These lively and entertaining folk tales from one of Britain's most ancient counties are vividly retold by local storyteller Janet Dowling. Their origins lost in the oral tradition, these 30 stories from Surrey reflect the wisdom (and eccentricities) of the county and its people. Discover the places in the Surrey landscape where dragons walked, horses flew, and fairies spirited away those who had transgressed. Read about how the devil was outwitted by an old woman, a dream that brought fame and fortune to a real live benefactor of Guildford and London, and even some flying pigs!
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Surrey Folk Tales
By Janet Dowling, Lawrence Heath
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Janet Dowling
All rights reserved.
The Dragon of West Clandon
If you drive down the A426, you might just see an outline of a dragon on the local embankment, at the West Clandon crossroads. Be careful, as it can only be seen from the road going westbound to Guildford, and it might be grassed over. But it's one of a cluster of dragons that Surrey has to offer!
* * *
Look there! Can you see? It's a soldier, on the run in his own country. He looks close to collapsing. He's as thin as a rake and is scavenging to find something to eat, to fill his belly.
* * *
The war with Napoleon was going badly. England hadn't been prepared for a war so close to its own shores and men were hurriedly recruited to join the army and navy, as well as the local militia. There was hardly any training, and with poor leadership they were sent to fight in France and the Lowlands. When the military expedition to the Lowlands failed miserably, and was followed by the evacuation back to England, the morale of the men was at its lowest. Packed in their barracks at Blatchingford, there was little privacy and, due to the poor harvest, food and provisions were limited. The men were hungry, and 500 of them marched to Newhaven to take the town and find food to fill their bellies. The officers persuaded some of them to return to the barracks, but many stayed in the town and the Dragoons were called out to bring them back. Some men escaped into the countryside, but the men who remained were caught, court-martialled then whipped, transported, or even shot in front of a firing squad.
And that's how we find the soldier of our story. Cold and wet. Running from his own troops. He knew that he faced a court-martial and possible death, after all he had done for his country. His only thought was to return to his family, possibly for one last time. The only clothes on his back were his uniform, which marked him out as a deserter. He muddied them as best he could to disguise himself, but only succeeded in making himself look more frightening. He had to live on what he could find on the land, as he made his way home.
He slept in ditches and under bushes. He didn't know the lie of the land, and had to make his best guess, knowing that his home was somewhere north-west. As long as he could see the sun, he could get his bearings. He wasn't a coward, but he had had enough of the disrespect that was given to a man who fought for his country, and was not given the dignity of food. But now, after two days on the roads, hiding from every passer-by, coach and horseman, he had even less to eat. Berries and nuts do little to fill a man's stomach. He kept a lookout for isolated cottages, hoping to beg for food there.
His attention was caught by a dog barking ahead of him. He came to a clearing and saw a cottage there. A woman came out with a basket of scraps and threw them to one side. Amongst them he could see a bone with meat on. With no thought except his belly, he scrambled forward to get it, but was beaten by a dog that picked up the bone and ran off. With whatever strength he had left, the soldier was now fixated on that bone and chased the dog. The bone fell from the dog's mouth, and he stopped to pick it up again. This was the soldier's chance, and he threw himself on the dog, grasping the bone. There followed a tussle between them, neither prepared to let go, until the soldier suddenly realised what he was doing. He fell to his knees and gave a great wail of despair. Part of him wondered if he would have been better off being whipped, transported or shot.
As the sobs wracked his body, he became aware of a warm wetness on his hand. The dog had placed the bone in front of him, and was licking his hand. The first act of kindness he had experienced in a long time had come from a dog.
The dog stayed; it snuggled beside him at night to keep warm and was a companion during the day. It didn't take much for the soldier to feel that the dog was his dearest friend and a fine hunting partner for catching the odd rabbit to roast on a fire.
Alas, that's how he was discovered. The smoke attracted attention and men from the local militia found him. He ran as fast as he could, the dog beside him barking. He was overwhelmed; the militia kicked at the dog and one of them took a club to him.
The soldier was taken to the local lock-up, to be returned to his unit and court-martialled. He knew that his desertion meant he faced certain death by firing squad. His only thought now was for his dog. But no one could tell him where it had gone. There was no rush to move the soldier back. Paperwork had to be done, escorts had to be arranged. It all took time.
While he was in the lock-up he heard a story. A serpent – a dragon – was threatening the people of West Clandon. A huge thing that would block the path, and take small animals. The people were afraid to walk out in the day, let alone at night. Mothers kept their children indoors, and both men and women walked cautiously, afraid to disturb the dragon. Life was greatly disrupted, and yet no one was brave enough to face up to the creature.
Perhaps here was a chance to redeem himself. The soldier sent a message to the local magistrates, saying that he would attempt to kill the dragon – in exchange for a pardon if he was successful. It was an unusual request, but on the other hand, it's not as though you have a dragon threatening the local community every day.
It was agreed. If he killed the dragon they would make representations for his pardon, for services to the community. They agreed to give him a rifle with a bayonet – but no ammunition. When they let him out of the lock-up, he blinked in the sunshine. He was taken to West Clandon and allowed to go. He was warned that the militia was standing by, and if he tried to escape before fulfilling his end of the bargain, they would hunt him down and shoot him.
How do you look for a dragon? Do you call it? How do you summon it? How do you stalk it? He looked around for evidence of a dragon, going from field to field, sniffing the air. He finally found some pellets on the ground that he didn't recognise. Could this be dragon spoor? Whatever it was, it was fresh. He was in a field called Deadacre. The field was quite large, and no crops were growing this year. There were several grassy mounds. One mound was particularly large and not quite like the others.
He approached it, and was suddenly aware of an eye in the knoll, that just opened and stared at him. The soldier shook himself, no time to wonder, no time to be mesmerised; this was a time to kill the beast!
He charged with his bayonet, ready to strike, and that's when the dragon uncurled itself and rose to its full height, towering over the soldier. It had long claws, teeth that were yellow and sharp, and a long spiky tail that unfurled. The soldier suddenly realised that this might not be so easy, but he stood his ground. He was no coward.
He lunged and lunged again at the dragon, but his bayonet seemed to just bounce off the dragon's skin. The dragon was lashing at him with its claws, and it caught the soldier's cheek. The pain was so intense that the soldier thought he would faint, but still he stood his ground. Lunge, thrust. Lunge, thrust. Lunge, thrust.
The dragon now towered over him, its yellow teeth dripping with poisoned saliva; one bite could be fatal. The solder thought he was going to die.
Suddenly there was a sound behind him that could make even hell turn over – but he didn't dare take his eyes from the dragon. Something flew from the side of the field, almost over his shoulder, and fastened itself onto the neck of the dragon. The force of the attack was so great that the dragon tumbled to the ground, and was secured by the weight of its nemesis. The soldier could now see the place where the dragon's heart was beating just under the skin, allowing him to thrust his bayonet in with all of his might.
There was a soul-curdling cry from the dragon, a shuddering of the torso, and a final lash from the tail. The dragon was dead.
Then another noise. Barking! Still gripping the neck of the dragon was a dog. His dog. His companion. The dog let go and then jumped up at the soldier, greeting him with the joy of a long-lost friend. And they both fell to the ground, laughing and barking.
The soldier was pardoned and the people of West Clandon thanked him for his help. We don't know if the soldier went back into the army, or whether he did go home, but to commemorate the battle with the dragon a wooden plaque was commissioned that was held in the local parsonage for everyone to see.
* * *
Sadly the plaque was stolen, but the people of West Clandon have long memories. A new one was made and is now kept in the Church of St Peter and St Paul. As you go into the church through the north door, just look up and you will see it there.CHAPTER 2
St Martha and the Dragon
Outside Guildford there is a hill, and at the top of the hill is the most delightful chapel of St Martha. In the evening sun it is a glorious sight, and one of the most beautiful settings in the Surrey Hills. In the winter snow, it stands out and has a promise of comfort for those who make the steep climb to the top. Inside is a standard with St Martha ... and a dragon!
* * *
A long time ago, St Martha, her sister Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus were expelled from the Holy Land, the land of their birth, and sent into the sea in a boat with no sails, no oars and no rudder. They were at the mercy of the sea and the sea monsters. They had no control over where they were taken, or which shore they would be washed up on. Their faith was in the hands of their god and their master, as they were disciples of Jesus Christ.
They finally landed in the south of the place we now know as France, at St Marie de la Mer. It was AD 48 and Martha was preaching the word of the Christian god. She travelled to Aix, and the people there were so impressed by her words that they converted to Christianity. One man tried to hear her from the other side of the River Rhone. Frustrated, he dived into the waters and attempted to swim across, but the current was so strong that he was swept away. His lifeless body was found the next day and brought before Martha. She spoke the words of her god and life was restored to him. She was a powerful and able speaker.
But Martha was not the only one to have been expelled from their homeland. A beast, half-animal and half-fish, had been spurned in its birthplace of Galicia, Turkey. Now it wandered the highways, byways and waterways, trying to find a place to call home. It was a Tarascus, the offspring of the great sea serpent called the Leviathan, and the great snake Bonacho. It was greater than an ox and longer than a horse; it had teeth as sharp as a sword, horns on either side of its head, the head of a lion and a tail like a serpent. At home both on water and land, it took what it needed to survive. And if that was a man, woman or child, then all the more for its belly. No one was safe: boats were crushed, carts were wrecked, and horses, cows and sheep were all devoured.
Eventually the Tarascus settled in a place called Nerluc between Avignon and Arles. Perhaps the climate suited it. Perhaps it had good access to both land and water. Perhaps it was just tired of forever wandering. But the people of Nerluc lived in fear and despair. They could not risk tilling their fields and they could not risk caring for their animals. They tried hard enough to hunt it down, and great gangs of men would try to surround it. But when pursued, the Tarascus would let go a pile of dung from its bowels and flood the area; anyone who came into contact with it experienced a burning sensation and became incapacitated. Just right for an aromatic meal for the Tarascus.
The people of Nerluc offered a reward to anyone who could rid them of this demon. There were many men who tried, but no one survived long enough to claim it. Then they heard of the miracles that Martha was performing and they sent messengers to ask her to help them. They were not sure what to expect. Perhaps they thought she would arrive with an army. Perhaps they thought she had the ear of a god that would strike the Tarascus down with lightning. What they did not expect was a woman in a white dress and no shoes, who carried nothing but a cross and holy water, and wore a girdle.
The people of Nerluc were shocked and dismayed. They had put all their hopes into a miracle happening, and did not believe that this woman would be able to do anything. They started arguing amongst themselves about who was to blame, and some of the men started fighting. Martha shook her head. She understood that they were just afraid, and also ashamed that they could not protect their families, even though the situation was beyond their control. She left them behind her, arguing still, as she walked into the woods surrounding the village.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. The Tarascus had been generous with its dung donations, and she idly wondered how the undergrowth would grow back the next year. The ground underfoot was very boggy, and she didn't want to think any more about what she might be walking on. The air had a bitter taste to it, and she could imagine the burning sensation that would come from too much exposure to it. But the overwhelming thing that she noticed was the complete lack of sound. Not a bird sang; not a leaf rustled with the movement of a mouse, rabbit or snake. There was no life at all, apart from the butterflies, newly emerged, looking for the nectar which they needed to survive.
In the distance she heard a shout, then a scream. A traveller on the road had met his end. She made her way in the same direction.
She found the Tarascus devouring its prey. Yes, it was a man, and as the Tarascus tore into the body to eat the flesh, the head fell off and rolled to Martha's feet. A look of terror was fixed on the face. For a moment Martha hesitated, thinking of the pain of the man who had died. Then, sending up a prayer for forgiveness to her god, Martha picked the head up and walked towards the Tarascus with it in her hands. The blood dripped from the jaws of the monster as it looked up, startled.
She could see the confusion in its eyes as she stood there. This didn't make sense to the beast. This prey should be running from it, rather than proffering the head as more food. Prey that ran was tenderer to eat.
Martha took advantage of those precious seconds of uncertainty. She took out her bottle of holy water and splashed it around the Tarascus. Initially it roared as if the drops burned it, as its own dung did to others. But she let go of the head she carried, letting it roll towards the Tarascus, to shift its attention. Then she took her cross and placed it in front of the beast's eyes, moving it from side to side as she called upon her god to bring salvation to the Tarascus.
An almighty roar came out of the beast, then it stretched up in the air, as though it was in a struggle with some unknown entity, and finally it sat back down on the ground, exhausted, its head in obeisance to Martha. She took the girdle from around her waist and tied it around its neck. She gave a small tug, and the Tarascus rose to its feet; it then followed her, meek and docile, like a lamb.
The villagers were still arguing loudly as she returned, but first one then another saw Martha and her companion. They could not believe what they saw. The Tarascus in their village! Staves, knives, swords and clubs – anything that could give a blow was used to beat the Tarascus to death. Martha pleaded with them, saying that the monster was now tamed, but the villagers declared that it must be put to death as punishment for its wickedness. When it was all over, and the body lay on the ground, battered and broken, they realised what they had done. They were confused and uncertain. Protection had been their focus, but the beast had been rendered defenceless before them. They had their miracle release, but at what price for their souls?
Excerpted from Surrey Folk Tales by Janet Dowling, Lawrence Heath. Copyright © 2013 Janet Dowling. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Dragon of West Clandon (West Clandon),
2 St Martha and the Dragon (Chilworth),
3 How the Giant Sisters Learned About Cooperation (Chilworth),
4 How the Power of a Dream and a Pike Created a Great Man (Guildford),
5 The Fair Maid of Astolat (Guildford),
6 Captain Salvin and the Flying Pig (Whitmoor),
7 The Treacherous Murder of a Good Man (Hindhead),
8 How the Devil's Jumps and the Devil's Punch Bowl Came To Be (Churt and Hindhead),
9 Old Mother Ludlam and her Healing Cauldron (Frensham),
10 The Revenge of William Cobbett (Farnham),
11 Mathew Trigg and the Pharisees (Ash),
12 The Surrey Puma (Waverley),
13 Not So Wise Men,
14 The Golden Farmer (Bagshot Heath),
15 The Curfew Bell Shall Not Ring Tonight (Chertsey),
16 Edwy the Fair, and the Dastardly St Dunstan (Kingston),
17 The Loss of Nonsuch Palace (Cheam),
18 A Dish Fit for a Queen (Addington),
19 The Mystery of Polly Paine (Godstone),
20 The Rollicking History of a Pirate and Smuggler (Godstone),
21 Rhymes, a Riddle, Poems and a Song!,
22 The Trial of Joan Butts, So-called Witch of Ewell (Ewell),
23 Troublesome Bullbeggars (Woking and Godstone),
24 The Wild Cherry Tree and the Nuthatch (Surrey),
25 The Pharisees of Titsey Wood (Oxted),
26 The Upside Down Man (Box Hill),
27 The Buckland Bleeding Stone (Buckland),
28 The Anchoress of Shere (Shere),
29 The Legend of Stephan Langton,
30 A New Story – Or How Stories Came To Be,
Notes on the Stories,