British folklore offers a vast array of strange and bizarre tales passed down through generations. Although some stories may sound completely unbelievable, they often contain a grain of truth, which makes it both interesting and frustrating for the reader to decide what may or may not be correct.
Britain's rich history is woven with highwaymen, smugglers, witches, fairies, dragons, giants, and black dogs, to name just a few, so there's a whole treasure trove of stories to choose from. Let's forget about the 'grey lady' and 'blue boy' ghosts who appear with boring regularity at each castle and pub across the country. Instead, we'll take a look at 10 of the more obscure and unusual folk tales from throughout the centuries.
In the fishing hamlet of Porthgwarra in Cornwall, a dark and imposing cliff looms, and stories abound throughout the ages of witches gathering here to summon storms.
At the top of the cliff, there's a cubby hole in the granite which is said to be the chair of Madgy Figgy, the evilest of all the Cornish witches. Local legend states that she could often be seen weaving spells to make the wind rise so much that it drew ships nearer to the reefs, where they would crash and splinter.
Madgy Figgy would then be seen floating through the air cackling horribly, while wreckers below stole valuables from the dead sailors. Wrecking was a major part of the Cornish smuggling trade, and goods that were washed ashore from wrecked ships were seen as common property. Sometimes wreckers even tied lights to horses' tails in order to lure ships in the wrong direction onto the rocks, so these disasters happened frequently even without the help of the legendary Madgy Figgy.
James Snooks, known as Robert for reasons unclear, is said to be the last highwayman hanged in England. In 1802, he was arrested for stealing £80 from a post boy on Boxmoor Common in Hertfordshire. Post boys had the dangerous job of carrying the mail, including banknotes, across the lonely moors and heathland, and it was not unusual for them to fall foul of highwaymen. In typical gruesome British fashion, Snooks was sentenced to death and a local holiday was declared so the villagers could witness the execution.
After he was hanged and cut down, a grisly scene followed; the executioner tried to strip the dead man of his clothes before the High Constable put a stop to it. As if this story wasn't unpleasant enough, local children still believe that if you run around Snooks' grave three times and shout his name, he will pop his head up.
Nancy Camel lived in Shepton Mallet in Somerset sometime between the late 17th and early 18th centuries. She was a stocking knitter who resided, appropriately, near a place called Leg Square. Unfortunately for her, knitting by machine was gaining popularity in England and was a far more efficient way of producing the 10 million pairs of stockings needed each year for the entire population, so she soon found herself out of a job.
She took to the streets with a donkey and cart and became a bad-tempered drunk. Before long, the townsfolk began to suspect her of being a witch. One winter night a storm came, and it was said that amid the howling of the wind, a scream was heard along with the cracking of a whip and the creaking of wheels.
In the morning, some of the more sympathetic residents went to look for Nancy to see if she had survived the night. Nancy, her donkey, and her cart had all completely disappeared, but across the stone slab in front of the cave where she usually slept were two deep ruts that appeared to have been made by fiery chariot wheels. If any more evidence was needed that Nancy had been carried off by Satan, the impression of hoofs burned into the woodland floor was enough. Nancy Camel's cave can still be seen to this day, along with the strange marks on the stone slab.
The Wrekin is a large hill in Shropshire which is purported to have been built by a giant; albeit one who had a grudge against the people of a completely different town. The story goes that the giant wanted to kill the people of Shrewsbury so he plotted to dump a huge spadeful of earth into the River Severn in order to flood the town, drowning all who lived there.
However, his navigation skills were not very good (in most European tales, giants are cruel and stupid) and as he stopped at the roadside in Shropshire for a rest, he asked a passing cobbler for directions. When the cobbler realized what the giant intended to do, he pretended that the sack of worn-out shoes he carried were in fact, all the shoes he had worn out on his own way to Shrewsbury, a journey of many months. The giant decided not to bother with such a long walk and simply threw his spadeful of earth down by the side of the road, before scraping his boots clean on the spade.
According to legend, the spadeful of earth became the Wrekin, and the smaller hill beside it is where he cleaned his boots.
Not many people know that St. George, the patron saint of England, was not actually English at all. In fact, he probably never even visited England.
It is believed that George was a Roman, born in Palestine, and disappointingly, dragons did not appear in the original story of his life. Nevertheless, there is a mound at Uffington in Oxfordshire where, it is claimed, St. George killed the legendary dragon. It is said that the dragon's blood left a white mark in the shape of a creature on the mound where grass can never grow. To make matters more confusing, other versions of the legend say that the dragon itself is buried under the hill. In some retellings, Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, is buried there.
The first recorded Viking raid on the shores of Britain was in the year 793. The Vikings tended to target monasteries, as they were likely to have a number of valuables. After that first attack at Lindisfarne, they continued making regular raids along the coast.
One of the places they raided was the port of Bosham in Sussex, which is home to one of the oldest churches in England. Legend has it that when the inhabitants fled from the approaching Vikings, the invaders took everything they could get their hands on, including the large bell from the church, which they carried aboard their ship. As Viking longships were generally only 17 feet wide with a small cargo capacity of 10 tons, it is not surprising that disaster struck shortly after when the bell toppled over in the boat, crashed through the deck, and sunk the ship, drowning everyone aboard.
The village elders of Bosham wished for many years that they could recover their sunken bell, and were advised by a wise man that 12 pure white oxen would be able to drag it to shore. Plans were made and the rescue attempted, but at the last minute the rope snapped and the bell rolled down the shore and back into the sea. The failed attempt was blamed on one of the white oxen who, on inspection, was found to have a single black hair. To this day, when bells are rung in Bosham, answering sounds are supposedly heard from the lost bell beneath the waves.
Black dogs feature heavily in British folklore, none more terrifying than the beast who rampaged through a church in Bungay in Suffolk, viciously killing two people in 1577.
Similar accounts appear throughout the country, with the dog known as Black Shuck in East Anglia, Barghest in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and Hairy Jack in Lincolnshire. Typically targeting churchgoers, it was said to leave demonic scorch marks on the door. Although black dogs are thought to be more prolific in East Anglia and believed always to bring terror or death, only 26% of recorded sightings took place there, and evidence exists that the phantom is not always a bad omen.
It has long been believed that hearing mysterious whistling or yelping noises in the sky could be a portent of doom, usually foretelling the death of someone nearby. In reality, these 'whistlers' are probably just birds; particularly plovers, swifts, or teals.
However, can we really write this off as superstition? In 1890, the seven whistlers were heard in the area of the Morfa colliery in South Wales, just before an explosion that buried nearly a hundred miners under the rubble. Tragically, 87 men were killed and many of the bodies were never recovered.
Sometime in the 12th century, a boy and a girl were discovered in a wolf trap in the village of Woolpit in the Sussex countryside.
Shortly after, the boy sickened and died, but the girl survived. Nobody knew who they were or where they had come from, but once the girl had stayed with the villagers long enough to learn English, she explained that they were from an underground world called St. Martin's Land. This claim might have been more easily dismissed had it not been for the unusual green color of the children's skin. While many believed that they really were visitors from another land, it has been suggested that they were simply suffering from hypochromic anemia; a condition caused by poor diet that can give the skin a green tinge.
As it is recorded that the girl's skin later returned to a normal color, it seems likely that this was indeed the case.
Near the village of Anstey in Hertfordshire is a recess called the Cave Gate, which is believed to have once been the entrance to a tunnel.
Nobody knew where it went, but a local man known as Blind George agreed to walk through the tunnel while playing his fiddle, so the villagers could walk above ground and hear his playing and know where he was. After some time, they heard a bloodcurdling scream and the fiddling stopped. George's dog came running back out of the tunnel with its fur burned off and its tail missing. Blind George the fiddler was never seen again, and nobody was brave enough to venture into the tunnel to look for him.
Similar stories exist in various other parts of the country, so one can either imagine that England is riddled with mysterious, deadly tunnels, or that the tales were simply invented for entertainment and gradually spread. However, many unexplained tunnels and passages do exist, such as a huge network recently found beneath Liverpool's streets.