8 Best of British Folklore

In its long history, 
Britain has been home 
to Pagans, Celts and Vikings. So it’s no 
surprise they’ve 
left behind a melting 
pot of traditions and folklore. Here are some of the most colourful...

Horn Dance

Abbots Bromley,12 miles east of Stafford

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance takes place on “Wakes Monday” in early September. The dancers make a 20-mile circuit of local farms, where they’re hailed as bearers of good luck and fertility. The procession includes six Deer Men who carry wooden replicas of reindeer heads with real antlers attached, accompanied by a Fool, a Hobby Horse, Maid Marion and a Bowman, with music provided by a melodion player. Scientific proof of the event’s antiquity came in 1976, when a broken piece of antler was sent for radiocarbon dating. It dated back to 1050, suggesting the ceremony had Viking origins.

 

Veryan Houses

Veryan, minor roads off the A3078, 7 miles north of St Mawes, Cornwall

The pretty parish of Veryan on the Roseland peninsula contains five circular, thatched cottages—each with a pointed roof surmounted by a cross. They were built in the early 19th century by the Reverend Jeremiah Trist who, it was said, believed that their shape would prevent the devil from hiding in any corners. The reverend married a girl from Tregamenna. They had five daughters, and one story is that he built a house for each of them.

 

Malvhina Well

Malvhina Well, Great Malvern, Worcestershire

An abundance of springs well forth from the Malvern Hills. The most famous is Holy Well, renowned for its curative properties from the days when monks would wrap patients in water-soaked cloths. The water is said to be especially good for skin diseases and eye disorders. The Malvhina well was opened in 1998 as the first step of the “Malvern Water Trail”—an initiative for different sculptors to restore interest around the lost spring water sites throughout Great Malvern. Sadly, Rose Garrard’s stone and bronze woman was the first and final sculpture as funding ran dry. The fountain was aptly named after a Gaelic princess that Charles Grindrod, a Victorian historian, had connected with the naming of Malvern.

 

The Ring of Brodgar

8 Miles North Of Stromness, Orkney Islands

The vast ditch-and-bank megalithic monument known as the Ring of Brodgar is the third largest stone circle in Britain. Set on a rise between the lochs of Harray and Stenness, its huge slabs of Orcadian sandstone are set in a perfect circle 350 feet across. It was probably erected between 2700 and 2000BC, although its purpose is unknown. Brodgar was once loosely named Temple of the Sun—the standing stones at Stenness formed the Temple of the Moon. The stones were also said to have been dancing giants, turned to stone by the rays of the rising sun.

 

Whittlesea Straw Bear

Whittlesea, 6 miles east of Peterborough on the A605, Cambridgeshire

Straw Bear Day is an old tradition that was revived in 1980, and takes place on the first Tuesday after Twelfth Night. Originally, the bear—a man covered in straw—was led from house to house and made to dance in return for money. Today, the Straw Bear is the lead character in a procession that includes morris and molly dancers, mummers and musicians. 

 

Minehead Hobby Horse

On the A39, three miles east of Minehead, Somerset

The town’s Hobby Horse makes its first appearance on May Day Eve. For the next three days at various times, it prances its way around the district accompanied by drum and accordion. 

The horse consists of a nine-foot-long frame covered with canvas and ribbons, concealing a dancer. Like other hobby horses, the Minehead version is probably the survival of an ancient spring rite, though local legend gives it a different origin. In the ninth century, the town was constantly under attack by Viking pirates. But the raiders fled in terror when a Minehead crew disguised its ship as a sea serpent. The Hobby Horse is a celebration of their victory. It has been pointed out that the horse bears some resemblance to a longship.

 

Royston Cave

At junction of A10 and A505, 13 miles south-west of Cambridge

One of Hertfordshire’s greatest treasures—and most enduring mysteries—lies beneath a high-street shop in Royston. Known as Royston Cave, this bell-shaped chamber was dug from the local chalk by unknown hands, possibly in the 14th century, although there are no records to indicate its origins. 

A series of images are carved on the walls, from saints to the Holy Family, together with indistinct renderings of images more common in ancient times—horses and Sheela-Na-Gig (a stylised woman with exposed genitals). The cave, unique in all of Europe, had lain hidden until the 18th century when it was discovered by workmen. It’s believed to have connections to the Knights Templar as the imagery depicts saints venerated by the order. 

 

Pennard Castle

Penman, 9 miles west of Swansea

Among the sand dunes of the Gower Peninsula lie the ruins of Pennard Castle, which was once the fortress of chieftain Rhys ap Iestyn. According to legend, a prince of north Wales gave Rhys his daughter in marriage as a reward for his valour in battle. On the wedding night, his sentries came across a host of fairies dancing on the grass near the gatehouse. One of them ran to tell Lord Rhys, who, now drunk, ordered his men to drive the little folk away. 

His new wife was aghast, and warned him that a terrible misfortune would befall everyone if such a thing were done. Lord Rhys arrogantly told her that he wasn’t scared of anything, but when he went to fight them, the fairies disappeared. Suddenly, a warning voice rang out: “Thou hast wantonly spoilt our innocent sport, proud chief. Thy lofty castle and town shall be no more.” And at
once, a terrible sandstorm blew up, burying the castle, the town and all its inhabitants. 

The basis of this legend is that during its 300 year occupation, Pennard Castle’s only battle was with encroaching sand dunes. They finally destroyed it in the 16th century.