbin, Esq:, which intersects with Newton Road, leading from Yeovil to the villages of Stoford and Barwick.

Our story lies within Newton Copse. A footpath runs parallel with the road through the middle of the thickly planted trees, except in one part, where there is apparently a natural avenue leading from the top of the hill to the road beneath and crossing the footpath at right angles. This avenue is wide enough to allow a carriage and four horses to drive along it. Now overgrown, it does not look as if it was ever used as a road or way, because of it being so steep anyone attempting to drive down it would come to grief. Nevertheless, it is called ‘Devil’s Drive’. It is said that no trees would ever grow on the land which forms the avenue, because the devil and his kindred spirits were often seen at certain hours of the night driving down over it, but more especially at the witching hour when churchyards yawn. Writing in ‘Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (Vol: 3) December 1892, pp, 130 – 131’, ‘G.F.R.’ tells about one of the townsmen who was walking through the copse in the middle of the night, when he suddenly met with the Devil and his spirits taking their usual drive. Not only was the man alarmed at such a spectacle but also the spirits did not like the interruption. The Devil turned on the intruder and in angry tones said:

‘Walk by day and not by night,
And let the spirits take their flight’.

Whether the frightened townsman profited by this, we shall never know.


The Green Man and Sheela-na-Gig In Somerset.

* The Green Man. – The biggest collection of images regarding the Green Man can be discovered in Devon and Somerset and on the edge of the great forests of Yorkshire and the Midlands. It could be that these images represent the God of the Woods, the Life Spirit, the Spirit of Death and Resurrection and as an image, the Green Man has his counterpart in one of the oldest English Folk images, the Corn or Barley God whose beginnings stretch back to the camps of the Neolithic farmers. The folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ details the suffering, death and resurrection of Barleycorn, yet also celebrates the ‘reviving effects of drinking his blood’. The Green Man has other manifestations in ‘Jack in the Green’, the character who dances ahead of the ‘May Queen’ in May Day processions at Hastings and Knutsford. A lord of misrule figure, he may also be linked to ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Robin Goodfellow’ and ‘Puck’. The Green Man is a recurring theme in literature, as in the Green Knight in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ – a late 14th: Century chivalric romance. The author is unknown. While Grahame (‘The Wind In The Willows. Depicted as a natural deity) and Tolkien (‘The Lord Of The Rings’. ‘Ents’ which closely resembled trees) carried variants into modern fantasy literature and he also appears in popular music from Jethro Tull to XTC and yet surprisingly, the name dates back only to 1939, when it was used by Lady Raglan in her article ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’, published in the ‘Folklore’ journal of March 1939. The article concludes: ‘This figure I am convinced, is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it could have been taken’.

He appears in many churches in Somerset, where the tradition of the Green Man being carved on to Christian churches existed not only here in Britain, where the image of the Green Man enjoyed a revival in the 19th: Century, but also across Europe.

Below is a list of some of the churches where he can be found:-

St: John the Baptist, Axbridge, a 15th: Century church. One of the Victorian choir stalls has a small and distinct face among the leaves. In the north aisle, there is a medieval wooden ceiling where there are two more foliate heads, one mischievous, the other stern. At St: Andrew, Cheddar, a foliate head on a choir stall. In the ceiling is a different Green Man, heavily gilded, even menacing, with ears of a deer or goat, issuing a tumbled profusion of leaves and fruit and twigs. St Margaret’s, Spaxton, dates from the 13th: Century and has three green men, two on the font and one on a bench end. While St: Cuthbert, Wells, has foliate heads carved into the Jacobean oak of the pulpit. Also in a window arch, a more primitive face, with a look of brooding intensity, oak leaves pouring from his mouth and nostrils.

At St: Mary the Virgin, Bishops Lydeard, there is a wooden carving of a Green Man. Green Men are on misericords in the choir stalls of Holy Trinity Church, Chantry. On a corbel in St: Bartholomew’s Church, Crewkerne, there is a Green Man. St: John the Baptist, Glastonbury, has a Green Man on one of the bosses in the ceiling of the Lady Chapel. All Saints Church, Lullington, the arches between nave and choir and between choir and chancel have archetypal Norman fantasy figures, including a Green Man. St: John the Baptist Church, Pilton, the most visible carvings are located on the spandrels of the roof and include a ‘green man’ with a protruding tongue and foliage emerging from his mouth. At the church in Queen Camel, a grotesque green man is framed in vine leaves and clusters of grapes. There is also a Green Man on a roof boss in St: Mary’s Church, Yatton.

In the Church of the Holy Ghost, Crowcombe, there are carved 16th: Century bench ends, probably carved in 1534 (the date appears on one of the benches). The carvings cover a wide range of subjects, from ornate Gothic tracery to mermaids, fruit, foliage, heraldic symbols and three traditional Green Man symbols. Green Men can be found on bench ends at Holy Trinity, Burrington, Dunster Church and St: Bartholomew’s Church, East Lyng, also at St: Michael’s, Brent Knoll, Culbone Church and Downside Abbey Church, Stratton-on-the-Fosse. Rumour has it that Wells Cathedral contains 44 Green Men.

In 2012, Bristol Water found a piece of horse furniture known as the ‘green man’ from excavations on Axbridge Moor during a £1.3million water pipe upgrade.

But who is this Green Man?

Roman artists and sculptors first developed composite figures as well as complex carvings of life-like intertwined vegetation and Dionysus is often considered one of the most likely precursors to the Green Man of the Middle Ages, especially given his usual portrayal as leaf-crowned lord of the wilderness, nature and agriculture. Early medieval Christianity adopted much of the symbolism of the Dionysian rites and mystery religions and many of its architectural techniques were borrowed from Roman and Byzantine models. At the same time, another parallel influence in Western Europe was the Celtic ‘cult of the head’ – (the particular reverence the Celts had for portrayals of the human head, based on the belief that the head is the repository of the soul) – and also the Celtic veneration of sacred trees. Gradually,  over a period from roughly the 6th: to 11th: Century, a bridge was laid between the Green Man’s apparently pagan origins and the new context of Christian art and he imperceptibly became absorbed into Christian iconography. The use of the image of the Green Man allowed a relatively safe nod towards the old practices, while at the same time bringing it under the umbrella of the new Church. It is primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of growth each spring.

The Green Man appears in many forms, with the three most common types categorised as:-

The Foliate Head: completely covered in green leaves.
The Disgorging Head: spews vegetation from its mouth.
The Bloodsucker Head: sprouts vegetation from all facial orifices (e.g. tear ducts, nostrils and mouth).

Superficially the Green Man would appear to be pagan, perhaps a fertility figure or a nature spirit, similar to the woodwose – the wild man of the woods – and yet he frequently appears, carved in wood or stone, in churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals, where examples can be found dating through to the 20th: Century. For many modern Pagans, the Green Man is used as a symbol of seasonal renewal and ecological awareness.  While in Wicca, the Green Man has often been used as a representation of the Horned God, a syncretic deity that appropriates aspects of, among others, the Celtic Cernunnos.

‘Please to dance round for the one called the Greenman
He wants to make you his child
Please to dance round for the one called the Greenman
Dressed in the fruits of the wild’

(‘Greenman’ – Andy Partridge).

The Green Man is deeply rooted in folklore, as an environmental guardian. Maybe he can show the modern world how to manage climate change?

* Sheela-na-Gig. – Sheela-na-Gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are architectural grotesques found all over Europe on cathedrals, castles and other buildings, although usually found on Norman or to be more precise Romanesque churches. The highest concentrations can be found in Ireland, Great Britain, France and Spain, sometimes together with male figures. There are 118 recorded in England, Scotland and Wales alone. ‘The Saxon Idol’ at Holy Cross Church, Binstead, is the oldest recorded name for a sheela-na-gig predating John O’Donovan’s ‘Sheela ny gigg’ by 59 years. It is mentioned in 1781 in ‘The History of the Isle of Wight’ by R. Worsley and mentioned again in 1795 by J.Albin in ‘A New, Correct and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight’. At one time, there were 140 in Britain and Ireland, since then, more than 20 have gone missing and others are in museums. Barbara Freitag claims that they were only discovered approximately 178 years ago, (1844), in her article ‘Sheela-na-Gigs’.

The carvings may have been used to ward off death, evil and demons. Other grotesques, such as gargoyles and hunky punks (hunky punks are often short squatting figures typical of those found in some Somerset churches, however hunky punks come in many shapes and sizes mostly in middle to late medieval buildings onwards. Some theories consider that the balance of good and evil created in church design was to remind worshippers that the narrow path they tread was present in everything. This meant that for every good and benign creature such as a saint or an animal to signify purity, there had to be an opposite to bring out the fear of evil. The origin of the term hunky punk has been ascribed to the old English ‘hunkers’ which means haunches and ‘punchy’ which means short-legged), were frequently part of church decorations all over Europe. It is commonly said that their purpose was to keep evil spirits away. They are often positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings. Another theory is that  the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion. The goddess in question is usually identified as Celtic, the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology. In Gaelic mythology the Cailleach is a divine hag, a creator deity, a weather deity and an ancestor deity. In modern Scottish folklore studies she is also known as Beira, Queen of Winter. The word literally means ‘old woman, hag’. The phrase ‘sheela-na-gig’ is said to be a term for a hag or old woman. In Scotland, Cailleach is credited with making numerous mountains and large hills, which are said to have been formed when she was striding across the land and accidentally dropped rocks from her creel or wicker basket. In other cases she is said to have built the mountains intentionally, to serve as her stepping stones. She carries a hammer for shaping the hills and valleys and is said to be the mother of all the goddesses and gods. The Cailleach displays several traits befitting the personification of winter: she herds deer, she fights spring and her staff freezes the ground.

To give examples of local sheela-na-gigs below:-

Dating from the 12th: Century and dedicated to St: Mary the Virgin, previously dedicated to St: Denis, the church at East Stoke, Stoke-sub-Hamdon has strange carvings around the outside, corbels, gargoyles and sheela-na-gigs, while inside shows various medieval carvings including abstract corbels, an astrological tympanum with the symbols of Sagittarius and Leo and St: Michael slaying the dragon. The figure can be found on the left side of the church as you enter from the main gate. Walk past the tower and you should find a series of Romanesque corbels. At first glance the figure is unremarkable, just a face staring out from a squatting body. However when you go directly beneath the figure you can clearly see a cleft indicating either buttocks or a vagina. Unfortunately it is hard to ascertain from the carving which it is meant to be. There also seems to be some indication of hands pulling the cleft apart but this is also not very clear. The other sheela-na-gig is around the back of the church on the south side and can be easily missed.

In ‘Roof Bosses in Medieval Churches: An Aspect of Gothic sculpture’byCharlesJohn Philip Cave, published in 1948, he mentions ‘two sheilas of an unusual type’ at Wells Cathedral, sadly the carvings appear to be of a later style and not sheela-na-gigs.

Others can be found displayed on the outside of parish churches at Fiddington and Clevedon. There is also one at Donyatt on the Manor House, but this is not accessible to the public. While at Ansford the figure is located on the gate post of a private house.

‘Look at these, my child-bearing hips
Look at these, my ruby red ruby lips . . . .
Sheela-na-Gig, Sheela-na-Gig
You exhibitionist’.


(‘Sheela-na-Gig’ – Polly Jean Harvey).

Are Sheela-na-Gigs the female counterpart of the Green Man? Where Sheela-na-Gigs and Green Men do exist in the same church there is no evidence to suggest that they are connected in any way. Centaurs, lions and cats’ heads are also fairly common motifs on Romanesque churches but no one suggests that they are connected. It would be safer to say that sheelas are the counterpart of the phallic males figures found in the same context. The Green Man’s female counterpart is the Green Woman which is far less common, being rather harder to adapt to Christian iconography or Victorian decoration.

Ley Lines & Secret Tunnels.

* Ley Lines. – Ley lines – criss-cross the landscape of England – or earth-dragon energies which are apparent alignments of landmarks, religious sites and man-made structures. The belief that these apparent lines are not accidental speculates that they are straight navigable paths and have spiritual significance. The phrase was coined in 1921 by the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins, who identified apparent alignments of places of geographical and historical interest, such as ancient monuments, ridge-tops and fords, particularly in his book ‘The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones’ which was first published in 1925 and referred to GH. Piper’s paper presented to the ‘Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club’ in 1882. While believers argue that these alignments were recognised by ancient societies who had deliberately erected structures along them. During the 1960’s, Watkins’ ideas were revived in altered form by British proponents of the countercultural Earth Mysteries movement. In 1961, Tony Wedd put forward the belief that ley lines were established by prehistoric communities to guide alien spacecraft. This view was promoted to a wider audience in the books of John Michell, particularly his 1969 work The View Over Atlantis’, which has almost become the founding document of modern earth mysteries. Michell associated them with spiritual and mystical theories about alignments of landforms, drawing on the Chinese concept of feng shui – originating from China, which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. – He believed that a mystical network of ley lines existed across Britain. Archaeologists note that there is no evidence that ley lines were a recognised phenomenon among ancient European societies and that attempts to draw them typically rely on linking together structures that were built in different historical periods. Archaeologists and statisticians have demonstrated that a random distribution of a sufficient number of points on a plane will inevitably create alignments of random points purely by chance. Sceptics have also stressed that the esoteric idea of earth energies running through ley lines has not been scientifically verified, But belief remains an article of faith for its believers within forms of modern Paganism.

Ley lines belong to lore rather than science – energetic pathways that criss-cross the country. The ancient coastline features strongly and still forms the boundary of the periodically flooding drained wetlands of the Somerset Levels. The many ancient sites on the Mendip escarpment seem to function as a somewhat separate system from the sites orbiting Glastonbury. The overall drift of alignments on the Mendips runs from Salisbury Plain to South Wales, in an ESE – WNW direction. Yet the Mendip sites, and the impressive Stanton Drew Stone Circle, just south of Bristol, are nevertheless connected to Glastonbury by alignment. Glastonbury’s pattern is radial, while that of the Mendips is more linear and criss-cross. Some alignments begin at Glastonbury and others pass through it. Glastonbury is one point on the long-distance ‘Mary Michael Line’ – England’s most famous Ley Line which runs for 350 miles. A sacred union of the feminine and masculine. But, is it real? – passing from Cornwall to Avebury and beyond to Norfolk. This line is almost aligned along the long axis of the top of the Tor.

The ‘Michael Line’ is masculine in its energy, straight with focus and direction, aligned with the midsummer sun, the time of year when the sun is at its most potent and masculine. It does not curve, or waver. But is like a sword, touching down on Earth on the top of the highest hills and mounds, with intensity and conviction. The ‘Mary Line’ is feminine in its essence. She weaves and follows the curves of the land, rivers and waters, snaking through and around the valleys and hills. Soft, curvy, round and flowing. Never leaving the Earth and is actually part of the Earth, connected to the curves and undulations, perhaps even contributing to its formation. This line carries the serpent energy of the goddess. When the two lines intersect, the power and the potency is even more visceral and strong. The Mary energy grounds and pulls the divine Michael energy of the brilliant light of the Sun to Earth wherever she connects with him, giving him the form and container in which to catalyse with light and energy the form, matter and physicality of the Earth. The Michael energy infuses the sacred Mary feminine energy with the light from the sun and stars, to receive and infuse the warmth of the sun into her belly of her soils, caves, oceans and rivers and hold and contain the life created within her. Together, they create, generate and manifest rich, abundant life through love and sacred union.

To give a smaller example of a ley line:- Starting at St: Nicholas’ Church, Brockley then SSE over Cleeve Hill towards Holy Trinity Church, Burrington – which stands on the site of an earlier church, passing through the Neolithic henge at Gorsey Bigbury, towards Westbury Beacon Camp, through Yarley crossroads, over Callow Hill to Glastonbury Tor which is surmounted by a basically 14th: Century tower, all that remains of St: Michael’s Chapel, an earlier version of which was destroyed in a 13th: Century earthquake. Terraces running around the Tor are believed by some to be the remnants of a three-dimensional maze used for initiatory or ceremonial purposes. If this is the case, then the Tor may be Caer Sidi, the abode of Ceridwen, the enchantress possessing the cauldron of poetic inspiration. Finally to St: Leonards’ Church at Butleigh, where the first church that was built here is said to have been of a Saxon structure and by 1203 it was certainly a well-established parish.

* Secret Tunnels. – While many cities, towns and villages in England lay claim to having hidden tunnels or passages which are a common element of the local folklore tradition in Somerset. Such tunnels are said to link prominent places such as country houses, castles, churches, ancient monuments and other, often medieval, buildings. Legends about the existence of secret tunnels usually involve improbably long subterranean passages, sometimes running under major obstacles such as rivers and lakes to reach their destinations. Religious buildings, monks and the landed gentry are particularly common elements in many tunnel stories. It is unlikely that many of the recorded tunnels exist physically, for this is a characteristic of their very nature; their significance lies in the number of similar legends of tunnels that have arisen and in connection with the more esoteric notions of channels or paths of earth energy. Perhaps they were used as secret passageways by the lord of the manor to meet his lovers without being spotted. Or maybe they were secret networks used by smugglers so they could move ill-gotten wares around the town undetected by law enforcement. Whatever the reasons behind their creation, there’s plenty of evidence to confirm their existence.

The tunnels in Bridgwater were believed to have been built in the 18th: Century, beneath the site where the castle once stood. There are two theories about the tunnels – with some people believing they were smugglers’ tunnels used to transport products sneakily from the river to people’s homes, while others believe they are simply 18th: Century sewers.

Stories about a network of tunnels that run beneath the ancient town of Frome which was established in about 685 by St: Oldham are legion – passed down from generation to generation. Some are said to be waterways. Others stem from the industrial revolution and then there are escape tunnels linking Frome with outlying villages or stately homes like Longleat.

There are several tunnel legends associated with Glastonbury Abbey. The most famous tale is about a tunnel from Glastonbury Abbey to the Tor. At one time some thirty monks were rumoured to have entered the Tor via this tunnel, but only three came out again. Two were insane and one was struck dumb. Another widely believed legend is that of a long-distance tunnel leading from the crypt of the Lady (or Galilee) Chapel, under the River Brue to a distant point, possibly to the village of Street, where a passage exists from an outlying building in the grounds of the old manor house. A dog is said to have been put into the tunnel at Street and found its way out at the Glastonbury end. A tunnel is also said to run from the George Hotel to a point within the abbey walls.  As the hotel was built about 1470, in the time of Edward IV, by Abbot Selwood, the tunnel could have been used for secret access to the abbey by pilgrims staying at the inn. The fourth and last legend is of a tunnel from the Abbey to the church of St: Michael on the Tor with a series of interconnecting tunnels beneath the Tor. These tunnels were investigated by F. Bligh Bond circa 1916.

Perhaps the best known of the tunnels in Taunton is the one between the old jail and Shire Hall – now the Crown Court. It was used to transport prisoners between the jail, police station and the courts and is rumoured to be more or less still passable today. While St: Margaret’s Almshouses,  which started out as a leper hospital in the 12th: Century where diseased locals were locked away. The building is said to have featured secret underground tunnels to transport the dead to a nearby cemetery.

There are a number of stories of secret tunnels from the Bishop’s Palace, Wells Cathedral and other old buildings such as the Swan Hotel all being interlinked – but this has not been proven.

Everyone has theories about tunnels running beneath Yeovil, from one between St: John’s crypt and the cellar of The Green Room in Wine Street – but sadly there are no signs of it in either place. In fact, there are no mentions of any tunnels beneath Yeovil in any written records, other than ‘catacombs’ for burial under the Baptist Chapel in South Street.

There seems to be no similarity between Ley Lines and Secret Tunnels, one was for travelling overground using certain markers to aid in getting from A to B. Whereas the other was a means of moving about without being seen.

Are Secret Tunnels and Ley Tunnels the same? Legends about the existence of Ley Tunnels involve usually improbably long subterranean passages, sometimes running under major obstacles such as rivers and lakes to reach their destinations. Religious buildings, monks and the landed gentry are a particularly common element in many of the ley tunnel stories. It is unlikely that most of the recorded Ley Tunnels actually exist; their significance lies in why so many similar legends have arisen and have their connection with the more esoteric notions of channels or paths of earth energy.

For example:-

Some castles did have escape tunnels. Other tunnels are products of an excessive desire for personal privacy, while another type of Ley Tunnel allowed for the supposed free and secret movement of monks, abbots and other ecclesiastics who may have had cause to keep a low profile for fear of attack or abusive treatment during periods of unrest. – (See the story regarding the Glastonbury tunnels above). Smugglers at times avoided the excise man through what are often simply just drains, sewers or water supply conduits. Some genuine smugglers’ tunnels do seem to exist however. Many legends are associated with the actual and supposed activities of the Knights Templar and this is a rich vein for stories about tunnels connecting together the various properties that the order used to possess in the 12th: Century. They held land at Templecombe, the Preceptory served as an administrative centre for the lands held by the Templars in the South West of England and Cornwall in 1185, A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 2’ edited by William Page, 1911. It may also have been used to train men and horses for the Crusades. Along with several other locations in Somerset including Cameley / Temple Cloud  and Haydon Grange near Priddy. Almeric St: Maur held land at Cameley and was the master of the Knights Templar from 1200 – 1218. It is possible that Kingston Seymour was included in the Chewton Hundred through links to the Knights Templar or the St: Maur family and Hazel Manor may have been paying tithes to Chewton Mendip because of a link to the Knights Templar. However, the Knights Templar were suppressed at the beginning of the 14th: Century and it is possible the Carthusians took over some of their land in the Mendips. But, the records show the Knights Hospitaller took over the lands that were confiscated from the Knights Templar. While Freud, Jung and others have psychological interpretations of the symbolic meanings of tunnels and these have a part to play in the origins of Ley Tunnel myths.


Old Customs and Song.

* Wassailing. – The purpose of wassailing is to awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in autumn. The ceremonies of each wassail varied from village to village but they generally all had the same core elements. A ‘Wassail King and Queen’ led the song and / or processional tune played or sung from one orchard to the next. The ‘Wassail Queen’ would then be lifted up into the boughs of the tree where she would place toast soaked in Wassail from the ‘Clayen Cup’ as a gift to the tree spirits (and to show the fruits created the previous year). Nineteenth-century wassailers of Somerset would sing the following lyrics after drinking the cider.

‘Apple tree, apple tree, we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and to blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sack fills,
Hip, Hip, Hip, hurrah,
Holler biys, holler hurrah’.

(From ‘Reminiscences of Life in the parish of Street’ 1909. Written by William Pursey).

This incantation was followed by noise-making from the assembled crowd until the gunsmen gave a final volley through the branches.

A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the ‘Apple Tree Man’, the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard and in whom the fertility of the orchard is thought to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the ‘Apple Tree Man’ who reveals to him the location of buried gold. (Briggs and Tongue (1965). ‘Folktales of England’.

A historic wassail is held annually at Carhampton on 17 January, or Old Twelfth Night and there is a ‘revival’ wassail at Clevedon.

* Church Clipping. – The word ‘clypping’ is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and is derived from the word ‘clyp-pan’, meaning ‘embrace’ or ‘clasp’. Little is known about the history of clypping, though most historians agree the custom is very ancient and probably pre-Christian. It is thought to have originated as a Pagan custom with the purpose of creating a magical chain against the powers of evil. The dance almost always ended with a huge shout and often a rush to a central point or more usually with a circle a contraction of it as far as possible, which was supposed to drive away the devil  for another year. There is an old couplet associated with Rode Fair, but possibly originating from ‘clypping’ the church.

‘Road revel, Beckington rout,
The Devil’s in Frome and cannot get out’.

After the arrival of Christianity, these actions developed into a ceremony, traditionally held on Easter Monday or Shrove Tuesday, to renew faith and commitment to God, by forming a circle around the Church, holding hands, and singing. At one time It was performed widely across the country and was thought to have been revived in the 19th: Century, when the earliest known mention of it was described in ‘The Every-day Book’ – Hone, 1825.

‘Clypping’ the church continues to the present day at Rode. The modern ceremony usually takes place following a service in the church. The whole congregation (and other villagers) hold hands in an inward-facing ring around the church. Once the circle is completed the participants dance to the left and right, then rush inwards with a loud cheer. Following the ceremony there are sometimes an informal gathering with refreshments. The last ‘clypping’ took place on 12 September 2010.

* The Maypole and the May Queen. – Held on 1 May, the earliest reference to a maypole appears in a 15th: Century poem attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer called ‘Chaunce of the Dice’, where reference was made to the permanent maypole at Cornhill in London.

The maypole was always the focal point of village dancing, but in its earliest incarnation the tradition involved no plaited ribbons. Instead the maypole was brightly decorated with spring flowers and surviving illustrations show adult dancers holding hands in a circle around the pole.

The first documented plaited-ribboned maypole appeared not on a village green, but on stage in JT. Haine’s play ‘Richard Plantagenet’ at the Victoria Theatre, London, in 1836. This new interpretation of the maypole dance was copied across the country, with regional variances.

Maypole dancing and the ‘May Queen’ often went hand in hand. These ‘traditions’ both underwent a renaissance in the Victorian period, and were reimagined as the ultimate representation of rustic peasantry, based on ideas of a bygone ‘golden age’. The idea of the ‘May Queen’, usually a young girl dressed in robes and ‘crowned’ as part of the festivities, gathered pace throughout the 19th: Century, fuelled by the Victorians’ remodelling of British customs. Poems such as Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The May Queen’ (1833) and George Daniel’s ‘Merrie England in the Olden Time’ (1842) advocated the maypole as a symbol of social unity. 

* Minehead Hobby Horse. – The ‘Minehead Hobby Horse’ custom was first recorded in 1830. The folklorist EC. Cawte suggested that the ‘Minehead Hobby Horse’ custom may originally have been conducted around Christmas time before being transposed to May Day. (31 May). As evidence, he noted that the majority of hobby horse customs in Britain – such as the ‘Mari Lwyd’ in southern Wales and the ‘Hoodening’ of Kent – were associated with Christmas.

Up until 1913, there was only one recorded hobby horse in active use within the local area. The tradition was temporarily halted during the First World War, although in that period some local children made their own variant of the hobby horse. During the 1920’s a second horse was reported as being in use, known as the ‘Dunster Horse’; Cawte thought that this was likely a copy of that at Minehead. Cawte also found two independent witnesses who reported that in living memory there had been a hobby horse custom at nearby Woodcombe.

The second horse was incorporated into the custom during the 1960’s, initially known as the ‘Alcombe Horse’ after Alcombe, where it was housed. In 1967 the ‘Alcombe Horse’ troupe introduced a team of ‘Gullivers’, and in 1973 they painted the words ‘Minehead Horse’ on the side of the hobby horse. ‘Ritual Animal Disguise: A Historical and Geographical Study of Animal Disguise in the British Isles’. EC. Cawte. 1978.

As of the 1970’s, there was a second horse known as the ‘Town Horse’, which was owned by a man known as L. Pidgeon who lived in Alcombe; this hobby horse was brought to dance outside of the Hobby Horse Hotel. In 1974, Patten stated that there had been a third hobby horse, the ‘Dunster Horse’, which had ‘died out’ about fifty years previously but which had recently been revived In the 1970’s, Patten also observed that the tradition ‘does not appear to have altered in essentials’ from its early accounts. ‘Exmoor Custom and Song’. RW. Patten. 1974.

*  The Midsummer Letting At Congresbury And Puxton. – A curious custom is recorded by Thomas Collinson, in his 1791 ‘History of the County of Somerset’ where he describes a unique custom that was celebrated on the Saturday before Old Midsummer Day (5 July) in the parishes of Congresbury and Puxton. TF. Thistleton-Dwyer (1878) ‘British Popular Customs’ records that:

‘At two large pieces of common land, called East and West Dolemoors. These, were divided into single acres, each bearing a peculiar and different mark cut on the turf, such as a horn, four oxen and a mare, two oxen and a mare, pole-axe, cross, dung-fork, oven, duck’s nest, hand reel, and hare’s tail. On the Saturday before Old Midsummer Day, several proprietors of estates in the parishes of Congresbury, Puxton, and Week St: Lawrence, or their tenants, assembled on the commons. A number of apples were previously prepared, marked in the same manner with the before-mentioned acres, which were distributed by a young lad to each of the commoners from a bag or hat. At the close of the distribution, each person repaired to his allotment as his apple directed him, and took possession for the ensuing year. An adjournment then took place to the house of the overseer of Dolemoors (an officer annually elected from the tenants), where four acres, reserved for the purpose of paying expenses, were let by inch of candle, and the remainder of the day was spent in sociability and hearty mirth’.

The origins of this custom are unclear. FW. Weaver wrote in ‘Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries. Volume 12. September 1910’ that these carvings may be Saxon in origin. Quoting Frederick Seebohm’s ‘English Village Community’, one of the Laws of Ine:

‘If ceoris have common meadow or other land divided into strips (gedal land) to fence and some have fenced their strip (doel) and some have not,’ Seebohm remarks that ‘There is here in the smallest possible compass the most complete evidence that in the seventh century the fields of Wessex were common open fields the arable being divided into acres and the meadows into doles, and as the system is incidentally mentioned as a thing existing as a matter of course, it is not likely to have been suddenly or recently introduced.  The evidence throws it back, therefore, at least to the earliest period of Saxon rule.’

Sadly when the moors were enclosed the custom was discontinued in 1811.

* Harvest Home. – ‘Harvest Homes’ started when farmers put on a meal with cider to thank the workers for bringing in the harvest and is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon. ‘Mark Harvest Home’ which is held at the beginning of August started in 1884. ‘The East Brent Harvest Home’ first took place on 3 September 1857 and is the oldest surviving, communal harvest home in Somerset. Today, it holds a ‘Parade of the Puddings’ at the end of August, while Wedmore has a ‘Harvest Home’ procession, led by the ‘Harvest Home King’, ‘Queen’ and ‘Princess’. Chew Stoke holds its ‘Harvest Home’ in September. At Hewish, Wick St: Lawrence and Puxton the three villages come together for a ‘Harvest Home’ which started in 1873. The ‘Harvest Home’ at Lympsham stopped after the Second World War and has recently been resurrected. Burtle’s ‘Harvest Home’ stopped many years ago.

* Triscombe Revel. – At Triscombe a large celebration traditionally held on the last Sunday of August. It was associated with harvest time and peak whortleberry season. A local band would play and folk songs would be sung and traditional country dances danced. Songs known to have been sung were, ‘The Old Grey Mare’ and ‘Farewell, Farewell, My Own Dear Love’ Between dances it was traditional to eat whortleberry tart with cream.

* St: Bartholomew’s Street Fair. – ‘Crewkerne’s Charter Fair’, (‘St: Bartholomew’s Street Fair’), is an annual event held in Crewkerne on the first Friday and Saturday of September.

‘St: Bartholomew’s Street Fair’ dates back to Saxon times (519 – 1066) and the major traders’ market was recorded in the ‘Domesday Book’ of 1086.  The Fair is reputed to have been granted its Charter (a right granted by the King to hold a major annual regional market on the town’s streets over the specified dates) in the time of Henry III (1207 – 1272).  The earliest surviving court record was made in 1280. The fun fair dates from at least 1861. As Somerset’s last surviving street fair, it once heralded the start of the regions ‘Mop Fairs’. – At the end of employment people would attend the ‘Mop Fair’ dressed in their Sunday best clothes and carrying an item signifying their trade. A servant with no particular skills would carry a mop head – hence the phrase ‘Mop Fair’.

Close to Crewkerne was the much fabled ‘Whitedown Hill Fair’ which was established in 1361 and was held on the Whit Monday and Tuesday. ‘The profits being taken by Richard Cogan and Elizabeth of Clevedon, lady of Cricket Manor’. (AP. Baggs and RJE. Bush. ‘Parishes: Cricket St:. Thomas’, in ‘A History of the County of Somerset: Volume 4’. ed. RW Dunning. (1978)).

* Punkie Night.

‘It’s Punkie Night tonight
It’s Punkie Night tonight
Adam and Eve would not believe
It’s Punkie Night tonight’.

(Children’s Song).

No one knows how the custom originated, although it is almost certainly linked with Hallowe’en – which dates from 1745 and is of Christian origin – and similar traditions can be found across the West Country. As Morrell (1977) explains, the word ‘Punkie’ is an old English name for a lantern and ‘jack o’lanterns’ for Punkie Night may be made of swedes or mangel-wurzels rather than pumpkins. An alternative explanation of the term is that it is derived from pumpkin or punk, meaning tinder. Cooper and Sullivan (1994) attribute the custom’s origins to a fair which was at one time held at Chiselborough. Men who would come back late from the fair would often need candles as lights to guide them home, in late October, which, as Cooper and Sullivan explain, would lead either to women making a jack o’lantern for their husbands, or men making the jack o’lantern, according to different versions of the story.

Morrell explains how, in earlier times, farmers would put a traditional ‘Punkie’ on their gates to ward off evil spirits at this time of year.

As Cooper and Sullivan (1994) explain, this relates to the tradition of children begging for candles on this night and threatening people who refused to give them anything Cooper and Sullivan also explain how a ‘Punkie King’ and a ‘Punkie Queen’ would typically lead the proceedings.

The festival has been celebrated at various sites including Castle Neroche in the Blackdown Hills. Long Sutton and more commonly, at Hinton St: George and the neighbouring village of Lopen.

* Burning The Ashen Faggot. – The ‘Ashen Faggot’ is an old English Christmas tradition similar to the ‘Yule Log’. Ash sticks are bound together with a series of green ash or hazel withies and placed on the fire. Each time a binding bursts, a round of drinks is ordered and perhaps a story told. Today this tradition survives in Dunster at the Luttrell Arms on Christmas Eve.

* Morris Dancing and Mumming Plays. – Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.

The earliest known and surviving English written mention of Morris dance is dated to 1448 and records the payment of seven shillings to Morris dancers by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. Further mentions of ‘Morris Dancing’ occur in the late 15th: Century and there are also early records such as visiting bishops ‘Visitation Articles’ which mention sword dancing, guising and other dancing activities, as well as ‘Mumming Plays’. In December 1657, a Frome resident complained to the county bench that he had been beaten up on the day of 26th: by a group who had been ‘drinking, playing cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits’. The earliest evidence of ‘Mummers’ Plays’ as they are known today is from the mid- to late 18th: Century, (1785 – 1789). ‘Mummers’ Plays’ should not be confused with the earlier ‘Mystery Plays’ and were performed at Christmas. Although James Woodforde saw ‘the fine Mummers’ at Ansford on 2 January 1769 but does not say what they did. One such play was in North Somerset between 1913 – 1916.

‘In come I old Father Christmas,
Welcome or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas
Will never be forgot’.

(See ‘The Mummers’ Play’ RJE. Tiddy. 1923).

The first reference to ‘Morris Dancing’ in Somerset was at Glastonbury in 1580, after which it was suppressed by the Puritans.

While the earliest records invariably mention “Morys” in a court setting and a little later in the Lord Mayors’ Processions in London, it had adopted the nature of a folk dance performed in the parishes by the mid:-17th: Century. However by the late 19th: Century and in the West Country at least, ‘Morris Dancing’ was fast becoming more a local memory than an activity. While Boxing Day 1899 is widely regarded as the starting point for the Morris revival.

Today, there are approximately 13 Morris Dance teams in Somerset with one Border Morris team at Glastonbury and there is also great variety shown in how Morris sides dress, from the predominantly white clothing of Cotswold sides to the tattered jackets worn by Border teams.

Blackface and disguise, often in a pagan themed context have their own history which intersects with morris tradition. There is evidence from the 1450’s onward of the blackening of faces with charcoal as a means to evade identification and in association with pagan themes. In the Kent and Essex Enclosure Riots of 1450 – 51 men cross-dressed as ‘Queen of the Fairies’. ‘Gender and Medieval Drama’. Katie Normington. (2004). Regardless of the historical basis for black face disguise in Border Morris, the practice has become increasingly controversial. On 3 July 2020, the Joint Morris Organisation issued a press statement to ‘The Daily Telegraph’ newspaper, stating:-

‘Our traditions do not operate in a vacuum. While no morris dancer wants to cause offence, we must recognise that full face black or other skin tone makeup is a practice that has the potential to cause deep hurt. 

Morris is a living tradition and it is right that it has always adapted and evolved to reflect society. Over the past few years, many morris teams have already proactively taken the decision to stop using full face black makeup to avoid causing offence or hurt. We now believe we must take further steps to ensure the continued relevance and inclusivity of the tradition. . . .’

* Peak Wina. – Worlebury Hill dominates the landscape with its Iron Age Hillfort and here there is also a fisherman’s cairn named ‘Peak Wina’, also called ‘Picwinnard’, as the fishermen walked by to tend their nets, they would throw stones onto the cairn and wish for a good catch saying, ‘Ina pic winna / Send me a good dinner’. (‘Somerset Folklore’ by Ruth Tongue (1965) and ‘Picwinnard. No: 3’ edited by Vince Russett (1978)). Ina was the King of Wessex (689 – 726) in Saxon times and at the suggestion of Bishop Aldhelm in 705, had a church built at Wells which later became Wells Cathedral and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ records he had a minster built at Glastonbury, which may refer to an additional building or rebuilding to the monastery already there.

* …. And Song. – Folk Songs are for everyone!

The county has a well-documented and still vibrant folk music heritage. It was studied by one of the earliest British musicologists, Cecil Sharp. Sharp began his career of collecting folk songs in Somerset in 1903 with the editorial help of his friend Rev: Charles Marson, vicar of Hambridge. Cycling around the county during holidays, Sharp ultimately collected over 1,600 tunes and songs, gathering them from 350 source singers in 122 locations. – But, there had been others before him, including Francis James Child (curator of the ‘Child Ballads’), Lucy Broadwood, Anne Gilchrist, Kate Lee, Sabine Baring-Gould and Frank Kidson. The folk singing tradition in Somerset centres on solo, a cappella singing and playing – at home, at work and at gatherings, small or large. Sitting in Marson’s garden at Hambridge, he heard his gardener, John England, singing ‘The Seeds of Love’. He immediately realised what he was hearing and noted the song down – this was not simply a popular song, but one that he could tell was old.

But how did Sharp know when wandering Somerset what was a genuine folk song? These things were not documented and by definition with no known composer, a folk song was hard to ‘prove’. Indeed it could not be proven, but there is a definite sound to a true English folk song, for example the use of certain modal scales and rhythms, plus if a song had clearly been passed down through generations and was sung by ordinary rural people, the chances are it was genuine. Writing to his wife in a letter dated 21 July 1907. Sharp wrote of his account of meeting Betsy Holland, the singer of the song ‘Execution Song’ or ‘James MacDonald’, who was living in a tent with her husband and baby.

‘Talk of folk-singing! It was the finest and most characteristic bit of singing I had ever heard. Fiendishly difficult to take down, both words and music, but we eventually managed it! I cannot give you any idea what it was all like, but it was one of the most wonderful adventures I have ever had’.

‘For murdering of an orphan girl
As we can plainly see
On the 21st day of next August
You shall hang on the gallows tree’.

Betsy Holland at Simonsbath. 20 August 1907.

Another song that Sharp had collected previously on 8 August 1904 was ‘The Two Magicians’ sung by William Sparks of Minehead. The song was unique in Somerset and rare elsewhere and tells of a blacksmith who threatens to deflower a lady, who vows to keep herself a maiden. (Although the song originates from the North of Scotland and first appears in print in Peter Buchan’s ‘Ancient Ballads and Song of the North of Scotland’ in 1828).

In April 1908, Mrs: Jarret of Bridgwater sang ‘The Cuckoo’ to Sharp.

‘O the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she singeth as she flies.
She bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies.
She sucketh white flowers for to keep her voice clear;
And the more she singeth cuckoo, the summer draweth near’.

Two sisters, Louie Hooper and Lucy White who grew up on the Somerset Levels, gave Sharp over 100 songs and yet their names are nowhere, their stories untold. In an interview with Bob and Jacqueline Patten, ‘English Folk Music Collection’, recorded at Ilminster on 16 February 1983, Louie Norman tells of the two sisters and the songs that they sung to Sharp, an anecdote of Louie Hooper seeing Will Norman going to work with 2lb: of cheese on his head, the local Brass Band, ‘The Band Of Hope’ and how Louie Hooper could tell fortunes. In years to come, Louie Hooper became known as the ‘Grand Old Lady Of Somerset Folk Song’.

Sharp has often been criticised for the way in which he ran roughshod over some of his fellow-collectors and their work, not least by Lucy Broadwood in a letter dated 22 July 1924.

‘[Cecil Sharp] unfortunately took up old songs and old dance collecting as a profession, and, not being a gentleman, he puffed and boomed and shoved and ousted and used the press to advertise himself; so that, although we pioneers were the people from whom he originally learnt all that he knew of the subjects, he came to believe himself to be King of the whole movement’.

After two World Wars and by the 1960’s traditional folk music was in decline in the UK and clubs like the one run by The Yetties in an upstairs room at The Half Moon in Yeovil on a Friday night would soon close their doors. But not before the likes of Chris Foster – 1964, Cyril Tawney, Tony Rose, Louis Killen, Packie Byrne, Julie Felix and Paul Simon – 1965 before returning to live in America, had been heard there. While in early 1968, The Barrow Poets brought their brand of poetry and folk song to Yeovil, playing at Yeovil Technical College. The ‘London Evening Standard’ that year described them as ‘. . . . a roving group of poetry lovers as offbeat as The Beatles were when they first started life in a Liverpool cellar. . . .’ With the development of British Folk Rock music in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s, where folk and rock music were brought together by bands like Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention – their version of ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which laid the groundwork and was the first time a traditional British song was combined with a rock beat – would allow the listener access to the roots of the traditional song as well. The early 1980’s was the nadir for the genre and smaller revivals would appear over the years. In 2007, The Imagined Village produced modern folk music that represented modern multiculturalism in the United Kingdom and as such, featured musicians from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. While others started diving into old archives of field recordings and in some cases, tracking down elder singers across the UK, making beautifully innovative, powerfully inspiring music being built on a bedrock of tradition by artists unafraid of bringing the tradition to very new places.

The Truth Is Out There.

Data shows that according to Government records between 1997 and 2009 which were released in 2020, Somerset recorded 48 different cases of strange objects (UFOs) being seen in the sky.

No doubt there have been many sightings for centuries throughout the county, but the earliest report that I can find of a UFO sighting in Somerset is dated 26 August 1950: ‘In the early hours of the morning a young woman was walking back to her home in Stanton Drew from a party when she decided to take a shortcut through a field near the stone circles where upon she heard a buzzing sound, she turned to her left and noticed a bright saucer-shaped object hovering over the next field. A door on the craft began to open and she screamed and ran the rest of the way home’.

Is there a connection between ancient sites, ley lines, crop circles – beginning in the late 1970’s, simple crop circles began to appear regularly in the fields of Somerset –  and UFOs? If so, then what is the purpose. . . .

…. And Finally.

The most beautiful bit of lore that I have come across is this old Somerset folk legend: ‘Foxes are hidden by oak spirits from hunters, for they guard all forest beasts ‘wipe your sore paws in our oaktree rain pool’ which makes their pads heal and their torn fur grow back’.





© Stewart Guy. 2023.


Artwork © Stewart Guy. 2022.





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    1. Wow, that is a brilliant piece of work. I have never read such a beautiful and well researched article on Somerset folklore and the legends of dragons and giants. Thank you for publishing here on the pages of IT. I live in deepest, darkest Dorset and would love to see something on that county as well, apparently the least “Evangelised” county in Britain.

      Comment by Neil Houlton on 23 May, 2024 at 12:51 pm

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