Surrey folk tales - the alternative history of our county
- Credit: Various
With a new book called Surrey Folk Tales just out, a compendium of lore and legend that documents a rather different history of our county, here we chat to author Janet Dowling to find out more about it...
If you know where to look, the beautiful Surrey countryside harbours a rich and dark history. Far removed from the daily flow of commuters and commerce, our fair county holds the tales of dragons, flying pigs, dastardly saints, fairies, murderers, pirates and witches close to its heart.
“Surrey has a wonderful landscape and some wonderful stories,” enthuses Janet Dowling, professional storyteller and author of Surrey Folk Tales, a new compendium of lore and legend that documents the alternative history of the county. “And as I’ve found the stories in the landscape, it gets even more beautiful. I can point to the places where all of these things happened. I see those rabbits, I see those giants. I see Stephen Langton carrying his true love Alice in his arms, up St Martha’s Hill. Those things are there.”
Whether retelling the tender tale of Langton, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, who placed his lover’s apparently lifeless body on the church altar after she was beaten by King John’s men; remembering The Rollicking History of a Pirate and Smuggler, created around Godstone; or urging caution when approaching The Dragon of West Clandon, Dowling has not had to venture far to find vivid and unique stories.
“In fact, some of them are rooted in history,” she insists. “The Dragon of West Clandon is a true story – you can find the original report of a serpent, a big snake, in the 18th century. But as the story has been told and retold, it’s turned into a dragon.”
An oral tradition
That oral tradition, of handing down stories through generations, remains a vital part of the fabric of the British Isles, and together with more formal chronicles creates the real story of this land.
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“Some historians will say that it’s absolute tosh – and, yes, it’s not history, but it doesn’t matter!” says Dowling, who founded the Surrey Storytellers Guild in Ewell in 2000. “Historians like to record stories as collected, but I’m afraid storytellers take the tale and go with the spirit of it, so there might be a few embellishments or differences.
“It’s the spirit of the story that is important. Stories are the way in which we share our culture, our values and our beliefs, so they change over time, in their retelling. The bones of the story are the same, but the way in which we tell them reflects the society in which it is told.
“For instance, there are 39 different versions of Little Red Riding Hood – and in some there is no wolf at all while in others the wolf eats her up. Each generation has fashioned the story to what it wants.”
Most stories, explains Dowling, follow the ‘mythic structure’ to create the emotional hook essential to its enduring appeal. “Something happens that changes the initial situation, then there are three obstacles or challenges, because you try, try and try again. Then there is a resolution, and finally the celebration. But the important part is to try, try and try again, because they are stories of hope and resilience from which children can learn.”
Words and pictures
Surrey Folk Tales is illustrated by Lawrence Heath, hitherto best-known for promoting folk music concerts and ceilidhs across south-west Surrey. Naturally, traditional music provides another medium for the preservation of the oral tradition, which Heath sees as vital to our culture.
“I think it’s essential,” he says. “We all crave a good story. And a story well-told can spark and fire the imagination. As somebody once said about radio, stories told orally have the best pictures! But only the stories with a strong internal narrative and powerful imagery can survive centuries of telling and retelling. I suppose it’s a bit Darwinian really, the survival of the fittest. And like the theory of evolution, those stories that have survived have evolved by degree over time so that they continue to appeal to each new generation.”
Dowling has worked across the world, from Texas to Palestine, and finds that, even though some stories have very definite geographical roots (Old Mother Ludlam and the Frensham Cauldron, for example), the sentiments behind them transcend borders, languages and cultures.
“What strikes me is how experiences are universal, even though they can be very personal,” she remembers of her time spent counselling recently-bereaved Israelis. “That’s what stories do, allow you to see that there are universal experiences. The themes were the same, but the way of telling the story was slightly different.”
Such work illustrates that storytelling, far from being merely the preserve of the kindergarten and cosy family fireside, has great social, psychological and even medicinal value for all ages, whether to help deal with a tragedy, learn from past experiences, or simply stimulate the mind in later life.
“I take someone’s personal story and feed it back to them using the mythic structure,” continues Dowling. “That gives them an opportunity to talk about it and what it means to them. Sometimes it’s much easier to talk about things as a metaphor in a story than talk about your own life.
“I’ve worked with people with special needs and dementia, who can’t always remember a story but they can, in the moment, make up something. It might just be showing them a picture, but it makes people think and create. It’s very useful in helping people be more cognitively active for longer.”
Folk tales, however, aren’t consigned to ancient history. The stories that will be told by future generations are happening not just all around us but to every one of us – and Dowling urges everybody to recognise their own starring roles.
“You must value your own stories, and your family’s stories. Everybody has got a story, even the people who say ‘there is nothing interesting in my life’. Tell me something you’re proud of, or a time when you were a bit naughty as a child. I’ve never found somebody who didn’t have an interesting story to tell.”
Those stories can now be shared at Dowling’s new monthly Red Herring Story Night, starting at Farnham Maltings in September and featuring some of the best storytellers in the country. Alternatively, the Three Heads in a Well storytelling circle continues on the fourth Friday of each month at St Michael’s Church in Ewell.
Whilst Janet hopes to collect enough new stories to fuel a second volume of Surrey Folk Tales, it is the art of storytelling itself that she most wants to uphold.
“The stories on the page, in the book, are just the start of it,” she says. “A storyteller is always working the audience and using the eye contact, which you don’t get through television or radio, or even through reading a book.
“The eye contact brings your audience in and engages them in the process, because it’s a joint activity. I tell the story and you live it in your head.”
Surrey Folk Tales is published by The History Press Ltd (RRP £9.99), and is available from Amazon, Waterstones and other local stockists
For more information on getting involved with the storytelling groups in Surrey, visit either of the following websites: surreystorytellersguild.co.uk and janettellsstories.co.uk