Feeling Hag-gard…

I am not feeling at my best at the moment, in fact far from it. So as part of my attempt at rest and recuperation a walk to breathe in the restorative air of Devon’s coastline was in order.

There is something about the whole of the Jurassic Coastline that is amazing, not simply the natural beauty, but also the realisation of the sheer depth of time, and how we are small part of millions of years of activity.DSC_0120[1]

Sidmouth – the location for my walk – is the gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and archaeologically there are signs its long history all over town (indeed a previous walk took in some of the town’s features). The start of today’s walk was Connaught Gardens played a strategic defensive position, the evidence of which can still be seen in the gardens still.

The gardens themselves were a fortification, and a lime kiln, and the evidence for the kiln can still be seen at Jacob’s Ladder (and I can really recommend the cake at the cafe….)


The stormy weather of recent weeks has really played havoc with the coastline, and it took me a while tyo realise that I was standing on top of the promenade’s railings and that the stones had completely covered them!


I also love the graffiti on the cliff. I obviously don’t condone the damage of a World Heritage Site, but I love to see the care taken by people to preserve their presence.

DSC_0135[1]Back on the beach I started to pick up Hag stones, natural perforated stones which have numerous folkloric meanings and associations. Also known as Odin/ adder/ fairies/ holey/Hex stones they are said to have amazing and magical properties.

DSC_0142[1]Hag stones are particularly prevalent in the folk history of the South West of England, and were used to ward off evil spirits, influence by the dead, and witchcraft. In Dorset fishermen used the stones to protect against witches or spirits from boarding the boat. On Dartmoor they were known as Hex stones, and placed on window sills to protect the house.

Hag stones were worn around the neck to ward of the evil eye and spirits, but also illnesses such as plague and whooping cough, and actually thought to be able to cure a whole range of diseases. They were also used as treatment for snake bites. The stones were also able to prevent pixies, fairies and witches from interfering with livestock, in particular effecting the milk of cattle. If hung over a bed or round a bed post, it would stop Succubus or other such nightmares harming the occupant while they slept.

Moreover it is often said that if you look through the hole of a Hag stone you can see fae creatures such as fairies and pixies, or malevolence that had concealed itself from view.


Maybe I should start wearing one, I might gain some benefit from its protective and magical nature!

The Changling Wassail

Very occasionally the activities of my Changling – little un – and my love of folklore collide. Today is one such day.

I get very little out of them usually, partly because they’re six, partly due to their condition, but usually it comes in the most surprising ways. Today, at bedtime, they drew a picture of what happened in forest school – a wassail!

Held on the 12th Night (what was celebrated in SW of England traditionally on the 17th January) and named after Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál: ‘be you healthy’, communities would gather around the trees to ensure a good apple crop.

Toast drenched in cider was hung in the tree, and in more recent times I’ve heard stories of the crowd taking pot shots at the toast with shotguns to try and knock it out of the tree – all while drinking cider…

Obviously little un’s Wassail was a more sober affair, but I was told how a king and queen were chosen and they had to make loud noises to “drive away the bad spirits”. By all accounts my little changling was good at this part, and made sure they “went back twice” to make noise to help the trees.

I love the fact a new generation of Devonian children are learning this, around their own school apple trees.


The Wanderings of the Monmouth Men part 2


Yesterday I set the scene for a fantastic story about the ghosts of the Monmouth Men

We now move forward 5 years to 1690, and stories of lost souls wandering the Blackdown Hills are common. The story that I want to tell is of Jacob Seley who was so convinced he had been’ bewitched’ by the ghosts of Monmouth men, and that they stole his horse, he reported it to the judges undertaking the Western Circuit.

It goes like this:

Jacob was travelling from Exeter to Taunton on September 22nd. Leaving around 3pm he headed north on the “Hinton Clist Road” to Blackdown, and stopped at a public-house called “Cleston”. Here he stayed for a while and ordered “a pot of beer and a noggin of brandy” (or at least that is all he owned up to!) and went on his way.

By 7 or 8pm he met what he described as a Country like farmer who told him to turn back as there was good lodgings a mile or so behind him. After travelling back to the dwelling, the house and  the farmer suddenly disappeared, and Jacob tells of being surrounded by figures, that took his horse (giving it “something like treacle”). He was trapped and when he tried to slash at them with his sword “could find nothing but shadow”.

This continued until four in the morning when he managed to get away, and went to “Coldstock”; to report the whole incident to the judges, and then again publicly to his neighbourhood when he returned to Exeter.

The leaflet that came to press some two weeks later details how the house where Jacob was taken to belonged to “one of the Monmouth Men, and hang’d on the sign post, and the spot of Ground where Mr Seley was confin’d was not far from the house where several of them were Buried that were Buried, and Executed on Monmouth’s side, and goes by the name of Black Down.”

strange and wonderful

The landscape and the story became bound together, creating the atmosphere that allowed Jacob to be bewitched.

The Blackdown Hills had a reputation for criminal activity at this time, I have always thought that this could be a clear example that many bandits and thieves traded on the superstition and fear which surrounded the area in order to move through the landscape unchallenged.

Could it be that in the public house his head was filled with stories of the ghosts of the men who died only a dew years previously? Were people using the fear that could easily be generated in this landscape of steep sided valleys to take advantage of some robbery and horse stealing?

We’ll never know for sure, but I love the fact that the landscape of the ‘Black Down’ becomes steeped in this story, and almost becomes a key character within it.

I have written a longer paper on this – and if anyone is interested I’ll post it here.

The Wanderings of the Monmouth Men part 1

When I was researching the Blackdown Hills (see here if you’re interested!) I came across lots of stories and folklore related to the area, such as my last posting.

One of my other favourite tales relates to the ‘bewitching’ of Mr Seley, but that story needs some introduction….

It goes back to 1685,  and James II had just been crowned king following the death of his brother, Charles II, in February of that year.

Charles had a illegitimate son, also called James, and on the new king’s coronation, James Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch plotted rebellion.

Monmouth had been exiled to the Dutch United Provinces some seven years earlier, and had significant support from the masses. So,  coordinating with Archibald Campbell, the Earl of Argyll, they planned rebellion, and set sail from Rotterdam.

Campbell sailed to Scotland but was swiftly defeated as he could not raise a large enough following. Monmouth on the other hand arrived in Lyme Regis in June of 1685 with a small army, and proclaimed himself a Protestant King against his Catholic uncle. He draw together a small fighting force, populated significantly by farmers, artisans, and non-conformists seeking a return of religious rights that they had lost.

It is known that many men from the area of the Blackdown Hills had joined the Monmouth rebel army and camped on Luppitt Common. After a number of skirmishes and delays the two forces met at Sedgemoor on the 6th July 1685. The King’s army, led by John Churchill who later became the 1st Duke of Malborough, swiftly defeated the poorly prepared rebels. Monmouth was executed* at Tower Hill on the 15th of July, and 1,400 of his supporters were tried in the following August and September by Judge Jeffreys (known as the ‘hanging judge’) from his base in Dorchester, or in Winchester, Salisbury, or Taunton in what became known as the Bloody Assizes.

Stories in the Blackdown Hills state that many of the local men who joined Monmouth’s army  were routed back from Sedgemoor and executed on Black Down Common, which lies on the border of the town of Hemyock in Uffculme. Within ten years of this bloody episode, stories were circulating of the belief that these men still wandered the commons and roadways trying to get home.

These stories came to prominence with the reports of ‘bewitchings’ by the ghosts of the Monmouth Rebellion, in particular the haunting of a man called Jacob Seley, but that’s for the next post…



* Interestingly, while checking the dates for this post, I found reference to a story stating that Monmouth was in fact the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’, as James II couldn’t execute his own nephew, which is a lovely addition to the myth surrounding this period.

The battle of the fairies and the pixies

I have been researching folklore and archaeology for about thirteen or so years. It’s becoming a little more mainstream now, but when I started I was known as “the girl that talks about fairies”…. I grant you, this isn’t the worst thing I could have been known for but it was, and still has been, a slight millstone around my neck. This is in greater parts down the fact that some people think I actually believe in fairies, or that I want to be one. As such, when discussing my research I spend a good part of my time explaining what I’m NOT talking about (the cutesy flower fairy image of the Tinkerbell variety). I also make it clear that fairies and pixies aren’t the same, and that there are real differences in where they occur in the landscape.

One of my favourite stories to recall is the battle of the fairies and pixies on the Devon/Somerset border. I discovered the story while writing my PhD a number of years ago, but I still love it.

Basically it goes like this:

There was a time when the fairies who dwelt in Somerset and the lands to the east of the River Parrett wanted to cross the border and enter Devon to settle and extend their territory. However, the Devonian pixies, who already lived there, refused them entry. Soon war began between the two beings, and it violently and terribly raged across the landscape.

The final battle was fought on the Somerset side of the Blackdown Hills, a range of steep valleys and ridges that straddle the Devon/Somerset border well known to be the dwelling of pixies, spunkies, and ghosts of the Monmouth Men (a story for another time…). It is said that the precise spot is at the village Buckland Saint Mary that lies some 9 miles south of  the county town of Taunton and near to the modern A303. During this final confrontation the fairy host were defeated and driven away back into Somerset and Dorset, and some further afield across the water into Ireland. They were never to return to Devon, or try and conquer the lands again.

The wonderful Mrs Bray tells us that the king of the fairies was none other than Oberon, and it was during this battle “his majesty received a wound in the leg which proved incurable; none of the herbs in his dominions have hitherto had the least beneficial effects, though his principal secretary and attendant, Puck, has been in search of one of a healing nature ever since” (Bray, A. E. 1853, A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West 11–12).

So that is why there are only Pixies in Devon 🙂






Another short walk – Signs and Symbols in a coastal town

This gallery contains 12 photos.

I’ve mostly been thinking about/working on a non-landscape related commission lately, but I am always interested in the capturing a sense of place, and movement through landscapes. A couple of days ago I took a very wet walk through a coastal town; the conditions were shocking and in no way good photography weather, but I […]

Hey Hey we’re the Spunkies…

I’ve neglected this blog a little over the last few weeks as I’ve been working on my website [shameless self promotion], but more on that another time…

A few days ago I was walking along one of the ridges in the Blackdown Hills near the Devon/Somerset border. It had been particularly foggy but was clearing, when suddenly a large blanket of mist rolled across the road, seemingly through the gateway. It put me in mind of the countless tales I’d read of Willow-o’-the-Wisps shining their lights on empty rural routeways, and what fear there must have been of encountering these spirits. There are many names for Willow-o’-the-Wisps; ignis fatuus (meaning foolish fire in Latin), Hinkypunk*, Spunkies** (common in Scotland, and Somerset amongst others), fairy lights, or Jack-O’ or Hobby Lanterns.

It was thought that Willow-o’-the-Wisps were the souls of unbaptised children who endlessly walked the lonely roads and trackways luring unwary travellers to their fate down ravines or into water (I vaguely remember a tale that stated that the spirits were seeking baptism in the pools, thus unwittingly drowning their moral companions. I’d be interested to hear where that comes from). I have also heard oral testimony that stated until the very recent past, certain roadways near to where I was walking were not used after dark for fear of encountering these spirits, and alternative routes were found to avoid particular areas.


* Not to be confused by the term Hunky Punk – sometimes used in the SW of England for the carved gargoyles on churches

** Not to be confused with Punkies; hollowed out turnips or similar with a face carved on and a candle inside used to keep away evil spirits and often used in South Somerset on October 29th (For more see
Palmer, K. 1972. Punkies Folklore, Vol. 83, Iss. 3. 240-4)