England is dense with ancient folktales

19.26, Wednesday 7 Jul 2021

Southampton, which is where I went to school and near where I grew up, was once upon a time terrorised by a giant named Ascupart.

A knight named Bevois (this was about a thousand years ago) came to the Southampton and dealt with the giant. Exactly how, stories differ. Either he defeated and killed Ascupart. Or other tales say that Bevois, Ascupart, and Bevois’ horse named Arundel became great friends and had many adventures.

I didn’t know this story growing up. I read it in a book recently. But there is an Arundel Castle some way to the east, and a neighbourhood of Southampton is named Bevois Valley, both of which I knew about, and (I’ve now learnt) an Ascupart Street too. Stories in the landscape!

Here is the story of Bevois and Ascupart, as told by storyteller Michael O’Leary. It’s a fun read.

This class divide is new to me:

The stories of Bevois, or Bevis, were once as popular as the stories of King Arthur. The stories of Arthur, however, were considered a bit more grand and courtly; the Bevois stories were for the common people.

Oh ho!

The book I’m reading is The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, by Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood. (Review in the Guardian.)

It seems you can’t walk a mile through England without tripping over a hyperlocal folktale, and this book catalogues them.

Leafing through at random right now, I can tell you that:

  • In Mordiford, Herefordshire, a little girl called Maud found a baby dragon in the woods, which was bright green and about the size of a cucumber.
  • Staffordshire: St Matthew’s church at Walsall was said in the nineteenth century to have been moved to its present site by fairies.
  • In Eyam, Derbyshire, a farmer’s wife made a pudding and boiled it over the fire. But it jumped out, rolled around, and then broke, at which point a child came out who cried: Take me to my dathera dad, take me to my dathera dad.

Not in the book, but stories I’ve heard…

I can tell you that near where I live in south London (and by near I mean, “within 20 minutes walk”):

  • There is a wild patch of the local park which is said to be where Queen Boudica oversaw the battle of Londinium and then died and was buried.
  • There is an oak tree which was knighted by Queen Elizabeth when she got drunk and rested there.
  • Opposite our house there is a straight line to be drawn along walls, alleys, a footbridge, and the backs of houses which represents an ancient walk for nuns to go from a convent (unknown) to a particular church (unknown) without being seen. I only know this one because I was peering behind a house, having noticed this phantom patchwork making up a direct line, and a passing runner stopped and told us.

And it turns out that the legend of Spring-heeled Jack, the leaping figure with metal claws who struck fear into London in the 1830s, is centred on Peckham, also just walking distance. (Spring-heeled Jack is an interesting figure, a modern folktale or, as previously discussed, a consensus ghost.)

It is dizzying. I guess it is like this everywhere in the world? I don’t know. The land is dense with ancient stories! Every stone under every step, richly encrusted with narrative barnacles.

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