‘Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!’*

‘Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!’*

This is the story of an encounter with the fair folk over 100 hundred years ago. I first came across it some time ago in a book on Shropshire Folklore. Curious to find out more I explored maps, local history and the accounts of the 19th century Romany scholar who captured it in ink. Its roots are unknown but it is set on the slopes of the hill where I live and travelled to at least North Wales via the ancient oral tradition of storytelling, returning to the Shropshire hills through the merits of pen and paper

‘The People of the Hills have all left.
I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go.
Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps;
wood, tree, mound and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers,
treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns,
night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest – gone, all gone!
I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn,
and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone, I shall go too.’

Pook of Pucks Hill, Kipling 1909

Francis Hyde Groome, son of an archdeacon, was on holiday in North Wales when he happened upon his old acquaintance, the gypsy Silvanus Lovett, camping with his family under the shadow of Cadir Idris. Groome, a collector and scholar of all things Romany, was already acquainted with the Lovells when he came across them again while fishing near Dolgellau. Later that evening, over a trout supper, Silvanus told the following tale:1

But the curiousest thing that ever happened to we was at Friar’s Ditton2, off by the Clee Hills yonder. It must have been nigh about twelve o’clock at night, and we were stopping in a bit of a wood, with a little brook running down below. It was Lemmy here, she heard some very curious tunes right atween the tents, but nigher the boys’ than ours. Just like a lot of fiddles it was, a long way off, but wonderful clear and sweetsome; and Lemmy kicked me — but there! I never took no hearkenings, only grunted; leastwise so she said next morning. And the boys, they hadn’t heard nought neither, but the bailiff of the fine doctor said, ‘Oh! I’ve often heard that myself; that’s the fairies.’ “

” Fairies! The last occasion, I take it, that fairies were heard in England. How long ago may that have been? “

” Three years come Nathan’s birthday. But these Welsh farmers, some of ’em leastwise, set bowls of milk out every evening, and they’re sure to be empty in the morning.”

Friars Ditton is another name for Ditton Priors (sometimes Priors Ditton) a modest village on the slopes of Brown Clee Hill. Gypsies were once frequent visitors to the Clee Hills and surrounding townships. Many came for the winberry harvest or to find seasonal farm work. These were occasions for songs and stories to be heard and exchanged in the many inns tucked away in the folds of the hillsides or around the regular campfires. The bones of this tale may be found in many ‘Folklore of Shropshire’ books but a closer look at its context tells us a little more about this little known part of England.

Groome had a lifelong fascination with Gypsy traditions, their language and stories. He had met and eventually married the gypsy dancer and muse Esmeralda Locke in Bridgnorth when she was married to the town clerk, Hubert Smith. 3 Groome would have been at least familiar with the Clee Hills, about ten miles from Bridgnorth, an area with a dark reputation at that time for witchcraft and cunning men. A local vicar, determined to preach against such heathen belief in his parish, was advised against it by the local school master telling him he may loose his congregation! In living memory the gypsies who camped down at nearby Cleedownton last century would not go up on Brown Clee’s upper slopes in fear of its dark reputation and even today some locals believe it is a place to be wary of.

Francis Hind Groome & his dog

In the nineteenth century it was not unusual for remote areas and habitations to be attributed with a supernatural presence. Sometimes the people were deemed as strange or ‘cunning’ with curious traditions. And it is often from such places we inherit wonderful stories: strange lights in the hills, water horses, disgruntled giants and otherworldly women all have their tales, stories passed down orally making their provenance and lineage difficult to determine. The quote at the head of the page reflects this periods fascination in things fae and wonderful. The ‘passing’ of the ‘People of the Hills’, as Kipling refers to fairies and other supernatural beings, is a familiar theme in many stories. In popular culture Barrie’s Peter Pan uses it and later J R R Tolkien in his migration of the elves in Lord of the Rings.

It is likely that the roots of such stories are lost in deep time. Some have been preserved by story tellers and many written down, fixed in ink long ago. Medieval scribes and clerics, busy with their quills, recorded stories of saints, animals, miraculous land features often shaping and moulding each story to fit their own understanding and need. For example, we know certain tales were expanded to ‘explain’ the reason a church was built in a particular location or why certain land belonged to particularly monastery. A fine example is a story of Edric, an 11th century Saxon thegn. It was written by Henry II’s cleric, Walter Map, in the late 12th century, likely using a traditional tale, the earliest example of the fairy bride story. It relates how Edric, returning from a hunt in the Forest of Dean, captured and raped an otherworldly woman.4 They later married and had a child, Alnoth, who in adult life was miraculously cured of palsy at St Ethelbert’s shrine at Hereford. In his thankfulness Alnoth donated land in Shropshire to Hereford Cathedral which conveniently explains how Hereford had in its possession a small part of Shropshire.

Tales travel.

For thousand of years they’ve travel far, from north to south, across mountains and oceans. Their provenance is hidden and their timescale vast. In a Byzantine court Germanic merchants heard tales tales of a mysterious entity in the far west that gathered souls of the dead to be rowed across the sea to their final resting place. The merchants heard and recorded these tale which were then ‘collected’ by a Greek philosopher. On dark desert nights pilgrims gathered around fires at night in deserts and mountains to entertain, share news, exchange stories and songs. Some of these pilgrims were from Canterbury and their stories have survived hundreds of years. Medieval bards, poets, tellers, minstrels, troubadours clerics, merchants, migrants, travellers and later antiquarians and historians, all have played their part in the preservation of such tales. We are indebted to all of them, grateful for their preservation albeit likely altered and adapted over time. Some shine a dim light through the grimy windows of the past. Others offer a connection of continuity between ourselves and those who came before.

And of course, the Romany community, the travelling folk who continue to be the keepers of the oral tradition, were well placed to gather and share glimmers of past life. It was this community that the Lovells belonged to.

It must have been nigh about twelve o’clock at night, and we were stopping in a bit of a wood, with a little brook running down below.’

Silvanus Lovell told Groome he had been camping with his wife Lementina (Lemmy) and their seven sons in one of the woods near Ditton priors. It’s midnight, dark, they are in a wood and there’s running water. Then he hears music! These are familiar themes connected with the supernatural in folktales. Each signals to the listener that something uncanny is about to happen. This is a technique used in oral storytelling for well over a thousand years and features in many old Irish and Welsh tales.

Illustration from In Gypsy Tents, Francis Hind Groome

‘…these Welsh farmers, some of ’em leastwise, set bowls of milk out every evening, and they’re sure to be empty in the morning.”

There is an old custom, especially known in Ireland and Scotland, of leaving a libation (or placation?) for the fairies or spirit of the place on the step at night. Fairies were known to like milk. Weavers in Scotland might leave an offering of milk as an offering when they started a new piece of work. Silvanus refers to the farmers in these parts as ‘Welsh’. The boundaries between England and Wales were not so clearly defined back then: some towns on the border with England, such as Oswestry were largely Welsh speaking and Welsh is often heard today along the English March. People came from Wales for work, on the harvest, sheep shearing. Some settled. And of course the Welsh drovers left their own mark on the landscape and in the many drovers inns on the routes to markets and back.

…but the bailiff of the fine doctor said, ‘Oh! I’ve often heard that myself; that’s the fairies’.

Silvanus mentions the ‘fine doctor’s bailiff’ and a house once belonging to the doctor still stands next to an old road leading up towards the woods and streams. Its tempting to wonder whether this area was where the Lovells made camp.

Green lane on Brown Clee Hill

Despite researching the history and tales of this area I have never found many stories concerning the supernatural apart from a story about an old woman they said was a witch. I keep turning over the stones and digging. After all, you never know what might turn up.

And most expectantly one day something did.

Earlier this year myself and local folk singer and collector, Polly Bolton, performed our piece ‘An Acre of Land’ in a local venue. An Acre of Land is our celebration of Brown Clee Hill, its nature, its folklore and it’s past history in songs and stories. One of the stories was Silvanus’s tale, ‘The Last Fairies’ which prompted some interest from some of the locals.

Shortly afterwards I saw a piece on social media regarding our performance and Silavanus account of hearing the fairies on the hill. Someone had commented that gypsies use to make camp at a certain yard the other end of Ditton Priors. It’s few miles from where the ‘fine doctor’ use to live but it’s location caught my eye: Powkesmore. I had researched this area some years ago, my attention caught by its unusual and suggestive name. The earliest reference to the area I could find was in 1421 when it was called Pokmore, once a marsh, a ‘waste’ land, used for neither crops or stock.

According to the ‘Survey of English Placenames’ Powkesmore derives from Old English meaning a ‘goblin marsh or slope’. It’s hard not to speculate whether these once marshy, uninhabited area hillsides hold echoes of tales of the supernatural: cautionary tales were often told to warn people, especially children, of certain dangers in the landscape (Think tales of the water spirit Jenny Greenteenth and the Jack O lanterns or Will O the Wisps). We are too familiar of people being lost on marshy moors or falling into deep pond water.

Was Powkesmore a regular spot for the Lovell’s camp? If Sivanus knew the area he may have been familiar with any reputation it may have had then? Or did he rehash a well known tale and give it a local flavour? I don’t think it matters. It has opened up forgotten pathways for me and other curious folk and continues to entertained with its account of how the last fairies in England played their fiddles up on the slopes of Brown Clee Hill in South Shropshire.

Curiously, after the aforementioned post on social media there followed accounts of strange, supernatural encounters that recently occurred at Powkesmore. Whether Silvanus’s tale was a local one or one he carried with him accordingly it appears that Powkesmore especially, retains a reputation for Otherworldly encounters.

*J M Barrie, Peter Pan

1F. H. Groome In Gypsy Tents, 1880.

2Ditton Priors also known in some old texts as Priors Ditton.

3The Locke family often pitched their tents on the banks of the Severn at Bridgnorth. Smith had taken an interest in Esmeralda and her brother from an early age, on one occasion taking them on holiday to Norway.

4 https://myblog.moonbrookcottagehandspun.co.uk/?s=eadric

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