The Fabled Coast, by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood, Random House Books 2012, £20.00

There are a lot of church bells submerged around Britain, particularly in the south. Bells are said to have drowned off Boscastle, Cornwall; St Ouen’s Bay, Jersey; Bosham, West Sussex, Dunwich, Suffolk and off Blackpool, Lancashire in the North, though in St Govan’s Head, Pembrokeshire, they are not drowned, but encased inside a stone.

A 'Sea Bishop' from Gulielmus Rondeletius' Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

A ‘Sea Bishop’ from Gulielmus Rondeletius’ Book of Sea Fishes, 1554

Most of these are tales of marauding Vikings / neighbouring villagers / generic heathens, whose attempts to steal the bells end in divine retribution as bells and boats sink together. But in Dunwich it was coastal erosion that took the bells; once a bustling port, with eight churches (all sounding of a Sunday), this ill-fated town sunk over the centuries until in the nineteenth it had just 250 inhabitants, 12 of whom were eligible to vote.

Despite this, it continued to return two MPs until the Reform Act of 1832. Some claim these auspicious 12 voters had to visit the site of their old town hall in order to cast their ballot – in boats. Archeological explorations of this drowned city continue to this day; photographer Neil A White’s ‘Lost Villages’ project documents modern-day Dunwich towns, such as Skipsea, North Riding in Yorkshire.

In Bosham there was an attempt to bring the drowned bells back up again, effected through a symbolic troop of white oxen. At the last minute, the bell dropped back into the sea, supposedly because one of the oxen had a single black hair in its tail. Another version of the story has it that, the women having been told to shut up (being bad luck), one could not restrain herself; by shouting ‘Oop she comes!’ as the bells emerged, she condemned the bell to the deep forever.

All of these bells are said to ring on – in Bocastle they can be heard by drowning sailors; in St Ouen’s Bay they warn of an approaching storm and in Bosham they ring in chorus with their former companions in the parish church. The Pembrokeshire bells sound from within their stone, which ’emits a metallic sound when struck’. It’s a strange idea – drowned and buried bells sounding from sea and rock right round the country.

The unknown sea

‘There is no occupational group with more tales than sailors’ says Sophia Kingshill in the introduction to this delicious collection of sea-yarns ‘from around the shores of Britain and Ireland’. Of course, we have more shore than most, as shown in Shakespeare’s oft-quoted description of Britain as ‘this precious stone set in the silver sea’ – a sea which ‘serves it in the office of a wall’.

The sea can indeed be protective, and even life-giving – in Kirk Michael, on the Isle of Man, the saying ‘No herring, no wedding’ was once a common proverb, since if the herring stock fails, young Manx have no money to marry. ‘This was literally true’, add Kingshill and Westwood, ‘as proved by comparisons between the marriage registers and the fishing records’.

As a result of this, as much as in contrast to it, the sea is equally frightening and unknown – even today we know less about the deepest parts of it than we do about outer space.

In consequence, and quite reasonably, many of the legends and traditions detailed in this book focus around sea-deaths, storms and how to avoid them: in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, you should never set sail on a Friday or Sunday (although Sunday is lucky in Prestonpans, East Lothian); a priest on board is bad luck, being too convenient for a funeral; a black dog seen before boarding is a portent of doom, especially in Peel, Isle of Man, where he might be the Mauthe Doog; a woman on board is bad luck.

There are also intriguing ways of guaranteeing good luck at sea – in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, there is an eighteenth-century report of a ‘small circular cavity’ in the pier into which a sailor’s wife or lover could piss, ‘with a view to appeasing the waves and obtaining a favourable breeze’.

Though many of these might seem like relics from an older time, Kingshill highlights hubristic sinkings – the Titanic, of course (said to have been seen at the site of its sinking on occasional April 14ths ever since) but also the 2012 Costa Concordia – to remind us that we are not such complete masters as we might like to believe. 

Mermaid folklore and legend

Mermaids are, naturally, peppered throughout the collection, which is ordered by British region. Most accounts divide into fairly clear categories: there are the ‘strange fish’ – hideous creatures that were popular fairground attractions from the sixteenth century onwards, some of which can be explained with reference to genuinely strange creatures like rays and skates, and others that remain a mystery.

Some were shameless hybrids: one ‘siren’, exhibited at Bartholemew Fair, London, turned out to be nothing but a dried monkey’s head and body attached to a fish’s tail. Fakes like these were known as ‘Jenny Hanivers’, for reasons largely unknown, though Kingshill and Westwood suggest it may derive from ‘Jenny d’Anvers’ – ‘d’Anvers’ as in ‘from Antwerp’ (a port where they may have been manufactured); ‘Jenny’ as in ‘female’ (like ‘Jenny Wren’). A Japanese example of a similar thing is on show at South London’s Horniman Museum.

A strange fish - a 'foul thing' seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

A strange fish – a ‘foul thing’ seen near Sandwood Bay, Scottish Highlands

Similar to this category are the fishermen’s discoveries that now appear to have more rational explanations: the one in Yell, Shetland that had smooth and silvery-grey skin, ‘hairless and without scales’, which now sounds like a manatee or dugong, or the ‘Sea Man’ in Skinningrove, North Yorkshire that ate nothing but raw fish and ‘expressed himself only in shrieks’.

Then there are the quasi-objective descriptions of ‘genuine’ sightings. One account, from a schoolmaster in Sandside Bay, Highland, described ‘a figure resembling an unclothed human female’, sitting on a rock and combing its long hair ‘of which it appeared proud’. The schoolmaster wrote into The Times with his account, which was convincing enough to persuade none other than his contemporary, Sir Walter Scott, that ‘the existence of mermaids is no longer a matter of question’. These are sighted all over the British Isles, but particularly pop up in the Highlands and Scottish islands – where, surely coincidentally, there are also large numbers of vocal seals.

A particularly bizarre twist on this strand of mermaid ‘sightings’ is the one from 1820s Bude, Cornwall, which tells of a student named Robert Hawker who swam out to sea and sat on a rock draped in seaweed (for hair) and oilskin (for a tail), otherwise naked. Holding a hand mirror, he proceeded to sing as loud as he could to draw local attention; he kept up the act for ‘several nights’, to the wonderment of his neighbours (who were, apparently, completely fooled), until eventually he grew hoarse and swam away. He went on to become vicar of Morwenstow, also in Cornwall, where his biographer records him going to church ‘generally followed by ten or more cats, which used to sport about in the chancel during the service’.

Mermaids also appear as vengeful or otherwise powerful spirits – the difficulty of passing Orford Ness, East Anglia, is apparently the result of a vengeful mermaid’s curse; in Knockdolian, South Ayrshire, a mermaid is said to have killed a baby after the baby’s mother destroyed the mermaid’s favourite seat (she was fed up of the siren song keeping the child up all night). Elsewhere, mermaids bless ships in return for good treatment, and even intermarry with humans: the mermaid Lady of Gollerrus (Gallarus, County Kerry in Southern Eire) marries one Dick Fitzgerald and has three children with him. Though she is eventually tempted back to the sea, in the nineteenth century she was ‘always spoken of as a model wife’.

A mermaid saint

But perhaps the most extraordinary mermaid tale in the collection is that of Liban (or Li Ban), an Irish girl whose home in Larne Water, County Antrium, was flooded in the sixth century, killing everyone except the girl and her dog. After a year underwater, Liban became lonely and prayed to be transformed into a salmon, so she could swim in a school.

Her wish was half-granted: she became a mermaid and her dog became an otter. She lived underwater for 300 years before being caught by St Beoc. She was given the choice between living another 300 years or being baptised and going to heaven – a choice also offered, though less happily, to the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Liban chooses the latter option, and the site of her burial saw many miracles performed over the successive centuries, leading to her canonisation as Saint Murgen (meaning ‘sea birth’).

The Fabled Coast is bursting with stories like this, lavishly illustrated and its tales told with all the relish of an old sea-dog. Working methodically through the British Isles, Kingshill and Westwood provide a whistlestop tour of the coastline as well as the legends themselves, pointing out that:

‘…all things supernatural favour the territory linking one state with another […] The shore is another liminal area, joining earth to water, known to unknown’.

Britain being a country with ‘more edge than middle’, it is an ideal setting for all sorts of sea-tales, and The Fabled Coast is a delightful concoction.

The Fabled Coast is available to buy online at Amazon.