Have you heard the story about the last witches killed in England? Or the one about the man who bravely fought down a wolf to protect his Northamptonshire village and was buried at Orlingbury Church?
To those who have been born and bred in Northamptonshire, there is a chance the answer to these questions might be ‘yes’, as these – and many other – tales have been woven into the folk history of this county.
Describing stories to willing audiences may be a pastime commonly connected with centuries gone by, before the age of computers and TV, but it seems to be having a resurgence, with increasing numbers of storytelling events cropping up in Northamptonshire.
Northampton-born Kevan Manwaring is a professional writer, teacher and storyteller, who also teaches creative writing for the Open University and Skyros Writers’ Lab.
His most recent book, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, has seen him draw together, repeat and sometimes embellish the stories which have been told as folklore in Northamptonshire. Some will be familiar and some less so. Some have seen gaps filled in with imagination and others rely on records of eye witness accounts still in existence.
Kevan, who now lives in Gloucestershire, said: “I was born and grew up in Northampton, in the Delapre area, and I would go for a walk there once or twice a day with my dad and the dogs. He used to tell me about the grey lady of Delapre and that is the first story in the book.
“I used to go on lots of walks and that is when I would daydream and have lots of little adventures. I used to like reading comics and that got the juices flowing. This is something that started from an early age so I have been gathering stories all my life.
“I moved to Bath 20 years ago, but grew up researching this book. As a storyteller rather than a historian, my remit is to tell stories that are worth telling. There are plenty of fragments of folklore, but not all of them make for narrative.
“It is a combination of folklore, local history, archaeology and personal anecdotes. There had to be something there that people find intriguing.
“In all folk tales, the common factor is that they are attached to a strong location; does the story evoke the spirit of the place?
“Because it is attached to a particular place, there is usually a grain of truth which started it all off in the first place.”
Although stories used to be spread through oral tradition alone, social media like Facebook has replaced some of the ways in which people share narratives with one another, Kevan explained.
He said: “Oral tradition was broken up by two world wars but with modern technology it carried on in many different forms, even Facebook has multiple narratives.”
He continued: “I have noticed a real resurgence in storytelling. It has been over the last 20 or 30 years. There has been a revival in this county as story circles have started up. There are hundreds of them around the country. It is a great thing to do; it is very liberating and it builds your confidence up in speaking in public. I encourage people to give it a try.
“Storytelling is a massive reaction to our overly-digitised lives. We spend so much time at a computer or with some kind of device, it is lovely to experience something low tech.
“It is a good thing to have in terms of our mental wellbeing. Stories give you a holiday from your life for a while and it is quite entertaining.”
Kevan’s research has seen him visiting locations mentioned in the book and delving into existing records, for example eye-witness accounts of certain dramatic events.
He explained: “Whenever I have gone to a place I have tried to talk to local people and asked them if they know a local story. They used to say things like ‘that is where the castle used to be’; these things do linger in the consciousness of the area.
“Sometimes in local stories it is not always possible to get continuity, but I find that new stories develop. If people don’t know the history they fill in the gaps.
“With the Great Fire of Northampton, there were eye-witness accounts that I could draw on from the Local History section of the Central Library, but you can’t always get eye-witness accounts or you have to take them with a pinch of salt.
“It was the same with the Last Witches story, there were eye witness accounts of that too.
“The last witches were burned and it was a nasty way to go. Reading the accounts about those poor women, it is really terrible, you get the impression they were forced to sign these confessions, coming up with stuff to feed this appetite for details.
“I got the impression the two women we talk about were pretty feisty.
“Hopefully the story captures the spirit of these women and the rabid nature of the time.”
Extract from Northamptonshire Folk Tales: The Last Witches:
The last two women executed as witches in England are believed to have been Mary Shaw and Elinor Phillips, from Oundle. The pair are said to have been burned alive on the corner of The Racecourse in Northampton.
Kevan described: “It was Saturday, March 17, 1705. Two women in chains were carted to meet their fate at Gallows’ Corner. There was a wildness in the air, whipping the still bare branches into life, reflecting the mood of the crowd which converged the fateful corner, a humming mass, greedy for spectacle, driven by fear and bloodlust…
“Mary Shaw and Elinor Phillips were taken in a cart to their final destination. The crowds were desperate to catch a glimpse of them, at the same time as crossing themselves in fear.
“The doomed pair should have made a pitiful sight – shaven heads, threadbare and filthy smocks, sunken cheeked and hollow-eyed from who knows what unspeakable cruelty, and yet they stood defiantly, holding each other, fending off the scraps and insults thrown at them with dignity.
“Some said they appeared so calm because they had boasted that their master would not suffer them to be executed…”
The work is available in bookshops priced £9.99.
Kevan hosts the Stroud Story Supper, last Friday of the month, 7-9pm, Black Book Cafe, Silver Rooms, Nelson St, Stroud. Free. All welcome. Have a go (10 mins or less, without text) or sit back and be entertained.