Bulletin 409

February, 2017

Tales from Old Herefordshire

Based on a talk by Valerie Dean and David Phelps

Herefordshire is noted for its amount and diversity of folklore, which is helped by its site as a border county, encircled by Wales, Shropshire, Worcester and Gloucestershire. The landscape is varied – hills and pastures and woods, with mountains beyond, and winding rivers and streams everywhere, but in particular, because of its mixed geology, with numerous caves. So there are influences from all sides, but the movement of people has tended to be constrained through history.

The best early full account of “The Folklore of Herefordshire” was a book by Ella Mary Leather, published first in 1912, and republished in 1991 by Lapridge Publications, of Kington, members of our Society until recently.

Folklore originates by definition with “people”, and Herefordians originally had a rather mixed ancestry. We know about Celts, and later Saxons, but it has been suggested that early on, there were remnants of an Iberian tribe, originally from South Wales (the Silurians), who were small, fierce, with dark curly hair, and possibly clothed in deer skins, with the hooves still attached, and may well have made use of the caves, and they feature in a story about a later King HERLA, who was due to marry a French princess, and had contacts with these people, in which much time was spent in a cave, but subsequent memories erased, possibly due to the consumption of copious strange libations connected with a Silurian wedding.

Other stories are often about “fairies and fairy rings”, but as “fairies” are a Post Conquest introduction, they obviously came later, and are said to affect the Welsh side mostly.

This ties in well with a story about a girl from Knighton (not Wigmore), Mary Powell, who was very keen on dancing, and insisted on coming (or going) to Kington, suitably clad shoewise, in which the “dancing gates” here, are mentioned. Needless to say, she didn’t get home, and when finally ‘rescued’, blamed the fairies for her predicament, and subsequently avoided boys and did her dancing in her dreams.

A later one in the same vein concerns a boy from Woolhope now, who got mixed up with the fairies locally, but ends up waking in a wine cellar in Hereford, surrounded by many empty casks, and is due to meet his fate on a gallows, but is rescued by the fairies, who pop a special cap on his head – which makes him invisible – (? any offers).

With later more intensive farming, we hear of a shepherd near Longtown, who is so careful of his flock, that they grow and outnumber his neighbours, who are said to have then murder him, but in the presence of a flock of crows – whom he had never disturbed. They follow the various parties into town, and their activity provokes confessions, which ultimately leads to a trip to the gallows, with the crows still in attendance.

Much later in origin is the best known story concerning Kington – about the Vaughans and Hergest Court. The Vaughans arrived there in 1422, but Thomas (Black) Vaughan was killed after the Battle of Banbury in the Wars of the Roses, in 1469, and subsequently buried in the famous Vaughan Chapel of Kington Church. This monument was so famous that the Church proclaimed it as a site of pilgrimage for some time. Vaughan was supposed to have had a large black dog, who makes a subsequent appearance.

Perhaps as late as the 1700s, Vaughan’s “spirit” is being blamed for all sorts of mishaps, especially to travellers passing Hergest and its pool, on the way into Kington, and the dog gets blamed for some problems too.

A story is concocted of these evil doings becoming so troublesome, that a mass exorcism is arranged (said to be held in Presteigne Church, ? why) and the “spirit” of Vaughan is summoned up, and by various incantations is reduced in “volume”, to fit into a small snuff box (these only available after 1695), and subsequently immersed at the bottom of the pool in front of Hergest Court – (despite Parry reporting that the nearby pools in the Arrow were frequented by bathing parties of ladies from Hergest!).

The snuff box is subsequently recovered during a drainage scheme (and we have seen it in the Resource Centre of Hereford Museum).

The noxious content were supposedly reburied under an oak tree nearby, but that was “conveniently” cut down in 1830 – possibly releasing the remains to resume their previous activities – which mainly concern severe disruption to travellers there on market days – especially later in the day.

All this ties in very neatly with disruption to travel towards Kington from over the Arrow – when the town bridge was swept away in 1767, and despite some repairs, had gone again in 1795, so wasn’t in operation again until 1810. This coincided with the advent of turnpikes, and their gates, and meant that travellers to market had to cross the Arrow at Hergest Bridge, and by coming into town across the site of the playing fields, avoided the turnpike at the end of Hergest Road, by the Church, to the financial detriment of the Trust. Eventually, in the mid 1800s, the turnpike gate was moved down next to Hergest Mill, but by then the story had taken hold, and that with the activities of the Black dog of Hergest, spawned the various ‘Hound Tales’, made famous by Conan Doyle – whose wife’s family came from Clyro, and would have known all about it from their trips to Kington market.

So there is obviously room for another ‘folk tale’ featuring Kington – to fill the space.