In talking to Philla and my mother and their friends, I learned of an older stranger Herefordshire, just beneath the visible surface.
Many customs and memories would perhaps soon be submerged for ever by the world of radio and later, television, to which immersion I would myself inevitably contribute.
I was also reading of these things in books like Mary Leather’s ‘Folklore of Herefordshire’.
At Longtown, a white crow came and perched on a farmer’s plough. When he went home, the bird followed and hovered near his house. He went in and told his wife, remarking, ‘That’s not for nothin’, it’s all up wi’ me afore long.’
Next night he was poisoned. By his lodger!
There was a dragon which lived in the woods near the village of Mordiford and which gave the inhabitants great trouble. It devoured their cattle and even ate human beings. It had four legs, with webbed feet, wings like griffins and a long tail. Its body was covered with scales of green and gold.
Often it would come down to the river to drink, at the spot where the Lugg joins the Wye; its path from the wood to the river is still called Serpent’s Lane. Its picture was painted on the West end of the church at Mordiford. Under the picture was written;
‘This is the true effigy of that strange
Prodigious monster which out of the woods did range;
In Eastwood it was by Garson’s hand slain,
A truth which old mythologists maintain.’
Many rewards were offered for the destruction of the dragon, but all feared to attempt it.
At length a man called Garson who had been condemned to death was offered a pardon if he could succeed in killing the dragon.
And so he hid himself in a barrel at the edge of the river and waited till the dragon came down to drink, and then jumped out and slayed it.
But in the very moment of his triumphant victory, he was himself slain by its dying gasps of poisonous breath.
No farmer must put his lantern on the table, on account of the effect on his cows; the lantern must always be placed underneath the table. The lanterns referred to are the old fashioned tin lanterns, for candles, with horn plates for the sides.
‘They are speaking of the reason our cow calved a month too soon; it was because the master put his lantern on the table.’
A widow living in Weobley had a cock which was tame, and used to eat out of her hand. Her husband became ill and after this it used to come to crow under his window every morning.
‘I took it to be a sign of death,’ said the widow, ‘and had it killed, that it shouldn’t put him in mind of it.’
When the cock crows before midnight, that is another warning of approaching death. Before midnight the widow heard another cock crow.
But her husband lived.
In 1648, when Charles I was prisoner, the owner of the manor house at Stretton sold good cider to the gentlemen who were loyal to the king, when they met privately and being in private could discourse and be merry.
Among those who met in this way was old Mr Hill, parson of the parish. This venerable good old man one day, after his accustomed fashion, standing up with head uncovered to drink his Majesty’s health, said, ‘God bless our gracious Sovereign.’
Just as he was going to put the cup to his lips a swallow flew in at the window and perched on the edge of the earthenware cup and sipped and flew out again!
This was in the presence of the above mentioned Parson Hill, Major Gwillim, and two or three more respectable gentlemen, and neighbours, who gave joint testimony of it.
The cup is preserved there still.
There was a raven in Wigmore that cited Holy Writ.
Alexander Clogie, Parson of Wigmore, on the third of February 1691, about three in the afternoon, was in the Hall of his own house, together with that pious matron, his wife, some neighbours and relations, and two small grandchildren, in all to the number of eight persons.
Thomas Kinnersley, one of these grandchildren, aged ten, started up from the fire side, went out of the hall door, and sat himself down upon a block by a wood-pile before the door, cutting a stick.
But in less than half a quarter of an hour he returned into the Hall in great amazement, his countenance pale and affrighted, and earnestly said to his grandfather and grandmother, ‘Look in the third of the Colossians and the fifteenth,’ with infinite passion and earnestness, repeating the words three times.
Which deportment and speech, much surprising the whole company, they asked him what he meant by those words.
The child answered with great ardency of spirit, that a raven had spoken them three times from the Peak of Wigmore Steeple, and that the bird looked towards Mr WW’s house and shook its head and wings, directing its looks and motions still towards the house.
All which words he heard the Raven distinctly utter three times and then saw it mount and fly out of sight.
His grandfather took up a Bible and sought out the said text. He found these words, ‘And let the Peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which you are also called in one body and be ye thankful.’
Which much amazed all those present.
Bees must be treated with respect. They must be told of a death in the family. If not told, they will leave their hives.
There was a large apiary at the Moor, near Hay, and when its owner died, the bees were not told. Shortly afterwards they all disappeared.
In Weobley once too there was neglect of the custom of telling bees of a death. The twelve hives died, a loss attributed to this neglect of the custom of announcing the death.
Bees must not be offended. They must not be bought or sold, or even given or received as a gift.
‘If any neighbour wants bees, I may give her a hive, and in course a present finds its way to me; the luckiest thing to give is wheat or flour, in some form, such as a sack of meal.’
A bee coming into the house is a sign of the coming of a stranger.
When bees swarm they are ‘tanged’ with a clatter of frying pans and tin cans. Some say this is to make them settle, others that the practice gives the owner a right to follow the bees into his neighbour’s garden, or anywhere they may chance to be.
Bees are lovers of peace, and will not stay with a quarrelsome family.
The ghost Black Vaughan of Hergest Court is said to be the ghost of a man whose monument stands in Kington Church. He was a wicked man. After his death he could not rest, and came back ‘stronger and stronger all the while’.
At last he came in broad daylight, and would upset the farmer’s waggons, loaded with hay or corn. He would jump up behind their wives when they were riding to Kington Market.
He grew even bolder and now took the form of a fly, in order to ‘torment the horses!’ He came into the church itself, in the form of a bull!
People went so much in fear of Black Vaughan that attendance at Kington Market was affected.
The whole prosperity of the town was much diminished. It was decided that something must be done.
‘We have all got a spirit something like a spark inside us, and a spirit can go small or large, or down, down, quite small, even into a snuff-box.’
So they got twelve parsons, with twelve candles, to wait in the church to try and read him down into a silver snuff-box, reading from holy scripture.
There were present, to help to lay the spirit, a woman with a new-born baby, whose innocence and purity was held to be powerful.
Well, they read and read, but it was no use; they were all afraid, and all their candles went out one but one.
The parson that held that candle was brave. He had a stout heart, and he feared no man nor spirit.
He called out, ‘Vaughan, why are thou so fierce?’
There came an answer; ‘I was fierce when I was a man, but fiercer now, for I am a devil!’
Nothing could dismay the stout-hearted parson. Though, to tell the truth, he was nearly blind, and not a particularly sober man.
He read, and read, and read, and now Vaughen felt himself going down, and down, and down, till the snuff-box was nearly shut. Then the parson asked Vaughan, ‘Wilt thou be laid?’
Black Vaughan was desperate now and answered, ‘Anywhere, anywhere, but not in the Red Sea!’
So they shut the box, and took him and buried him for a thousand years in the bottom of Hergest Pool, in the wood, with a big stone on top of him.
But the time is nearly up.
Two footmarks were to be seen in the grass under an oak tree near Hergest, which is the spot where Black Vaughan used to stand to watch the deer in the park. The late Mr T Lloyd of Kington saw ‘Vaughan’s footmarks’ when a boy, but they have now disappeared.
The spirits of Alice Birch and Charles Clifford now haunt the ruined towers of Goodrich Castle and are heard in every storm, shrieking on the swollen waters of the Wye. That fatal spot should be carefully shunned on the anniversary of their deaths.
A peasant more hardy than his comrades, who once ventured there on that day, saw a horseman, with a female behind him, vainly urging his steed to cross the river.
Goodrich Castle was besieged in 1646 by the parliamentary forces under Colonel Birch. His niece, Alice Birch, had eloped, taking refuge there. She was drowned in the Wye, with her lover, Charles Clifford, while trying to escape from the castle when it was besieged.
‘Turn ‘em back boys,’ he shouted to the drovers, ‘turn the cattle back, no luck today.’ Back they all went.
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