Review: Wiltshire Folklore, Kathleen Wiltshire (1975)

The short version: It’s not easy to find. It’s not spectacularly written. It would benefit from more analysis. And it’s a treasure.

The long version: I’m always drawn to the mythology shelves at secondhand bookstores, and almost always disappointed by their contents. The hope that almost inspires keeps me coming back, because sometimes I stumble upon a previously unknown gem, like Kathleen Wiltshire’s Wiltshire Folklore, which I discovered last month upstairs at Wellington icon Arty Bees. Printed in 1975 by the Compton Press in Wiltshire, naturally, this slender volume preserves perspectives already on the wane when it was penned. Per the back cover blurb:

Much of our countryside today has retained its looks but lost its spirit: the country state of mind has been usurped and, with it, much that was of charm and interest. For years Mrs Wiltshire has made herself almost the local registrar of vanishing traditions.

Kathleen Wiltshire was first inspired to do so by Miss Edith Olivier talking at the Wilcot Women’s Institute in 1930, and, living most of the time since at All Cannings, she has never ceased to record and recount the Folklore of Wiltshire.

If that description hadn’t piqued my interest, the cover art certainly did. This casual, almost carelessly beautiful etching depicts standing stones on a hillside, a dead or sleeping hare beneath, and cross-hatched farmland stretching around the spine onto the back, where a small barn stands nestled in a thicket of trees: Devil’s Den, distinctly Wiltshire. Each section begins with another evocative illustration by Hilary Williams.

Like David Thomson’s The People of the Sea, Wiltshire’s book appeals to me in part because of the “vanishing traditions” it keeps alive, giving readers a glimpse into the increasingly irretrievable past. Wiltshire, too, has passed on, but in collecting these stories from friends and family members, acquaintances and strangers, over the course of decades, in recording them and speculating on the connections between the tales and her own experiences, she allows us to bear witness to the Wiltshire we otherwise couldn’t visit in six diverse, overlapping chapters on witches, herbalism, farm lore, household customs, garden wisdom and more general local legends, which seem to overlap with her other published work, Ghosts and Legends of the Wiltshire Countryside (1973).

John Gay, Avebury Stone Circle, Avebury, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA083101.

I. Witches

Like any product of its own time — like this review — Wiltshire Folklore is not without flaws; in particular I struggled with the absence of analysis in the first chapter. Wiltshire begins by harking back to her grandmother’s childhood, when “witches were looked upon as quite usual members of society, and she used to tell us of one in her village who used to cure minor illnesses such as sore eyes using ‘fasting spittle’. This was, of course, a village ‘wise woman’.” This surprising, refreshing opening jars with subsequent accounts of witches as malevolent animal-bewitching, plague-bearing, harvest-destroying menaces to the community. I wish that she had examined the relationship between witches and wise men and women, between social relations and religious beliefs and, well, the weather. Drought, pestilence, fire. But to focus on this ignores the book’s value as an object of memory, so I’ll just shake my head at the missteps and focus on the stories:

I have heard that a coven called ‘Moonrakers’ a few years ago still gathered at Gorse Hill near Swindon; and at the Devil’s Den, not far from Avebury, very odd incidents were reported as recently as 1971. Someone visiting the huge dolmen at Clatford Bottom found feathers of wild birds scattered all around the cromlech, and a piece of cardboard, protected by polythene, was tied by string to a stone. On it someone had written an odd mixture of figures and letters — quite unintelligible to ordinary folk. And yet another visitor at another time found a dead hare — one of the sacred animals of both Druid and the witch — lying under the huge stones.

(More on “Moonrakers” later on.)

John Gay, Children in Graveyard, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA083292.

II. Wise Woman’s Herbal

In the next chapter Wiltshire focuses on wise women and country cures, armed by firsthand knowledge. She nods respectfully to the nine mystic herbs of the past and notes that forty-two plants were then used in homeopathic medicine, but her herbal numbers sixty, listed alphabetically and described briskly, a strange blend of science and magical thinking. For instance, the

Dandelion’s golden small sun-like flowers make the most favoured Wiltshire wine; these must be picked on a sunny day before 24th May. Dandelion roots were used as a substitute for coffee. Six or eight pounds of root, cleaned of earth, and the tops cut off, were hung up to dry. Then they were grated like ginger. A teaspoonful and a half was allowed to stand five minutes in a pot holding a pint and a half. Dried dandelion roots were ground and used for stomach and liver complaints; and dandelion tea was a remedy for colds and some rheumatic pains. The leaves were eaten as a salad.

Important note: Dandelion root coffee is caffeine-free.

Wiltshire follows these entries with a number of folk cures, spells and beauty aids. As someone who uses manuscript receipt books in my research on the transmission of chymical techniques and ingredients, I was delighted to read about one “taken from an old leather-bound handwritten book, the property of the Misses Stuart, Potterne, dated 1797.” Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the book in question — it may be in private hands — but this recipe, for “plague vinegar,” is not specific to Wiltshire. It’s better known as Four Thieves Vinegar for the elaborate backstory, a version of which Wiltshire recounts:

Four malefactors who robbed and murdered people infected during the course of the plague owned at the gallows that they had preserved themselves from the contagion by this remedy alone, and that they went to all the houses without fear. They were pardoned for the discovery.

John Gay, Lake at Stourhead, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA087307.

III. Farmer’s Lore

This is a rich, varied chapter — the highlight of the book for me, with sections on ploughing, farm animals, other beasts, weather predictions (weather predictions!), chalk horses, truffle-hunting and, best of all, unexpectedly, the bit about dewponds, man-made livestock watering holes. The process is strange, mysterious, magical.

Many years ago an old dewpond-maker of Wiltshire[, Mr. A. Smith of Market Lavington,] described pond-making to an aunt of mine; I was also there, and later noted down what he had said. This is how it went:

‘You shape your hollow according to the amount of water required; then you beat it down all over with your feet; now you take clay from the hills — not the stuff from the builders — and put six inches of it all over your hollow. Now comes the hard work — puddling — which means glazing the clay to make it impervious to water. This glazing is done by pushing heavy bitles (often made of apple wood) all over the clay until a smooth surface is obtained, and this demands knowledge of the proper moisture and consistency of the clay for puddling, and great strength, accuracy and rhythm in the ramming and beating with the bitle. Two inches of lime comes next, and calls for the adept uses of a specialised tool for pressing the new-slaked lime over the surface of the clay. Then comes four inches of straw, shaken on rough, and a trained eye for the right depth is required here; finally, you cover it all with rough local earth, which may be full of clay or chalk — it does not matter. You spread it all over, beat it down with your feet, and with beaters, and very soon there is your pond.’

Wiltshire even shares with us the secret of such dewponds: that warm layer of straw, which collects condensation. “As the water collects, it is retained, and no matter how small the rainfall, there is always two-thirds more water in the pond. And provided no one rams a hole in the clay it is good forever.” (If by forever you mean one or two centuries. The internet disagrees with folk wisdom on some points.) Dewpond-making ran in the family; I imagine fathers passing knowledge and technique on to their teenaged sons and beating down upon the clay together.

Harold Wingham, Hackpen White Horse, Broad Hinton, Kennet, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR HAW 9438/15.

IV. Home and Homestead

In this chapter Wiltshire collects seasonal and event-based superstitions as well as practical knowledge, like which plants can be used to dye thread or yarn a particular color. She elegizes the dying art of spinning not knowing that fewer than four decades later it would reach a new audience eager to learn how to make, not merely consume. I love the way personal as much as regional history informs her folklore-gathering, sources like “Miss Ruth Tongue” politely footnoted alongside anecdotal evidence that’s at once vague and precise.

One of my treasures is the first baby-cap of my great-great-grandfather, Christopher Exelby (born 1760). It is of linen, edged with very fine knitted lace, and it is told the linen yarn was spun by his mother (née Christianna Hawkswell). I have no means of telling if the recipes for vegetable dyes, written on the fly-leaf of a George III prayer book, were also hers. This book belonged to my grandmother and she supposed it had been handy when the recipes were given, perhaps by a friend after church. There is a long list of plants and colours: yellow, from dyer’s rocket; warm-brown — gorse; purplish — elderberries; carmine — inner bark of birch tree; blue — buttercup root; green — very young heather shoots; magenta — dandelion; pale blue — privet; black — oak; grey — silver birch bark.

‘Cut the flowers, leaves, stalks, etc., very small, and put in a tin saucepan close covered with a sufficient quantity of Chamber Lee (urine) to stew for half an hour; strain out the herbs and add a fresh quantity of herbs to make the dye stronger. Then strain again after second boiling and add a lump of alum. In this, dye what you want.’

This is an example of a common chemical recipe. Alum (potassium aluminum sulphate) acts as a mordant or fixative that ensures the dye won’t bleed. It’s still widely used today.

A few other home-related superstitions I found particularly interesting, or startling, or unsettling:

  • It was considered unlucky for a room to contain three light sources, “be they candles, lamps or rushlights”.
  • If two friends washed their hands in the same water, they would soon quarrel — unless both spat into the bowl.
  • Take care when positioning your bed: those pointing north-south rather than east-west were said to induce nightmares. However, tying a hag stone (one with a natural hole in it) to your headboard would keep these at bay.
  • If you ever find yourself out in the country during a thunderstorm, you might wish to heed this advice:

    “Beware of the oak; it draws the stroke.
    Avoid the ash; it courts the flash.
    Creep under a thorn; it can save you from harm.”

  • If you see a trio of butterflies fluttering around together, beware; this was considered a fatal omen.
  • A newborn should be carried upstairs before being taken downstairs to ensure the child will “rise in life.”
  • One for my mince pie-loving husband: if you eat a dozen pies each bestowed by a different friend during the twelve days of Christmas, you can look forward to twelve lucky months the next year.
  • When sweeping the floor, you should always dust inwards rather than out; otherwise the household’s money and good fortune would be swept out the door.

John Gay, Portrait of Girl, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA083460.

V. Around the Garden

This weekend I harvested crisply tart apples from the tree in our front yard and celebrated the start of autumn with a brown sugar crumble. Apples appear in so many legends and customs from Wiltshire and beyond. Peel them to divine your husband’s name; cut them in half and rub them on unwanted warts before binding them together again and burying them in soil. It was considered lucky to stand beneath a tree on Christmas or New Year’s Day and watch weak winter sunlight filter through the bare leaves. Like bee hives and bowls made from ivy, holly or hazel wood, apple trees could only be purchased with life — a young calf or pig, for instance.

In this chapter, Wiltshire takes us outside for a chat about elders and ashes and roses and thorns. She reminds us that Shakespeare called pansies “love-in-idleness,” and that both witches and Catholic clergymen preferred beeswax candles. Did you know that bees are busy in part being busybodies?

It is said bees like to be told of all their owner’s doings and troubles; if a bee-master dies the new owner must go round the hives and bow to each, and tap the hives with the house key and say, ‘Your master is dead; you must now work for —’ (naming himself). If this is not done the bees either swarm and fly away, or die of a mysterious illness. […] Bees also like to be told if a relation dies, but no name must be spoken: ‘Your master’s brother from —’ took the place of the name. They were told, too, of rejoicing and a piece of wedding cake was left by the hive for them to share in the wedding breakfast.

Or that the marigold is more than a pretty face?

It was used to flavour soups and cakes, and to make butter and cheese a brighter yellow colour; it was said to cure wasp or bee stings; and it was even sometimes used to dye the hair. But the use I like the most I found written in an old notebook: ‘On St. Luke’s Day (18th October) take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, and of thyme, and a little wormwood, dry them before a fire, then rub them to powder, and sift through a fine piece of lawn. Simmer this with a small quantity of virgin honey in white vinegar; with this anoint your stomach, breast and lips, lying down, and repeat these words thrice:

‘St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dreams let me my true love see.

This said, hasten to sleep, and in the soft slumber of your night’s repose, the very man whom you shall marry shall appear before you.’

Or that a halo around the moon hints at wet weather to come? Moonlight was believed to remove stains from soiled linen lain out overnight, but it had a much more damaging effect on the unwary who dared to fall asleep beneath the moon’s sober gaze. Their eyes would soon weaken, and they would grow “pasty-looking” and thin. We find menace in Wiltshire’s “Shepherdess of Stars,” but also beauty; if we remember to pay our respects, to set off on a journey only when she’s waxing, to admire her directly and not through the trees, she’ll bring us luck.

John Gay, Wilton, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA083444.

VI. Town and Village Tales

This final chapter is the shortest and least satisfying, as Wiltshire recounts local tales of heroes and villains that, sadly, she notes, “tend now to be forgotten.” One story, though, has not, and it explains why Wiltshire natives have been known as “moonrakers” since the latter part of the eighteenth century. I want to close with this account from Bishops and All Cannings (with a glimpse of the moon):

The tale runs that a party of smugglers had hidden some brandy kegs in a pond and a group of them were, at dead of night, fishing these out with the aid of wooden hayrakes, when they were seen by an exciseman who was riding by. In reply to his questions, he was told they were raking the water to obtain that fine cheese — pointing to the reflection of the full moon on the surface of the pond. The exciseman rode away laughing, convinced that Wiltshiremen were even stupider than he had thought.

Stupider, maybe. But also funnier, cleverer, stranger and more brilliant than you might have imagined. Kind of like Wiltshire’s book.

John Gay, Market Place, Castle Combe, Wiltshire, English Heritage NMR AA083314.

Related Links

  • English Heritage Viewfinder: Apart from the first two images of Wiltshire Folklore, which are mine, this post incorporated historical photographs of Wiltshire made available by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England. Searching their image repository by county yields all kinds of interesting regional photos.
  • Wiltshire Folklore: Katy Jordan’s site covers similar territory. Dead links notwithstanding, she has compiled some great material on ghosts and wells in particular.
  • Wiltshire County Council Heritage Services: Search archives, wills, probate records and learn more about community history and the treasures held by local museums.
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2 Responses to Review: Wiltshire Folklore, Kathleen Wiltshire (1975)

  1. Nancy says:

    What a gorgeous post–to the eyes and ears. Thanks.

  2. Paula says:

    fantastic….really interesting, thank you!

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