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Book reveals strange world of Norfolk's folklore

PUBLISHED: 10:38 02 June 2018

St Withburga's Well at Dereham. The alleged healing powers of the well proved a major attraction for medieval pilgrims.

St Withburga's Well at Dereham. The alleged healing powers of the well proved a major attraction for medieval pilgrims.

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Norfolk writer and publisher Peter Tolhurst has turned his attention to the county's folklore for his latest book.

He talked to Trevor Heaton.

The mummified cat on display at the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton. It was originally found in a house in King's Lynn, perhaps deliberately sealed up to ward off evil spirits.The mummified cat on display at the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton. It was originally found in a house in King's Lynn, perhaps deliberately sealed up to ward off evil spirits.

Well, it took him long enough. Twenty two years after launching his Black Dog imprint, Norfolk writer and publisher Peter Tolhurst has finally got round to writing about.... black dogs.

Not any black dog, of course - THE black dog. The devilish Black Shuck - and much else besides - features in his latest volume, This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore.

A Green Man misericord at Norwich Cathedral.A Green Man misericord at Norwich Cathedral.

And like every other title which Peter has produced in his acclaimed imprint over the years, this blends fascinating and in-depth research with engaging and readable prose.

There have been books about Norfolk folklore over the years (though not as many as you might think) but there’s been nothing quite like this.

This Hollow Land, by Peter Tolhurst.This Hollow Land, by Peter Tolhurst.

For a start, there’s its ‘heft’ - 286 large-format pages, in a similar style to his award-winning Norfolk Parish Treasures trilogy. Then there’s the sheer breadth - from those devil dogs to witches, sacred springs to magic stones, love divination to fairy stories, restless spirits to folksongs... Peter is interested in anything and everything which reflects local traditions.

“These things have a tendency to creep up on you,” he said (‘these things’ being folklore, rather than devil dogs, dear reader). “I’ve always been interested in these sort of things in a way.”

It was while studying at Durham University that he took a module on social anthropology and came across volumes of the journal of the Folklore Society.

His interest was revived when he worked in east Suffolk in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and ‘almost immediately’ discovered the work of the great George Ewart Evans, who wrote many books about East Anglia oral history, the most famous being probably Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay.

“He wasn’t a folklorist, more of an anthropologist,” he said.

Evans collected stories from the horseman of Blaxhall and Helmingham, including details of the ‘frog bone ritual’, an initiation ritual with ancient echoes – although quite how far back is hard to say.

This extraordinary practice involved hanging frogs or toads in a whitethorn bush until dead, then placing the bodies in an anthill for the insects to strip the flesh. The skeleton would be washed in the stream, with the tiny ‘crotch bone’ retrieved, then baked and ground to a powder.

The purpose of all this was to give the initiate a special power over difficult-to-control horses. Now where on earth, you have to wonder, did such an bizarre ritual begin?

Peter, who lives in Norwich, later met Evans when he gave WEA classes in Southwold. “He was a very impressive man in many ways,” he said. Then, taking a leaf from Evans, Peter began recording the memories of farm workers in Forncett.

The other great source for East Anglia came via Enid Porter, Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum, whose two books of Tales of the Fens published in the 1970s drew heavily on the memories of Jack Barrett, born in 1891 in Brandon Creek of a long line of ‘fen tigers’.

The strange and sometimes humorous rituals he detailed included the practice of ‘tinging’ – the Fens version of ‘rough music’, a procession of jeering and raucous percussion designed to humiliate transgressors of some social norm.

But they could also be moving into some very murky waters indeed, most notably ‘pillow snatching’, a form of euthanasia. “These tales are unlike anything else I’ve ever read. They are macabre, full of gallows humour – absolutely unique. This is quite extraordinary material.”

“But in Norfolk, there’s nothing – no comparable folklore collector.” The nearest has probably been W B Gerish, but he was never able to finish the book (his notes are in the Norfolk Record Office). “I like to think that what I’ve produced now fills that gap.”

A recent eminent folklorist of note was Jennifer West, of Norton Subcourse, whose series of books include the posthumous The Lore of the Land, and The Fabled Coast (with Sophia Kingshill).

Norfolk, though, has many curious gaps, including in its collection of home-grown fairy stories. Rare exceptions - given in full here - are The Dauntless Girl and The Ploughman and the Fairies.

Why should that be? The disruption of the two world wars (especially the first) and the Reformation must be factors – but that equally applies to Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

No, Peter thinks it has more to do with the fact that Norfolk has always been at the forefront of sometimes radical changes in farming practice. “I’m convinced it’s an expression of a very progressive agricultural county, one where many of the old ways and oral traditions were swept away,” he said.

Every parish used to have its ‘old boys and gals’ who would pass on these tales to a new generation. But changes in the nature of village populations and the closure of pubs and other social gathering centres have eroded this once commonplace storytelling. “There are probably still some people out there - and with very good memories – but nobody seems to be interested.”

He pointed out that when Mike Burgess (of the Hidden East Anglia website) repeated an appeal in the 1990s for black dog ‘sightings’, following on from previously successful appeals in local newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s, he received zero response. “I think the oral tradition has gone.”

That is not to say that by, say, visiting retirement homes on a methodical basis there may well be hitherto unknown stories to be collected from those with the longest memories, almost-lost traditions to be passed on – but it needs a determined effort, and a determined effort now.

But in the end, perhaps folklore never really dies, just re-invents itself. Today’s anecdote might be tomorrow’s folklore – or more likely, the folklore of a few decades’ time. “All the while people are using their imagination. Stories take a generation to mature from a real event to be elaborated. It’s the art of all stories,” Peter said.

By tracing the history of folklore in print, Peter believes that it’s clear, for example, that many of the Black Shuck and ghost tales actually date from the 1890s to the 1920s. “You have to remember that people were writing for the growing tourist market,” he said. What could be better than a bit of local ‘colour’?

Peter pays tribute to the efforts of those out there trying to research and keep alive traditions, including music collector Chris Holderness and the Rig-A-Jig-Jig team. “Norfolk is really remarkable in this tradition of folksong collection,” he said.

Although this is a handsomely-sized volume, Peter is under no illusions that this is in any sense the last word on the subject, pointing to the likes of Matthew Champion, whose researches in recent years into medieval church graffiti have opened a whole new avenue to explore. There’s much more out there to discover.

There’s no sign of Peter slowing down any time soon. The 22-year creative streak that began in 1996 with his fine title East Anglia: A Literary Pilgrimage continues. That first title was followed by a string of other titles, including three volumes of regionally-inspired short stories and works by the likes of Ronald Blythe.

Peter’s next projects are the final, town, companion volume to his Norfolk Parish Treasures

series, and a volume on East Anglian Folk Art. Our region still has plenty of stories to reveal - and Peter is the just the man to tell them.

This Hollow Land, by Peter Tolhurst, is published by Black Dog Books, £20. Peter will be signing copies of the new book at the Holt Bookshop on Saturday June 9 from 10.30am-1pm.

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