The following blog post was originally published on Tressa’s Wishful Endings book review site.
The UK has a long tradition of children’s stories, which gained a great deal of momentum in the nineteenth century. A big part of those stories are often the landscapes and countryside of the islands themselves, from the rugged Highlands of Scotland to the Welsh valleys and the rolling fields of southern England. An area particularly rich in heritage is the Yorkshire Dales–an area of outstanding natural beauty nestled in the heart of England.
While I was writing my debut novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, I wanted to place part of the story somewhere out in the British countryside, away from the town life that the main character, Jennifer, is used to. As is so often the case, inspiration can come from the strangest and most unexpected of quarters. I’d once read a book about the curious idea that intelligent dinosaurs once roamed the earth–no, I’m not joking–and that ‘evidence’ for this could be found all over the world. Now even though I seriously doubt the scientific premise for this, I still found the possibility fascinating!
One of the places mentioned in that book were the large underground caverns that can be found throughout the Yorkshire Dales. These are full of stalactites and stalagmites–the large pointed pieces of rock that hang from the roof of a cave or jut up from the ground, formed over millions of years as calcium salts drip down with droplets of water. Apparently, this is where survivors of the intelligent dinosaurs might still be hiding out, based on reported sightings of strange creatures in the area.
As my novel is about the world of the fairies, the idea of a real place where mysterious creatures have supposedly been seen struck a chord, and I thought this would be an interesting location to use as a setting. Having made up my mind, I began to investigate to see if there was any actual local fairy folklore from the area that I might use for further inspiration.
Yorkshire was traditionally divided into three regions, or ‘ridings’: west, north and east (don’t ask me what happened to the south one–this is the UK, after all–it doesn’t have to make sense!). This part of the island has traditionally been one of the harshest and perhaps most isolated parts of England. The area also has a distinct Viking heritage, and this is reflected in many of the place names that originate from Nordic languages. The word ‘dale’ itself basically means ‘valley’, and is a reference to the rolling landscape. Throughout the Dales, you will find ‘fells’ (hills), ‘pots’ (ground holes), ‘crags’ (cliffs), and ‘fosses’ (waterfalls). Names such as Cautley Crags, Leck Fell, and White Scar Caves have a certain charm to them, if not a certain magical quality, being so different from everyday English.
I found out that belief in fairies was common here, and may even have continued into the twentieth century. Nowadays actual belief may be rare, but the stories are still told, and if you find yourself at night roaming an isolated, windswept hill, it may be very hard not to start thinking that there is indeed some supernatural creature lurking just around the bend!
Near the town of Buckden is a deep ravine that has been known by locals as the ‘Fairy Dell.’ (The word dell is just a variant on ‘dale’ and refers to a valley or ravine). Incidentally, there is another cave at the base of the ravine, something that appears again and again at sites with fairy traditions. It seems almost that the dark, mysterious places (and what is more dark and mysterious than a cave?) gives rise to these legends of strange creatures in the dark. The inhabitants of the Fairy Dell apparently had a certain aversion to churches (!) and were prone to playing tricks on people, again something that fairies seem prone to do.
Another Fairy Dell can be found at Beck Gill, where tradition has it that fairies live in the brook that flows through the dell.
The Hurtle Pot is a natural rocky hole in the ground near a village called Chapel-le-Dale. At the bottom of this hole is a pool of water that extends down to over 20 feet. The air around the pool is heavy and full of pungent odours from nearby planting, making the whole area feel a little bit gloomy. When it rains, the water splashing against the rocks causes a throbbing noise, almost as if someone is groaning underneath the pool. Legend has it that this ‘someone’ is a boggart, a nasty little fairy that likes to frighten people and sometimes play tricks on them.
Another area that has a fairy connection is Janet’s Foss near the village of Malham. The ‘foss’ refers to a waterfall, and the name ‘Janet’ is a reference to a fairy queen that was supposed to have lived in the area.
Of course, I couldn’t possibly do a post on fairies in Yorkshire without mentioning the famous (and perhaps infamous) case of the Cottingley fairies. Two cousins in the late 1910s, Elsie and Frances Griffiths, took photographs of what they claimed were real fairies near Cottingley Beck (a ‘beck’ is a stream—again notice how many legends around bodies of water). For many years, they insisted that these were genuine, though, eventually, they did reveal that they were in fact faked using cardboard cutouts. At the time, however, they attracted widespread public interest, which tied in with a general interest in spirituality and the paranormal that was present in the UK. The First World War was still fresh in people’s memory, and the loss of so many young men caused grieving relatives to find consolation in new ideas of things beyond this worldly realm. Most famously, the Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took great interest in the case and visited the girls to investigate personally.
So how did I use these tales of old in my own story? The Dales generally, of course, made it in, as well as a ‘foss’ (though I made up the name ‘Redfoss’). A large cove (‘Redfoss Cove’) and pothole (‘The Lady Jane’) also come in the story and serve as a special portal to, well…I’ll resist putting in a spoiler and let you read the book instead! Well beyond Yorkshire, the UK has a treasure trove of folklore and legends, and you can’t go far before walking past a site where a fairy–mischievous or otherwise–might just be waiting for you…