Myths, legends and folklore are the traditional tales and stories handed down over generations, originally by word of mouth; tales told in front of an open fire where flames crackled through kindling and logs and made monstrous demons appear in the glowing embers, and where shadows cast by flickering candles moved eerily on the walls, making those who listened suffer spine shivers and goosebumps as the narrative unfolded.
Imagine a world without legends and folklore. Take Beowulf, for instance, an Old English heroic, epic poem, set in Scandinavia, which survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, and tells of Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, a victorious king who later defeated a dragon but was fatally wounded in battle. It was written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet who must have learnt the folklore from stories told by mouth, just one example of the many thousands of stories that formed the foundations of myths and legends that have become the stuff of the folklore we have today.
Witches are commonly used as scapegoats in folklore, accused of casting spells and working in league with the devil. They were claimed to have made things happen unnaturally by using the natural world to their advantage, but fear and ignorance resulted in hundreds of women being burnt at the stake. It is therefore surprising to learn that witchcraft was not made a capital offence in Britain until 1563.
Here is one story from the realms of folklore, one of many fairy stories told by Edward Corbett, about two old women who lived at Salt Lane, now Castle Street, in the city of Worcester: "They were commonly known as witches who cured ailments and gave medicines, and always had money to pay their way, but they obtained it by a kind of wagon tax.
Before their cottage in Salt Lane there was a deep mire that never completely dried up.
Often a heavily laden salt wagon would get stuck in it, and do what the horses and wagoners could, they never could start it. Then one of the old women would come out of the house and offer to help. The wagoner would give her sixpence and she would stroke the wheel-horse and bless them, and the cart would immediately draw out and go ahead easily.
“But one day a driver who had often paid his sixpence, came lightly loaded and reckoned he could pass through the mire easily. But once again his wagon stuck fast. The same old woman came to her door and offered to help, and he answered her across the wheel-horse's back, and as he did so he noticed a straw lying across the horse's back.
He pulled out his knife and cut it in two, and thereat the horses screamed and leapt out of their footholds, and the team and wagon went crashing down the lane — but then in a wallow of blood and mire lay the body of the other old woman — cut in two."
Whatever we think of the veractiy of such stories from the mists of time, they nevertheless remain fascinating to discover, and Dr Rosanne Palmer, a lecturer at the University of Wales in Cardiff, would like to appeal to Black Country Bugle readers for their help in unearthing more.
Carole Hodgson, secretary of the Clent History Society, told us, "Rosanne was born in Clent of a long-standing Clent family, who for many years were licensees at the Hill Tavern, and although now living in the Cardiff area she retains a strong attachment to her birthplace, its history and folklore."
Rosanne's appeal is as follows: “Whilst preparing for the recent Open Archive Day held by Clent History Society, I was struck by the fact that there are very few legends and supernatural stories associated with the village.
Asking around the members of the History Society only confirmed my opinion. Now I have an avid interest in folklore, legends and other supernatural tales and many is the time I have opened a book on Worcestershire or England to see what, if anything, it has to say about the village of Clent.
Many’s the time I have found another repetition of the story of St Kenelm or, more disappointingly, no mention at all. Surely a village with a history as extensive as that of Clent can do better? “An initial survey finds relatively little. The martyrdom of St Kenelm is well-known and the only Clent legend I have seen widely reproduced.
Harry ca Nab (or Harry Cannab), the Devil’s huntsman, was reputed to stalk the Clent Hills from his Halesowen base, suggesting, at least to me, a nice local twist to a tradition of the Wild Hunt or Gabriel Hounds that stretches, across Northern Europe, generating numerous regional variants. In the case of Harry ca Nab, a couple of potential explanations suggest themselves. Perhaps there was a local squire who broke the Sabbath to enjoy the hunt and was condemned to hunt forever following his death as punishment, as apparently happened to any number of local gentry across England in particular.
Alternatively, the story might have developed to explain a place name, with Halesowen interpreted as ‘Hell’s Own’. Myths and folklores often develop to explain significant or unusual local features or landmarks.
“Another tradition that occurs in many parts of England is of prehistoric stones that walk at midnight on one or more nights of the year to drink from a local source, a tale I once heard related about our own Four Stones. However, with the consensus being that the Four Stones were erected during the mid-eighteenth century as part of extensive landscaping ordered by George, first Lord Lyttelton, of Hagley Hall, this is likely to have been a tale imported to the area from elsewhere.
“In addition to attaching to local landmarks, legends and folklore often also attach to notable characters. A glance through Westwood and Simpson’s majestic folklore collection The Lore of the Land rapidly reveals the number of tales, ghostly or otherwise, that have grown up around historic figures or aristocratic families. Is the apparent absence of a folklore of Clent due to the absence of an aristocratic family in the village? After all, I’m aware of at least three ghost stories that have been connected to nearby Hagley Hall.
“Or does it derive from the lack of a darker side to Clent’s history? Many tales grow around gruesome instances of murder, suicide, witchcraft and the link. The story of ‘Bella in the Wych Elm’, which has spawned a range of theories seeking to solve its mystery, is exactly the kind of event to which strange happenings in the area would undoubtedly have been attributed in the past.
Perhaps our predecessors in this beautiful village had no cause to be motivated by the social, moral or religious concerns that often lie behind much local folklore.
Or perhaps our local legends, which would have been passed down the generations via oral story-telling, have simply and sadly been lost.
“But if you know any different, please let us know”! If you can help Dr Rosanne Palmer in her appeal, please contact Carole Hodgson