The creation of folktales seems, to me, to be heavily influenced by visitors coming to an area. Within Halsway Manor’s landscape there are several examples of this. Perhaps the most notable seen after the invasions of the of the Danes, resulting in a number of Norse characters, Wild Hunts, Wayland the Blacksmith and several others being added to local folktales. It may be that new visitors to an area are less likely to be affected by the real history of the place and are more open to creating new versions of oral history through the addition of memorable places within the landscape to maximise dramatic effect.
I am wondering if this was the case with the John Walford story, which I shared with you on the last post. More modern versions of this story consistently give Dead Woman’s Ditch as the place that Walford left his wife’s body. The correct location of his wife, Jane’s body, was actually some 1.7miles away from Dead Woman’s Ditch as is demonstrated by Lord Kenyon’s bench notes from the trial in 1789:
‘I found the Body of the deceased with a stake by her just as we came into the Turnpike Road in Doddington. Between the Prisoner’s house and the Castle of Comfort, nearer the Castle of Comfort’ John Mogg (Somerset Heritage Trust ref: A\BGE/18)
A similar, but much more recent event happened in 1988 when the body of Shirley Banks was also said to have been left at Dead Woman’s Ditch. I wanted to investigate whether this murder had created any new folk stories being attributed to this place. Luckily Rachel, who is Halsway’s Communications and Programme Manager, not only vividly recalls the events surrounding this crime but was also able to share with me her recollections of its impact on the local people. You can listen to Rachel’s account if you follow the link below:
I always endeavour not to have preconceived ideas in my work. But, every now and again I find myself guilty of making assumptions. This time I had assumed that the project would demonstrate the fluid nature of story telling as each storyteller adds his or her own narrative whilst the landscape has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. However, I am starting to realise that Halsway’s landscape and its folklore seem to have a symbiotic relationship; stories develop, change or are lost but not in isolation they ebb and flow with the landscape and in some cases it is the stories that shape the landscape.
A couple of miles from Halsway is the infamous location of Walford’s Gibbet. Locally this seems to be an extremely well known story and the Internet also has several versions of this story. For those of you not familiar with the tale I will share a version of it now;
John Walford was a local charcoal burner who lived near Over Stowey. His work required him to spend long, lonely hours on the Quantocks where a slovenly but cunning girl named Jane Shorney visited him. Following her visits Jane became pregnant and John was forced to marry her, forsaking his true love, Anne Rice.
The marriage was not a happy one and one evening, following a visit to the Castle of Comfort Inn John Murdered Jane dumping her body at Dead Woman’s Ditch. The murder happened after only three weeks of marriage.
There followed a trial and John was sentenced to Hang, near the site of the murder and then have his body hung in a gibbet for a year. It is said that John asked to see Anne Rice when he stood at the gallows and they shared a few quiet moments together.
This story and its many variations holds much interest for me. Time has painted John Walford as a wronged man who was forced into marriage and his wife; Jane Shorney carried the blame. Typical of local folklore, many of the facts have been forgotten or changed. As have real locations. But this story is quite unique in that it is an actual event, occurring locally and, as a crime, many of the facts are held in the sessions records for 1789 making it potentially good story to demonstrate the progression of a folk story over time.
As I research the story I will share the facts with you.
It has been a little while since my last post but this isn’t down to me enjoying the spring sunshine. I have been researching local folklore and traditions and trying to place them in Halsway’s landscape. One of the difficulties with this is that, not only have some events been dramatically changed or forgotten over time, but the exact locations have also become a little foggy, not helped by a landscape that has changed over time.
I seem to spend a large amount of time looking at old maps and have taken to wandering, map in hand, across the Quantocks. However, I am inclined to boldly stride off in the completely wrong direction recounting various tales of local history leaving my Husband to match up landmarks and set me on the correct path!
This has led me to the feeling that I need to make it a little easier for other people to find these locations so I have created Halsway’s folklore landscape which I am sharing with you on the blog. All of the information has been verified by more than one source and, where possible, by factual accounts. As I continue the research I will add photographs and more information. There will also be blog posts about some of the folklore that will explain in more detail why I am disputing some of the current versions of the stories.
If you want to add anything to the map please let me know. I am happy for the map to evolve. However, as I am trying to uncover the truth behind some of these stories I would be grateful for information about your sources.
I wanted to take a little time to introduce you to the library at Halsway Manor as it is such a lovely place and filled with diverse and interesting collections. There is also a large collection of photographs showing Halsway over a number of years so I thought I would include a couple of the library, although it doesn’t have a tiger skin rug anymore and there are lots more books.
The library is run by Matt who has an in depth knowledge of the collections which is a great help for my research. Matt also recently introduced an online search facitlity to help find items in the archive. Alongside the photographs, there are many items relating to folk music and several quite old book and papers which really give an insight into some of the, now extinct, local traditions. I thought I would include a couple of interesting finds for you.