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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

April A-Z: Fenland Tales

The Fens are a fascinating part of England, with a folklore all their own, as well as an interesting history. The story of the Fens is a tale of constant struggle, as people seek to drain the land in order to reclaim it for farming. It remains a damp region, and this is reflected in its stories.

There is also a long history of suspicion between fenlanders and monks and several tales draw on this. For example, a ghostly barge drifts along the Little Ouse, piloted by chanting monks as they carry an open coffin. This is said to be the coffin of St Withburga, who founded a nunnery at East Dereham in 654 BCE. Her body was exhumed and removed to Ely in 974 AD in an attempt to attract more pilgrims. Such a dastardly plan was, of course, doomed to fail and a healing spring sprouted from her empty grave, bringing more pilgrims than ever.

The fenland city of Ely, which was an island before the marshland was drained, is said to be named after all the eels to be found in the surrounding waters. According to legend, St Dunstan transformed the island's monks into eels because of their shocking behaviour (many of them were married or living with women!).

Another anti-clergy story is that of the phantom bulldog. This tells of a bulldog which saved a young girl, and lost its life in the process. Naturally, the dog haunts the area - the Bulldog Bridge, between Shippea Hill and Littleport. The girl had been collecting mint and stopped to rest. While she was asleep, a passing friar accosted her and began to rip off her clothes. The valiant dog pulled the friar off the unlucky girl, and killed him, but unfortunately, the friar managed to stab the dog as he was dying.

Finally, a non-clergy-related legend is that of the Jack o' Lantern, also known as a Lantern Man or the Will O' the Wisp. These tales were prolific before the draining of the marshes, and feature strange wandering lights that lead the unwary off the dry land to their death in the bogland. People believed that whistling attracted these creatures, and that lying face down on the path would cause them to give up and go away.

In non-folklore tales, one of my favourite fenland-related novels is Graham Swift's Waterland, which I haven't read for years. It was an A-Level set text when I took English Lit (ahem) several years ago, and I enjoyed it so much, I've read all his novels since. This one focuses on the idea of history: the narrator is a history teacher who has a kind of breakdown and starts teaching a rather unconventional form of history, in telling his class about his own personal history and that of his family in the region. It's a lovely story, beautifully told and evokes the damp and somehow solid atmosphere of the fens very clearly. Another good fenland novel is Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, which I reviewed here; this crime novel picks up on some of the untrustworthy clergy ideas and is set in the 12th century.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Beth, I really enjoyed 'Waterland' and I do so love a good bit of folklore.


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