As December is the month of Christmas, most of the lore relates to that time, although much precedes Christmas Day itself.
Although mummers' plays have virtually disappeared [there are still occasional performances by local Morris dance teams] and the last play by the Exmoor Mummers was in Stogursey in the early 1900's, nativity plays are regularly staged in the larger churches. Similarly, all the other traditional Christmas icons are as prevalent in this area as any other, with one exception only found locally. That exception is the ashen faggot.
The ashen faggot custom is still observed in some households and inns [such as Dunster] . The faggot is made up of a bundle of ash sticks, bound with ash, and burned in the open hearth on Christmas Eve. In the days when fireplaces were more cavernous, the faggot would often be six or seven feet long, and three feet in diameter. The number of binds varied, but would often be high as it was the usual custom to toast each bind! In Barbrook, for example, they had as many binds as possible, and indeed drank to each one. Curiously, in the Barbrook custom, the wood had to be stolen.
Boxing Day is traditionally devoted to the country sports, and the Devon and Somerset Staghounds still meet in Lynmouth at this time.
New Year's Eve customs have now all but died out [apart from the obvious one involving fancy dress and copious amounts of alcohol!]. A visiting custom known as 'niggering' is still remembered, however, in Wootton Courtnenay. Children, with their faces blacked, went from house to house, singing and receiving a tip. This custom is related to 'first footing' in northern Britain, signifying that luck comes to any house where a dark stranger is the first to cross the threshold in the New Year.
When the Editor asked me to write a Christmas article, she requested that I kept it light- last year's was very ghoulish. I have tried to do this, but as usual I can't resist for too long, so I will end with an Exmoor farmers' saying for December:
"A green winter makes a fat churchyard"
Mark, the Librarian at Ilfracombe College, will be leaving at the end of term to take up a new post as Senior Media Technician at the Newton Abbot campus of Plymouth University. I should like to take this opportunity to thank him for his folklore articles [which we hope may continue] and to congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in the future.
In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Sambain was observed at the end of the summer. October 31st was also the eve of the new year, both in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times. The souls of the dead were believed to revisit their homes on this day and all manner of ghosts, witches, faeries and daemons were said to be on the prowl. [Regular readers may recall that I wrote something similar in connection with the Christian New Year a few months ago.]
Hallowe'en was the time said to be most favourable for appealing to those powers that controlled the forces of nature and also to be the best time for divinations - specifically regarding marriage, luck, health and death. It was the only day in which the devil's assistance was invoked.
The practice of 'trick or treating' followed by many children these days was introduced by immigrants to the United States in the 19th Century, where the practice was carried out by young men in the main, who were often found to severely damage property in the process.
The most common symbol associated with Hallowe'en is, of course, the 'jack-o-Lantern' - the hollowed out pumpkin carved with demonic face and containing a lighted candle. In many places in Somerset, Hallowe'en is known as 'Punky Night', a punky being a hollowed out mangel-wurzel. It is still quite common to make these and up until only a few years ago, children in many areas, such as Heasley Mill on the southern edge of Exmoor, used to wear dark coats and walk around the village in groups, each child carrying a lantern.
The tradition of making pumpkin lanterns is one of protection - families would place one outside their door to ward off evil spirits. The time when these shades walk abroad is almost upon us for another year, so order your pumpkins early to avoid disappointment!
August is traditionally the month for the com harvest, although modem farming has proved to mean the loss of hay licks, binding, threshing and the like. Unfortunately, along with these things we have also lost much of the feasting and partying associated with this time, including the com dolly and the neck.
It is believed that Dolly is a corruption of 'idol ', coming from the pagan practice of making images to placate the minor gods of fertility. Dollies were intricate tassle-like devices woven from straw or reed. The art of making them is still going but by less people despite a fairly recent revival.
The com neck was made from the final sheaf in the final field to be harvested. There was a specific ritual to accompany the making of the neck, which out in the field was held up on show to all who would say words such as:
Well cut! well bound!
Well shocked! Well saved from the ground!
The words to this ritual varied according to the district. This was followed by much revelling. The com neck had to be taken back to the farmhouse [ensuring it remained dry] while the farm workers, wives and daughters threw buckets of water at the poor individual carrying it to try and get him wet before he reached the house. He usually succeeded in getting home, even if it meant jumping through a window to do so!
During harvest supper, the neck was hung up and saved until the following year, when it was replaced by a new one. At the harvest festival in the church, a neck would be hung up three corn dollies on either side.
ROMANCE AND SUPERSTITION
Although Midsummer Eve and Midsummer Day fall during June [23rd and 24th] neither has any real significance today. The former used to be associated with spirit watching, and when lovers sought to identify their future partners.
Romance and superstition have been linked through the ages. One old Devon rhyme tells:
- An even leafed ash
- And a four-leafed clover
- You see your true love
- Ere the day is over.
Young people in Okehampton had a more down-to-earth method of finding a partner, known as Giglet which fell on the Saturday after Christmas, when the young men of the toy had the privilege of self-introduction to any spinster
On the Moor above Okehampton is a granite cross marking Fitz's Well. At Easter, any young woman seeking a husband came here early in the morning to drink from the well on Easter Day. Local tradition said she would be married within twelve months
Another romantic belief concerned Midsummer Day - a Devon maid without a potential husband would pluck a rose and wrap it in paper. Then, on Christmas morning she would wear it to church, hoping that a young man would take it from her, paving the way to a happy marriage.
VALENTINES DAY - 14th FEBRUARY
On this day a woman might choose who should be her Valentine, and tell him so. He was then under obligation to present her with a pair of gloves. In practice, these were only given 'if there was a little sweet-hearting in the case'. So, this month, a mystery centred around love in celebration of Valentine's Day.
The Cannonball Marriage
A lady of the Drake family of Ashe House was, it is said, betrothed to a sailor; but during his absence on a voyage she broke the engagement and found another bridegroom.
The wedding feast had and the proceedings were rolling happily along, when suddenly the door opened without hands. Everyone in the room turned to see who was coming in. For a moment the doorway was empty; but when the attention of everyone present had been obtained, a cannonball appeared and rolled along the floor of the ballroom; it continued on its path until it finally reached the feet of the faithless bride, where it stopped. Upon examination, it was discovered that the cannonball had rooted itself so firmly into the ground that the united strength of those in the room could not move it. It was apparent to the bride that this peculiar event was a portent - and she wisely took it to be a gentle hint that she had treated the sailor badly. It was not too late, however, to rectify the situation and she sent her new love away and waited patiently for the sailor to return.
It is possible that the origin of this piece of folklore is some sort of moral 'fireside tale', as this is not the only version of the story that exists. In Somerset, the same circumstances have been described as happening at Combe Sydenham House. In fact, the so-called cannonball was preserved there for some time.
Some have speculated that the original cannonball was a meteorite, although it is quite easy to construct an argument against this theory. It is also quite possible that the event never happened in the first place!
On a less cheerful note...
In order that the New
Year might prosper, the old year - and the spiritsreleased by the
solstice season - had to be buried or driven away. In villages
from Britain to Austria, the old year - in the form of a straw dummy called
Death - was carried through the streets and then drowned or burned.
At Christmas. the future was revealed: a man might see the shades of those
who would die in the new year, but among them he might also see himself.
Ghosts and Folklore
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES OF DEVON
"Berry Pomeroy Castle - Part Two"
Another story associated with the Pomeroy family tells of the supposed death of Henry Pomeroy at the castle. Henry supported John Lackland against Richard Coeur de Lion. He was forced to flee Berry Castle and seized St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, where he held out for as long as he could. History tells that having first assigned his land to his sons when he realised that all hope was gone, he ordered his surgeon to bleed him to death in the old Roman fashion.
The legend, however, is far more glamorous, saying that Henry chose to don armour, blindfold his horse and, blowing his bugle, charge over the precipice of the castle to his death below.
As with all good stories there is, of course, at least one other variation ... after the Rebellion of 1549, the order went out for castles to be destroyed, but two young Pomeroy knights refused to destroy their home. They buried their treasure somewhere in the grounds and, according to this version, it was they who galloped from the battlements.
A son of the Pomeroys surprised his sister with an enemy of the family, and slew them both [history does not recount how or when]. On moonlit nights, the light falling through a high embrasure [bevelled side of a window aperture] reveals the two figures struggling to reach each other across the empty space romantically described by some as being 'held back by hatred'.
Many photographs of unusual forms have been taken inside the castle grounds. In 1968, the figure of a man in a tricorn hat and another of a young woman were captured on film - independently on different days by two different holidaymakers. The picture of the man was declared genuine by the Psychic Research Society.
Comments have been collected from a group of Department of the Environment workers who spent some time on the site. One told how he bent to pat a dog that no-one else could see; another believed that the site was crossed by ley-lines and felt electrical energy there. Perhaps oddly, one female worker thought it was a happy rather than eerie place.
Finally, Peter Underwood - writer, broadcaster and President of the Ghost Club [founded 1862] since the 196(Ys offers the following advice for visitors to Berry Pomeroy Castle: be as quiet as possible and listen in different parts of the ruins, always have a camera ready and, most importantly, never follow any figure you may see there.
Ghosts and Unsolved Mysteries - the Evening Class! One of only two of its kind in the country, this takes place at Ilfracombe College on the first Tuesday of the month, 7.30 to 9.30 p.m. The group explores various subjects through informal discussion, demonstration and analysis of evidence. The cost per session is just £3.00. The next session is on Tuesday, 14th October [why this is not the first Tuesday is a mystery in itself!] and the subject will be ESP, Psychokinesis and Mind Control.
Further details from Ilfracombe College Community Department .
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES OF DEVON
"Berry Pomeroy Castle"
Berry Pomeroy Castle, situated just outside Totnes, can probably hold the claim of the most haunted castle In Devon.
It consists of two buildings, one Inside the other, and the fortified remains date from circa 1300, although it was almost certainly not the first building to stand on the site. The name is taken from the Pomeroy family who came to these shores from France.
The most significant tale relating to Berry Pomeroy Castle is that of the ghost of Lady Margaret de Pomeroy - a "harbinger of death" spirit. Margaret and her sister, Eleanor, were in love with the same man. The latter, mistress of the castle, was jealous of her sister who was younger and more beautiful. In one version of the story, she shut her sister in the dungeons, starving her to death. It is because of this that Margaret still walks the castle ramparts on certain nights.
Seeing Margaret's ghost is supposed to foretell of imminent death. Reports of this go back many years, but the case that brought it to prominence again was that of a doctor, Sir Walter Farquar, who wrote of it in his memoirs. He was attending the wife of the castle steward and as he waited in the parlour, a young lady entered the room in great distress, passed him by and walked up the stairs. He enquired many times if he could help her, but received no replies.
Some days later, after attending to the steward's wife, he asked the steward about the young lady. The man's face paled and he wailed that now he knew that his wife would die. The doctor rebuked him, assuring him that she was well on the way to recovery. The steward was unconvinced, and rightly so, for sure enough that night a message was sent to the doctor that she had passed on. I'll leave you to work out who the young lady was that the doctor saw!
It is said that Lady Margaret stands on the ruins of the staircase. She beckons the unknowing visitor to her, but between her and the 'victim' is a large chasm where the staircase has fallen away, and it is into this that they will fall to their death.
There are a number of other stories related to the castle. Many people who visit describe the sense of loneliness, and even evil, there. Photographs have been taken showing shadowy figures, and the children and animals cry to be taken away from some areas of the ruins.
Edna of Torquay told a story of friends who had approached the castle from below, walking past derelict cottages, people in rags and ruined barns. They felt a real sense of evil about the place. One of the party, in fact, turned back to the car. Several days later, out of fascination for what they had observed, they returned to the place and were astounded by what they saw. The cottages were restored and painted, gardens kept and tidy and barns roofed and full of com. So what had they seen before? Visions of past times? A mirage? It was a hot, still day.
The phenomenon of 'phantom cottages' is not uncommon in this area and is that can be examined in the future. In the meantime, there are many other stories of Berry Pomeroy that can be told, but these we will have to save for the next issue!
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES OF DEVON
"The Devil's Footprints"
Following on the success of the video 'North Devon Ghosts and Haunting', Mark Norman casts the net wider with a series of articles on Devon Mysteries.
During the night of 8th February, 1855, whilst a heavy fall of snow lay on the ground, a continuous path of footprints appeared. This would be distinctly unremarkable if it were not for two points: firstly that the trail stretched for 100 miles, from Teignmouth to Exmouth, and secondly, that it traversed roads, fields, walls, gardens and even the rooftops of houses.
The explanation for this curious happening has never been found, but folklore says that it was the Devil on his travels - descriptions of the time tell of the prints looking as if they were branded with a hot iron.
Whatever left the marks would appear to have been bi-pedal. The prints represented a donkey's hoof - 4" long by 2%" wide - but unusually the marks appeared in a single line. What is most important is that the size and shape of each print, and the distance between them, was identical in each and every parish.
If this was a hoax, it was an extremely clever one. It is a remarkable feat to go out and fake a geometric design in a field of wheat without being spotted, but to lay a 100 mile trail unknown to the general public would take incredible skill, planning and teamwork... even with the quieter nightlife of the 19th century.
Contemporary writers attempted, unsatisfactorily, to proffer solutions. A correspondent in The Illustrated London News [24.2.1855] pointed out that it could not have been an animal because of the distance, the single line of tracks and the fact that the tracks crossed a 2-mile wide estuary at one point before continuing on the other side. But he couldn't say what it was.
A writer in the Exeter Flying Post [1.3.1855] suggested the tracks belonged to the ghost of St. Nicholas - unhappy because the villagers wouldn't sing to his honour in the church.
Professor Owen in the Illustrated London News identified a drawing of the prints as a badger's hind-foot, but could not explain the length of the trail . Other explanations included: a stray swan, an escaped kangaroo, two cranes subsequently shot at Otterton, and a catamountain [a forerunner of the Exmoor Beast perhaps?].
Hoax or just unsolved? The mystery remains and probably always will, But an interesting note to close on: the night of 7th February, 1855, saw a lecture by Mr. Plumtre of Dawlish to the Teignmouth Useful Knowledge Society on the topic: 'The Influence of Superstition on Natural History'.
The video "North Devon Ghosts and Hauntings" is available direct from Viewfinder Video on 883358. A new evening course entitled "Ghosts and Unsolved Mysteries" starts at Ilfracombe College in the Autumn.