Mischief in the Wood

James Lloyd goes for a walk in the woods and recounts some folktales, both old and new.

What is folklore? The lore of the folk, obviously, but what folk and what kind of lore? The word ‘folklore’ implies antiquity but how ancient must a story be to qualify for that dignified title and, since much of folklore is obviously nonsense, is it necessary for it ever to have been believed?

Ever since the author was little he has gone on walks in Angley Wood, near Cranbrook, in Kent. Not far from the entrance to the wood is a vast depression, which the author’s father nick-named the Giant’s Footprint. On one rim of the depression an enormous oak tree grows, its roots exposed, as though deliberately quarried. Underneath the trunk is a little hollow that the author and his sister dubbed the Dragon’s Cave.

As far as the author can recall, he never seriously believed that a giant once trod through the wood or that a dragon really nested in the hollow but, then, children do have a remarkable capacity to believe what they know is nonsense. They will happily send a wish list to Father Christmas and yet still go shopping for the same presents with their parents, without detecting anything fishy. So, is the giant or the dragon folklore? They do not feel like folklore. This particular tradition only dates back to the nineteen-eighties and its source is known.

There is an alternative tale about this depression’s origin. When the author was much older, his secondary school would sometimes hold games lessons in the wood and the P.E. master told the boys that the depression had been dug in the Middle-Ages, to provide sandstone for the parish church. This story feels suitably old and the teacher did not admit to having invented it himself. This does not make it true but does it make it folklore?

Despite his story, the P.E. master actually called the depression Bomb Crater One, to distinguish it from Bomb Crater Two, another pit elsewhere in the wood. These names certainly have no truth in them and he invented them simply because they sounded dramatic, but perhaps the pupils of that school, old or current, have already begun to provide them with an invented history. Is this folklore?

The visitor who arrives at the Giant’s Footprint should proceed down the path to the north-west, which quickly becomes a precipitate slope. In the January of 1996, it snowed heavily over the Weald of Kent and this slope became a favoured site for sledging. The author’s family has known it ever since as Toboggan Hill. Is this folklore? Unlike the Giant’s Footprint, the Bomb Crater and the sandstone quarry, this name is definitely historically grounded and is more a case of toponymy than folklore, but there is something more to the point at the bottom of Toboggan Hill.

Here one finds another depression, one much bigger than the Giant’s Footprint. This, according to A Glimpse at Cranbrook, published in 1896, is called Pin Pond Bay (though the author has never heard this name used by anyone still living) and was formerly the place where the people of Cranbrook would gather for May Day dances. It is also, more grimly, said to be the burial place of two smugglers, members of the Hawkhurst Gang, who were killed in an ambush in Goudhurst churchyard in 1746. Whether or not there is any truth in this the author is not prepared to say, but it is true that Cranbrook was deeply involved in the contraband trade and several places in the town were used as storerooms for the nocturnal gentlemen.

Running through Pin Pond Bay is a stream called the Spratsbourne, which flows eastwards into a vast bog, from which it re-emerges to flow under a bridge and pass by the disorienting slope of Bomb Crater Two. The author remembers riding a bike down that slope. He was a lot braver when he was eight (or a lot stupider).

Near Bomb Crater Two is a little half-timbered farmhouse, once the site of a fulling mill, powered by the Spratsbourne. The marsh and the little pond in the house’s back garden are all that remains of a much larger pond, which is said, according to the strangest of Angley Wood’s legends, to be the nest of a dragon. According to Sir Charles Igglesden’s Saunter through Kent (1906), the dragon would emerge occasionally from the pond and fly overnight eastwards to the lake in the grounds of Angley Park, before returning to the mill pond. In transit, it would visit revenge upon men or women who had spurned their lovers.

One must wonder just how many are likely to have been hanging around in Angley Wood at night but Sir Charles did remark that, until a few years before he wrote, no child had been born at Angley Park for a century and the contemporary owner of the manor speculated that this may have been the origin of the quaint story. Of all the tales, names and supposed history of Angley Wood, the legend of the Spratsbourne Dragon feels the most like an authentic folktale, not authentic in the sense of being true but authentic in the sense of being a genuine piece of folk tradition.

Except for the fact that no one could ever have possibly believed it. It was contrived, if for any particular reason, as a tongue-in-cheek explanation for successive squires’ lack of genetic productivity but even in the eighteenth century, the earliest that the story might have arisen, no one in the town would still have been so simple as to believe that a dragon was to blame, any more than, in the early nineteen-nineties, two little children really believed that a dragon lived under an oak tree in a giant’s footprint. So how can this dragon be folklore, when, like the later dragon, it must have been deliberately made up by a particular person at a particular time?

The answer is, because all stories are made up. Even the most ancient myth must have begun with a particular person at a particular time telling a story. The story might have been based on real events, or on what the teller thought were real events, or it might have been intended to explain a ritual or an observation. Regardless, it remains the case that someone, at some time, no matter how long ago or in what innocent ignorance, essentially made it up. Someone made up the Spratsbourne Dragon to explain an observation, just as someone recounted the story of the two smugglers in Pin Pond Bay from a recollection of what may or may not have been real events. Someone made up the story of the sandstone quarry to explain the existence of Bomb Crater One and, nearly thirty years ago, someone made up a giant and his footprint, to amuse his children, while they were out for a walk in the wood.

Photo credit: Spratsbourne Farm (David Anstiss) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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