Water World as Another Home for the English Nation Reflected in the English Folklore

Water World as Another Home for the English Nation Reflected in the English Folklore

The British are a most curious nation in many aspects. When a tourist

from whatever continent comes to visit Britain the first conclusion he

arrives at is how bizarre the people living there are. The main reason to

their uniqueness will certainly lie on the surface: Great Britain is an

island that had to grow up and all the long way of its history alone being

separated from the rest of the world by great amounts of water. This very

characteristics turned them into not only a curious nation, but also an

interesting and special one, whose history and culture one of the richest

in the world. And the water surrounding the island played not a minor part

in its forming. So the British people respect and cherish their watery

neighbour who from the earliest stages of their history up to now gave them

food, drink, work, power, respect of other nations, wealth and after all

entertainment. It inspired a huge number of stries, tales, poems ,

superstitions and prejudicies and it has always been worshipped by the


The field of the countrys economy connected with water was always a

great concern for those who ruled it for they naturally attached much

importance to it. From the times when the English society was being born

and only beginning to take shape kings already would interest themselves in

the conditions of trading across the sea. In the eleventh century Cnut on a

pilgrimage to Rome took the opportunity of obtaining from the Emperor and

other rulers he met there greater security and reduction of talls for his

subjects, traders and others, travelling in their lands. Already in the

eighth century an English merchant called Botta was settled at Marceilles,

perhaps as an agent for collecting goods to be sold in England. The Viking

rades of the late eighth and ninth centuries disrupted trade on the

Continent, but Englishmen may well have taken part in the Baltic trade

opened up by this time. At least, there is no reason to deny English

nationality to a certain Wulfstan who described to King Alfred a journey

taken to the Frisches Haff; he has an English name.

On the other hand, we hear of foreign traders in England from early

times. Bede speaks of London as the mart of many nations, resorting to it

by sea and land, and mentions the purchase of a captive by a Frisian

merchant in London. But the strongest evidence for the amount of sea

traffic in Frisian hands is the assumption of an Anglo-Saxon poet that a

seaman is likely to have a Frisian wife:

Dear is the welcome guest to the Frisian woman when the ship

comes to land. His ship is come and her husband, her own bread

winner, is at home, and she invites him in, washes his stained

raiment and gives him new clothes, grants him on land what his love


Men from other lands came also. At the end of the tenth century a

document dealing with trade in London speaks of men from Rouen, Flanders,

Ponthieu, Normandy, France; from about the same date comes a description of

York as the resort of merchants from all quarters, especially Danes.

The merchants and seamen plied an honoured trade. The poets speak with

appreciation of the seaman who can boldly drive the ship across the salt

sea or can steer the stem on the dark wave, knows the currents, (being)

the pilot of the company over the wide ocean, and it was at least a

current opinion in the early eleventh century that the merchant who had

crossed the sea three times at his own cost should be entitled to a thanes

rank. The merchant in Aelfrics Colloquy stresses the dangers of his lot:

I go on board my ship with my freight and row over the regions

of the sea, and sell my goods and buy precious things which are not

produced in this land, and I bring it hither to you with great danger

over the sea, and sometimes I suffer shipwreck with the loss of all

my goods, barely escaping with my life.

As we see people working in the sea or over the seas gained much

respect in the society and were loved by others. But so much for the

economical aspect. The water, as we already mentioned earlier, was one of

the greatest attractions as a source of entertainment.

Fishing, like hunting, was highly popular in England, but these were

pleasures reserved for the nobility. In the twelfth century, when the kings

had normally been so strong, they had claimed such oppressive fishing

rights that all the classes had united in protest. One of the demands of

the rebels in 1381 was that hunting and fishing should be common to all;

not only was this refused, but in 1390 Parliament enacted a penalty for one

years imprisonment for everyone who should presume to keep hunting dogs

or use ferrets or snares to catch deer, rabbits, or any other game. Fishing

and hunting, said the statute, was the sport for gentlefolk.

So this is a scetch or an outline of reasons explaining why our

ancestors valued so much the rivers, lakes, seas of their land and it is

worth mentioning that their land abounds in all that and why they

respected the work of sailors, merchants or travellers. All this is

important for the understanding of how it was becoming an unseparable part

of their culture and how it is reflected in their culture. In this work we

would like to pay close attention to just one aspect of the whole rich

cultural inheritance, and that is folklore.


What is folklore? Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of

Folklore, Mythology and Legend (1972) offers a staggering 22 definitions,

running to half a dozen pages. In recent years definitions have tended to

be all embracing in their simplicity: folklore is made up of the

traditional stories, customs and habits of a particular community or

nation says the Collins Cobuild Dictionary of 1987.

More specific definitions also abound; perhaps, folklore should be

identified as the communitys commitment to maintaining stories, customs

and habits purely for their own sake. ( A perfect example of this would be

the famous horse race at Siena in Italy: the p a l i o attracts many

thousands of tourists, yet if not a single outsider attend, the people of

the community would still support the event year after year).

But what about those events or beliefs which have been recently

initiated or which are sustained for reasons of commercial gain or tourism?

Many customs are not as ancient as their participants may claim but it

would be foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. Some apparently ancient

customs are, in fact, relatively modern, but does this mean they cannot be

termed as folklore? The spectacular fire festival at Allendale, for

instance, feels utterly authentic despite the fact that there is no record

of the event prior to 1853. There are many other cases of new events or

stories which have rapidly assumed organic growth and therefore deserve the

status of being recognised as folklore.

Any work covering the question of folklore must be selective, but here

we shall attempt to explore and celebrate the variety and vigour of

Britains folklore concerning waterworld traditions, beliefs and

superstitions. A wide geographical area is covered: England, Scotland and

Wales with some reference to Ireland and other territories.

Entire books indeed, whole libraries of books have been written on

every aspect of folklore: on epitaphs and weather lore, folk medicine and

calendar customs, traditional drama and sports and pastimes, superstitions,

ghosts and witchcraft, fairs, sea monsters and many others. While trying to

cram much into little work I have avoided generalisation. Precise details

such as names, dates and localities are given wherever possible and there

are some references to features that still can be seen - a mountain, a

bridge, a standing stone or a carving in a church.

Classic folklore belongs within the country to the basic unit of the

parish. Most parishes could produce at least a booklet and in some cases a

substantial volume on their own folklore, past and present . It would be a

mistake, however, to think that rural customs, dance and tale were the

whole picture, because there is a rich picture of urban and industrial

folklore as well from the office girls prewedding ceremonies to urban

tales of phantom hitchhickers and stolen corpses.

In this age of fragmentation, speed and stress, people often seem to

thirst for something in which they can take an active part. There is a need

to rediscover something which is more permanent and part of a continuing

tradition. By tapping into our heritage of song and story, ritual and

celebration, our lives are given shape and meaning.

In some cases all we have to do is join in with an activity which is

already happening; in others it will perhaps mean reviving a dance or a

traditional play. But however we choose to participate, as long as we

continue to use, adapt and develop the elements of our folklore heritage it

will survive.

So this work may be regarded as an attempt to encourage us all to seek

out the stories and customs of country, county, town, village, to

understand and enjoy them and to pass them on.


Not a single town or village in England is situated more than a

hundred miles from the sea, except for a few places in the Midlands, and

most of those in Wales and Scotland are nearer still. The coastline lies

for thousands of miles, with a host of off-shore islands ranging from

Scilly to Shetland and Wight to Lewis. It is hardly surprising then that

our long and eventful maritime history is complemented by a rich heritage

of nautical stories and superstitions, beliefs and customs, many of which

continue to affect our daily lives even oil rigs, very much a twentieth

century phenomenon, have tales of their own. Inland water, too, are the

subjects of stories which echoes the folklore of the coasts and seas.


Many tales are told of submerged lands, and of church bells ringing

ominously from beneath the waves. Between Lands End and the Scilly Islands

lies a group of rocks called The Seven Stones, known to fishermen as The

City and near to which the land of Lyoness is believed to lie, lost under

the sea. There is a rhyme which proclaims:

Between Lands End and Scilly


Sunk lies a town that ocean


Lyoness was said to have had 140 churches. These and most of its

people were reputed to have been engulfed during the great storrn of 11

November 1099. One man called Trevilian foresaw the deluge, and moved his

family and stock inland he was making a last journey when the waters

rose, but managed to outrun the advancing waves thanks to the fleetness of

his horse. Since then the arms of the grateful Trevilian have carried the

likeness of a horse issuing from the sea. A second man who avoided the

catastrophe erected a chapel in thanksgiving which stood for centuries near

Sennen Cove.

Another area lost under water is Cantrer Gwaelod, which lies in

Cardigan Bay somewhere between the river Teifi and Bardsey Island. Sixteen

towns and most of their inhabitants were apparently overwhelmed by the sea

when the sluice gates in the protective dyke were left open. There are two

versions of the story as to who was responsible: in one it is a drunken

watchman called Seithenin; in another, Seithenin was a king who preferred

to spend his revenue in dissipation rather than in paying for the upkeep of

the coastal defences.

A moral of one kind or another will often be the basis of tales about

inland settlements lost beneath water. For example Bomere Lake in

Shropshire now visited as a beauty spot was created one Easter Eve when

the town which stood there was submerged as a punishment for reverting to

paganism. One Roman soldier was spared because he had attempted to bring

the people backto Christianity, but he then lost his life while trying to

save the woman he loved. It is said that his ghost can sometimes be seen

rowing across the lake at Easter, and that the town,s bells can be heard

ringing. There is another version of the same story in the same place, but

set in Saxon times: the people turn to Thor and Woden at a time when the

priest is warning that the barrier which holds back the meter needs

strengthening. He is ignored, but as the townsfolk are carousing at

Yuletide the water bursts in and destroys them.

There is a cautionary tale told of Semerwater, another lake with a

lost village in its depth. Semerwater lies in north Yorkshire not far from

Askrigg, which is perhaps better known as the centre of Herriot country,

from the veterinary stories of James Herriot. The story goes that a

traveller variously given as an angel, St Paul, Joseph of Arimathea, a

witch, and Christ in the guise of a poor old man visited house after

house seeking food and drink , but at each one was turned away, until he

reached a Quakers home, just beyond the village: htis was the only

building spared in the avenging flood that followed.

One lost land off the Kent coast can be partially seen at high tide:

originally, the Goodwin Sands were in fact an island, the island of Lomea

which according to one version disappeared under the waves in the eleventh

century when funds for its sea defences were diverted to pay for the

building of a church tower at Tenterden. The blame for that is laid at the

door of a n abbot of St Augustines at Canterbury who was both owner of

Lomea and rector of Tenterden. However, sceptics say that Tenterden had no

tower before the sixteenth century, nor can archeologists find any trace of

habitation or cultivation of the sands. Even so, the tales continue to be

told; one of these blame Earl Godwin, father of King Harold, for the loss

of the island. He earl promised to build a steeple at Tenterden in return

for safe delivery from a battle, but having survived the battle, he forgot

the vow and in retribution Lomea, which he owned, was flooded during a

great storm. The Sands still bear his name.

Yet worse was to follow, for scores of ships and the lives of some 50

000 sea farers have been lost on the Goodwins, and ill-fortune seems to dog

the area. For example, in 1748 the Lady Lovibond was deliberatly steered

to her destruction on the Sands by the mate of the vessel, John Rivers.

Rivers was insanely jealeous because his intended bride, Anetta, had

foresaken him to marry his captain, Simon Reed. The entire wedding party

perished with the ship in the midst of the celebrations, but the remarkable

thing is that the scene made a phantom reappearance once every fifty years

until 1948, when the Lady Lovibond at last failed to re-enact the


Another fifty - year reappearance concerns the Nothumberland; she

was lost on the Goodwind sands in 1703 in a storm, along with twelve other

men of - war, but in 1753 seen again by the crew of an East Indiaman

sailors were leaping in to the water from the stricken vessel though their

shouts and screams could not be heard.

The Nothumberland was under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, to

whom is attached a further tale. Three years afterwards, the admirals

flagship, the Association, was wrecked on the Gilstone Rock near the Scilly

Isles. The fleet was homeward bound after a triumphant campaign against the

French and some maintain that the crews were drunk. But the story which

Scillonians believe to this day is that a sailor aboard the flagship warned

that the fleet was dangerously near the islands, and that for this he was

hanged at the yardarm for unsubordination, on the admirals orders. The man

was granted a last request to read from the Bible, and turned to the 109

psalm: Let his days be few and another take his place. Let his children

be fatherless and his wife a widow. As he read the ship began to strike

the rocks.

The admiral was a very stout man and his buoyancy was sufficient to

carry him ashore alive, though very weak. However, official searches found

him dead, stripped off his clothing and valuables, including a fine emerald

ring. The body was taken to Westminster Abbey for interment, and his widow

appealed in vain for the return of the ring. Many years later a St Marys

islander confessed on the deathbed that she had found Sir Cloudesley and

had squeezed the life out of him before taking his belongongs. The hue

and cry had forced her to abandon the idea of selling the emerald, but she

had felt unable to die in peace before revealing her crime.

A commemorative stone marks the place where the admirals body was

temporarily buried in the shingle of Porth Hellick, on St Marys Island. No

grass grows over the grave.


Many hundreds of shipwrecks have their own songs and stories. Although

the Ramilies, for example, was wrecked well over 200 years ago, tradition

perpetuates the event as clearly as if it had happened only yesterday. In

February 1760 the majestic, ninety gun, triple decked ship was outward

bound from Plymouth to Quiberon Bay when hurricane force winds blew up in

the Channel and forced the captain to turn back and run for shelter.

Sailing East , the master thought he had passed Looe Island, and had only

to round Rame Head to reach the safety of Plymouth Sound. In fact the ship

was a bay further on and the land sighted was Burgh Island, in Bigbury Bay.

The Promontory was Bolt Tail with its four hundred foot cliffs, and beyond

lay no safe harbour at all, but several miles of precipitous rocks. As soon

as the sailing master realised his mistake the ship was hove to, but the

wind was so violent that the masts immediately snapped and went overboard.

The two anchores that were dropped held fast, but their cables fouled each

other, and after hours of fierce friction, they parted and the ship was

driven to destruction on the rocks.

Of more than seven hundred men on board only about two dozen reached

safety. Led by Midshipman John Harrold, they scrambled up the cliffs, by

pure luck choosing the one place where this was possible. Next day a

certain William Locker travelled to the scene to try to find the body of

his friend, one of the officers. Locker himself would have been aboard the

Ramillies but his lieutenants commission had come from the admiralty too

late, arriving just a few hours after she had sailed. He found the shores

of Bigbury Bay strewn with hundreds of corpses, their clothing torn away by

the seas pounding, their features unrecognisable. The village nearest to

the scene of the wreck was Inner Hope, and some there still maintain that a

Bigbury man aboard the Ramillies pleaded with the captain to alter

course; but he was clapped in irons, and went down with the ship. They say

that only one officer survived because others were prevented from leaving

the stricken vessel.

Most of the bodies were washed ashore at Thurlestone, a few miles to

the west. There used to be a depression in the village green which marked

the place where many of the seamen had been buried in a mass grave; this

has now been asphalted to make a carpark. Then in the mid 1960s a child

digging in a sand dune found a bone. He showed it to a man on the beach who

happened to be a doctor and identified it as human. Further digging

revealed the skeletons of ten men, small in stature and buried in five

foot intervals -- perhaps these had been washed up after the mass burial.

No scrap of clothing or equipment was found, and finally the bones were

thrown into a lorry and consigned to a rubbish tip. Even though two

centuries have elapsed since their deaths, one feels that the men of the

Ramillies deserved better. The ship still lies six fathoms down in the

cove which which has borne her name since 1760, and Wises Spring on the

cliffs is called after one of the seamen who scrambled ashore with the tiny

band of survivors.


Great pains are taken when first launching a vessel so as to ensure

good fortune, and one of the most important portents is the ritual bottle

of champagne which must break first time ( the liquid may be a substitute

for the blood of a sacrifice ). It is interesting that the various ships to

bear the name Ark Royal have always been lucky; for example when the

World War 11 vessel sunk there was minimal loss of life. The original ship

dated from Elizabethan times and had a crucifix placed beneath the mainmast

by the captains mistress; this apparently secured the good fortune for all

her successors. On the other hand there are vessels which seem perpetually

unlucky, some even jinxed and quite incapable of escaping misfortune.

Brunels fine ship the Great Eastern was launched in 1858 after

several ominously unsuccessful attempts. She ruined the man in whose yard

she was built, and caused a breakdown in Brunels health he died even

before her maiden voyage. And despite her immense technical advantages, she

was never successful as the passenger - carrying vessel.

In 1895 she was in port in Holyhead. When the Royal Charter sailed

by, homeward bound from Australia, the passengers expressed a desire to see

her and their captain was only too pleased to oblige. However, the ship

strayed off course and a wild storm blew up. The ship was wrecked, with

great loss of life. Some of the trouble was attributed to the story of a

riveter and his boy who were said to have been accidentally sealed to the

famous double hull. Unexplained knockings were heard at various times but

although searches were made, nothing was found. When the vessel was broken

up at New Ferry, Cheshire, in 1888 it was rumoured that two sceletons were

discovered, their bony fingers still clenched round the worn down hammers

which had beaten in vain for rescue.

The Victoria was commissioned on Good Friday, the thirteenth of the

month and if this were not ill-luck enough, the fact that her name ended

in a was considered another bad sign. In 1893 she sank with heavy losses

after a collision during the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean off Beirut,

and interestingly, various things happened which indicated calamity: two

hours earlier a fakir had actually predicted disaster, and at the time of

the collision crowds had gathered at the dockyards gates in Malta, drawn by

an instinctive apprehension of impending doom. At the same time during

lunch at a Weymouth torpedo works the stem of a wine glass had suddenly

cracked with a loud retort; and in Londons Eaton Square the ships Admiral

Tryon was seen coming down the stairs at his home. He was in fact aboard

the Victoria, where he survived the impact but made no effort to save

himself. As he sank beneath the waves he is said to have lamented: It was

all my fault and so it was, for he had given the incorrect order which

led to the collision.

Generations after her loss the Titanic is still a byword for

hubris. In 1912 the unsinkable ship struck an iceberg on her maiden

voyage and went down with 1 500 passengers and crew. Again, a variety if

omens anticipated the disaster: a stewards badge came to pieces as his

wife stitched it to his cap, and a picture fell from the wall in a stokers

home; then aboard the ship a signal halliard parted as it was used to

acknowledge the bon voyage signal from the Head of Old Kinsale lighthouse

and the day before the collision rats were seen scurrying aft, away from

the point of impact. After the calamity Captain Smith, who went down with

the ship, is rumoured to have been seen ashore.

One cause of the Titanic disaster is said to have been an unlucky

Egyptian mummy case. This is the lid of an inner coffin with the

representation of the head and upper body of an unknown lady of about 1000

bc. Ill-fortune certainly seemed to travel with the lid first of all the

man who bought it from the finder had an arm shattered by an accidental gun

shot. He sold, but the purchaser was soon afterwards the recipient of the

bad news, learning that he was bankrupt and that he had a fatal disease.

The new owner, an English lady, placed the coffin lid in her drawing

room: next morning she found everything there smashed. She moved it

upstairs and the same thing happened, so she also sold it. When this

purchaser had the lid photographed, a leering, diabolical face was seen in

the print. And when it was eventually presented to the British Museum,

members of staff began to contract mysterious ailments one even died. It

was sold yet again to an American, who arranged to take it home with him on

the Titanic. After the catastrophe he managed to bribe the sailors to

allow him to take it into a lifeboat, and it did reach America. Later he

sold it to a Canadian, who in 1941 decided to ship it back to England; the

vessel taking it, Empress of Ireland , sank in the river St Lawrence. So

runs the story, but in reality the coffin lid did not leave the British

Museum after being presented in 1889.

The former prime minister, Edward Heath, in his book Sailing (1975)

revealed that he too had experienced the warnings of ill omen. At the

launch of the Morning Cloud 1 the bottle twice refused to break, and at

the same ceremony for the Morning Cloud 111 the wife of a crew member

fell and suffered severe concussion. This yacht was later wrecked off the

South coast with the loss of two lives, and in the very same gale the

Morning Cloud 1 was blown from the moorings on the island of Jersey, and

also wrecked. Meanwhile, the Morning Cloud 11 had been launched without

incident and was leading a trouble free life with the Australian to whom

she had been sold.

As recently as December 1987 a strange case came to light as a result

of a Department of Health and Social Security enquiry into why members of a

Bridlington trawler crew were spending so much time unemployed. In

explanation, Derek Gates, skipper of the Pickering, said that putting to

sea had become impossible: on board lights would flicker on and off; cabins

stayed freezing cold even when the heating was on maximum; a coastguard

confirmed that the ships steering repeatedly turned her in erratic circles

and in addition, the radar kept failing and the engine broke down

regularly. One of the crewmen reported seeing a spectral, cloth-capped

figure roaming the deck, and a former skipper, Michael Laws, told how he

repeatedly sensed someone in the bunk above his, though it was always

empty. He added: My three months on the Pickering were the worst in

seventeen years at sea. I didnt earn a penny because things were always

going wrong.

The DHSS decided that the mens fears were a genuine reason for

claiming unemployment benefit, and the vicar of Bridlington, the Rev. Tom

Wilis, was called in to conduct a ceremony of exorcism. He checked the

ships history, and concluded that the disturbances might be connected with

the ghost of a deckhand who had been washed overboard when the trawler,

then registered as the Family Crest, was fishing off Ireland. He

sprinkled water from stem to stern, led prayers, and called on the spirit

of the dead to depart. His intervention proved effective because the

problems ceased, and furthermore the crew began to earn bonuses for good



Sailors used to be very superstitious maybe they still are and

greatly concerned to avoid ill-luck, both ashore and afloat. Wives must

remember that Wash upon sailing day, and you will wash your man away,

and must also be careful to smash any eggshells before they dispose of

them, to prevent their being used by evil spirits as craft in which to put

to sea and cause storms.

Luck was brought by:

- tattoos

- a gold ear-ring worn in the left ear

- a piece of coal carried

- a coin thrown over the ships bow when leaving port

- a feather from a wren killed on St. Stephens Day

- a caul

- a hot cross bun or a piece of bread baked on a Good Friday

The last three all preserved from drowning. David Copperfields caul

was advertised for sale in the newspapers for the low price of fifteen

guineas, and the woman from the port of Lymington in Hampshire offered one

in The Daily Express as recently as 23 August 1904. One Grimsby man born

with the caul has kept it to this day. When he joined the Royal Navy during

World War 11 his mother insisted that he take the caul with him. Various

other sailors offered him up to L20 a large sum for those days if he

would part with it, but he declined.

For over two hundred years now a bun has been added every Good Friday

to a collection preserved at the Widows Son Tavern, Bromley by Bow,

London. The name and the custom derive from an eighteenth century widow

who hoped that her missing sailor son would eventually come home safely if

she continued to save a bun every Easter. Some seamen had their own version

of this, and would touch their sweethearts bun (pudenda) for luck before


Other things had to be avoided because they brought ill-luck.

For example:

- meeting a pig, a priest or a woman on the way to ones ship

- having a priest or a woman aboard

- saying the words: pig, priest, rabbit, fox, weasel, hare

- dropping a bucket overboard

- leaving a hatch cover upside down

- leaving a broom, a mop or a squeegee with the head upwards

- spitting in the sea

- whistling

- handing anything down a companionway

- sailing on a Friday

- finding a drowned body in the trawl (in the case of Yorkshire


Although many of these beliefs are obscure in origin, others can be


For example, the pig had the devils mark on his feet cloven hoofs

and was a bringer of storms; furthermore the drowning of the Gadarene swine

was a dangerous precedent. Then the priest was associated with funerals,

and so taking him aboard was perhaps too blatant a challenge to the malign

powers if he were to be designated in conversation he was always The

gentleman in black. The pig was curly tail, or in Scotland cauld iron

beastie since if it were inadvertently mentioned the speaker and hearers

had to touch cold iron to avoid evil consequences; if no cold iron were

available, the studs to ones boots would do. The other four animals were

taboo because they were thought to be the shapes assumed by witches who

were notorious for summoning storms.

Perhaps women were also shunned because they were considered potential

witches, although a good way to make a storm abate was for a woman to

expose her naked body to the elements. Bare - breasted figure heads

were designed to achieve the same result. Nevertheless, during HMS Durban

s South American tour in the 1930s the captain allowed his wife to take

passage on the ship. Before the tour was halfway through there were two

accidental deaths on board, besides a series of mishaps, and feeling

amongst the crew began to run high. At one port of call a group of men

returning to the ship on a liberty boat were freely discussing the run of

bad luck, attributing it to having that bloody woman on board. They did

not realize that the captain was separated from them by only a thin

bulkhead and had overheard the whole conversation. But instead of taking

disciplinary action, he put his wife ashore the next day; she travelled by

land to other ports, and the ships luck immediately changed for the


Fridays were anathema Friday sail, Friday fail was the saying

since the temtation of Adam, the banishment from the Garden of Eden, and

the crucifixion of Christ had all taken place on a Friday. One old story,

probably apocryphal, tells of a royal navy ship called HMS Friday which

was launched, first sailed and then lost on a Friday; moreover her captain

was also called Friday. Oddly enough, a ship of this name does appear in

the admiralty records in 1919, but the story was in circulation some fifty

years earlier. This fear of Friday dies hard. A certain Paul Sibellas,

seaman, was aboard the Port Invercargill in the 1960s when on one

occasion she was ready to sail for home from New Zealand at 10pm on Friday

the thirteenth. The skipper, however, delayed his departure until midnight

had passed and Saturday the fourteenth had arrived.

Whistling is preferably avoided because it can conjure up a wind,

which might be acceptable aboard a becalmed sailing ship, but not

otherwise. Another way of getting a wind was to stick a knife in the mast

with its handle pointing in the direction from which a blow was required

this was done on the Dreadnaught in 1869, in jury rig after being

dismasted off Cape Horn.

In 1588 Francis Drake is said to have met the devil and various

wizards to whistle up tempests to disrupt the Spanish Armada. The spot near

Plymouth were they gathered is now called Devils Point. He is also said to

have whittled a stick, of which the pieces became fireships as they fell

into the sea; and his house at Buckland Abbey was apparently built with

unaccountable speed, thanks to the devils help. Drakes drum is preserved

in the house and is believed to beat of its own accord when the country

faces danger.


With the mirror and comb, her ling hair, bare breasts and fish tail,

the mermaid is instantly recognisable, but nowadays only as an amusing

convention. However, she once inspired real fear as well as fascination and

sailors firmly believed she gave warning of tempest of calamity.

As recently as seventy years ago, Sandy Gunn, a Cape Wrath shepherd,

claimed he saw a mermaid on a spur of rock at Sandwood Bay. Other coastal

dwellers also recall such encounters, even naming various landmarks. In

Corwall there are several tales invilving mermaids: at Patstow the harbour

entrance is all but blocked by the Doom Bar, a sandbank put there by

mermaid, we are told, in relation for being fired at by a man of the town.

And the southern Cornish coast between the villages of Down Derry and Looe,

the former town of Seaton was overwhelmed by sand because it was cursed by

a mermaid injured by a sailor from the port.

Mermaids Rock near Lamorna Cove was the haunt of a mermaid who would

sing before a storm and then swim out to sea her beauty was such that

young men would follow, never to reappear. At Zennor a mermaid was so

entranced by the singing of Matthew Trewella, the squires son, that she

persuaded him to follow her; he, too failed to to return, but his voice

could be heard from time to time, coming from beneath the waves. The little

church in which he sang on land has a fifteenth century bench end

carved with a mermaid and her looking glass and comb.

On the other hand, mermaids could sometimes be helpful. Mermaids Rock

at Saundersfoot in Wales is so called because a mermaid was once stranded

there by the ebbing of the tide. She was returned to the sea by a passing

mussel gatherer, and later came back to present him with a bag of gold

and silver as a reward. In the Mull of Kintyre a Mackenzie lad helped

another stranded mermaid who in return granted him his wish, that he cpuld

build unsinkable boats from which no man would ever be lost.

Sexual unions between humans and both sea people and seals are the

subject of many stories, and various families claim strange sea borne

ancestry: for example the Mc Veagh clan of Sutherland traces its descent

from the alliance between a fisherman and a mermaid; on the Western island

of North Uist the McCodums have an ancestor who married a seal maiden; and

the familiar Welsh name of Morgan is sometimes held to mean born of the

sea, again pointing to the family tree which includes a mermaid or a

merman. Human wives dwelling at sea with mermen were allowed occasional

visits to the land, but they had to take care not to overstay and if they

chanced to hear the benediction said in church they were never able to

rejoin their husbands.

Matthew Arnolds poem The Forsaken Merman relates how one human wife

decides to desert her sea husband and children. There is also a Shetland

tale, this time concerning a sea wife married to a land husband:

On the island of Unst a man walking by the shore sees mermaids

and mermen dancing naked in the moonlight, the seal skins which they

have discarded lying on the sand. When they see the man, the dancers

snatch up the skins, become sea creatures again, and all plunge into

the waves except one, for the man has taken hold of the skin. Its

owner is a mermaid of outstanding beauty. And she has to stay on the

shore. The man asks her to become his wife, and she accepts. He keeps

the skin and carefully hides it.

The marriage is successful, and the couple has several

children. Yet the woman is often drawn in the night to the seashore,

where she is heard conversing with a large seal in an unknown tongue.

Years pass. During the course of a game one of the children finds a

seal skin hidden in the cornstack. He mentions it to his mother, and

she takes it and returns to the sea. Her husband hears the news and

runs after her, arriving by the shore to be told by his wife:

Farewell, and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I

lived on earth, but I always loved my first husband more.

As we know from David Thomsons fine book The People of the Sea

(1984), such stories are still widely told in parts of Ireland and in

Scotland and may explain why sailors were reluctant to kill seals. There

was also a belief that seals embodied the souls of drowned mariners.

The friendly dolphin invariably brings good luck to seafarers, and has

even been known to guide them to the right direction. As recently as

January 1989 the newspapers reported that an Australian swimmer who had

been attacked and wounded by a shark was saved from death only by the

intervention of a group of dolphins which drove off the predator.

Also worthy of mention here is another benevolent helper of seamen

lost in open boats: a kindly ghost known as the pilot of the Pinta. When

all seems lost he will appear in the bows of the boat and insistently point

the way to safety.

Other denizens of the deep inspired fear and terror. The water horse

of Wales and the Isle of Man the kelpie of Scotland grazes by the side

of the sea or loch. If anyone is rash enough to get on him, he rushes into

the water and drowns the rider; furthermore his back can conveniently

lengthen to accommodate any number of people. There are several tales

believed of the water horse, for example, if he is harnessed to a plough he

drags it into the sea. If he falls in love with a woman he may take the

form of a man to court her only if she recognises his true nature from

the tell-tale sand in his hair will she have a chance of escaping, and then

she must steal away while he sleeps. Legnd says that the water horse also

takes the shape of an old woman; in this guise he is put to bed with a bevy

of beautiful maidens, but kills them all by sucking their blood, save for

one who manages to run away. He pursues her but she jumps a running brook

which, water horse though he is, he dare not cross.

Still more terrible are the many sea monsters of which stories are

told. One played havoc with the fish of the Solway Firth until the people

planted a row of sharpened stakes on which it impaled itself. Another

serpent like creature, the Stoor Worm, was so huge that its body curled

about the earth. It took up residence off northern Scotland and made it

known that a weekly delivery of seven virgins was required, otherwise the

towns and villages would be devastated. Soon it was the turn of the kings

daughter to be sacrificed, but her father announced that he would give her

in anyone who would rid him of the worm. Assipattle, the dreamy seventh son

of a farmer, took up the challenge and put to sea in a small boat with an

iron pot containing a glowing peat; he sailed into the monsters mouth,

then down into its inside after searching for some time he found the

liver, cut a hole in it, and inserted the peat . The liver soon began to

burn fiercely, and the worm retched out Assipattle and his boat. Its death

throes shook the world: one of its teeth became the Orkney Islands, the

other Shetland; the falling tongue scooped out the Baltic Sea, and the

burning liver turned into the volcanosof Iceland. The king kept his

promise, and the triumphant Assipattle married his daughter.

Perhaps, the most famous of all water monsters is that of Loch Ness,

first mentioned in a life of St Columba written in 700 AD.

Some 150 years earlier one of the saints followers was apparently

swimming in the loch when the monster suddenly swam up to the surface, and

with gaping mouth and with great roaring rushed towards the man.

Fortunately, Columba was watching and ordered the monster to turnback: it

obeyed. The creature (or its successor) then lay dormant for some 1 300

years, for the next recorded sighting was in 1871.

However, during the last fifty years there have been frequent reports

and controversies. In1987 a painstaking and and expencive sonar scan of the

loch revealed a moving object of some 400 lb in weight which scientists

were unable to identify. Sir Peter Scott dubbed the monster Nessiterras

Rhombopteryx, after the diamond shaped fin shown on a photograph taken

by some American visitors; the Monster Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit

on Loch Ness describes it as The Worlds Greatest Mystery. Tourists from

all over the world flock to visit Loch Ness, monster and centre.


The seas will always be potentially dangerous for those who choose to

sail them and most seafarers tried hard to avoid incurring the wrath of

Davy Jones they once were sometimes reluctant even to save drowning

comrades lest they deprive the deep of a victim which would serve as a

propitiatory sacrifice though the dilemma could be resolved by throwing the

drowning man a rope or spar. This was a much less personal intervention

than actually landing a hand or diving in to help and therefore less risky.

Various shipboard ceremonies were observed and maintained religiously:

at Christmas a tree would be lashed to the top of the mast (the custom is

still followed, and on ships lacking a mast the tree is tied to the

railings on the highest deck). At midnight as New Years Eve becomes New

Years Day the ships bell is rung eight times for the old year and eight

times for the new midnight on a ship is normally eight bells the oldest

member of the crew giving the first eight rings, the youngest the second.

Burying the Dead Horse was a ceremony which was continued in

merchant ships until late in the nineteenth century, and kept up most

recently in vessels on the Australian run. The horse was a symbol for the

months pay advanced on shore (and usually spent before sailing); after

twenty-eight days at sea the advance was worked out. The horses body was

made from a barrel, its legs from hay, straw or shavings covered with

canvas, and the main and tail of hemp. The animal was hoisted to the main

yardarm and set on fire. It was allowed to blase for a short time and was

then cut loose and dropped into the sea. Musical accompaniment was provided

by the shanty Poor Old Horse:

Now he is dead and will die no more,

And we say so, for we know so.

It makes his ribs feel very sore,

Oh, poor old man.

He is gone and will go no more,

And we say so, for we know so.

So goodbye, old horse,

We say goodbye.

On sailing ships collective work at the capstan, windlass, pumps and

halliards was often accompanied by particular songs known as shanties.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries big, full-rigged

vessels were bringing cargoes of nitrate, guano and saltpetre to Britain to

South America ports. When a ship was loaded and ready to sail round Cape

Horn and home, the carpenter would make a large wooden cross to which red

and white lights were fixed in the shape of the constellation known as the

Southern Cross. As this was hoisted to the head of the mainmast, the crew

would sing the shanty Hurrah, my boys, were homeward bound, and then the

crew of every ship in harbour took turns to cheer the departing vessel.

Seafarers crossing the equator for the first time and sometimes the

tropics of the polar circles are often put through a sort of baptism or

initiation ceremony. The earliest recorded reference to such a ritual dates

back to 1529 on a French ship, but by the end of the following century

English vessels were involved in the same custom, which continues to this

day in both Royal Navy and merchant service.

One of the crew appears as Neptune, complete with crown, trident and

luxuriant beard; others represent Queen Amphitrite, a barber, a surgeon and

various nymphs and bears. Neptune holds court by the side of a large canvas

bath full of sea - water, and any on board who have not previously crossed

the Line are ceremonially shaved with huge wooden razors, then thoroughly

ducked. Finally, the victim is given a certificate which protects him from

the same ordeal on ane future occasion. Even passengers are put through a

modified form of the proceedings, though women are given a still softer

version of the treatment.

When a naval captain leaves his ship he can expect a ritual farewell.

Even Prince Charles was unable to escape when in 1976 he relinquished

command of the minesweeper, HMS Bronington; he was seized by white

coated doctors (his officers), placed in a wheelchair and invalided out

to the cheers of his crew members who held up a banner inscribed: Command

has aged me.

Other marines departed in a less jovial manner. When a man died at sea

his body would be sewn into canvas, weighted, and committed to the deep.

The sailmaker was responsible for making the shroud, and would always put

the last stitch through the corpses nose, ensuring that there was no sign

of life and that the body remained attached to the weighted canvas. This

practise was followed at least until the 1960s, the sailmaker receiving a

bottle of rum for his work. Nowadays the bodies are seldom buried at sea

but are refrigerated and brought back to land. However, those consigning a

body in this way still receive the traditional bottle of rum for their



We have had a look at some samples of well and carefully preserved

British folklore that tells about the British waterworld. But a question

of our time no less important is whether the people with such an affection

for their land try to preserve it from the harm that may cause our age of

highly developed machines, ships, tunkers, etc.

Britains marine, coastal and inland waters are generally clean: some

95% of rivers, streams and canals are of good or fair quality, a much

higher figure than in most other European countries. However their

cleanliness cannot be taken for granted, and so continuing steps are being

taken to deal with remaining threats. Discharges to water from the most

potentially harmful processes are progressively becoming subject to

authorisation under IPC.

Government regulations for a new system of classifying water in

England and Wales came into force in May 1994. This system will provide the

basis for setting statutory water quality objectives (SWQO), initially on a

trial basis in a small number of catchment areas where their effectiveness

can be assessed. The objectives, which will be phased in gradually, will

specify for each individual stretch of water the standards that should be

reached and the target date for achieving them. The system of SWQOs will

provide the framework to set discharge consents. Once objectives are set,

the enterprises will be under a duty to ensure that they are met.

There have been important developments in controlling the sea disposal

of wastes in recent years. The incineration of wastes at sea was halted in

1990 and the dumping of industrial waste ended in 1992. In February 1994

the Government announced British acceptance of an internationally agreed

ban on the dumping of low- and intermediate level wastes was already

banned. Britain had not in fact dumped any radioactive waste at sea for

some years preveously. Britain is committed to phasing out the dumping of

sewage sludge at sea by the end of 1998. Thereafter only dredged material

from ports, harbours and the like will routinely be approved for sea


Proposals for decommissioning Britains 200 offshore installations are

decided on a case by case basis, looking for the best practicable

environmental option and observing very rigorous international agreements

and guidelines.

Farm Waste

Although not a major source of water pollution incidents, farms can

represent a problem. Many pollution incidents result from silage effluent

or slurry leaking and entering watercourses; undiluted farm slurry can be

up to 100 times, more polluting than raw domestic sewage. Regulations set

minimum construction standards for new or substantially altered farm waste

handling facilities. Farmers are required to improve existing installations

where there is a significant risk of pollution. The Ministry of

Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes a Code of Good Agricultural

Practice for the Protection of Water. This gives farmers guidance on,

among other things, the planning and management of the disposal of their

farm wastes. The Ministry also has L2 million research and development

programme to examine problems of farm waste and to minimise pollution.

Britain is a signatory to the 1992 North East Atlantic Convention,

which tackles pollution from land based sources, offshore installations

and dumping. It also provides for monitoring and assessment of the quality

of water in the conventions area. In order to minimise the environmental

effects of offshore oil and gas operations, special conditions designed to

protect the environment -set in consultation with environmental interests

are included in licences for oil and gas exploration.

Pollution from ships is controlled under international agreements,

which cover matters such as oil discharges and disposal of garbage. British

laws implementing such agreements are binding not only on all ships in

British waters, but also on British ships all over the world. The Marine

Pollution Control Unit (MPCU), part of the Coastguard Agency, is

responsible for dealing with spillage of oil or other substances from ships

in sea.

So great care is being taken to manage to preserve all that precious

that Britain has. Keeping the waters in a good conditions would help to

keep the traditions connected with it as well, and to pass them on to other



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