Myth and Mystery in Cumbria: Lake District Cottages
The Lake District is a county which heaves with fantastic folklore populated by forest-dwelling outlaws, legendary kings, noble knights, giants, monsters and wizards. It seems our Cumbrian ancestors had a lot on their hands! Find out more below and come and explore for yourself from one of out self catering Lake District cottages.
The release of the new blockbuster film Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe, appropriates the legend of Cumbrian outlaw Adam Bell, renaming him Robin Hood from the Midlands. As it says in the poem, Adam Bell, written in 1557,
Mery it was in the grene forest
Among the leves grene
Where that man walke both east and west
Wyth bowes and arrowes kene
Adam Bell had two Merrie Men, William of Cloudsley and Clym the Clough, who were outlawed to the Forest of Inglewood, north of Penrith, for stealing game. After an audacious adventure at Carlisle, the outlaws were captured. The King agreed to pardon Adam and the Merrie Men if Adam could shoot an apple on his young son's head at a distance of 120 paces. Adam, a master longbow man, did just this and earned his pardon.
Other parts of Britain have also chosen to place Merlin, the eponymous hero of the popular BBC TV series, anywhere else in the country but here. Myrddin, to give him his proper appellation, was a Gaelic-speaking Celt of a type found just as commonly right here in Cumbria as in Wales. Myrddin, it seems, was present at the battle of Camlann – which historians think may be in Northern Cumbria - in 573, when a certain sixth century warrior was killed. Myrddin was driven mad by the bloodshed and fled into the Borders.
Merlin the TV series has a lot to say about Prince Arthur, as did the Clive Owen/Keira Knightley film, King Arthur. As it turns out Arthur was, as I am sure you are now beginning to suspect, a major player in Cumbrian history. Perhaps we can discount King Arthur's Table at Eamont Bridge as a genuine Arthurian site – it predates him by thousands of years – but there is documentary evidence placing him in Cumbria in the 11th century, long before some Glastonbury monks claimed Arthur for Somerset in 1196.
Arthur and Guinevere, according to medieval documents, were regulars at Carlisle Castle and it was here that Sir Lancelot rescued Guinevere from death at the stake after she had confessed to adultery. Lancelot was, as I'm sure you have guessed, a local lad, who lived at Castle Hewin by the now-drained Tarn Wadling at High Hesket.
Lancelot wasn't lonely up here without Guin, as his fellow knight Sir Gawain was another Cumbrian. He lived at Hutton-in-the-Forest (at a castle earlier than the current one), and it was here that he met the awesome Green Knight, who was not, as far as we know, Cumbrian.
Arthur's father Uther – played by Anthony Head in Merlin – lived at Pendragon Castle, near Kirkby Stephen. Local legend has it that Uther met his end when besieging Saxons poisoned the castle well.
The Lake District also has its very own Loch Ness Monster, or as it should be known, the Bassenthwaite Eachy. This 13ft, slimy, amphibious creature is a lot less pleasant than the gentle, humped beast of The Water Horse or Loch Ness films, but that just goes to show that Hollywood sweetens the truth.
The film industry also got it a bit wrong with the basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The basilisk, or cockatrice as it was more commonly known in folklore, was not hiding under Hogwarts but buried under the floor of All Saints' Church in Renwick, to the east of the county. In 1733, some workmen renovating the church accidentally released this fearsome beast. A quick-thinking local killed it, not with the sword of Gryffindor but with a rowan branch, as was traditional.
The Lake District also knows all about Padfoot, Sirius' alter ego in Harry Potter. Our own black dog, known as the Capelwaite, was a friendly creature given to helping out local farmers. Unfortunately, a local parson took against the supernatural beast and exorcised him out of existence
We hope you will not be too frightened to hear that Cumbria is one of the few places in Britain with a recorded sighting of a vampire. You may think that they are all in Whitby, Forks, or Volterra, but a Twilight style drama happened right here in Croglin in 1875-6. A young lady tenant of Croglin Low Hall woke one night to see two points of light and hear ominous scratching at her bedroom window. As reported by the writer, Captain Fisher, 'the creature came in and twisted its long bony fingers into her hair, dragged her head over the side of the bed and bit her violently in the throat'.
After a long holiday to recover, the young lady returned to Croglin only to encounter the vampire again. Her brothers chased the vampire, a 'tall spindly fellow in a curious cloak', into nearby Croglin churchyard, where the unconscious creature was found half under a tombstone. The locals built a bonfire, and burnt the vampire on it. It would seem that the Cumbrian vampire was more James than Edward.
Cumbria was popular with wizards throughout the centuries, and whilst Merlin is the most famous, Michael Scot is the most illustrious. Scot is a name little-known in modern Britain, but he out-gandalfed Gandalf from Lord of the Rings and could show Harry Potter's Dumbledore a thing or two. Scot was certainly a historical figure, who lived from about 1175 to 1232 and was buried at Holme Cultram Abbey in Abbeytown.
Scot was an alchemist, like Nicholas Flamel in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, but also an astrologer, astronomer, mathematician and translator. He cured the Holy Roman Emperor of his illnesses, measured the distance to heaven, transformed copper into silver and brought down the towers of the King of France's palace with a strike of his staff. He divined the future by casting stones into a box of sand, and wrote the ultimate spell book, Compendium Magia Innaturalis Nigrae. Leaving the arcane behind, there is no doubt that it was Scot who translated the Arabic versions of Aristotle's works into Latin, introducing the Greek philosopher to western Europe for the first time. He was probably the greatest scholar of his age.
So, as you can see, Cumbria is the home of most of Britain's favourite characters from myth and magic. Hollywood? What do they know?!
Spread the word.
All of the above is true according to one or more sources! Try the following for further reading:-
Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain by Marc Alexander 2002
Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat, 1999
The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling, 1976
The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District by Geoff Holder, 2009
The Life and Legend of Michael Scot by James Wood Brown, 1897