There was an article about the archaeological explorations taking place along the route of HS2, the planned high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham. It highlighted the amazing number of sites being excavated, spanning the human history of the last ten thousand years. Before work begins, the route will explore such diverse sites as prehistoric settlements, lost churches, battlefields and burial grounds. The official position is that we have an unprecedented opportunity to discover and explore our history and finds are being made that are as varied as flint tools and the lost remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia.
All well and good… it is undoubtedly very exciting stuff. For archaeologists, this is a magnificent opportunity and may encourage an interest in their history from both from communities and younger people. There is a downside, though and no mention is made of the fact that, once dug up and buried beneath the new railway lines, these sites will be lost to us forever. The artefacts found, unless they are of spectacular appearance or popular historical significance, will doubtless be deposited in museum vaults, never again seeing the light of day, or taken out for study by professionals.
The story reminded me of another article I had read about the phenomenon known as ‘childhood amnesia’. Scientists have pinpointed the age at which we lose our memories of early life at age seven. Before that, we recall early events with clarity, after that age, the same events remain, for most people, no more than odd and disjointed snapshots. The idea is that we process and store memories differently as we leave infancy behind. The effects of the events that form the basis of those lost memories, however, remain with us and will colour our lives.
I consider myself lucky to have many clear and detailed memories of my earliest years. Amongst the happier memories of dancing, stories, moorlands and dogs… all of which have stayed in my heart for a lifetime… are sadder moments, like the desperate and fruitless search for my lost tortoise, a great-grandmother’s deathbed and saying goodbye to my father when he was sent to serve overseas. These darker experiences of ‘loss’ also remained with me and, when my partner was dying, being able to trace their cumulative path was crucial to healing the emotional morass into which I fell.
The therapist to whom I had been referred asked me to write my life story. Quite unprofessionally, I felt at the time, she confided, one day, that she really looked forward to our weekly sessions as she ‘couldn’t wait’ to hear the next instalment of a ‘fascinating’ life. Be that as it may, without the whole story, we might not have found what was the root of the problem. The coping mechanisms for ‘loss’ that had served me throughout my life to that point had gone into overdrive and collapsed. If they had known what was waiting for them in later years, they would have run away without so much as a pocket-handkerchief… but that is another story.
What had made me join the dots between the two articles, though, was an attempt to research the folklore and folktales of Derbyshire and my singular inability to find more than disjointed snippets. All I could find were a handful of undetailed hauntings, a little about Hob… a rather helpful giant, or elf, depending on the version you read… and a curious selection of tales about men finding and smoking pipes that lead them to encounters with the fairy realms. Either what once passed for tobacco in Derbyshire was ‘interesting’, or there is something worth exploring in this tale that leads back to an older time when sacred herbs were used for visionary inner journeys.
At best, the little I could find was dryly told; at worst, it was recounted with the condescension reserved for the superstitions of the ignorant. Yet, these were echoes of tales that once coloured people’s everyday lives and shaped their beliefs and behaviour.
I find it tragic that we are willing to let the old lore disappear. If nothing else, these age-old stories and local customs add a rich texture and an extra dimension to the landscapes we call home. I hoped to collect some of these tales and share them here, but when I asked people to share the Living Lore of their own area, only a handful responded, from a whole world of readers, writers and bloggers.
I would like to think that the old tales still survive, in the villages and countryside where time chooses a slower path. I would still like to collate and share the stories before they are lost as I truly believe they are an important part of our heritage and shed light, not only on human behaviour but on our respect for and interaction with the natural world around us.
Some of what our ancestors recognised as magical creatures and eldritch lights, we might be able to explain in terms of natural phenomena. Others may be explained through the lens of the time and the stories with which those who saw them had grown. In our own era, we are more likely to attribute strange goings-on to conspiracy theories or UFOs… and many alleged sightings bear a striking resemblance to earlier folk tales.
Like a memory or some unidentifiable object dug from the earth, the old lore and tales may hold a truth beyond our current comprehension. They are as much a part of our history and of the human story as a worked flint, a bronze sword, or a childhood memory and, like them, once lost they are gone forever.