Friday, 2 December 2011

Fairies, dobbies & will o' the wisps

I am reading a book by Marjorie Rowling, The Folklore of the Lake District, which was published in 1976. There are two aspects I would like to raise. The first is from the introduction:
In Enjoying the Lakes, the author Edmund Hodge mentions two distinct attitudes towards the area [the Lake District]. 'There is one arising from the countryman's intimate knowledge, and the other springing from the personal discovery, often nostalgic in feeling, of the townsman.  It is the latter group which starts with the advantages, frequently carrying the heavier armament of professional talent, or a sharper spearhead of feeling; but when there is not something like this to rely on, this group includes by far the worst'.
Folklorists may well consider the comment, which underlines on the one hand a tendency to fossilise the social environment, so often practiced by well-intentioned regional patriots; and on the other, the homesickness for an illusory past, which gives the most trivial cultural residues an apparent aura of virtue, concealing their real significance.  
I think this resonates today, not as a Folklorist, but evidences a different view between residents and 'townsfolk' or tourists visiting.  You can see the difference with regards views on planning today, but I would guess it is also evident in the writing and art too. 

Going back to Romanticism briefly, it is important to remind ourselves of this:
Twenty years ago [1956], John Armthwaite, a contributor to Cumbria, noticed how the reactions of visitors had changed. 'There was a time when travellers looked at our Lakeland fells and shuddered. Words like 'awesome' and 'dreadful' crept in to their writing.  Not today.' The environment had become familiar, not only through increased accessibility and greater uniformity, but because of literacy and the modern spread of information. 
Take this comment about the stretch between Kendal and Kirkby Stephen, an English officer campaigning against the Scots a century earlier (1745), wrote of his journey between the two towns:
'We frequently come to valleys, which with great fear and danger we descend, they being very steep. This was the most strange journey I ever made'.
The Lakes was hostile in the 1600s.  However, it is no longer. It never will be again in the same way. Think of the David Attenborough programme 'Frozen Planet' on BBC1 at the is introduced as the 'last frontier'. The Antarctic is considered hostile and not conducive to human inhabitation.  The frontiers have shifted considerably from the 1600s. If the original Romantics were around today, they would be heading due south!!  

With a 'countryman's intimate knowledge' how should I be portraying the area? I am beginning to find a good few examples of contemporary photographers interpretation of the Lakes including that of Ingrid Pollar, Simon Roberts, David Ellison and Jem Southam.  But what concerns me a little is that none are all encompassing or wholistic, they take one aspect or issue of country life for example, ethnicity and the countryside, a sport or country fairs. Is this how I need to tackle it too?

The second extract I find just so is from the same book which references the Register of Deaths in Lamplugh parish, a village just down the road from where I live and now notorious for other reasons sadly. This particular document registers deaths from 1658 to 1663. It includes:
Frightened to death by fairies                            3
Bewitched                                                       4
Old women drowned upon a trial for witchcraft    3
Led into a horse pond by a will o' the wisp           1
In lonely farms and hamlets [in Cumbria], far from civilisation, linked only by packhorse or cart track with the nearest dwelling often miles away, witchcraft and spells, elves and fairies, giants, dobbies and ghosts were fearsome realities.
I just love scary, mysterious and enchanting life must have been then. Can you imagine fearsome fairies frightening three fellow beings to death? Or a mischievious will o' the wisp (I can't write that without thinking of Kenneth Williams!) beguiling someone to the pond.  Maybe the folklore and fables could form part of a conceptual project.  I think given all the assignments and projects in the landscape module, I can probably dabble with all sorts of different approaches. 


  1. I suppose one of the real differences in Cumbria - The Lakes - is that it was largely unaffected by the various acts of enclosure which probably kept the villages and communities separate. And it was the Romantics that brought wealth, by tourism, quite late on. "Frightened to death by fairies", so much to say about that!

  2. Hi Penny.

    I'm up in Swarthmoor at the moment, so don't have access to all of my notes, but a couple of things come to mind. Firstly, I've just bought a oldish book on old English traditions and whatnot, Qin I remember I'll have a look and see if there's anything about the Lakes and email you (at weekend).

    The second is a book I saw last year (this year?) by a chap from the MA course at Bolton who covered the sheep farmers in the Lakes. I can't remember the name, but again, if I remember to, I'll dig it out for you...

  3. ....and I've just started reading Land Matters by Liz Wells and immediately came upon something that reminded me of this entry: "the act of naming is an act of taming."

  4. Thanks John and Rob for posting. Aah yes Swarthmoor, the home of the Quakers I think, lovely historic home there. I vaguely recall the guy you mean from Bolton - I also recall seeing his work in 'Cumbria' magazine I think it was, I'll have to check back. Intrigued by Liz Wells' 'the act of naming is an act of taming' too. Thanks Rob.

    BTW now following your blog Rob, couldn't work how to do it on your previous version!

  5. for the Hill Farm docu in Cumbria.

    The customs book is a little hard to navigate by area, but includes rush-bearing in Ambleside, Westmorland horse trials and the maypole in Temple Sowerby. Maybe not so interesting to you after all...

  6. Thanks Rob for the link that's the one I was thinking of as well and for the events too...I'll file them away in my head for now...