The North Hylton area of Sunderland boasts the city’s only castle; the aptly named Hylton Castle, now in ruins. A castle has stood on this spot since 1066, when the Hilton family were awarded land in the area following the Norman Conquest. Rebuilt in stone during the 14th-15th centuries, all that remains today are the magnificent gate house and nearby chapel which was dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria in 1157.
Hylton Castle is also home to one of the north-east’s most enduring folk stories, which is well known to school children of the city and beyond. It concerns the life and death of a certain stablehand named Roger Skelton, who is thought to have served the Hylton family in the early 17th century.
There are many strange tales of ghosts and spirits from the north country, both old and new. Some are vengeful to the living, while others haunt buildings and landmarks with no purpose at all. The ghost in this story, known commonly as Nelly the Knocker, was allegedly once a common sight in the fields near Haltwhistle, today a small town in the southern reaches of Northumberland and not far from Hadrian’s Wall.
On a farm near the village of Haltwhistle there was a field in which stood a large stone. As far as memory could recall, this rock had been haunted by a spirit in the shape of a melancholy lady dressed in loose grey clothes. Every night, so it is said, she could be seen knocking feebly at the stone, and it is because of this the locals named her Nelly the Knocker. Nelly was a harmless type of ghost; she did no one any harm and so no one took any notice of her, save a mention or two when they passed by the field after nightfall – “Oh, there’s old Nelly at her knocking again!”.
Given the bustling industrial and urban nature of North Tyneside, you would not be blamed for believing that there are no tales of witches, fairies or dragons from these parts. However, stories of years gone from the north of the Tyne have long survived the layers of steel and concrete which now cover the land. You may be surprised to learn that a wicked witch once lived not far from where the bustling city stands today.
There once lived an old woman in a village near to Newcastle. To the villagers she seemed harmless, but what they did not know was that she had stolen a lot of money from them and hidden it away. The old woman lived by herself in a little cottage, but as she grew older she found it much harder to keep her house clean and tidy. She decided to hire a servant girl to do the housework for her.
Northumberland is home to several magnificent castles, though none could be judged more dramatic than the ruin at Dunstanburgh. The largest castle in the county stands on a prominent headland which juts out of the cliffs. Surrounded by the raging sea to the east and miles of rugged landscape in every other direction, it’s not difficult to see why the castle has its own, equally dramatic, story.
It was one evening in the depth of winter which found the young knight Sir Guy riding along the coast of Northumberland. Though his leavetaking of Bamburgh had been under a clear sky, at the oncoming of night the skies grew dark and Sir Guy soon found himself lost in a mighty storm. Heavy black clouds rolled overhead and soon he could see no further into the darkness than the nodding of his horse’s head. The rain lashed down and soaked him through; the hailstones stabbing him like knives.
For some of the stranger stories we have, you might wonder how on earth someone came up with them in the first place. The more cynical side of you may turn to such answers to this question as ‘drinking’. Aptly enough, as a traditional centre of community the local public house may just have been the birthing place for many of the folk tales still in memory. It is almost certainly the case for the following tale, which should definitely be taken with a pinch of salt!
One fine evening the men of Lorbottle were sitting outside enjoying the air and the occasional mug of beer. The night was so very merry and the company so amiable that one of their number stood up and toasted the health of them all, saying,
“Gentlemen, neighbours, I would speak to you of a matter which has troubled my mind for some time. Of all the times of year, there is none I like better than when the moon is high in the sky. So long as the moon is smiling at me it does not matter how far I should need to go; and at the harvest, my brothers, I could work all night as long as her pale light were shining down on me!”
As you might imagine, the North has its fair share of witches too. There’s always been a good quantity of ambiguity regarding witches in English folklore; for example, is that troublesome old woman really a witch, or just an old lady who lives alone and knows how to manipulate people? One particularly infamous Northumbrian ‘witch’ was Meg of Meldon, who lived in the village of the same name several centuries ago.
There were many stories about old Meg, the old woman who lived in a run-down old cottage at the edge of Meldon. These rumours were eagerly yet cautiously passed among the villagers when they met in the street or at the market. They supposed that old Meg was a witch of reasonable powers. A particularly enduring tale was that the miserly old Meg was very rich. She hoarded her gold and hid it in several places, but no one would dare go looking for it or even to burgle her house; for the entire village was afraid of her powers and feared she may put a spell on the person who crossed her.
Any tale you may choose to name will tell you one thing of the faerie folk: they are never to be trusted. Make a deal with a fairy and you may be greatly rewarded; but break a promise to a fairy and the mistake will cost you dearly. The following story is from the village of Netherwitton, just a few miles west of the Northumbrian town of Morpeth.
A long time ago in the village of Netherwitton lived a cottager and his wife. Though they were not rich by earthly means, they had all that they felt need or want for save one: a child of their own. This loss grew until it became an unbearable sadness for them both. When the cottager was cutting peat in the sunny days of June he would look down upon the boys playing in the valley below and wish that one of them was his. When he sat in front of the fire in the depth of winter he would whittle away and secretly wish he had a boy to make toys for; a little lad, he thought, would be perfect: to play in front of the fire; to follow him out into the meadows; a son he could teach to fish and to learn the ways of all living creatures. His wife sat beside him and also dreamed of a child to whom she could tell the many stories her mother had told to her, and sing the many songs she remembered from her own childhood.
In pre-Christian Britain there was a considerable belief in the power of the ‘treacle’ or healing well. Treacle is a word which in itself originally meant ‘healing’. Believing in water as the source of life, the people revered their wells as holy; a practise which continued rather than died out when Christianity came to these isles.
Dotted all around Britain you will find many treacle wells, in excavated settlements, ancient buildings and even located near churches. One such notable example is St. Margaret’s Well at Binsey in Oxfordshire, which has been a site of pilgrimage for many hundreds of years. Originally a pagan well, the well at St. Margaret’s came to be famed for its powers of fertility. Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon were said to have visited it when hoping for a male heir.
Northumberland is no exception. Indeed, there is a tale which finds its origin near the town of Longwitton which describes local belief in not one but three treacle wells, found deep within the woods.
Among the most famous tales from the north-east is this one, about the time when the dramatic landscape surrounding Bamburgh Castle was terrorised by a fearsome dragon.
The castle we see today (which is by the way, always worth a visit) was built by the Normans in the 12th century. However, it is said that this highly defensible spot on the Northumberland coast has been inhabited since at least the 5th century; home to native Britons known as the Din Gaurie. This was a time of suspicions, of belief in witchcraft and magic; when the people truly believed in the fantastical creatures which so colour the many tales they passed on to us.
As the world has been watching Japan this week I thought it fitting to share another Japanese folk tale. This is for everyone who is in Japan or who is waiting for news about friends and loved ones. Spring is on its way. The wonderful symbol of Japan, the sakura, will soon blossom again. Our prayers are with you.
There once was an old man and his wife who lived in a modest house in a small village. The old couple were very kind to all they met. Unfortunately, they lived next door to another man and his wife who were mean and unfriendly. The kind old couple owned a pure white dog named Shiro, and loved him with all their hearts. However, their neighbours hated dogs and threw stones at Shiro whenever the poor dog came too far into their garden.