Monday 21 January 2013

A ghost story from Topsham, Devon

I started January of 2013 off by giving a talk on the folklore and legends of Wessex to the Wessex Society at the Marine Institute here in St. John’s.

The Society, which was founded by Dr. Otto Tucker, is a cultural organization formed to promote knowledge of and an appreciation for Newfoundland’s English-Wessex ancestry. Wessex (West Saxony) was the name of an old Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in southwestern England, and today it includes the counties of Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset.

According to the Society’s website, immigrants from Wessex began to settle in Newfoundland in the early 17th century. By the early 1800s they had founded numerous fishing villages and towns and comprised approximately 60 percent of the resident population.

When they arrived, the Wessex settlers in Newfoundland brought with them their folklore, their ways of speech, and their stories. It was these stories that intrigued me, as they are similar in many ways to our own legends of ghosts and fairies.

A colleague of mine, Colette, heard that I was giving the talk to the Wessex Society, and was instantly intrigued. She herself had experienced something ghostly in the village of Topsham, near Exeter in Devon.

“I have a very good friend who lives near Exeter in Devon,” she explains. “We were student midwives at the same teaching hospital and were even flat-mates. When we used to work night duty, the rotation (schedule) consisted of 8 nights on, 6 nights off.”

One time her friend invited Colette to her parents’ home in Devon. She had been there before and knew her parents well. Her mother had once been a nurse also and understood how exhausted the girls always were after a week block of night duty.

“She used to spoil us by bringing us tea and toast in bed in the morning, and cooking delicious lunches and suppers,” Colette remembers. “She used to get up early, before the entire household, to bake pies made from fruit that she had picked that morning from her own garden”

Colette was sleeping in a small rectangular bedroom, and had spread her suitcase out on what little floor space there was between the bed and the door.

“Before we went to sleep, my friend's mum said she would get us up in the morning, so we wouldn't sleep the day away,” Colette says. “Early on the first morning I heard my friend's mum enter the bedroom. She started approaching the bed where I was lying, in an unusual side-step fashion, as if she was stepping over obstacles in her way.”

The woman was bent forward, leaning over as if she was hunchbacked.

“As I knew I had spread my things over the floor, I did not want her to trip on anything, so to avoid her having to come into the room further to wake me up, I called out to her that I was already awake,” describes Colette. What happened next made Colette realize immediately that the figure was definitely not the mother of her friend.

“She was not carrying any tea or toast, and as soon as I spoke those words, she receded backwards and faded into the wall, the same wall that had the door on it, only to the other side of that wall, as she disappeared,” says Colette.

“That is my story!” she adds. “I was completely awake when I said out loud that I was awake. I was very scared, but my friend and her parents laughed it off. I have no idea if I was dreaming or in a light dream-state which made me think I was awake, but this is exactly what I experienced.”

Sunday 13 January 2013

Zondag: List, Lier en Mechelen - met wafels!

Well, my Belgian adventures continued today, starting with breakfast with Veva, Dieter, Lander and Jasper, and Veva serenading me on the harp. Then, a leisurely walk along the old city walls of Lier, which turned into a stroll through the Lier Begijnhof, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Near the centre of Lier is the Zimmer Tower, an amazing central clock tower, with an elaborate working clock, and adjacent museum with an even more fantastical clock, which keeps track of just about everything celestial you could possibly conceive - 92 clocks in one timepiece! A bit big for my mantel piece, perhaps?

All that walking and horological learning had us hungry, so off we went for waffles. Amazing waffles. Waffles with icing sugar, black cherries, cream, ice-cream, and bananas. Then, Veva took me to Mechelen, where I have intangible cultural heritage meetings tomorrow, and where I had a fabulous Moroccan tajine at RONDA, and where I also later had a good chat with the wonderful Joanne Orr from Museums Galleries Scotland (whom I once made polka with me in Quebec City - a story for another time). And now, I shall tumble into bed, and dream of waffles. I love Belgium.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Bells announce my arrival in Belgium (and a side trip to Holland)

After an very long bit of travel (including 15 hours in the lovely but not exactly exciting Halifax airport) I finally arrived in Brussels, and was met at the airport by storyteller Veva Gerard, who said she had something special arranged for me.

We drove to the town of Lier, parked the car, and went for a little walk. We got to a courtyard by the fabulous 14th century St. Gummarus Church, and Veva said that she had arranged for a musician to play for me to welcome me to Belgium. She made a quick call on her cellphone, and high above us, the carillon in the bell tower above us began to ring out.

Her son (12 years old, below) is learning to play the carillon, and after he had played a few tunes, his teacher met us at the base of the tower, and up we went the 300 or so steps up to the top, past the giant human-powered winch the workers would have used to raise the heavy materials used in the construction of the tower, one of the few remaining such mediaeval instruments in Europe.

Along the way, and continuing at the top of the tower, I got a history lesson in the carillon and got to try my hand at ringing the bells myself.

It was a fabulous welcome, and completely unexpected.

Today, it was on to Veva's plan B, and after a breakfast with her family, we drove to Efteling in the Netherlands, one of the largest and oldest theme parks in Europe, based mainly on folktales and legends!

We spent the day wandering through the park, visiting Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, the Goat Grandmother and the 7 Kids, the Little Match Girl. We even visited the grave of Cinderella's mother:

Then, as if that wasn't enough, we ate sausage, visited two haunted houses, and saw a live equestrian show which featured damsels in distress, falconry, and (steampunks eat your heart out) a giant multi-headed, fire-breathing clockwork dragon.

Then, to finish off the visit to the park, an incredible water ballet with lights, music and underwater fire cannons.

Then, cold and with tired feet, a drive back to Lier, dinner of guinea fowl at a fabulous restaurant, much discussion of storytelling, and a walk through the cobblestone streets of Lier.

Now, back with Veva's family in Lint, and a well-deserved rest! Goodnight!

Monday 7 January 2013

Gogmagog and Francis Drake: Folktales and Legends of Wessex

Storyteller and folklorist Dale Jarvis will share some of the folktales and local legends of Dorset and Devon, with tales of giants, pixies, witches, and ghosts. Introduction by Dr. Martin Lovelace, of Memorial University's Department of Folklore.

January 9th, 2013, Hampton Hall, Marine Institute, Ridge Road at 8 PM