THIS region of England is particularly rich in folklore. There is a wealth of stories ranging from the Lambton Worm of County Durham and the Worm of Sexhow, to the Nunnington Worm of Ryedale via the Grassington Barguest and the Egton Barguest.
Lake Semerwater in the Dales has its sunken village yarn whilst the North York Moors have their tale of Wade’s Causeway and Burton Agnes in East Yorkshire relates the story of Lady Anne’s Skull. The City of York is also rich in folktales, perhaps with the story of a jolly monk, Brother Jucundus, being one of the most popular.
There are countless other stories to which can be added a range of ghostly tales or even fairy stories, along with accounts of small gnome-type characters often known as hobs, but with other names like redcaps, pixies, gnomes or bogles. Animals feature widely such as the Felon Sow of Rokeby, the White Doe of Rylstone, the giant witch-hare of Glaisdale along with several tales of massive leaps achieved by fleeing deer.
Buried treasure sometimes features such as the treasure of Kirkstall Abbey at Leeds, Guisborough Priory with its hidden chest of gold, the treasure of Spaunton Castle and the Upsall Crock of Gold.
One of the recurring themes in our folklore seems to feature small human creatures. They appear under a variety of names such as fairies, hobs, hob-goblins, goblins, redcaps, brownies, imps, boggarts, bogles, bugganes and bogymen. The unexplained behaviour of horses when being ridden in the countryside, such as suddenly shying or showing fear for some unknown reason, was often blamed on the sudden appearance of one of these creatures. It was once widely believed that horses could see these creatures and also ghosts which some humans could not see.
Hobs feature in several tales particularly within the North York Moors. When I was growing in Glaisdale, a local farm was known for having its resident hob. Stories of other hobs followed a similar fashion – the resident hob would help the farmer to achieve the most difficult of tasks especially when necessary at harvest time.
However, hobs worked in secret and at night, never wanting anyone to watch them in action. They wore no clothes apart from a hessian shirt, they lived somewhere in the outbuildings and wanted no reward other than a bowl of fresh cream secretly placed in the barn at night. If anyone tried to catch a glimpse of a hob at work, he would became very angry and might even leave the premises for ever; even gifts of new clothes were rejected. Tales of hobs working on farms still survive at Farndale and Glaisdale but the Runswick Bay Hob, who lived in a cave near the sea, would help sick children to get well.
This hob was renowned for being able to cure whooping cough in children. If a child suffered from whooping cough, his or her mother would carry the infant to the hob’s cave at Runswick Bay, and when outside the cave would call
Hob Hole Hob,
My bairn’s gotten t’kink cough,
Tak it off, tak it off!
It seems this was a last resort in seeking such a cure. One remedy was for the mother to cut a hole in the moorland turf, and the sick child was told to place its mouth close to the bare earth and then inhale. It was thought this would cure the cough and it is claimed that this cure was practised well into the 19th century.
The wealth of folklore in this region must raise the question of the origins of these tales. How did stories of giants, hobs and other creatures begin? Can there be an element of truth in them or are they pure fiction?
We should remember that most if not all of these tales originated in the distant past when few experiences were recorded in writing. Even today, when stories pass from person to person by word of mouth, it is inevitable they are exaggerated and lose some of their authenticity. I came across an example in my own village when a local person told me that Bing Crosby used to come and stay at the local pub, always in secret. He didn’t - he came once to have dinner with friends from Wensleydale.
But once the stories of such secret visits gets into the public arena, they get exaggerated and developed until they are regarded as the truth.
At that point, it is impossible to present the truth because the untrue version spreads wider and wider – and so a piece of folklore is created.
My personal opinion after much research is that some folklore is based on real but misconstrued events from the past which have, over time, become exaggerated and even inaccurate. Nonetheless, they remain entertaining and will continue to do so.
One such tale is The Woman in Black which features a location known as Courting Wall Corner in Coverdale. This was long known as a meeting place for courting couples and the story tells of ghostly appearances of the Woman in Black at that location. She wears a long black cloak as if in mourning.
It seems the story was based on a true event when the love affair involving a local girl went tragically wrong. She was secretly visiting two men both of whom were desperately in love with her but found herself having to decide which one would become her husband.
She made the difficult decision and they decided it would be safer to elope and get married away from Coverdale, but the rival suitor learned of her plans. He arranged to meet her for one last time but murdered her and buried her body near Courting Wall Corner.
It was claimed her ghost regularly appeared there on the anniversary of her death.
All accounts of this tale have never been proven but some years ago, it is said that a peat-cutter was working near Courting Wall Corner when he discovered the buried skeleton of a woman, not far beneath the surface. She was never identified but was wearing the remnants of a black cloak.
Another piece of folklore in this vicinity is Hunter’s Stone. It is near Hunter’s Stone Bank and was once a route marker for monks who travelled between Coverham Abbey and Kettlewell. According to local folklore, every time the clock in Hunter’s Hall strikes twelve, this stone turns around although some disbelievers stress it performs this trick when the clock strikes one.
And at West Scrafton there is a cave called Tom Hunter’s Parlour because it was once the haunt of a highwayman of that name who was hiding from the authorities. I wonder whether that is true, or just another piece of folklore?
And finally- there is an old piece of Yorkshire weather lore that says “There’s allus yar fair week in February.”