Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Keswick's Fairy Postman

The Fairy Stone at Fourstones, near Hexham.
The Earl of Derwentwater has strong links with Keswick. When Sir Francis Radclyffe was made a peer in 1688 he used the name of Keswick's Lake for his earldom. The third earl, James (Francis' grandson) would, however, lose the peerage in dramatic style: He was a prominent Jacobite and in 1716 was convicted of high treason and executed at the Tower of London.

Although his country seat was in Dilston in Northumberland, he had a home on an island on Derwentwater - and was therefore called Lord's Island. The great affection in which he was held by Keswickians is probably shown through the legends that survive about him. It is said, for example, that on the night of his execution a particularly brilliant display of the northern lights occurred and they were henceforth called Lord Derwentwater's lights. And it is said his wife, fleeing the island with the family treasure, scrambled up a side of Walla  Crag (previously believed to be inaccessible) and it is now known as "Lady's Rake". Some gold coins she supposedly dropped have, legend says, been found on the route. But it is worth mentioning that another legend says she threw the treasure into Derwentwater.

The legend of a fairy postman who visited the Earl of Derwentwater is noted in 1903 by author Thomas Carrick. In his book, The Border Land, he talks about the belief in fairies along the Borders (between England and Scotland). He says: "They were neither wholly human, nor divine, nor demoniacal, but a kind of medley of all three - a strange mixture of body and spirit - and they could assume either, or both, as the case demanded or necessity arose. They were called by particular names, according to the place where they dwelt, the work they did, or the aspect they assumed."

In telling of the fairy postman he says: "When the last Earl of Derwentwater was undecided as to whether or not he should join the standard of the rebellion, he was alone on the banks of the river, in great distress of mind, cogitating what to do. As he was leaning against a tree, a phantom-like person delivered to him a letter, and mysteriously vanished. That letter decided him, and sealed his doom. That visitant is called the Fairy Postman to this day."

This is, unusually, one legend where we might be able to ascertain the origins. In 1863 Sarah Smith-Jones wrote a history of the Earls of Derwentwater and she includes this note:

"There is a fanciful tradition left in the neighbourhood of Dilston which from the romance attaching to it will very likely long remain but which we can scarce deem worthy of any reliance. In this it is stated that Lord Derwentwater maintained a correspondence with his friends at this time by means of letters deposited in a hollow stone called by the people generally. The fairy stone but which was in truth an old Roman altar situated a little to the west of Hexham. These letters the tradition affirms to have been brought and deposited by a little boy very beautifully dressed in green the fairy colour while such was the superstition of the people at that period that although he was seen and noticed frequently they dared on no account intermeddle with his doings as being a messenger from fairy land. Those who were in pursuit of the earl would not be very likely to be long withheld by such scruples however neither would intelligence so deposited be safe so there is little likelihood that either the earl or his friends would trust it there."

But it would be a shame to lose such a delightful legend so quickly. Just imagine a tree in Keswick where, when you are unable to make a difficult decision, the fairy postman - a little boy beautifully dressed in green - brings you a letter which makes the decision for you. Even if, as in the case of the third Earl, it's most definitely the wrong one and ends with you being beheaded in the Tower of London!

My hand-bound book, Fairies of Cumbria, is available from my website. An ebook version is also available to download from Amazon.

See also the wonderful blog by Andy Curtis.