Last weekend (19 November) I had the good fortune of being invited to speak at ‘The Haunted Landscape: British Folklore and Ghosts’ symposium, organised by Scott Wood of the London Fortean Society. It was held in the main hall of Conway Hall, a large and atmospheric two-tier wood panelled room that can seat about 400 people – and the fact that all seats were occupied speaks both of Scott’s excellent planning skills and of the popularity of this subject area. Few topics would draw 400 people out of their beds on a cold Saturday morning, but it turns out that the folklore of fairies, witches, and ghosts is one of those few.
The event was pitched as an exploration into ‘the folklore, ghosts and curses of the British Isles… Authors, experts and researchers discuss ghosts, strange beasts and magic. From a talking mongoose to soul birds, moving megaliths in the landscape to witch marks in old buildings; fairy lore and ghosts. Join us at Conway Hall to learn that the green and pleasant land we abide in has a dark, strange and chilling other side’. And learn this we certainly did!
Sadly I was only able to attend the first half of the day, but it was well worth the trip. Jeremy Harte spoke with his usual eloquence and humour on fairy treasure; Joanne Parker delved into the fascinating world of gibbet lore; museum director Simon Costin detailed the decidedly colourful history of Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic; and photographer Sara Hannant treated us to some of her beautiful images of the museum’s collection. The papers I missed – but which I’m certain were equally riveting – included Sophia Kingshill’s ‘The Haunted Shores of England’, Christopher Josiffe’s ‘A Mongoose in the Landscape’, James Wright’s ‘Cultural Anxieties and Ritual Protection in High Status Early Modern Houses’ – which I’ve been lucky enough to hear parts of before – and Roger Clarke’s ‘Whatever Happened to the Headless Ghost?’. I really regret missing these but am hopeful it won’t be the last chance I’ll get.
The Blackley Boggart (and its Distant Cousins)
I was speaking first, giving my paper on ‘The Blackley Boggart and its Distant Cousins’. This was based on my MA research into the folklore of Boggart Hole Clough: 171 acres of dense forests and deep cloughs, which have become an inner-city park in Blackley, north Manchester. Unsurprisingly, the name of the park has sparked numerous aetiological tales, most of which are centred on the supernatural creature known as ‘the Boggart’. What the Boggart is and how it came to be associated with this area of land vary depending upon who you ask, but the earliest known tradition comes from John Roby’s 1829 Traditions of Lancashire. Roby avers that a local farmer, George Cheetham, was once haunted by a Boggart, a mischievous creature who drove George and his family from their farmhouse – only to come with them.
But George Cheetham’s Boggart is far from unique, and I explored several other, remarkably similar stories from across Europe, identifying the Blackley Boggart’s distant cousins in the Irish Cluricaune, the Italian Lauro, and the German Kobold, to name only some.
I also traced the Boggart Hole Clough folklore from 1829 to the present day, revealing that the tales have grown more vivid and progressively darker over the decades. I considered this in light of the changing natural environment of the park – once a pleasant space of open spaces, neat flowerbeds, and bandstands; now an area of dense woodland with an unfriendly reputation. Not only is the Blackley Boggart part of the landscape, but it is also shaped by that landscape – and continues to adapt to its changing environment, reflecting the anxieties of those who enter it.
Certainly this appeared to be the main theme of the day: that the British landscape is heavily populated with tales of ghosts, fairies, and other strange beasts, which speak of the fears of both our ancestors and ourselves. But just as our landscape changes from one county to another and from one year to the next, so too do our tales, which prove able to adapt fluidly to time and place.