THIS region hosts a large number of folk tales and myths ranging from the Bosky Dyke Boggart to the Serpent of Handale.
The number of such stories in the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales is around seventy with a further thirty or thereabouts in the City of York and the Yorkshire Wolds. Nearby Co. Durham is also rich in such yarns such as the Lambton Worm and the Hell Kettle Fairies.
That is around a hundred folk tales and myths in our region and it is a good academic question to establish the difference between a legend and a myth, or a folk tale and a legend. In fact, my thesaurus groups them all under a single reference – eg: myth includes fables, fairy stories, folk tales, legends, fantasy, imaginary tales and others, even lies.
It makes interesting research to try and trace the source of such long-living tales – for example, the Giant of Penhill in Wensleydale might have originated in a cruel and greedy human landlord who lived on its slopes and terrified his tenants. On the other hand, the Mermaid of Staithes might have been nothing more than a grey seal stranded on the beach.
We rejoice in stories of hobs which are small, helpful elf-like creatures and wonder why there are so many Devil’s Bridges, Lover’s Leaps and wells containing water nymphs.
Even the name of this month, September, is a myth. The prefix sept means seven because this was formerly the seventh month of the Roman year. The month was introduced by Romulus in BC 753 but in this country it was first known as Gerstmonath (the barley month) and later by the Anglo-Saxons as Haefestmonath (the harvest month).
In the Roman calendar it was the seventh month, hence its name of September but when January and February were added around 700 BC, September was moved to become the ninth month, albeit without a name change. Likewise, October means eighth, November means ninth and December was the tenth month. Today, therefore, the names mean something that is not strictly true but it is seldom that we question the origins and names of those months. So are they myths?
It was research at Glaisdale in the Esk Valley that led me to question the above names. I was checking the tale of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were once believed to hide from their enemies in a large cave in Arncliffe Wood between Glaisdale and Egton Bridge. It was also claimed there was a secret tunnel that ran deep underground from that cave to Robin Hood’s Bay on the coast about 9 miles away.
Clearly, the latter claim was not only unlikely but impossible. For one thing, I have never read any authoritative account to suggest that Robin Hood and his Merry Men truly existed, or that they spent time in Arncliffe Wood at Glaisdale, deep in the moors.
To create such a tunnel without the aid of mechanical equipment to cope with the supply of fresh air, the disposal of surplus earth and rock, protection of the tunnel from floods and falls of earth but was also large enough to allow passage by humans with luggage including bows-and-arrows was clearly nothing but a myth. It is also questionable whether any lights they carried would survive the difficult journey through such a long narrow, winding and perhaps airless tunnel. But, as a popular author once said to me - “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”
Glaisdale, my home village, was also host to the planned construction of a railway line that was never completed. It began at the height of the iron-ore boom of the 19th century but was never finished because the good times came to a sudden end. If you know where to look, you can still see its proposed route across the moors from Glaisdale.
It was to connect Glaisdale with Skinningrove and was complete with embankments, cuttings and a bridge or two, all of which can still be seen if you look in the right places. But perhaps the railway-that-never-was has reached the status of “myth”?
It is now known as the Paddy Waddle railway – except there is no railway!
Whilst researching the life of the martyr, Nicholas Postgate of Egton, (c. 1599 – 1679) I discovered another long-lasting myth which claimed he was born at Egton Bridge. A small ruined building called Kirk House stood near the end of the bridge in Egton Bridge and was said to be the birth site with an alternative name of Kirkdale House. A nearby pile of stones was believed to be its remains.
However, in the dialect of North-East England and southern
Scotland, which was spoken on those moors, a kirk house was a house attached to, or very near, a chapel or church. Records show a bridge chapel on this site between the 13th and 14th centuries; it was occupied by a priest who celebrated Mass for travellers and collected tolls from those crossing the bridge. Story tellers seemed confused with the references to priests.
That bridge chapel was washed away by a flood c.1381 so it could not have been the martyr’s birthplace even if its ruined shell remained. In fact in his time, few houses bore names because most of the people could not read but they were known by their description, eg Kirk House.
There is strong evidence that the martyr lived at Kirkdale Banks near Egton in the un-named family home. His Egton Bridge home is therefore a myth.
I HAVE received an interesting letter from a reader living in Thirsk who describes some curious behaviour by local wood pigeons. She lives near Cod Beck as it flows through Thirsk and the area has some lovely trees. One day, on hearing a curious slapping sound, she thought it was a bird trapped somewhere and struggling to release itself.
Wanting to free it, she rushed outside to see a pair of woodpigeons
sitting on the branch of a beck-side tree and taking turns to slap each
other with their open wings. She describes them as very severe slaps and this went on for a few minutes until one of them gave up and flew off.
On a later occasion, she saw a repeat performance but cannot say whether or not it was the same pair of woodpigeons. She is puzzled by this behaviour, wondering if the birds were having some kind of dispute or whether it was a courtship ritual of some kind.
I have seen and heard woodpigeons smack their own wings together in flight with a loud cracking sound, but none of my reference books provides any hints for the odd behaviour of those birds in Thirsk - unless one bird was telling the other one “Come on, it’s time to go, you’d better wake up!”
Perhaps one of our knowledgeable readers can suggest a reason for this curious activity?