Thursday, 26 May 2011

Knockers of the North

Northumberland was once scattered with mining villages and pits, and the miners were a superstitions type of folk, and with good reason too as ghostly goings on and unexplained events weren't unknown down the mines. Here in Northumberland we have our own breed of goblin that are very specific in their dwelling requirements and choose only to live down mines. They're perhaps similar to the Cornish knocker, but with their own northern cheekyness and charm!
The two most famous goblins were known as the Shilbottle Bluecap or Blue Bonnet, and Cutty Soams. An article from the 23rd May 1863 edition of the Colliery Guardian gives more information:
"Two goblins were believed to haunt the northern mines. One was a spiteful elf; who indicated his presence only by the mischief he perpetrated. He rejoiced in the name of "Cutty Soams," and appears to have employed himself only in the stupid device of severing the rope-traces or soams, by which an assistant-putter -- honoured by the title of "the fool "-- is yoked to the tub. The strands of hemp which were left all sound in the board at "kenner-time," were found next morning severed in twain. "Cutty Soams" has been at work, could the fool and his driver say, dolefully knotting the cord."
"The other goblin was altogether a more sensible, and, indeed, an honest and hard-working bogie, much akin to the Scotch brownie, or the hairy fiend, whom Milton rather scurvily apostrophises as a lubber. The supernatural personage in question was no other than a ghostly putter, and his name was "Bluecap." Sometimes the miners would perceive a light blue flame flicker through the air, and settle on a full coal-tub, which immediately moved towards the rolley-way, as though impelled by the sturdiest sinews in the working. Industrious Bluecap was at his vocation; but he required, and rightly, to be paid for his services, which he modestly rated as those of an ordinary average putter; therefore once a fortnight Bluecap's wages were left for him in. a solitary corner of the mine. If they were a farthing below his due, the indignant Bluecap would not pocket a stiver; if they were a farthing above his due, indignant Bluecap left the surplus revenue where he found it."
An article in the Monthly Chronicle dated August 1887 gives further detail on Cutty Soams and claims that some miners believed he was the ghost of a man killed in the mine. Others thought that it was the doings of a deputy named Nelson as it always seemed to be his turn to do the night shift when the ropes were cut, and it was always him who made the discovery. Some rumours even claimed that Nelson tried to kill his love rival by cutting all but one strand of rope with which his intended victim was about to use to descend to the bottom. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the victim, an under-viewer and overman used the rope first and it broke, plunging them to their deaths. The pit fired a few days later and it said that Nelson was killed by the after-damp.

Unfortunately all the mines have long been closed and the mining buildings demolished. I imagine that these goblins must be getting awfully lonely now all the mines have closed, and I do wonder if they may have perhaps moved to the nearby colliery museum of Woodhorn, where the old mine has been preserved and is open to the public. Below are a few photos I took at modern day Woodhorn.

I also managed to find some old maps online showing the old location of the Shilbottle mine where bluecap lived. There are no traces of the old mine, the surrounding fields have been left to farmland, but perhaps old bluecap is still living in the old underground tunnels, listen carefully and you might just hear a faint 'knock knock' from below.

Sources & Further Information
Monthly Chronicle, 1887
Colliery Guardian, May 23rd 1863

P.S. Please let me know if you notice any major formatting issues with this blog entry, as i've switched over to the new blogger editing software. I've also changed the commenting format to a pop-up window as for some reason I can't comment on the embedded version anymore! Sounds like the work of tricksy goblins to me.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Fairy Music of Hen Hole

According to local folklore, hidden away in a deep chasm up in the Cheviot hills lives a group of Northumbrian fairies who play the sweetest music known to man. They run and dance through the valley, with all the grace that fairies do, but it is said these fairies have a sinister side too and once lured in a hunting party who remain trapped there to this day. According to 'Rambles in Northumberland' by Chatto (1835):

"On the north-west side of Cheviot there is a deep chasm called the Hen Hole, in which there is frequently to be seen a snow egg at midsummer. There is a tradition, that a party of hunters, when chasing a roe upon cheviot, were wiled by the fairies into the Hen Hole, and could never again find their way out."

The snow egg phrase is explained in volume 3 of the Local Historian's Table Book, legendary division, by Richardson. "This cleft is so deep and so narrow that the rays of the sun can never be said to illumine even its rugged sides, and as might be expected, there is frequently to be seen therein, a snow egg at Midsummer." Richardson also further expands on the story and claims that the hunters "heard issuing from this chasm, the sweetest music they had ever heard, and forgetting the roe which scoured away unheeded, they were impelled to enter, and could never again find their way out." The 1887 edition of the Monthly Chronicles of North-Country Lore and Legend gives further details of the fairies home:
"There is a small cavern in the face of the highest cliff on the right bank of the ravine, still accessible, we believe, to the venturesome, though dangerously so; and into this it is said that one of the early hunting Percies, along with some of his hounds, went and never returned. He and the hounds, if we may credit the legend, still lie in the cavern, bound by a magic spell - not dead, but fast asleep, and only to be released by a blast of a hunting horn, blown by some one as brave as ever Hotspur was, and more fortunate."
This makes no mention of the fairies, but interestingly does seem to merge it with another legend that is tied to various locations in Northumberland and varies but always seems to contain one or more sleeping characters hidden away who can only be woken by a horn being blown or a sword being raised. The characters are occassionally huntsmen but more often knights, or even King Arthur himself. Other locations for this tale include Brinkburn Priory (see my previous blog entry here) and Sewingshield. According to Tomlinson's Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland (1888) the cave at Hen Hole was once home to Black Adam of Cheviot, also known as the Rider of Cheviot, a murderous villain who gatecrashed a wedding and stole the women's jewels and ravished then murdered the bride, and ran away pursued by the groom, Wight Fletcher. The rider leaped the chasm of Hen Hole and escaped to his cave lair (perhaps the above mentioned cave) but the groom followed him and they fought and both fell to their deaths.

Intriguingly, Hen Hole was once known by a more sinister name, Hell Hole. The Border magazine volume 6 published November 1863 contains an article by George Tate titled Northumbrian Legends, which explains:
"Henhole is sometimes called Hellhole, which a learned friend supposes may be it's true name, derived from el or ell, water, and meaning the waterhole whence the colledge has it's source. We think, however, Henhole is the archaic name from hen, celtic, signifying old, and hence we have the old hollow."
It's also worth a mention that there is supposedly a secret underground tunnel stretching from Cateran's Hole (see my previous blog entry here) to Hen Hole, and passing under the Hurl Stone (see my blog entry here), all of which are said to be dwelling places of the fairies. So it seems that the Northumbrian fairies chose to travel underground through secret passageways, connecting their favourite fairy haunts together, allowing them to travel without discovery by humans. The entrance at Cateran's Hole has collapsed, but perhaps there is still an entrance to the tunnel hidden away in the cave at Hen Hole, this will require further field trips and research!

On Beltane morning we set off in search of Hen Hole, and found it very easily as it happens to be marked on Ordinance Survey maps! We walked a little further than planned as the walking guide failed to warn us that the road through College Valley is by permit only and closed for lambing season, so a 3 and a half mile stroll turned into an unexpected 11 mile hike! The views are breathtaking and the lambs adorable, and I soon forgot about my aching feet and walked onwards and upwards to the hill overlooking Hen Hole. The chasm was as dark and foreboding as expected, with rocky jagged crags and cascading waterfalls. It's hard to get a scale from my photographs, but the chasm is truly awe inspiring in person and you get a true feel for how far the drop is and how terrible it must have been for the hunters lured in by the fairies! From this distance I couldn't see any cave entrances, but they could easily lie concealed in the masses of boulders and rubble that has fallen into the chasm over the years. Unfortunately the public footpaths don't pass any nearer to Hen Hole so this was as close as I could get, but I plan to return another day and take the path over the top of Hen Hole and see if I can get a little closer and perhaps hear a note or two of the fairy music for myself!

Here are a few photographs taken along the path leading to Hen Hole, where I encountered a slow worm basking in the sun, a tree that appeared to be wandering down a hill, a beautiful beetle, and an extremely content looking lamb!
Sources & Further Information
Local Historian's Table Book, vol 3 legendary division, Richardson
1887 Monthly Chronicles of the North-Country
Comprehensive Guide to Northumberland, Tomlinson
The Border Magazine, vol 6 November 1863
Rambles in Northumberland, Chatto