Folk tales tell us how we live and keep our local history alive. They pass on the stories and knowledge that may never be written down, only passed on through word and voice. Whilst many people feel fairy tales are important for our children, these folk tales are arguably even more so. By passing these local tales onto our children, we help them develop a connection with the land they live in. From making sense of strange, local place names to enriching important local history, folk tales are just as interesting, and just as strange as any children’s fairy tale.
I grew up in the 80s in a sleepy little village in the south of Leicestershire. Not much happened, and my days were spent either at the local village primary school or over the fields, up trees and playing with friends. Looking back now, I see my childhood as idyllic. Sure, it wasn’t all perfect but then that’s the beauty of memories – they paint life in a simpler hue. One thing I do remember, better than anything else, is the bond I felt to my village and the landscape around it. I knew every building and field; every tree and pond, and I knew all the stories that went with them. My father told my siblings and I all the local stories, from the local hauntings to the curious facts and the interesting rumours. He was also the caretaker of the village school, and delighted in telling the children about the various ghosts that inhabited the 18th century former vicarage that was now the place of learning. Knowing these stories, knowing the history of those that had lived here before me, and hearing what they would did in their lives, connected me to the village and instilled a sense of place within me, which I still hold today. I still consider that village my home, despite moving away some 9 years ago.
This is what folk tales give us. And this is why, when the History Press asked me to write Leicestershire Folk Tales for Children, I jumped at the chance to pass on some of Leicestershire’s best to the next generation. But, has Leicestershire got any interesting folk tales, you may ask? That’s where I started on my journey to discover the stories of my home county. I dug around, read books on Leicestershire folk tales written by the likes of the Leicester Guild of Storytellers, and discovered we had everything you could want from stories just hidden under the surface.
Witches have always gone down well in stories, especially children’s ones. Whether they be nice, kindly witches like those in Harry Potter or Room on the Broom or the more traditional ones in fairy stories such as Hansel and Gretel, every child loves a good witch. A haggard old crone, dressed in black, famed to possess magic, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always scary, and Leicestershire has its very own.
Probably the most famous of all the local folk tales is that of Black Annis, a child-eating witch famed for stalking the west of the city limits, searching for children to devour. With blue skin, a single red eye and iron clad claws, she waits for her victims in the bows of an oak tree. Her story is believed by some to trace right back to Celtic or German mythology, with links to the gods of old. However, upon further research, it seems to have a very up-to-date ending with the last sighting being during World War II.
Giants have been fabled for creating the landscape we see today. From the giants of Ireland, its famous causeway and hero, Finn McCool, to the giants of Scotland, down to the likes of Rhita Gawr, famed for challenging King Arthur atop Mount Snowdon and onto those from across the English countryside, giants are everywhere. Leicestershire is no exception; however, our giants are somewhat more modest in stature most of the time.
The first giant is a Pagan god called Bel, famed and celebrated for the bringing of summer to the lands at the festival of Beltane. His death was told of within Leicestershire. Although this is a modern story, it’s still a great yarn worth recounting. The second tale tells of the descendants of Bel, somewhat smaller in nature but still giants of men. The Comyn family terrorised the Charnwood area for many years and can be found in one of my stories.
My favourite of all mythical creatures is the dragon, so much so, I have even written an article on Folklore Thursday questioning their existence and their etymology (Dragon Legends: Myth or Half-Truth). With my passion for them, I desperately wanted there to be a story about one in Leicestershire but, alas, no dragons, not even a large worm. But, I did find a mythical creature, on a par with the mighty dragon.
In the North West of the county lies a village by the name of Griffydam. Now, straight away, having read the name, many of you can guess what mythical creature this village has a connection to. Half lion, half eagle, this beast is not to be trifled with, as the villagers of this hamlet find out. Not a dragon but the griffin is a great local story all the same.
Nottingham has Robin Hood, Wales has King Arthur, who does Leicester have? Well, to start with the obvious, King Richard III, of course. His story, I had to include. I grew up with a totally different ending to that story that we now know is false, thanks to recent discoveries. In my book, I have finished with this story and it tells a very person story of my connection with this most famous of kings, his life and his discovery in the car park.
But who else? Leicester has played home to much royalty in the past. The stunning Bradgate Park being the childhood home of the nine-day queen, Lady Jane Gray, and Leicester itself taking its name from the infamous King Leir, whose story gets an overhaul in my book, merging it with a very similar version from Norfolk to make it more engaging for younger readers while still maintaining the core essence of the story.
Finally, did you know that Leicestershire was once the stomping ground of the infamous Dick Turpin? Rumoured to stalk the A5, then known as Watling Street, his story is told in my book also.
Having found out so much about my home county, I feel privileged to announce the release of my book, Leicestershire Folk Tales for Children, in July 2018. You will find out more about all those people and creatures I have mentioned and so much more within its pages and wonderful illustrations. I will be doing book launches, book signings and selling my books at my storytelling events. My writing will be read by the next generation of storytellers and writers and I hope, if nothing else, it inspires them to explore their home and find its stories, giving them a connection to their home. My book is available now from the History Press or through Amazon.
Win a copy of Leicestershire Folk Tales for Children by Tom Phillips
The wonderful folks over at The History Press have offered a copy of Tom’s amazing new book of Leicester folk tales for four lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscribers this month, with a copy also going to one of our Patrons*!
‘Everywhere has a story to tell. Every building, road, forest or field. Some are true, some, not so. These stories have been passed down through the ages so as we do not forget them, and now they are being passed on to you. These stories will open your eyes to the wonders of what lies just around the corner. You will become the keeper of these local tales.’
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The book can be purchased here.
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