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Wednesday
May042011

Shropshire Word-Book, Shropshire Folk-Lore

It’s years now since I moved to Shropshire, a rootless London girl looking for a place to make my own.  It was mid-winter and very cold.  I was staying in a B & B, waiting for my house purchase to come through.  I’d always loved libraries, so the Local Studies Library was an obvious port of call.  It was here I stumbled upon one of Shropshire’s many treasures - ‘Shropshire Folk-Lore; A Sheaf of Gleanings’ by Charlotte Sophia Burne.   It was packed so full of stories that I didn’t know where to start.  I decided to restrict myself to the sayings, songs, tales and customs of the Rea Valley, where I hoped to live.  I started making notes.  How could one county – indeed, how could one valley - be so rich in legend and myth? 

Over the years I’ve lost those notes and forgotten half the stories.  But even so I still stumble across names which ring bells, and find myself thinking, ‘Weren’t there meant to be bogies living up there?’ or, ‘Isn’t that where the hidden treasure was meant to be?’ or, ‘Isn’t this where there used to be a holy well?’

Amongst the stories I haven’t forgotten, though, is one about Wild Edric, whom I brought to life in ‘Midnight Blue’, and another about the highwayman, Humphrey Kynaston, who - with flying motorbike instead of magic horse - graces the pages of ‘The Candle House’.  It was from Charlotte Burne I came across Sabrina, the goddess of the River Severn, who appeared as a nameless child without a memory in ‘Sabrina Fludde’.  And one day, when I get round to finishing ‘Jerry Jenkins Coat of Courage’, the drudging goblin in that story will come from Charlotte Burne as well.

If I were to be asked which books were most significant in my life, Charlotte Burne’s ‘Shropshire Folk-Lore’ would be on the list along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and Ella Maillart’s ‘Forbidden Journey.  So you can imagine my excitement upon coming across a first edition copy in the window of an antiquarian bookshop, along with its companion book, ‘The Shropshire Word-Book’ by Georgina Jackson, published in 1879 - both rare books which I never expected to find.

Did you know that moles used to be called mouldiwarps in Newport and Oswestry?   That to be lazy in Worthen, Pulverbatch and Wellington was to be linty?  That to fornicate in Shrewsbury was to tell a lie?  That a christian [pronounced krischun] was an animal of superior intelligence?   What a world Shropshire was, with its scrammels and scrats, its gangrels and gotherum.  And all those lovely words, and many more are mine because I bought the books - hang the cost - and they’re staring at me now, sitting on my desk, taking in their new surroundings, making themselves at home.

Shropshire’s an amazing county.  To those of you who might be reading this from far away, it's lush and green, with rolling hills, fine forests and lakes, the prettiest rivers you could wish to find, ancient castles and grand medieval towns.  And its language is amazing too - the words its people used, the stories they once told and the music of their many dialects, which I now have the chance to learn more about, courtesy of Georgina Jackson. 

She and Charlotte Burne were extraordinary women for their day.  Charlotte Burne was the first woman to become President of the Folk-Lore Society as well as being a prolific writer and an editor.  Her position in the Society was highly unusual, not just because it broke gender barriers but because she was an outsider - not a Londoner as was the norm. Many of the gleanings in her Shropshire Folk-Lore were collected by her friend, Georgina Jackson, who handed the work onto her to complete after her death, adding her own collection of tales to produce the final book.  'The Shropshire Word-Book' is one of the earliest serious investigations of dialect.  'Shropshire Folk-Lore' has been described as ‘perhaps the best county folklore book we possess, as well as the most monumental.’

And these two books - with all that history behind them - are now mine.  How good is that?  What’ll I do with them?  We’ll have to wait and see.

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