Thursday, April 02, 2009
Clovelly is a fascinating village built on the sides of a very steep hill leading down to the sea. If you are energetic enough, it is a good idea to walk down the cobbled high street to the harbour, and enjoy a drink in one of the village’s two pubs. Although the village is very touristy it is well worth a visit.
When you get to the bottom look east along the beach and, just above the high tide line you will see a large cave. This is where, three hundred years ago, a fearsome and unpleasant family were supposed to live.
Having been brought up in Hong Kong my family moved to North Devon in 1971, when I was eleven. My paternal grandmother’s family had been from the area. She had grown up in the village, and the Lady of the Manor was her godmother, and used to regale her with tales of the local folklore. As a child of eleven or twelve my Grandmother used to tell me stories, one of which was an extremely sanitised version of the story of The Cannibals of Clovelly.
Many years later, as my interest in the weird and wonderful grew, I started digging into the legend, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t just a tall-tale of my grandmother’s.
`The history of John Gregg, and his family of robbers and murderers` is preserved in an eight-page chapbook - a particular genre of pocket-sized booklet, popular from the sixteenth through to the later part of the nineteenth century - in the Pearse Chope collection at Bideford. It is anonymous, and undated, but probably dates from the late 18th Century.
It tells the macabre tale of how the Gregg family took up their abode in a cave near Clovelly, where they lived for about twenty-five years, without visiting any town or city. According to the story, during this time they became fearsome predators upon their fellow men, and they allegedly robbed over a thousand persons, and ate the corpses of all those whom they robbed.
They were eventually discovered by the powers that be, and the king himself came with 400 men to hunt them out. Their cave was discovered containing "such a multitude of arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet, of men, women and children hung up in rows, like dry'd beef and a great many lying in pickle". John's charming family, consisting of his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grand-sons and fourteen grand-daughters begotten by incest were taken to Exeter and next day conducted under a strong guard to Plymouth where they were executed without trial.
It is difficult to tell from the original chap-book whether they unnamed author was more offended by the cannibalism, or the incest. Certainly, he seemed to take a prurient interest in describing both, and – in places – the chap-book reads more like a piece of pornography than a sober account of a historical event.
There is just one problem with the story of John Gregg and his family: None of it is true!
The story is notably similar to a sixteenth century tale from Scotland.
Sawney Bean was born in East Lothian, the son of an honest hedger and ditcher in the late 16th century. He ran away with a girl and settled in a large cave below Bennane Head in Galloway, on the south-west cost of Scotland. They lived there for 25 years having a family of forty-six members by incestuous means - eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen grand-daughters.
Already we see that the accounts of the two families are startlingly similar. Indeed the fact that the figures are identical would tend to suggest that whoever wrote the chap-book about John Gregg, merely copied the relevant statistics from one of the many accounts of the capture and trial of Sawney Bean.
Bean and his family were also blamed for the disappearances of a thousand travellers. This is the population of a medium sized village even today, but it is reassuring to note that the inefficiency of local government officials is nothing new, because despite a spate of disappearances which verged towards the genocidal, it took a quarter of a century for the powers that be to do anything about it!
Dismembered limbs were washed up on local beaches, but all attempts to locate the source failed. The Bean tribe were finally uncovered around 1600 when a couple who were returning home from a fair were ambushed and captured. The husband escaped, after having witnessed his wife`s throat being cut. The female cannibals drank her blood and then disembowelled her. The appearance of other travellers then forced a retreat by the Beans who escaped through the woods to their lair. The incident was reported to the Glasgow magistrates, who in turn, informed The King.
James VI, together with four hundred men and bloodhounds took to the fields, but missed the cave entrance, not thinking that this slit in the rock could conceal such a cavern. Some of the dogs, however, entered and filled the cave with their baying.
Beyond, in the shadows, the cannibals lay and watched, and, after a fight, were finally subdued and roped together for the journey to the Tolbooth jail in Edinburgh.
No trial was held. They were taken to Leith where the men were executed by having their hands and feet severed so that they would bleed to death. They were watched by the women, who were then burned in three large bonfires.
So ended the tribe of Bean.
Recorded cannibalism in Scotland, by the way, dates back to 1339 in the Perth area, where - according to Scottish Fortean, Tom Anderson - for years, children were the prey of a local tribe before they were caught. However, most authorities now accept that the story of Sawney Bean is a complete myth. Writing in Wikipedia the free internet encyclopaedia, Sean Thomas expresses significant doubt about the accuracy of the Sawney Bean legend:
"...from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI, whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before."
This dating could place the murders as far back as the days of Bruce, or even Macbeth. Thomas continues,
"Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership ... “
Thomas also notes that newspapers and diaries during the era when Sawney Bean was supposedly active make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of persons.
However, the final nail in the coffin of the veracity of both stories comes from nutrition researchers, who claim that a group of forty-eight would have consumed far more people than alleged in the Newgate Calendar. In order to survive for some twenty-five years, the Beans would have depopulated the entire southwestern region of Scotland, and presumably the Greggs would have eaten practically everyone in North Devon, and probably would have started munching their way through the inhabitants of Cornwall as well!
So if the story of Sawney Bean is made up, then, as the story of the `Cannibals of Clovelly` is merely a fairly shoddy copy of the story, then it has to be fictional as well! However, we are left with the million pound (or thousand corpse) question. Why would anyone bother to make something like this up?
According to the late Anthony Hippeseley-Coxe, a well known folklorist and ghost researcher who was an acquaintance of my parents in the late 1970s, the truth behind the story is almost more interesting than the story itself. He claims that the story had been concocted by the then Lord of the Manor, the predecessor several times removed of my grandmother’s godfather, to keep unwary travellers, and the merely curious away from Clovelly Dykes where he was running a lucrative, and highly illegal tobacco smuggling operation.
Another expert, Ian Maxted, writing in A History of the book in Devon, suggests that this is merely a case of an unnamed hack writer purloining someone else’s story, and recasting it for his own use. As a hack writer myself, I am ashamed to admit that this is probably nearer the truth than the story of the tobacco smugglers but it doesn’t really matter.
I am merely looking forward to the days when I am in my dotage, and on or other of my beautiful step-daughters will have provided me with grandchildren. Then I will sit them down on my knee and give them – in turn – a delightful frisson of fear and loathing, as I tell them the story of `The Cannibals of Clovelly`.
It’s what grandparents do, innit?
This is the third trenche of bird-related clippings and as well as some very interesting out of place birds from the mid 1990s, there are some archive moa sightings, and other New Zealand oddities. A twitcher's delight!
The still waters of Rostherne Mere can be found lying between the stately homes of Dunham Massey and Tatton Park at the northern end of the county of Cheshire on the outskirts of Greater Manchester. The waters of this mere were recorded in 1905 as reaching down to a maximum depth of 103.5 feet with its widest part coming in at 3,750 feet; being fully land locked and on the small side you would not really expect that it would harbour much in the way of mystery animals, but sometimes things are not always what they seem.
The most well known tales attached to this lake are those concerning the appearance of a mermaid that frequents the Mere each Easter Sunday when she sets about ringing a church bell that unfortunately found its way into the mere. The story goes that in the dim and distant past there happened to be a travelling bell maker who for reasons known only to himself cursed the new bell the he was taking to Rostherne church, as happened in those quondam days divine retribution wasn’t far behind and the bell maker’s cursing saw both him and his new bell falling into the depths of the mere in some not easily explained accident.
The reports of the mermaid in themselves ask a number of questions, with the mere being inland and many miles from the sea it is hard to place the creature sighted as an out of place mystery seal, but not impossible I might add. After all it was only around a hundred years ago that a seal made it to nearby Warrington by swimming up the River Mersey. Which of course leads us nicely to an old local tradition that states that Rostherne Mere is connected to either the Irish Sea or the River Mersey by means of a subterranean passage, perhaps it is this mystery link that has aided the travel arrangements of this mystery finned campanologist.
While talk of an underground link to the sea may at first sound nothing more than fanciful mediaeval superstition there is possibly some truth to it because there used to be reports of another animal in the waters of the mere that strongly hint to there once being a connection to the Mersey. For until the 1920s Rostherne Mere played host to a population of fresh water smelt.
Traditionally the smelt is an estuarine fish spending August to May in fresh water but returning to the sea after spawning at the beginning of April. Due to possessing a tolerance for low salinities the smelt has been able to adapt itself to live continually in fresh water when a population has found itself cut off from the routes back to the sea, such is the case with those smelt found in the lakes in Scandinavia. It was claimed Rostherne Mere was unique in the United Kingdom in playing host to this species of fresh water smelt, sadly however this claim can no long be supported as the last specimen was caught in 1922 and with it the smelt of Rostherne Mere disappeared into the history books.
Of course there is one last big question that has to be asked, just how the mermaid manages to work out when the moveable feast of Easter is due each year.
The first instalment of Dutch zooform phenomena spoke of a variety of monsters whose motive it was to pounce on the back of victims and weigh them down. The Drommedaris is a Dutch water spirit, said to prowl the Hoornse Dijk (Hoornse Dyke) at Haren, Groningen, the most north eastern province of the Netherlands.
It also jumps upon the backs of unsuspecting wayfarers and is said to lay its trunk over its victims shoulder. Another water dweller is the black demon known as the Nekker, said to resemble a frightful horse which each year demands a sacrifice to appease its fiery anger. The Ikker is a black monster that drags its victims into the depths before feasting on their blood as they drown. Another creature of dense colour is the Bullebak which is considered a nursery bogey throughout the Netherlands, and is said to have the head of a bull but also the characteristics of a frog or toad. The Watersnaak is a bogey apparition used to ward children away from waterways. In some legends it resembles a monster pike.
The Meuse River at Brielle, which rises in France and also winds through Belgium, was once said to harbour a creature known as the Capirussa. Its name is said to originate from a corruption of the word caperisca, said to be a small goat-like beast. The folkloric description is far stranger for the critter is said to have a human face, the tail of a dog and goat-like feet, the ears of a hound and a set of bells worn around its neck. The creature has, in symbolic terms become a supporter for the Brielle arms. The monster was first mentioned in the 17th century by a priest but later depictions, particularly on the Brielle coat of arms show the form as a centaur-like entity with the blood-red background representing hell. The same beast has also been reported from Indonesia where it seems most prevalent.
Interestingly, another creature resembling a centaur is also strong in Dutch folklore. The Hommelstommel is a ghostly horse-like creature, sometimes reported headless, said to haunt Groningen province. The main difference between this beast and the mythical centaur description however is it reversal of traits. In this instance the monster has the upper body of a horse and the lower of a human!
However, the awful presence of one Blauwe Gerrit (Gerrit Blue, Blue Broek), in Dutch lore, remains a disturbing apparition said to take on the form of a blue ape-like humanoid and often leaping onto victims, especially those who travel through isolated places in parts of Veluwe, in the province of Gelderland. The entity acts as a trickster spirit in the sense that should one be grasped and enveloped by such a spectre, then considerable weight is added to the traveller who by the time they get to civilisation, will surely be exhausted by the presence. Its antics echo many other Dutch monsters who are feared as nocturnal terrors. Again, such a fiend can alter its appearance to aid whatever cause it undertakes. It is often reported as a misty blue light or a dancing shadow, and is said to push travellers to the ground especially if they should reach a crossroads on their journey.
Coincidentally, there is an old German saying that, ‘The werewolf sits amid the grain’, for up until the 19th century children were warned of their own hairy apparition, the Roggenwulf or Rye Wolf, often said to lurk in the harvest fields and wait to devour any traveller or wandering child. In Dutch mythology, the Ghierwolf is a similar bipedal dog-headed man said to roam several districts of the Netherlands alongside the Korenwolf who skulks in local cornfields.
One other classic man-beast tale from the Netherlands reads as follows:
On the following day he heard that a serving-man of the burgomaster's household lay at the point of death, in consequence of having been shot in the right side, on the preceding day. This so excited the archer's curiosity, that he went to the wounded man, and requested to see the arrow. He recognized it immediately as one of his own. Then, having desired all present to leave the room, he persuaded the man to confess that he was a were-wolf and that he had devoured little children. On the following day he died.’
To be continued:
And now I find the same thing happening again with science. "How can you call yourself a scientist but say you believe in God?" sneered a bloke I met at a conference a few years ago. "Dear boy, how can you call yourself a scientist and not?" I sneered with the best well bred Patrician contempt that I could muster, but it was only bluster. Because faith is an intensely personal thing. I cannot explain it, I would rather not have to analyse it, and I feel uncomfortable talking about it in public. I am certainly not one of these people who feels comfortable knocking on people's doors and shouting "Halleluyah!" whilst banging a tambourine.
A motif one regularly sees in illuminated manuscripts and bestiaries is that of the ‘rolling stoat’, that is to say a stoat or weasel with its tail clasped in its jaws and apparently wheeling along in a novel manner.
My local parish church, that of St Mary’s in Mold, Flintshire, has an unusual feature, an amusing frieze of animals which runs in an unbroken line round the building. It is contemporary with the church itself, which was completed in 1501. Among the cats, dogs, cattle, dragons and imaginative hybrids represented in this frieze there are two stoats or weasels cheerfully rolling along ouroborus-style.
I’d always assumed this was just a bit of fun, a medieval jest, but a snippet I found in ‘Bye-gones’ – that old journal I spent several years picking apart – has made me ponder. I refer to an entry, dated October 12, 1904. A correspondent, Mr W H Bickerton, wrote in response to a letter submitted by another reader the previous week about an unusual stoat that was caught near Shrewsbury. This specimen was described as being ‘entirely without forelegs’, which had raised the question, ‘how the animal so bereft could move about?’. Now we come to Mr Bickerton’s contribution:
‘A woodman employed on a large estate in South Oxen [sic] once told me that on the previous day he had seen a stoat robbing a pheasant’s nest, and carrying the eggs to a wood stack a short distance off. The means adopted were as follows:- The stoat first clasped an egg with his fore paws against his chest, resting his head upon them, and then rolling himself up into a complete ball, with impetus from the hind legs rolled over and over until he reached the store-house.
‘If a stoat with his full complement of legs could carry a pheasant’s egg, I think he could manage personal locomotion when short of two. The woodman broke up the wood stack and found eighteen pheasant eggs stored away.’
So, maybe not so fanciful, then?
Incidentally, apropos of absolutely nothing other than that I’ve just remembered it, I wonder if you know what the country folk of Monmouthshire and Gwent called a mole? According to local historian and author the late Fred Hando, a mole was known in those parts as a ‘Woompa’. So, guess what they called a mole-hill? A Woompa Tump. Isn’t that great?
Richard Holland, Editor of Paranormal Magazine (www.paranormalmagazine.co.uk) and Uncanny UK (www.uncannyuk.com).
It’s time for news and biscuits. The biscuit of the week is the milk chocolate covered digestive, perfect sprinkled with parmesan cheese. And now for the cryptozoology news from the CFZ cryptozoology news blog:
Argentina: A Cattle Mutilation in Victoria
Cannock Chase and the spooky demonic ghost dog
Brief encounters of the animal kind: Isabella Rossellini's Green Porno
Beetles found after going missing for 100 years
Long-necked dinos didn't reach for the skies
Sick turtle checks himself into hospital
Pigeons used to smuggle cellphones into jail
Frog fitted with false leg
Aussie meat ants may be invasive cane toad's Achilles' heel
Rabid Bobcat Attacks 3 People In Arizona Town, Terrorizes Local Watering Hole
'Supersize' lions roamed Britain
Giant lobster takes over U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys
I’m told the lobster is a ‘Key’ tourist attraction.
at least they'll have the opportunity to see them immortalised in print once the book is published.
The dreams do not have to be startling or unusual, although if they are it helps. I'd be particularly interested to hear of precognitive dreams, although its not necessary. All I'm looking for is dream accounts, basically, whether they are long or short, spiritual or not, interesting or even mundane. Just send me your dreams!
Please include any relevant details, such as your name (although you can be given a pseudonym if you wish), the date you had the dream if you can remember it, place names, times, etc. and any useful details about yourself, such as what you do for a living, your age, ethnic background,
or whatever. Remember; the more detail you give me about your dream, the better the account will read!
After I receive the submissions I'll write them up and send them back to the dreamer for approval.
I'd also appreciate any photographs of the dreamer, or places related to their dreams. The copyright of the photos must belong to the correspondent, or at least I'll need permission from the copyright-holder to use the images. Photos aren't necessary. however, so if you don't have any, don't worry about it.
Please feel free to pass on this request to anyone you feel may be interested in contributing something to my book.
Yours sincerely (and sweet dreams!)