The British are a most curious nation in many aspects. When a tourist from whatever continent comes to visit Britain the first conclusion he arrives at is how bizarre the people living there are. The main reason to their uniqueness will certainly lie on the surface: Great Britain is an island that had to grow up and all the long way of its history alone being separated from the rest of the world by great amounts of water. This very characteristics turned them into not only a curious nation, but also an interesting and special one, whose history and culture one of the richest in the world. And the water surrounding the island played not a minor part in its forming. So the British people respect and cherish their “watery” neighbour who from the earliest stages of their history up to now gave them food, drink, work, power, respect of other nations, wealth and after all entertainment. It inspired a huge number of stries, tales, poems , superstitions and prejudicies and it has always been worshipped by the people.
The field of the countrys economy connected with water was always a great concern for those who ruled it for they naturally attached much importance to it. From the times when the English society was being born and only beginning to take shape kings already would interest themselves in the conditions of trading across the sea. In the eleventh century Cnut on a pilgrimage to Rome took the opportunity of obtaining from the Emperor and other rulers he met there greater security and reduction of talls for his subjects, traders and others, travelling in their lands. Already in the eighth century an English merchant called Botta was settled at Marceilles, perhaps as an agent for collecting goods to be sold in England. The Viking rades of the late eighth and ninth centuries disrupted trade on the Continent, but Englishmen may well have taken part in the Baltic trade opened up by this time. At least, there is no reason to deny English nationality to a certain Wulfstan who described to King Alfred a journey taken to the Frisches Haff; he has an English name.
On the other hand, we hear of foreign traders in England from early times. Bede speaks of London as the “mart of many nations, resorting to it by sea and land”, and mentions the purchase of a captive by a Frisian merchant in London. But the strongest evidence for the amount of sea traffic in Frisian hands is the assumption of an Anglo-Saxon poet that a seaman is likely to have a Frisian wife:
Dear is the welcome guest to the Frisian woman when the ship comes to land. His ship is come and her husband, her own bread winner, is at home, and she invites him in, washes his stained raiment and gives him new clothes, grants him on land what his love demands.
Men from other lands came also. At the end of the tenth century a document dealing with trade in London speaks of men from Rouen, Flanders, Ponthieu, Normandy, France; from about the same date comes a description of York as the resort of merchants from all quarters, especially Danes.
The merchants and seamen plied an honoured trade. The poets speak with appreciation of the seaman “who can boldly drive the ship across the salt sea” or “can steer the stem on the dark wave, knows the currents, (being) the pilot of the company over the wide ocean”, and it was at least a current opinion in the early eleventh century that the merchant who had crossed the sea three times at his own cost should be entitled to a thanes rank. The merchant in Aelfrics “Colloquy” stresses the dangers of his lot:
I go on board my ship with my freight and row over the regions of the sea, and sell my goods and buy precious things which are not produced in this land, and I bring it hither to you with great danger over the sea, and sometimes I suffer shipwreck with the loss of all my goods, barely escaping with my life.
As we see people working in the sea or over the seas gained much respect in the society and were loved by others. But so much for the economical aspect. The water, as we already mentioned earlier, was one of the greatest attractions as a source of entertainment.
Fishing, like hunting, was highly popular in England, but these were pleasures reserved for the nobility. In the twelfth century, when the kings had normally been so strong, they had claimed such oppressive fishing rights that all the classes had united in protest. One of the demands of the rebels in 1381 was that hunting and fishing should be common to all; not only was this refused, but in 1390 Parliament enacted a penalty for one years imprisonment for everyone who should presume to keep hunting dogs or use ferrets or snares to catch deer, rabbits, or any other game. Fishing and hunting, said the statute, was the sport for gentlefolk.
So this is a scetch or an outline of reasons explaining why our ancestors valued so much the rivers, lakes, seas of their land and it is worth mentioning that their land abounds in all that and why they respected the work of sailors, merchants or travellers. All this is important for the understanding of how it was becoming an unseparable part of their culture and how it is reflected in their culture. In this work we would like to pay close attention to just one aspect of the whole rich cultural inheritance, and that is folklore.
What is folklore? Funk and Wagnalls “Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend” (1972) offers a staggering 22 definitions, running to half a dozen pages. In recent years definitions have tended to be all embracing in their simplicity: folklore is made up of “the traditional stories, customs and habits of a particular community or nation” says the “Collins Cobuild Dictionary” of 1987.
More specific definitions also abound; perhaps, folklore should be identified as the communitys commitment to maintaining stories, customs and habits purely for their own sake. ( A perfect example of this would be the famous horse race at Siena in Italy: the p a l i o attracts many thousands of tourists, yet if not a single outsider attend, the people of the community would still support the event year after year).
But what about those events or beliefs which have been recently initiated or which are sustained for reasons of commercial gain or tourism? Many customs are not as ancient as their participants may claim but it would be foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. Some apparently ancient customs are, in fact, relatively modern, but does this mean they cannot be termed as folklore? The spectacular fire festival at Allendale, for instance, feels utterly authentic despite the fact that there is no record of the event prior to 1853. There are many other cases of new events or stories which have rapidly assumed organic growth and therefore deserve the status of being recognised as folklore.
Any work covering the question of folklore must be selective, but here we shall attempt to explore and celebrate the variety and vigour of Britains folklore concerning “waterworld” traditions, beliefs and superstitions. A wide geographical area is covered: England, Scotland and Wales with some reference to Ireland and other territories.
Entire books indeed, whole libraries of books have been written on every aspect of folklore: on epitaphs and weather lore, folk medicine and calendar customs, traditional drama and sports and pastimes, superstitions, ghosts and witchcraft, fairs, sea monsters and many others. While trying to cram much into little work I have avoided generalisation. Precise details such as names, dates and localities are given wherever possible and there are some references to features that still can be seen - a mountain, a bridge, a standing stone or a carving in a church.
Classic folklore belongs within the country to the basic unit of the parish. Most parishes could produce at least a booklet and in some cases a substantial volume on their own folklore, past and present . It would be a mistake, however, to think that rural customs, dance and tale were the whole picture, because there is a rich picture of urban and industrial folklore as well from the office girls prewedding ceremonies to urban tales of phantom hitchhickers and stolen corpses.
In this age of fragmentation, speed and stress, people often seem to thirst for something in which they can take an active part. There is a need to rediscover something which is more permanent and part of a continuing tradition. By tapping into our heritage of song and story, ritual and celebration, our lives are given shape and meaning.
In some cases all we have to do is join in with an activity which is already happening; in others it will perhaps mean reviving a dance or a traditional play. But however we choose to participate, as long as we continue to use, adapt and develop the elements of our folklore heritage it will survive.
So this work may be regarded as an attempt to encourage us all to seek out the stories and customs of country, county, town, village, to understand and enjoy them and to pass them on.
THE WATERY WORLD
Not a single town or village in England is situated more than a hundred miles from the sea, except for a few places in the Midlands, and most of those in Wales and Scotland are nearer still. The coastline lies for thousands of miles, with a host of off-shore islands ranging from Scilly to Shetland and Wight to Lewis. It is hardly surprising then that our long and eventful maritime history is complemented by a rich heritage of nautical stories and superstitions, beliefs and c