Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Strange Lands

I AM taking time out from my usual blogs on Lake District events to review one of the most exciting books I've come across in many years: Strange Lands by Andrew L Paciorek. I have a great love of folklore (hence my website www.strangebritain.co.uk) and Andrew is a fellow member of the Cumbrian folklore group on Facebook. He is well known as a first-class illustrator and this book is resplendent with his work. But it's more than pretty pictures - it's also a detailed account of the "Celtic Otherworld". I thought I knew my Celtic mythology quite well but Andrew's 400-page catalogue of the strange and wonderful creatures that hide in Britain's shadows feature many I had not come across.
Take for example the Fir Darrig, a figure barely one foot tall with pointy ears, long dirty beard, straggly hair and a nose resembling a rodent's snout. They wear tall hats and spend their time playing rather scary practical jokes on humans. Completely bizarre and yet also completely bewitching (and Andrew's drawing will ensure they'll enter your dream world for many nights to come!).
Or how about the Fachan - also known as Peg-Leg Jack. As his name suggests, he only has one leg but can "hop considerable distances at a surprising speed". He also has just one arm in which he carries a spiked club or mace. He's very ugly and a plume of blue feathers sprouts around his neck.
Each section of this book could provide enough material for a dozen episodes of Dr Who! It's also nice to see that modern creatures such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy are included. We should not forget that the creatures of dreams and nightmares continue to evolve.
Perhaps it's Andrew's artistic outlook, but he shows an instinctive understanding for each of these creatures and where they fit in the worlds that lie parallel to our own. He's effortlessly drawn back the curtain to reveal even the shyest fairy folk.
I'd always been puzzled by the Whitehaven boggle (or rather one of them) as it's description is usually given as an extremely tall female shadowy figure that wanders the streets of this Cumbrian town. But in Strange Lands is a description of Giant Ghosts known as Thyrs which immediately puts this ancient spectre into a context. With Thyrs, as with most other characters, Andrew describes them in detail, giving their physical characteristics and geographical locations. You just won't find this stuff on Google! 
In this age of blinkered scientific thinking it's just fantastic that Strange Lands celebrates the dozens of supernatural species that for so many centuries have walking alongside mankind. Just as Charles Fort led his procession of The Damned 100 years ago, so Andrew unleashes this army of fays, giants, ogres, bogies, dragons and night terrors upon an unsuspecting world in 2011. And may God have mercy on us all!

* Strange Lands is available online

* For those of a technical disposition, you may wish to know Strange Lands was published via online book publisher, Blurb. You'll be impressed by the high quality hardcover book that results. The printing is of good quality (though I suspect it handles drawings better than photographs). Blurb's software is easy to use. The layout and typography sometimes needs tweaking but for those who want to publish a book and don't have the technical skills to use QuarkXpress or similar programs, this is a fairly idiot-proof system.

Monday, 11 July 2011

I wanna tell you a story...

Richard Gibb

IN this digital age, we keep coming up with new ways to tell a story: interactive CD-Roms, flash-driven websites, computer games, ebooks, 3D films - there's no end these days to the imaginative ways to bring a tale to life. But at Keswick for the next few weeks you'll find a fully interactive 3D experience that requires no batteries. Storytree are telling stories in the good old fashioned traditional way: reading them out loud in the open air. And of course the children just love it. So do the adults. This is a family experience which is showing the young ones there is more to life than computers and rekindling a love for storytelling as it used to be in parents and grandparents.

I joined theatre practitioner Richard Gibb on one of the Tale Trail tours as he told classic tales from around the world in an 'auditorium' created by the shore of Derwentwater Lake with a backdrop of the Lake District hills.

Richard said: "Most of Storytree's work is reaching out to the community but the focus of all oru work is stories. Stories are a good way of connecting people with place, they are inspired by the landscape."

The walk is a short one, easily manageable by young and old. Even those with mobility problems should have little trouble as it's all on flat surfaces. The actual walk is only about 20 minutes long, beginning and ending at Keswick Theatre but with four or five stops for a short story, the whole experience lasts about an hour.

Richard had selected stories from all parts of the world but they had one thing in common: they involved mountains, lakes, woods or other aspects of the landscape. It's a perfect theme for tales told around one of the beautiful walks in Britain.

His gentle Scottish accent lends itself to telling tales and the children were quickly drawn in to stories about sea monsters, leprechauns and magical tablecloths. Joining Richard on this particular Tale Trail was Robin Lovegrove from the National Trust. The NT is working with Storytree to produce the series of Tale Trails. Richard was able to add some equally entertaining factual information about the geology of the area during the walk. 

He told me afterwards: "We want to reach out to people - young and old. We want people to appreciate their natural surroundings and engage with people out in the countryside. It's about protecting all our heritage, not just the buildings. If people appreciate what is around them they are likely to respect it."

Now that would be a happy ending for everyone.

* Tale Trails start at Keswick Theatre. They take place on Saturday July 16, Saturday, July 23, Tuesday July 26, Thursday July 28, Tuesday August 9, Thursday August 11, Saturday August 13, Tuesday August 16, Thursday August 18, Saturday August 20, Tuesday August 23, and Thursday August 25. They take place at 11am and 2pm. Prices are: Adults £6, Children £3, Family (2 adults, 2 children) £15. For more information and booking: 017687 74411.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rushbearing delights

CAN there be anything more quaint and English than a rushbearing festival in a Lake District village? These events began when the churches had mud floors and, once a year, the parishioners would bring in new rushes to put on the floor. Today, a few Lake District villages maintain the tradition even though the floors have long since been turned to concrete or tiles. The rushes and other flower arrangements are paraded around the streets before being blessed at a church service. And in the afternoon there are sports and treats such as gingerbread for the children. The one pictured here is Ambleside which always takes place on the first Saturday in July. You can catch the Grasmere one on July 16 - it starts at 2.30pm in the centre of the village.