Uncover Suffolk legends - from fairies to merfolk - in new book
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Folklore, mythology, and all things magical have interested most of us at some point in our lives.
But one man who has dedicated his life to all things spiritual is Nigel Pearson.
An Ipswich-based author and folkore expert, he’s your man when it comes to local folk stories, witchcraft, myths, and more. You could even go as far to say he’s Suffolk’s very own folklore encyclopaedia.
“It’s all down to my mother,” he chuckles.
“Most children are brought up on fairy stories, and she would read those to me – but she also used to read me Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Viking myths and legends, so I was brought up on the fact that gods and goddesses are real.”
Nigel became so enamoured with the world of mythology and folklore that he tailored his studies to them as he grew older.
“Like most people, I studied RE at school, and I later took it during my O and A Levels before going on to study philosophy at college,” he says.
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After completing his studies and spending some time travelling, Nigel returned to the UK – and realised the plethora of traditions, mythology and stories we have here, especially in East Anglia. “I came back to the British Isles and found that we’ve got our own native traditions so began to study those, and I’ve never looked back.
“And I find living here in Suffolk very much lends itself to folklore and spirituality. This is an Anglo-Saxon area, so we’ve got century’s worth of heritage from people that came over here in waves. Over a period of around 700 years, right after the Romans left, the Angles and the Saxons started coming over, followed by all these different people right up until the last invasion which was the Normans. They all brought their own particular folk tales, religious beliefs and spirituality with them – and all of that has fed into this area. And to this day, we still have remnants that are still told by people in this area,” he explains.
Nigel, who is a qualified herbal practitioner and runs Ipswich-based shop Sacred Earth with his husband Anthony, has also penned a number of books focussing on folk tales and legends from far and wide.
“I wrote my first book, Treading the Mill: Workings in Traditional Witchcraft, sort of by accident. I was doing a series of weekend workshops and writing notes on each session for people to take away with them. And anyone who knows me will tell you I’m incapable of writing a short sentence, so these notes ended up becoming booklets. After a while, I had a collection of them, and someone said to me ‘why don’t you write them up and turn them into a book?’”
And that’s exactly what he did. Twelve years later, Nigel is currently working on his sixth book – which he hopes to release sometime next year. “I started out with an idea in mind, but it’s changed along the way. But essentially it’s going to feature a mix of local folklore, and some magical techniques I’ve learned from the area. It’s a magical book with a Suffolk flavour – but it keeps changing as I go along,” he says.
While Nigel is currently halfway through his upcoming release - here are some of his favourite, lesser-known local folklore tales...
The fairy folk of Stowmarket
“In Suffolk the fairy folk were known as ‘feriers’, ‘frairies’ or ‘pharisees’ - and were most commonly seen around the town of Stowmarket. The feriers frequented several houses in Tavern Street in Stowmarket, but never appeared as long as anyone was around.
“People used to lie hidden to see them - and some succeeded. In one instance, a large company of them appeared singing, dancing and playing music together by a wood stack near the brickyard. They were very small people - quite little creatures and very merry. But as soon as they saw anybody, they all vanished away. In the houses after they had fled, continuous sparks of fire as bright as stars used to appear under the feet of the people who disturbed them. This also ties in with another name for the fairy folk, ‘peries’ or ‘perries’, after which the Northern Lights are known in Suffolk, the Perry Dancers.”
The Dragon of Bures St. Mary
“Dragons are often associated in many people’s minds with the landscape and being representative of the energies contained within it, and East Anglia is not without its own dragon tales as well. This story, which happened in 1405, comes from the Suffolk-Essex border town of Bures St. Mary and is left to us in monkish Latin by John de Trokelowe and Henry de Blandforde. They describe a creature as ‘vast in body, with a tufted head, saw-like teeth and a very long tail, which did evil by going to and fro among the sheep and killing many’.
“The bowmen of Richard de Waldergrave, on whose land the dragon lurked, moved out to confront it but the body of the beast turned, the arrows aside and they sprang back from its armour, ‘as if from stone or iron; and those arrows which fell on the spine of its back glanced off again and sprang away with clangings as if they had struck plates of bronze.’ But when the dragon saw that the men were advancing once more, ‘it took refuge in the mere and hid among the reeds; nor was it any more seen’.”
The Suffolk merfolk
“The name ‘mermaid’ derives from Old English ‘mere’, meaning ‘a pool or lake’, and it formed the first part of ‘mere-wif’, meaning ‘mere-wife’ - a term still preserved in the East Anglian dialect. This is the term applied to Grendel’s Dam - or mother - a cannibalistic ogress who lived beneath a lake, described in the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf, which many scholars now think was originally written in East Anglia.
“Like the ogress, the merewives haunted the pools, pits and rivers of the inland areas, rather than the seashores, and were thought to pull in anyone who was foolish enough to lean too far over the water. The River Gipping in Suffolk was notorious for containing them and Earl Stonham man James Bird (born in 1788), wrote in a 1837 poem about his boyhood in the area and his mother calling out to him;
‘Make haste and do your errand. Go not nigh
The River’s brink, for there the mermaids lie.
Be home at five!’
“The merewives however, mainly lived in pools and pits, which like the lake in Beowulf, were described as bottomless. There were the meremaid pits in Fornham All Saints and the well in the village of Rendlesham and also those in the surrounding districts, which were all reputed to contain meremaids. A correspondent to Robert Chambers’ ‘Book of Days’ (1863-4), writing from Suffolk informed him that meremaids abounded in the ponds and ditches of his locality. He wrote: ‘I once asked a child what mermaids were, and he was ready with his answer at once, ‘Them nasty things what crome (hook) you into the water!’
To find out more about Nigel and the work he does, visit www.sacredearth.org.uk