Folk Of The Downs
With the soft lilacs and pinks of the late summer faded I find myself writing notes in purple ink to conjure the heather now gone and loitering around the garden centre displays of bright cyclamen. Rare days off, are filled with long walks on leaf soft paths with a mild, reluctant north wind swirling golds and reds about my brown leather boots. On one such autumnal stroll a friend and I discovered some Highland Cattle lounging across the path with their summer calves, nonchalantly grazing on the beech and brambles. They reminded me of stories of fairy cattle and creation.
This land that I call home is a land of many stories. A place where Herne is a ghostly hunter, hares can be bewitched and bears can be found in the stars.
Across the Downs for centuries there have been whisperings of shapeshifting witch-women. The most famous of such stories is without doubt the infamous Isobel Gowdie of Scotland, however there are several of these women that you will find almost 600 miles south, running across the undulating landscape of the Downs. Folklore collector, Jacqueline Simpson recorded many such tales across the Downs.
Ol’Sary Weaver was a resident of Up Waltham in the 1800s and local legend records her as a witch who frequently turned herself into a hare. At East Harting, Mother Digby was another shapeshifter and Liphook, Ditchling and Duddleswell all hold similar stories. You can read more about the shapeshifting hare women of the Downs in my article on page 11 of the Autumn/Winter The South Downs View here
The stag and the deer have long played a part in British and European history, appearing in many Palaeolithic cave paintings, and later our spoken legend and mythology, often morphing into horned gods such as Cernunnos, Pan and Herne. In the medieval bestiaries deer were thought to carry the secret of immortality and in Celtic mythology the phrase to ‘hunt the hind’ is used to described the search for wisdom.
The Oak tree in Windsor Park holds the source of the story of Herne The Hunter, a ghostly, antler- headed leader of the Wild Hunt but there are oak trees standing on the Downs which may hold similar stories.
Hunting and loss of habitat means that the bear has not been seen in the woods of the UK for over 1000 years, but if you look up at night, to the dark skies of the Downs, you will find that bear still resides in the sky. A constellation to remind us of the myth of Callisto and Arcus. Bears are often symbolic of motherhood and this is born out in the aforementioned Greek myth.
As the clock turns back an hour and the nights draw in, it is the time of year that we most love to gather around the fire to tell stories and I’m looking forward to doing just that on the 11th November at Butser Ancient Farm, where I will be telling ‘Tales Of The Downland’, bringing the stories of the hare, stag, bear and the landscape of the Downs to life. I hope you can join me there.
Cerridwen’s Cauldron is a community and I would love you to be a part of that community and share your thoughts on the folklore of the Downs and what folklore is unique to your area. Join the conversation in the comments below.
(A quieter month this month and a chance for me to work on my manuscript. I’m telling stories at Butser Ancient Farm on the 11th. Click on the links for more information):
Downland Tales - Butser Ancient Farm - 11th November - Share tales of the Downs with me as I explore the folklore and stories of the local landscape
October’s Paid Subscription Content:
Folklore & Stories - Islands of Mist & Fog
Kitchen Witching - Fiery Ginger
Notes From The Downs - Heartwood
Supporting my work in this way allows me to continue to write freely and authentically and I thank you from the bottom of my story telling heart.
November's Recommended Read:
I loved Dr Amy Jeff’s exploration of ancient British mythology in ‘Storyland’ and I can’t wait to get stuck into ‘Wild’ which looks specifically at medieval stories and the landscape. Also on the reading list is ‘The Cure For Sleep’ by Tanya Shadrick and ‘New Forest Folktales’ by Brice Stratford. Reviews coming soon.