“Let the Curtain Rise!”


The memorial to Frances Gair Wilkinson’s parents at Halsway Manor.


Halsway Manor’s status as the National Centre for Folk Arts started when Frances Gair Wilkinson  purchased the Manor  11thJune 1965. A full history can be found on Halsway Manor’s website.

Frances was an artist and came from an extremely creative and freethinking family. However, I am very interested in the family’s links to puppetry, as it seems a natural progression for my work.

Francis’ Uncle Walter built his own barrow which he took around the country to perform his shows entitled ‘the Peep Show’. He seems tireless in his resolve to master his art and his travels seem to be an act of love rather than necessity


Walter Wilkinson with his travelling puppet show


Walter wrote a series of eight books about his travelling puppet shows which can be found in Halsway’s library.

At the beginning of any project there can be periods of self-doubt, especially when the work is taking a different direction. Walter’s books generously share his own doubts together with his belief that he could master his art. I must say I found his advice to be quite inspiring and very well timed.

 All showmen should make their own figures. Like a picture, a puppet-show should be a work of art, dominated by one personality, organised into a harmonious production of form and colour by one definite style of thought.

                                                                              Walter Wilkinson

In the next post I will let you know how making my own figures is going.

Forgotten Places

I  previously told you about the storyteller, Ruth Tongue and her association with Halsway Manor who hold a large collection of her papers in the library.

It is extremely fortunate that one of Halsway’s volunteers, Biddy Rhodes, knew Miss Tongue. During one of our discussions Biddy very kindly offered to show me the ruins of Miss Tongue’s cottage, which had been destroyed by fire. I will mention that Halsway’s library has a book called ‘The Book of Crowcombe, Bicknoller and Sampford Brett” by Maurice & Joyce Chidgey which contains a picture of the cottage prior to the fire.

Up until its destruction the cottage had featured on maps of the area but, as it has not existed for many years, this is no longer the case. Looking on modern maps you can no longer see Miss Tongue’s cottage.  Boundaries have expanded to erase it; it has become a lost place, reliant upon the memories of a few remaining people for its survival. Of course, similar associations also exist for the work of Ruth Tongue. Luckily some original recordings of her singing exist as part of Halsway Library’s archive and I have shared one of my favourites, ‘Severn No More’ with you as part of a film showing the cottage’s remains. Interestingly, Biddy told me that Ruth Tongue taught her the song when she was a child and would often be encouraged to perform it. During these performances Biddy would be told that the song was a gift to her. I will include more about Biddy’s lovely rendition of the song soon.

IMG_1815 (1)
Biddy Rhodes and Halsway’s librarian, Matt Rose,  outside the ruins of Ruth Tongue’s cottage.




Location, Location, Location

Walford's Gibbet
Test shot for Walford’s Gibbet ©Andrea Oke

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.




Walford’s Gibbet


Walford’s Gibbet Sign Post


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.




Uncovering a Landscape

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 Halsways 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 Halsways 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.

Halsway Manor Library


Library c1958 Miss Mardon's Collection
Library 1958 ©Halsway Manor Society


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.


Library 1
©Halsway Manor Society

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.


Traditional Somerset Recipe


Tradition of the Quantocks written approx 1908



Illustrating the origin of vulgar customs 1813
Index of popular customs of the time
Basilisk or Cockatrice myth

Dimpsies: noun. Blindness or short sight (Southwest England dialect)

Ruth Tongue 1 (1)
Ruth Tongue from newspaper cutting ©Halsway Manor Society

One way or another I have undertaken a vast amount of research into the folklore of Somerset. Ultimately, this led me to the work of Ruth Tongue, who lived in the Crowcombe area for many years. Ruth Tongue became involved with Halsway Manor in the 1970’s and the library contains a rare collection of her manuscripts some of which I will share with you during the project.

Some of you may have heard about the work of Ruth Tongue and what you have heard may not have been complementary. Ruth Tongue has received years of criticism for her methods.  She has been accused of fantasy and embellishment and whilst her male counterparts have dedicated websites and appreciation societies the work of Ruth Tongue has been largely cast aside.

Many of the issues surrounding Ruth Tongue’s fall from grace no doubt lie at her own door. In the fifties she met Dr K M Briggs who introduced her to the Folklore Society and for a time she was well regarded. However, the academic world required her to list sources but for Ruth, who had listened to many of these stories as a child, there was no way to accurately recollect this information or retrace her sources.  Knowing the value of Ruth’s collection and in an effort to legitimise the work Tongue and Briggs tidied up the stories by referencing them with footnotes giving a year and lengthy description of the source such as; ‘this tale was gathered in 1911 from harvesters and a maidservant in Cothelstone and Ivyton’, a practice that ultimately led to ridicule due to its obvious obscurity.

Let’s examine this further; it is perfectly reasonable for Ruth, who was living locally in 1911, to have heard many local folk stories.  However, she would have been 13 years old at the time and completely unaware of the rigors of academia or the necessity to document her sources – that doesn’t mean she made everything up, it means that, unlike many of her counterparts of the time, she lived in the community that she collected the folklore from.


Some of Ruth Tongue’s notes containing a huge amount of folklore © The Halsway Society

I find that in researching Ruth Tongue it is worth remembering that she was trained in art and drama, another aspect of her work that is largely overlooked. I recently found a small file of documents held at the Somerset Archives Office containing a book; hand written and illustrated by Ruth Tongue called ‘The Castle of Twelve Towers’ (I am currently seeking permission to show some of the pictures on the blog and hope to share them with you soon).  Not only have I been very pleased to acquaint Halsway Manor with this forgotten book but it has also led me to the realisation that Ruth Tongue should be celebrated as an artist whose stories are akin to the Brothers Grimm and form an important part of Somerset’s heritage.

As the project progresses I hope share other discoveries with you but for now I am just happy to have introduced Halsway to the book and the idea that Ruth Tongue was a credible writer and artist who deserves a place in history.