The Fairies of Cumbria: Fairy Legends from Whitehave, Ambleside, Coniston, Millom, Bassenthwaite and Other Parts of Cumbria written and published by Alan Cleaver & Lesley Park. £6
There is a Health and Safety warning on the Fairy Rock at Saltom. It is a large garish yellow sign furnished with black letters that seem to shout: “Fairy Rocks. Danger. Unstable Ground. Keep Away”. It was not put there by the fairies. They seem to have welcomed the thousands of initials that have been carved on the soft rock over the centuries. The Saltom fairies “were the most exquisitely beautiful creatures that eye ever beheld or imagination ever conceived.” They were so light on their feet that when they danced they did not even brush the dew from the harebells.
It is said that the Queen of the Fairies fell in love with a mortal. She became jealous and in a storm he was drowned off St Bees Head. “From that time fairies have never been seen again in the vicinity of Saltom.”
Of course, there are still fairies in other places in Cumbria. The Butler of Eden Hall observed some little people dancing in a ring around a beautiful goblet at St Cuthbert’s Well. He snatched the goblet and the fairies foretold: “If this cup should break or fall / Farewell to the Luck of Eden Hall.” That Luck still exists to this day. It is the most beautiful of glass goblets. It once belonged to the Musgrave family, but it is now in the safe-keeping of none other than the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In Cumbria the fairies are known by many names. Imp, changeling and robin Goodfellow are common enough, but sometimes it’s possible to encounter a bu-kow, a bargheist, a capelthwaite, a scrattie and a freetnin. Killkoulis, powries and dunters are known to some and hedley kows, padfoots, dobbies and old-scrats are known to others. There is one who is known to children everywhere. She is called the tooth-fairy.
One old tale tells of the fairy of Moresby Hall. She is to be seen dimly in the similitude of a swan on the diamond-like bosom of a tiny lake. And her song is to be heard filling the cavernous recesses with a passionate lament for her departed family. If anyone should have the courage to approach the tiny lake and drain its spell-bound water, so the story goes, he shall have wealth untold. That was a story from 1842, but the current owner of Moresby Hall believes the spring still exists and is just waiting to be found.
But there are still fairies around today. Any person who is so sceptical and unimaginative as not to believe in the hobthrushes, pixies and sprites, should take themselves down to Gelt Woods on any day in the Summer. In the dark dells, if the fairy luck is with them, they will see “doorways, windows and even house signs half-camouflaged by the roots of the trees.” However, “coloured curtains or striking red boots give away these otherwise shy fairy-folk”. When the fairy folk smell winter in the air and see the browning leaves and feel the crisp morning dew, they look to the swallows to take them south for the winter.
Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park have hand-produced a most useful and delightful guide to the fairy-folk of the county. Too often visitors to Cumbria have their eyes set on the heights. If they would only look more closely at the ground beneath their feet, they might see something which will surprise and delight them. Alan and Lesley suggest you should “Treat the fairies with respect and they will treat you likewise. And if you’re very lucky you may even catch a glimpse of one of them out of the corner of your eye.”
If you see a health and safety warning about fairies, you should ignore it.