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Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain
Warping young minds, the Reader's Digest way
We were raised by Puffins. With three TV channels and no internet, for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us.
Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain (Reader’s Digest, 1973)
A county-by-county guide to the time-honoured weirdnesses of England, Scotland and Wales, listing hauntings, oddities and unnerving traditions village by village .
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On the flyleaf of my copy of this book an official from the school library has written ‘Un-Wanted.’ This is a lie. It was wanted. By me. That official was a friend. We were both habitués of the library and, as you might expect, pettifogging little goody-two-shoes. It is a measure of how badly I wanted this book that I persuaded my friend to flout the rules and give it to me.
I shall not, of course, name my friend, but he should know that his indulgence was not in vain. I still love this book and it has been my constant companion through the last 40 years.
And not only is it full of enough stories to last a lifetime, it is also beautiful. A massive thing, full of maps with splendid information design, and illustrations by greats like Eric Fraser, Robin Jacques and Charles Keeping.
Full of maps with icons for things like ‘Drowned or Lost Lands’, ‘Mysterious Stones’ or ‘Bells’, the book portrays a Britain that is full of strangeness and mystery: strangeness and mystery that is happening all around you.
All around me. The pub in Colnbrook, where my grandparents lived, is in there, with a story of grisly serial killing using a vat of boiling ale. My great-grandfather claimed that he had been chased through Windsor Great Forest by Herne the Hunter, who gets a whole double page spread to himself.
‘Mysterious Stones’ and ‘Bells’ ranked as pretty good entertainment in the ‘70s. Holidays were spent trudging up hillforts, down mediaeval high streets, round National Trust houses. Our days were full of chalk figures and haunted houses. And the nights too; every children’s book we picked up appeared to have some ancient secret or sinister magic in it - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Dark is Rising, and The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy all featured gangs of intrepid children venturing into the dark woods to discover occult Britain.
Plenty of my nights were spent with books written by contributors to Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain: Geoffrey Ashe (King Arthur), H. R. Ellis Davidson (Norse Mythology), the indispensable Dictionary of Fairies and collections of folktales from Katherine Briggs. This book brought them all together in one place.
We were haunted children of a haunted isle. The more esoteric wing of hippiedom, intent on finding an alternative to the wipe-clean modernism of the sixties, discovered that their great-grandparents had tried exactly the same thing.
Victorian folklorists set out to rediscover the pre-industrial traditions of Britain and ended up reinventing a lot of them. The flower children reinvented a bit more. Historians, occultists, anthropologists and drop-outs all weaved a vision of a country that was weirder and more entertaining than the motorways and service stations that strung it together.
The result was an alternative version of both received history and expected futures; an outlook that insisted on questioning the national story and offered an alternate identity to the coming generation. (The folk horror of the ‘70s, in which traditions became threats and hedge-row spirits became devils, was largely a regressive, religious response to this movement.) It offered a different idea of Britain. Different to the modern world of hovercraft and computers, or the stifling establishment of gentlemen’s clubs and the W.I. British ley lines instead of British Leyland. A place of shadowed, high-hedged and twisting lanes, of half-remembered gods and drowned and forgotten lands. It gave us a sense of place, and a sense of enchantment in that place. It made our country magic.
Behind my grandparent’s farm in Colnbrook, was a stream, and across the stream was a wood. On the edge of that wood, in the thickening summer dusk, the Grey Lady walked, a ghost of our own, out there on the edge of the fields.
You didn’t go up there late at night.
The woods are full of movement. The walls are full of voices. The country is alive.
For further reading that might explain some things about 70s childhoods, try some jokes: