Celestine Stillwell

Title image reads 'How writing from folklore could help save our land' over a background photo of the Dartmoor landscape

How writing from folklore could help save our land

Years ago, in The Shop on the Green in Widecombe, a hunkered-down stone box of a building with a decaying 70’s vinyl sign, I bought a collection of little pamphlets. Each of them was branded with varyingly strange word-art graphics, but the pages hosted a vibrant collection of Dartmoor folklore. Inside the first page of Tales from Devon Folklore, there is a particularly striking quotation that reads:

Tales such as these flutter round Devon as plentifully as bats flit across the chimneys of an ancient manor house’

Arthur Norway, 1897

And it’s true. When I asked my younger sister about the horrifying tales we were told, she reminded me of black hounds and ghostly severed hands clambering out of the mist. James Winray, the author of this particular pamphlet, collected these stories by speaking directly to locals, pulling from them the glimmering nuggets of an oral tradition that speaks to the epic and dangerous nature of the land. Through resurrecting these tales in our poetry, I think that we reinvite an ancient and necessary view of our land as a living and breathing organism. It’s particularly striking, for example, that Right to Roam led a recent march on the Moors to awaken ‘Old Crockern’, the mystical protector of the land, in the aftermath of new legislation to ban wild camping.

The Old Crockern legend originated from Crockern Tor, which sits deep in the heart of Dartmoor. The legend surrounds a wealthy city man, who came to the Tor and fenced off land to farm. Old Crockern, a spirit riding a skeletal horse, visited an angry local in a vision and said, ‘if he scratches my back, I’ll tear out his pocket’. Sure enough, the rich landowner then spent all of his money unsuccessfully ploughing the land and left empty-pocketed.

Not only is this legend striking in its contemporary relevance, but it also elucidates an ancient timeline of local knowledge about the land as something not to be exploited. Particular methods of farming, such as controlled wildfires, allow farmers to yield crops plentifully. Viewing the land as something with agency that actively resits privatisation and exploitation allows us to realise the importance of listening to the whispering voice of Old Crockern.

Alice Oswald’s collection, Dart, follows the winding river that cuts through the Moors.

As she sets out the collection, she writes that ‘all voices should be read as the river’s mutterings’[1], which perfectly encapsulates the point I’m labouring; perhaps our poetry should try and channel that ancient voice inside the land. Perhaps it is that voice, the one of Old Crockern or the Dart, that is going to allow us to listen to a perspective now fading into old fables. 

In Oswald’s poem, ‘Body’, she subtly ignites a sense of magical realism. In the final moments of the poem, a dead badger, hardly noticing the corpse of himself, continues his running after death. The final line describes the badger, ‘as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment/ water might keep its shape’[2]. Oswald leaves the poem hanging in the transitional moment where physicality shifts, and gravity and other laws of physics are suspended in time. In this ‘backwards moment’, Oswald freezes the scene and suspends it over us like magic. This sense of magical realism is a nod to folklore and its creative explanations of the natural world. It is important to push truth aside and to imagine, when tuning into our environment. Part of translating the awe of the natural world is also communicating the curious abundance of the space between the things that we understand. This is what folklore often is.

It is in fables that the voice of the land has become entangled with the very thing that makes us human – curiosity.

The tale of The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor is a perfect example. As children we were told about how, on a certain road, motorists have been swerved fatally onto the Moors by ghostly human-like severed hands since the early 20th century. To me, though, this story is just an attempt to answer the curiosity of who is at fault? The drivers, swerving too fast along the roads? The moorland in its unpredictable twisting and turning? Or perhaps a disembodied spirit with no motive but malice? The tale seems to highlight our inability to recognise the power of the dangerous land that we have tarmacked into chartered roads. In an attempt to answer for the fatal passage, we have blamed the Moor in a supernatural human form. Here we hear the land calling out: ‘be careful, for you are in the palm of my hand, don’t get too cocky.’

By personifying the land like this, we provide warnings to others that the land is itself conscious and has the power to react to us. And what is climate change other than the land fighting back? It is in bringing forward these fading stories that we stand a chance at grasping the whisper of the voice of the earth. I’m not the first to say this. Author Andrew Simms wrote that, ‘folk tales emerge in times of upheaval, and from societies’ grimmest moments. They enable us to process and assimilate extreme experience, and deal with our fears … Progressive politics needs better stories as much as it needs facts and policies.’[3] It is poetry that has pulled you here, to reading this. You are probably already a believer in its power to alter the way that you see the world.

There are two major and simple steps to tuning into this earthly song: to be outside, and to listen to those before you. Wherever you are, the land below you stretches deep, and I’m sure the stories do too. This language of folklore must be rewritten before it is lost, like many fables that are already buried below us.

For the remainder of this post, I am going to leave you with some memorable legends paraphrased from my collection of Dartmoor pamphlets. If you’re after a prompt, take it upon yourself to paint these stories in. Imagine yourself as the river, or the ground. Watch the events unfold from a buzzard’s perch. Imagine where Old Crockern eats his supper, or where The Hairy Hands spend sunrise. Following these, I will finish with two poems inspired by tales in Devon.

The Nine Maidens, Belstone

Southeast of Okehampton stand seventeen stones in a circle. They supposedly are the remnants of a Bronze Age burial chamber. The circle has a seven-metre diameter, and the stones are strangely uniform. Why are these seventeen stones known as the nine maidens? It is thought that the discrepancy originates from the etymology of ‘nine’, which in ancient Celtic tongue may have been more-so a description of the type of rock than a numerical count. Because of this linguistic hiccup, locals have filled in the gap by suggesting that the rocks harbour witchy magic; Apparently, when counting the stones, you will never arrive on the same number twice. It is believed that the stones hold the nine forms of Hecate or are a witches-coven of nine members. Some locals maintain that nine maidens were petrified as a punishment for dancing on the Sabbath and are resurrected to dance again on every hunter’s moon.

– Haunted Dartmoor, A Ghost-Hunter’s Guide by R.W.Bamberg.

Lady Mary, Fitzford

As dusk falls, the gates to Fitzford creak open. First, a huge black dog bounds out – his eyes bloodshot and alert. Then, slowly, a ghostly horse drawn coach made from the skeletons of four men clatters onto the lane. Inside there is the ashen face of Lady Mary Howard, the long-dead Lady of this huge estate. The coach makes the journey to Oakhampton Park, sixteen miles away, where Lady Mary climbs out and plucks a single blade of grass. When the coach has rattled its way back to Fitzford, she places the blade on a stone. The torment must continue until every blade of grass is plucked, and only then, legend states, the world will end. Seeing Lady Mary invites death into your life, but the sight of her hound means that you will be dead within the year.

Haunted Dartmoor, by Margaret Caine and Alan Gorton.

A Unique Event

‘A parson of Blackborough announced to his sparce congregation that if they would come to church next Sunday, they would see something they had never seen before in their lives. They came, and the rest of the parish came, and he remarked that neither he nor they had ever seen their church so full’.

Tales from Devon Folklore, James Whinray.

The two following poems were written as responses to local myths of which the validity is healthily disputed. Truth is not something I always consider necessary.

In Widecombe they’re plucking their geese

Flinty feathers float like witches
and perch on the granite Tor. From down here,
it seems as if this hardy column breaches the cloud-line –
a straight road to whatever’s next. 

The dog is up ahead, glistening like refractions. 
His narrow flank slices the arteries of hedgerows 
and leaks peppered pheasants into the sky. As we brush 
through grass like toy soldiers, I wonder what they guard. 

When we reach Rugglestone Inn, I collar the dog and sit outside. 

The sheer face of Haytor 
erupts from the belly of earth and
glints like a misplaced shell. 

The barman, bearded and weathered 
nods towards the peak –  

‘One rimy December morning, not far off this one, in those hours when the 
night climbs into the blackbird-blue dawn, a Widecombe girl (promised 
to the wrong man) kissed her father’s stubbled cheek and walked barefoot 
into the dryth day. Hiked her dress in the scad to climb the clat. When the
morning unshawled herself, they say the girl stood at the top of Haytor, 
and a baker boy, gaking and half-asleep, 
mistook her falling body
for a shattering
sheet of ice.’
Seeing you in every beached giant

Here, it crystalises. I am standing in mum’s mackintosh on a blanket of pebbles, like wet miniature globes knocked from their axis. Seagulls circle in their grey waistcoats, and I realise that I am underdressed for this occasion.

What looked, from my far-off window, to be a tangled shadow of driftwood and dulse is, in fact, a drowned giant. His skin, the shade of stony undersea, seems as if it has been loosened. His pores big enough to crawl into, tuck up your knees, and shelter from the onshore wind. Stubble, like knife handles, decorate his chin, and I can’t shake his likeness to you.

By my wellies, his fingers are snarled in rings of bladderwrack, and his palms hold rock pools; I think about climbing up his arm and peering into his open, glassy eyes. I don’t. I think about praying, but I am too angry to talk to God right now, so I hold a solo vigil. There are no candles, so I clumsily stack stones into pillars around his head like a crown. Single hairs trail between them like rope. I wish I could’ve done this for you. Soon, the cold demands my chattering, so I delicately climb his forearm, following dull-blue veins like roads, and curl into the dip above his collarbone.

In the morning, the town will descend and peck him to pieces, but right now the sky is clear and the wind soft and there is nothing else I can do.

[1] Alice Oswald, Dart, Faber and Faber (2010). [1] Alice Oswald, Body (2016), Poetry Foundation, < https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/89365/body-572b7393b8aa9 > [accessed: 19th April 2022].

[2] Alice Oswald, Body (2016), Poetry Foundation, < https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/89365/body-572b7393b8aa9 > [accessed: 19th April 2022].

[3] Andrew Simms, ‘We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods’, The Guardian, 2017, < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/01/fairy-stories-folk-tales-climate-change-refugees >  [accessed: 7th February].

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