Folklore encompasses legends, fairy tales, and myths; physical objects and practices to protect and ward away evil; spirits and supernatural entities associated with particular places, and so much more.
You might not even know that you practice folklore — but did you ever leave a tooth out for the tooth fairy? Or wonder at carvings of the Green Man? Or go trick-or-treating at Halloween? If you approach your local customs and stories with an open and curious mind, you might just discover a lot of folklore.
In this interview, Icy Sedgwick talks about different aspects of folklore and how it resonates with particular places, as well as how it’s handed down in a community. She also talks about specific English folklore stories and practices.
- What is folklore? How does it relate to places in particular?
- Is there a resurgence in folklore in an increasingly digital and secular time?
- Northumberland coastal folklore
- Remedies used in ancient times to ward off the plague
- Urban folklore
- Body parts, relics, teeth, and the Hand of Glory
- Halloween folklore
- Recommended books about folklore
You can find Icy Sedgwick at IcySedgwick.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Icy Sedgwick is the author of dark fantasy, Gothic horror, and supernatural mysteries. She’s also a blogger and host of the ‘Fabulous Folklore Podcast.’ Welcome, Icy.
Icy: Oh, thank you very much for having us.
Jo: I’m very excited to talk to you. We’re both into dark things. Let’s start with a definition.
What is folklore? And why does it resonate with a sense of place?
Icy: Folklore is a really strange term because there are almost as many definitions for it as there are people who try to define it. I think the way I tend to come at it is it’s essentially like an accumulated body of knowledge that belongs to the people rather than academia.
Rather than it being dispensed from on high, it’s maintained by the people who are actually practicing it on a regular basis. And I think in a lot of ways, it covers things like beliefs and sayings and rituals and also elements of play in a lot of senses.
A lot of it looks like a way that gives people sort of a sense of control over their environment in quite unpredictable times. So there’s quite a lot of folklore around stuff that you don’t necessarily have a huge amount of control over one way or another.
I think in terms of place it’s really interesting because when I started doing the podcast in late 2019, it was fascinating to see how some of the stories are completely context-specific and they’re related to a landscape feature or they explain kind of why something looks the way that it does or where a natural feature may have come from.
You get a quite a lot of stories like this in Scotland with the cailleach and the idea of this giant Winter Queen as she is literally hammering mountains out with a hammer. But then you also have a lot of stories where you’re like, ‘Hang on, those stories are really similar,’ but they’re from a really wide range of places and maybe only the names are different.
And I think that says quite a lot, for me anyway, about how people relate to place in quite a shared way. And obviously, you can go into all the stuff around and archetypes and the collective unconscious and stuff. But I think it is just the fact that people relate to stuff in a more similar way than I think we’d perhaps give humans credit for.
Jo: I love that you say it’s the body of knowledge from people, not academia. And I guess that there’s a kind of a trust — trust is the wrong word — but women, for example, have been keepers of folklore and herbal remedies and things that have not been trusted, and in fact have been persecuted by the authorities, including academia.
Do you see folklore as an underdog practice in a way?
Icy: I think so because all you have to do is have a look at any tweet in the #FolkloreThursday where someone shared a bit of folklore with that particular tag and someone’s gone, ‘Oh, this is ridiculous. How can people believe this superstitious nonsense?’
It does get really easily dismissed as a childish belief or whatever. And I think because of the fact that also a lot of folklore wouldn’t have been written down, so there’s this element of, ‘Oh, we don’t have it in this ancient manuscript therefore it must be nonsense.’ Which is mad when you consider the Anglo-Saxon medical texts that we do have that the British Library hold, like the ‘Leechbooks’ and stuff where they’re a combination of medical remedies and then how to ward off witches and demons and so on all in the same book.
So you think, ‘Really, everyone’s consideration and preoccupation was kind of similar.’ But for some reason, everyone’s sat there and gone, ‘Oh, no, we’re only going to look at this stuff that’s written down.’ And I think it is something that you have to bear in mind when you look at a lot of the Victorian collectors because they filtered what folklore they collected based on their own biases.
That’s where, in some ways, it’s really good to look at genuine local folklore that is still being practiced because you then think that’s got a slightly longer lineage as it were rather than just someone said, ‘Oh, by the way, people in Shropshire believed X.’ And it may not actually be the case and someone’s just projected their own stuff onto that.
Jo: I think both you and I are interested in this area and we write about it in our fiction, and you obviously do nonfiction and you’re studying this professionally and you have the podcast and everything. Do you think there’s a resurgence in interest in folklore and the supernatural in this increasingly digital and secular time, I guess, secular but also religious, there’s a lot of religious fundamentalism but also this sort of secular push?
Do you think there’s a resurgence in interest in folklore and the supernatural in this increasingly digital and secular time?
Icy: I think so. And what’s really interesting is there was one day I was bored the other day and I thought, ‘Why do people like folklore? I know, I’ll ask Twitter. What could go wrong?’ Loads of people answered and I got some really, really awesome answers about what got people into folklore in the first place.
There were quite a lot of people saying, ‘I’d always been interested in it, I just didn’t realize it had a name.’ And it was just like, they were just reading books of mythology or their parents would pass on local legends and there were little traditions and sayings and whatnot that they had within the family that got passed down. And people didn’t realize that their continuing to practice them was them actually engaging with folklore.
If you add that with the connectivity that you get with the internet, it actually makes it easier to then continue to share folklore. In a way, it’s like when you consider how a lot of us do spend a lot of time online, particularly thanks to the pandemic, I think people have been looking for a sense of community that may be more difficult to access in reality. Obviously, the internet is often somewhere that people turn.
So I think it’s quite interesting that because you’ve now got these vast repositories of knowledge in the form of blogs and podcasts and all sorts of online books and things like the Wellcome Collection, the British Library putting materials online, it’s easier for people to actually go, ‘Oh, yeah, I am interested in that thing. I want to go and learn more about it.’ And then they’re going to tell people what they’ve learned. And then those perpetuated even further.
Folklore is almost like this viral thing, I think, where it keeps getting passed on to other people, just simply through people having an interest, which is really funny. And I do think in terms of the secular time, I think one thing I have noticed it dovetailing off particularly on Twitter, is the crossover point between folklorists and a lot of people in the New Age community because they come at this from a very different perspective. But they might come into this through like modern paganism and so on, and then start exploring what is essentially their heritage as well. So I think that it’s quite nice that it offers something for both armchair anthropologists and practitioners alike. And I think that that’s one of the flexible things about it, really.
Jo: And of course, because we both write fiction, and in fantasy, so much comes from folklore. People might not know that a werewolf urban fantasy novel, ‘The Werewolf Detective’ or something does come from folklore and werewolves, of course, in lots of different traditions around the world. I feel that, as you say, there’s so many entry points into it, but maybe the word encompasses so much. It’s difficult. But I love that.
We should point out you have a great accent that some people might not recognize, which is from Newcastle in the North East of England.
Tell us a bit about that area and any interesting folklore that is specific to where you live.
Icy: It’s funny because obviously where I am, technically speaking, I‘m from North of the Wall, which never stops fascinating me or being funny. And the Game of Thrones references are endless. The funny thing is this part of the country between pretty much where I am, like north of the border, has been such a contested land for so long.
[From Joanna: I highly recommend The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson, which gives a great insight into this area.]
Sometimes it’s obviously been part of Scotland, other times it’s been part of England. We’ve had things like border reivers, we’ve had battles. We’ve had all this sort of stuff going on, like Newcastle supported the royalists in the English Civil War and nobody else around us stayed. So you’ve got a lot of bloodshed and violence in this area.
But then you team that with a lot of heavy industry and more traditional sort of things like shipbuilding and coal mining and so on. So we’ve got a bit of a weird dual heritage thing going on there. And I think what’s really, really interesting is we’ve actually got, in Northumberland itself, when you look at the folklores available, there’s a lot of fairy stories. And I don’t mean fairies in the ‘Tinkerbell’ sense. These are fairies you wouldn’t want…
Jo: No cute fairies!
Icy: No. We’ve got things like fairy midwives, we’ve got shape-shifting fairies that, if you’re a traveler alone on a moor, let you think that they’re a horse and then just randomly throw you off into the mud. And some of them are proper practical jokers and you go, ‘I bet that will be annoying,’ but at least you’d live to tell the tale.
Then we’ve even got things like fairy funerals up at Brinkburn Priory, and they’re really unusual. You don’t really come across them in the record very often. And you thought about werewolves just before that. We even have an Ankh vampire. And people always go, ‘Oh, vampires, Bram Stoker.’ And this story dates to 1196. So we’re kind of like trailblazers in that as well.
There was a monk called William of Newburgh who wrote about it. So it lends the account a little bit of legitimacy, even if it’s about what sounds like a vampire. Essentially, there was this belief that there was this foul creature roaming the streets and it essentially proceeded a plague outbreak. So people decided that this creature that was going around attacking people must be the cause of the plague.
Obviously, Northerners being Northerners, two of the local men decided they will dispatch it, as you do. They managed to trace it to its grave that it was crawling out of every night, they dug it up, it was found near the surface, and they were expecting, and by all accounts, it was really bloated, and just looked awful, and it looked like something that was full of blood. So they did what anyone would do and they attacked it with a spade.
And I don’t know about this, but they removed the heart and burned the body. So, obviously this predates a lot of the stuff we see in horror cinema now. And apparently, the plague outbreak ended soon after. So it’s quite interesting how that’s a really, really regional specific story, that you don’t really find that many vampire stories around the country, but we’ve got this quite heavy metal version from the 12th century, and I quite like the fact that we do tend to have quite a lot of violence stories associated with this part of the country.
Jo: It is and you’re right. If people have seen…is it ‘The Last Kingdom,’ which is on Netflix now, which is that area, isn’t it? And the ‘Vikings’ and who else is it?
Icy: I think everyone’s fought over this bit of country at some point or other. And obviously even the Romans couldn’t conquer it, so it’s quite a hotbed of feistiness, really.
Jo: You mentioned the shipbuilding.
Are there more folklore stories around the sea because that coast is pretty wild too, isn’t it?
Icy: Yes. We’ve got some related with Saint Cuthbert, who obviously lived on Inner Farne for a while, among the Farne Islands, and they’re worth a visit anyway, just because you get to see puffins up close. Puffins are probably the cutest seabird. And we tend to have a lot of things mostly about actually smugglers caves along the coastline.
So it’s less about the sea itself and it’s more about obviously places that you should avoid because of who’s using them. There’s one in Cullercoats, and I remember going there as a child on a school trip. And we were told under no circumstances, do not go in this cave. Clearly, if you’re going to tell a class of primary school children not to do something, that’s precisely the thing that they’re going to do.
We went in this smugglers cave, and it’s really not that impressive, but it was quite funny to look back on it as an adult and think, ‘Oh, well, that piece of tradition would have actually been for a reason because you wouldn’t want to disturb anyone who was there.’ So there’s legends that it was haunted or it was frequented by fairies and so on to try and keep people away.
But obviously, the further north you go, once you start hitting Scotland, obviously, then you get into the realm of legends of selkies and so on. So the more I think about it, the more it’s things like witches raising storms, because obviously the witches at North Berwick allegedly did that to prevent James the Sixth coming back from Denmark.
I think they did that by throwing a dead cat into the sea, as you do. And there’s various charms and things that, I found them recorded in the newspaper, that you could apparently do to raise a storm if you wanted to. And helpfully, it also explained how to put the storms down again as well because you obviously wouldn’t want to call one and then not know what to do with it.
Jo: I love that. It’s so awesome.
Now, you mentioned the killing of the vampire stopped the plague. And of course, we live in plague times, we’re recording this still in the pandemic. And it almost feels to me like some of these ancient folklore ideas have been repurposed into conspiracy theories on Twitter.
What are some of the other interesting plague-related folklore?
Icy: It’s funny because when you look at some of the theories about where COVID came from, you do sit there and go, ‘You do realize that you’re just contributing to this ancient tradition of blaming weird stuff for things that you don’t understand?’
Back in the day, people blamed obviously bad air because there was this idea that plague was caused by bad air, which hence the plague mask for the plague doctors. They used to blame the god Apollo for bringing it because as well as being god of music and arts and so on, he was also the god of plague.
There’s a really interesting figure in Norwegian folklore called Pester, and she was an old woman, and she would carry either a rake or a broom. And if people spotted her with a rake, it meant some people would be spared because they would pass through the teeth of the rake. But if she was carrying the broom, the outbreak was going to be fatal for everyone. So you’ve got this idea of these almost supernatural reasons.
Or obviously, in the case of bad air, it’s just something they didn’t quite understand being what it was that possibly caused it. But then it’s like some of the things people did to ward it off are also kind of weird because people would violate medical amulets to try and ward off the plague. And of course, you can imagine the snake oil that was available because obviously if people didn’t really know, like if say it had writing involved, if you weren’t literate, you would just trust that that piece of paper you’d been given is a charm. It didn’t just simply say, ‘This is a piece of paper.’
There’s this story about that where somebody was given this medical cure, and it literally just said, ‘The best cure is beef broth,’ or something along those lines. The knights used to carry wormwood to try and stave off plague. Wormwood will do quite a lot of things, but I’m not sure how useful it is against the plague. Or people would burn things like juniper leaves and keep them smoldering as a defense against plague.
Sometimes you can kind of understand where it comes from because you go, ‘Well, yeah, fumigating things is a good idea,’ and so on. But then you get my favorite thing of all, which is Four Thieves vinegar. And this is what thieves used to basically douse themselves with so that they’d be immune to plague. Then they’d later rob graves or they would go into the houses of those afflicted by plague and rob them.
They would basically put a mixture of Wormwood sage, rosemary, and cloth in either wine or cider vinegar. And then that was supposed to prevent them from getting plague. Whether it worked or not, I’m not sure. Somebody must have survived in order to pass on the recipe. So maybe it does. I don’t know.
Jo: That’s interesting. Wormwood is in absinthe, is that right?
Icy: It used to be. I think the best that you have to take out because it’s quite toxic if you take it in. That’s what gave absolutely the hallucinogenic properties. So who knows what they were seeing when they were using this?
Jo: Well, exactly. And then, of course, juniper goes in gin. I think drinking and pandemics go together quite well.
Icy: Yeah, there is a lot of alcohol involved in quite a lot of these things.
Jo: It really helps. It helps lots of things. But I do find that fascinating. And of course, there is so much folklore in England. Obviously, you’ve mentioned Scotland as well. There are so many places we could talk about.
Is there anything that you particularly love that you would recommend in terms of places or particular folklore?
Icy: I think anywhere in England is going to have some really interesting stories. One thing I would say to people is don’t assume just because you’re in a city that there’s not going to be interesting folklore. In some cases, because you’ve got a greater concentration of people, you actually get a completely different type of folklore.
London is a really good example. London’s legends are absolutely off the chart. Some of them are so weird. But then they’ve gone on to inspire all kinds of things like ‘Neverwhere‘ and the ‘Rivers of London Series‘ and so on.
I think in terms of where you get so many stories in one place, you can’t really beat Dartmoor. Devon, in general, has got quite a lot of cool stuff. But Dartmoor is definitely I think one of the best places to start if you’re looking for a really broad range of them.
It’s a bit like Northumbria we’ve got quite a wide range of stories but, like, Dartmoor got them in like a slightly different ways. You’ve got things like bottomless pools and the devil pops up because obviously he gets around a bit. I’m sure there’s a phantom carriage somewhere. And you have the famous one with the hands that apparently appear and pull on people’s steering wheels and force them off the road and everything. So it’s a really, really fascinating area just for cramming loads of legend into one space.
Jo: I must say the moors and you obviously like moors. You’ve mentioned them a couple of times. But I think moors, you mentioned beginning folklore often comes with this issue of control in unpredictable times, but also unpredictable places.
The weather on the moors, when the mist comes down and the weather turns and you’re out there, you are out of control, really. You just have to sort of stay still, I guess, otherwise you get lost and it can be really dangerous.
Is that all it comes down to eventually — it’s all about trying to control the world?
Icy: Yes. And I think also some of the stories are really cautionary tales.
Do you remember the old, like, public information films that you’d get that were terrific and it stayed with you? This is kind of like a version of that. When you think of the Jenny Greenteeth legend, this idea of this terrifying hag living in deep water ready to pull you away and drown you if you fell in.
Well, what better way to get people who can’t swim to stay away from deep water rather than saying, ‘Oh, you may fall in and you can’t swim,’ which people may go, ‘No, I’ll be fine?’ But if you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a witch in the water who’s going to pull you down and drown you,’ people might remember that more.
One of the stories we’ve got on the Simonside Hills is around these figures who are known both as the Brown man of the moors, and also the Simonside dwarves. They are quite murderous in a lot of ways. In most of the stories, it basically it boils down to if you find yourself lost, just stand still and wait for it all blow over.
Because obviously, if you wander off the path, there’s bogs everywhere, there’s sharp drops and things of precipices. So it’s kind of do you really want to be wandering around here in the dark? Probably not. I do think that a lot of these stories, it’s almost if you didn’t have the common sense to start with, now this is what you need to do to kind of keep yourself safe.
Jo: And talking of wandering around in the dark, you and I share a love of graveyards, and this is going to go out around Halloween.
How do body parts and dead bodies play a part in folklore?
Icy: Actually a lot more than you think. I was sitting going back in my head through all the things I’ve covered and things I’ve come across.
The first one that sprang to mind for me actually teeth. When you think about the tooth fairy, how weird is that as a concept of leaving a shed body part for someone to come and collect in exchange for money? It’s a really strange thing to do, yet people still do it because it seems almost harmless.
At one point in the past, people, once they lost a tooth, they would actually leave it in a mouse hole or a rat hole, hoping that the one that came in would then be as strong as a rat’s tooth and this is kind of this concept of sympathetic magic that you can draw something to you by your actions. Obviously, in this case, if I leave my tooth in a rat hole, then the next tooth that I get will be like that, sort of thing. There’s quite a lot of weird stuff around teeth.
But then, obviously, there’s the old favorite, the Hand of Glory. And this is just wild. I know when I first came across them, because we’ve got quite a lot of legends of them up here. For anyone who has not come across them before that, essentially people would cut the hand off a man who’d been hanged and left on the gallows, ideally, in the dead of night.
You would then dry the hand and pickle it, obviously to preserve it, and then you would dip the fingers in a wax to turn them into candles. And then if you lit those candles and you entered someone else’s house, they would all be enchanted and wouldn’t be able to wake up while you were in there. So you would be able to basically rob the house uninterrupted.
I think throwing milk over it would extinguish it but water wouldn’t. And the thing that’s so cool about the Hand of Glory, it sounds like it’s been made up, but somebody actually found one in a wall of a cottage in Whitby and then donated it to the Whitby Museum in 1935. So we’ve actually got a physical tangible thing, and obviously, we don’t know that it was ever actually used as a Hand of Glory.
But because there is an object attached to the folklore, I think that’s where they’ve probably captured the imagination more than most. But you get public executions appearing in folklore more often than I’m comfortable with because people actually thought that whoever had been executed would actually be a form of medicinal cures rolled into one. So if you had a swelling, you would then rub the hanged man’s hand across the swelling believing it would go down.
There was another one that people thought if they took splinters from the gallows and put them in their mouth that it would cure a toothache. The complete lack of hygiene involved in that but it’s still it’s amazing that people thought that this instrument of death and torture essentially was going to somehow be good for them. And people would like snip it off the hangman’s rope to cure headaches of all things. So it’s fascinating how people, of course, lose all respect for the dead if they’re a criminal.
Jo: Of course, it’s not just a criminal, it’s also a saint. I write a lot about religious relics and it’s exactly the same. I’ve been writing about Thomas Becket and pieces of his clothes and his skull and his blood which cause miracles. [The martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral inspired my ARKANE thriller, Tomb of Relics.]
And it’s so interesting because what you’re talking about, if you just said, well, instead of a criminal it was a saint, someone who was killed for their faith rather than for a crime, which could be the same thing in some places, but the body parts being treated exactly the same way, as a way of healing and of almost some kind of intercession with the supernatural. That’s cool, right?
On one hand, it’s called religion, on the other hand, it’s called folklore.
Icy: Yes. And it’s really funny, because obviously, one of them is considered acceptable, and the other one really, really isn’t. Because there is a certain tone that people adopt when they talk about people rubbing bits of dead person on them.
I found one Irish charm to draw a lover to you. It involves cutting a piece of skin off a corpse’s arm and then tying it to the person that you wanted to fall in love with you while they were asleep. And then you had to take off before they woke up. As long as you preserve the skin, that person would love you. And you’re like, ‘In what world is tying part of a corpse’s skin going to entice someone to love you?’ The people are really locked down on that and describe it in probably quite dismissive terms like I just have.
But then if you were to say, ‘Oh, I’ve been to this saint’s relic and it cured whatever,’ people would see that in a very different light. I think it’s written about in a very different tone, which in some ways goes back to what we were saying earlier about the idea of folklore being looked down upon by the establishment. People in the establishment have their own rituals, which are somehow all right.
Jo: Exactly. We have it in Bath, there’s these ancient Roman and pagan springs, which then the church took over and built an abbey on, co-opting older beliefs into establish religion is completely normal. It’s how religions are built, really.
Coming back to Halloween, what is the folklore on Halloween itself, or Hallows Eve?
Icy: It’s an interesting one because it depends how far back you want to go. I don’t know, obviously, a lot of people later refer to it as obviously this Celtic festival. But I think Celtic as a word gets thrown around quite a lot without people necessarily engaging with the fact that the Celts were actually a series of tribes. It’s an umbrella term more than anything else.
Essentially, a lot of the practices come from Ireland and Scotland. And the whole idea was about welcoming home the dead that you wanted to see and deterring the ones that you didn’t. So it’s not a celebration per se, but it’s that time of year when this whole idea of the veil between the worlds being thinner so the dead could cross back over to visit the living again.
There are parallels with a lot of the stuff around the Day of the Dead in Mexico and those practices, except they’ve now been co-opted as well. And I think with Halloween, it’s really interesting because when you look at a lot of the practices that will have trick or treating, you can see that in the practice of children going door to door and offering to put on a little play in exchange for some sweets or some food or whatever.
Or the poor would go from door to door and offer, let’s say, prayers for the rich, which would then help their deceased loved ones go through purgatory quicker. And they would do that in exchange for food.
It’s funny how a lot of the things that people do is this really fun, joyful, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s Halloween’ kind of thing, do have their roots in this festival. It’s basically about welcoming back the dead for a couple of days.
And I feel like a lot of it is a bit of a shame. Because when you go into the shops in late September, and all the plastic tat out and it’s all fake cobwebs and bats and things. And it’s almost like being Disneyfied in a lot of ways. But then again, it’s also really good actually to do nothing but watch horror movies all month, so I’m kind of torn on it.
Jo: It is interesting, isn’t it? Also on the art side, because you talk about lots of different art and artists, I was just on your Twitter feed and you had some stuff on there as well.
How does folklore bring a deeper side to art? Are there any particular artists that come to mind as using folklore effectively?
Icy: It’s funny because I think in some ways it’s like the artists illustrate an element of folklore. And that’s the bit that people then remember. And then in a way it almost legitimizes the folklore because it’s then been preserved in an accepted cultural medium.
If you look at, is it an official art list of folklore authors, it would be someone like Arthur Rackham. And a lot of his illustrations are really…they deserve to be called iconic. Because he preserves a lot of these ideas around everything from scenes from poems that are then about folklore or there’s a fabulous one of a house brownie that he’s done, which then informs how people then see the figures and the stories when they encounter the stories.
I think art is really good for visualizing what is otherwise an oral medium. And obviously, in times before, again, you had mass literacy, doing things visually is a really good way of preserving information.
But then, of course, if you move on to the biggest movement who use a lot of folklore and mythology as well to be fair are the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. And in a lot of ways, obviously, sometimes it’s just an excuse to have women with very few clothes on, specifically where the Greek maidens are concerned. But the way folklore tends to get used is it’s almost as either a means to kind of make a point.
You’ve got something named John William Waterhouse‘s work about the poem that John Keats wrote, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci.’ And it’s all about this idea of the fairy woman who entices the human knight. And at the end of the poem, you don’t know if the knight is still alive or dead.
It’s this cautionary tale of maybe don’t hook up with strange women that you meet in the forest. And in a way he captures it, he really captures that predatory aspect of the fairy woman. Waterhouse, again he’s another artist when I did an episode on him I was like, ‘Oh, how on earth do I actually slim this down?’ Because he did about 109 paintings, and most of them are folklore and mythology related.
So I said I’m going to have to just pick some of them because I can’t possibly do all of them. But then obviously, they also engage with the Arthurian legends. And then that then colors how I think we see the Arthurian legends now. So we’re kind of seeing folklore brought to life in a way that everyone is then on the same page because everyone is looking at the same imagery.
Jo: If people want to engage more with folklore, is there a type of curious attitude that we need, of questioning, almost? If you go to a place, how do you find out about the folklore?
Icy: I think the two things you do need are an open mind and a sense of discernment. Sometimes it can be a question of who wrote this down and why? Which is why I’m always really skeptical about anyone passing on what the druids apparently did because it’s like, well, we only know what they did because the Romans wrote about them. And the Romans were trying to wipe them out. So it could be fake news.
Whenever I visit a new town or I go to a city, I’ll always try and seek out a book of local legends. And invariably, most places have a local publisher that does that kind of stuff. And they’re just stories that have been collected. Obviously, they’ve been passed on enough that they’ve passed in that area’s kind of canon, if that makes sense.
It can be quite cool to actually go to the places that the books mentioned, see what’s actually still there. Some places obviously have monuments erected to whatever the story is about. Other ones really won’t because the area’s changed too much, and so on.
One of my favorite things to do is actually look on the British Newspaper Archive website. Obviously, there are more available articles if you’re a paid member, but they have just released a million articles I think for free. And then basically, if you actually just find the area and just put legends in the search box, it’s amazing how many newspapers used to actually recount old legends just to fill up pages, I think.
Jo: They didn’t have to pay anyone!
Icy: Yes. And it’s like, ‘Okay, so I’ll just dig this old gem out.’ But then it’s great because it’s also like in 1847 this is what people believed about this particular area. And of course, they also talk about folk traditions as well.
I did an episode about the Festival of Lammas at the start of August, and it was amazing how many places even into like the 1920s and ’30s were still having Lammas fairs. So it was quite cool to be able to trace how local communities were engaging with a tradition. And it was preserved by the local newspapers.
I know a lot of people have a massive problem with mainstream media. But I do think that local news is slightly different because it’s obviously done by people in the area for the area. It’s got a different agenda. So I think when you go looking for things like folklore and what have you, it’s almost kind of safer to kind of read what they’ve come up with. And then sometimes, obviously, there’s even interviews with locals as well so you can then get the voices of these people who believe these things, again preserved in the papers.
Jo: We could talk about this for a long time because we are both really interested. But we’re almost out of time. So this is, of course, the ‘Books and Travel’ show.
What are some books that you recommend about folklore or the supernatural, in particular?
Icy: Because there are so many available, I think if you’re looking for an overview or a way into English and British folklore in particular, Dee Dee Chainey’s A Treasury of British Folklore is a really good place to start. And obviously, then, if anything piques your interest, you can then follow the bibliography to see where Dee Dee got things from. There’s one on forests and one on seas that she also wrote with Willow Winsham. And they started #FolkloreThursday as well.
One of the ones I always refer back to is Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood’s, The Lore of the Land. And it’s huge. I’ve got it for like £8 in one of those book warehouse places in London years ago. It’s great because it’s divided into areas and counties. So you can really look at, in a really granular way, local folklore, but then also see themes across the whole country.
And obviously, because I know both you and I have quite dark interest in quite a lot of ways, I would recommend Mark and Tracy Norman’s new book, which literally only came out last month, Dark Folklore, because they’re looking at obviously the darker side of things, which in my opinion, is usually the most interesting stuff.
Jo: Absolutely. It totally is.
Where can people find you and your books and your podcast online?
Icy: Everything is on my website, which is icysedgwick.com. I’m also on Twitter and Instagram. And Instagram, in particular, whenever I post a picture, I’ll share snippets of folklore. If you like bite-sized bits of lore and myths and legends, and so on, I post those. And obviously, my books are all on my website or they’re available through Amazon, and all the other platforms like Kobo and what have you.
My podcast is probably the easiest one to find, because I think I’m on all the platforms. I’m sure my distributor goes to all of them. And that’s just ‘Fabulous Folklore with Icy.’ And it’s also on YouTube as well if you prefer watching through or listening to your telly rather than a computer. I’m basically trying to colonize as many places as possible on the internet.
Jo: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Icy. That was great.
Icy: My pleasure.