The first question the people of this land ask of me is my name. They give freely of theirs, as if the free knowledge of it were not dangerous. They say this is the reason why the lands of Caledonia (of old our neighbour) became the barren and lawless wastelands upon which the monster and the slaver prowl, indistinguishable from one another.
If you must know my name, then I will give it: Sable. This is not my true name.
It is not the fear of magicians which imposes such secrecy; magic is not true knowledge and thus does not frighten a student of the Seeker. Mages and priests alike bleed and die when run through by the blades of murderers. I was barely a woman when the sea-borne raiders barged into our peaceful homes and laid them to waste; taking all they could find a use for and discarding the rest without care.
Much time has passed since then; but I have not been able to drive the memory of that evil day from my mind.
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.