From Burton Fleming we made our way to Willy Howe, a tree covered artificial mound, which had been hollowed out by excavators in the past. The Howe is in a dominant setting on the brow of a hill overlooking the race and can be easily seen on approach from the village. You can clamber through the thick undergrowth and onto the top of the howe but once you get there you are conforted with a steep drop into the middle. The place is totally overgrown and quite literally you can get into the belly of the mound where trees now grow.
Me and Tim (my indentured dodman) visited Willy Howe on the way back from Rudston on a lovely sunday afternoon. Tim was greatly amused by the name.
You can't miss it in the chalk, wold landscape, the thought crossed my mind that the landscape was very feminine with it's broad rollings and undulations.
If this is the landscape of the goddess then she's a big lass.
The trees on its flanks were just coming into bud and there was a lovely show of daffs on one side. Spring had sprung on Willy Howe, a very sexy place.
The 12th century version of the story, in William of Newburgh's "History", book 1, chapter 28, 'of certain prodigies':
In the province of the Deiri, also, not far from the place of my nativity, an extraordinary event occurred, which I have known from my childhood. There is a village, some miles distant from the Eastern Ocean, near which those famous waters, commonly called Gipse, spring from the ground at various sources (not constantly, indeed, but every alternate year), and, forming a considerable current, glide over the low lands into the sea: it is a good sign when these streams are dried up, for their flowing is said unquestionably to portend the disaster of a future scarcity. A certain rustic belonging to the village, going to see his friend, who resided in the neighboring hamlet, was returning, a little intoxicated, late at night; when, behold, he heard, as it were, the voice of singing and reveling on an adjacent hillock, which I have often seen, and which is distant from the village only a few furlongs. Wondering who could be thus disturbing the silence of midnight with noisy mirth, he was anxious to investigate the matter more closely; and perceiving in the side of the hill an open door, he approached, and, looking in, he beheld a house, spacious and lighted up, filled with men and women, who were seated, as it were, at a solemn banquet. One of the attendants, perceiving him standing at the door, offered him a cup: accepting it, he wisely forbore to drink; but, pouring out the contents, and retaining the vessel, he quickly departed. A tumult arose among the company, on account of the stolen cup, and the guests pursued him; but he escaped by the fleetness of his steed, and reached the village with his extraordinary prize. It was a vessel of an unknown material, unusual color, and strange form: it was offered as a great present to Henry the elder, king of England and then handed over to the queen's brother, David, king of Scotland, and deposited for many years among the treasures of his kingdom; and, a few years since, as we have learnt from authentic relation, it was given up by William, king of the Scots, to Henry II, on his desiring to see it.
A slightly different version of the 'cup' tale, and a few new points:
The legend [as told by William of Newburgh] existed early in the twelfth century, or more than seven hundred years ago. I learnt, during my visit to the spot, that it still exists, though in a debased form.
The peasantry now tell us that, one winter's night, a farmer returning from market heard, much to his astonishment, sounds of mirth and revelry proceed from Willey-hou, whereupon he rode up to the hill to ascertain the cause of this extraordinary occurence. As he approached, a little dapper man presented himself, with a cup of welcome.
The farmer, supposing it to be silver, drank the contents, and setting spurs to his horse rode off with the treasure; but on his arrival at home, to his great disappointment, he found that it was nothing but base metal.
[he then describes the 'treasure' story below, with the rhyme being
"Hep Joan! prow Mark!
Whether God will or no,
We'll have this ark."]
.. The peasantry assure you further, that if any one run nine times round the tumulus without stopping, and then put his ear against it, he will distinctly hear the fairies dancing and singing in the interior.
The old superstitious feeling relating to the spot seems, indeed, to exist almost as strong amongst the peasantry of the present day as it did ages ago; our proceedings [they were digging the barrow, but got distracted by some more exciting stuff that was going on in Scarborough, so abandoned the project] excited general alarm among the lower classes, who expected to see some manifestation of vengeance on the part of the beings believed to hold the guard of the tumuls; and few would have ventured out in its neighbourhood after dark.
From 'On some ancient barrows or tumuli recently opened in East Yorkshire' - chapter 2 in 'Essays on Archaeological Subjects' by Thomas Wright, v1, 1861.
There is an artificial mount, by the side of the road leading from North Burton to Wold Newton, near Bridlington, in Yorkshire, called "Willy-howe," much exceeding in size the generality of our "hows," of which I have often heard the most preposterous stories related.
A cavity or division on the summit is pointed out as owing its origin to the following circumstance:-
A person having intimation of a large chest of gold being buried therein, dug away the earth until it appeared in sight; he then had a train of horses, extending upwards of a quarter of a mile, attached to it by strong iron traces; by these means he was just on the point of accomplishing his purpose, when he exclaimed--
"Hop Perry, prow Mark,
Whether God's will or not, we'll have this ark."
He, however, had no sooner pronounced this awful blasphemy, than all the traces broke, and the chest sunk still deeper in the hill, where it yet remains, all his future efforts to obtain it being in vain.
p92 in: The every-day book and table-book; or, Everlasting calendar of popular amusements. By William Hone, 1837, and now online at Google Books.
Another story connected with Willy Howe - in Jennifer Westwood's 'Albion' (and originally from 'Hone's Table Book of 1827). I retell it as a warning to you all to respect the fairies.
One of the fairies who lived in Willy Howe had rather a crush on a local man. She wanted to help him, so she told him that if he came to the top of the Howe early every morning he would find a guinea waiting for him. However, he must never tell anyone where he got his money from.
For some time he did exactly as she said, and as his money grew he was able to live comfortably (and finally maybe a bit too comfortably). His friends were surprised and suspicious at his new found wealth, and couldn't understand why he was so secretive about its source. Eventually one night the man could keep his secret no longer and told one of his friends. In the morning he took his friend to the hill to show him the guinea that would be there. Of course there was no money at all. He 'met with a severe punishment' and was beaten up by invisible fists. For ever after that he found he had lost his luck.
Fitzcoraldo's account mentions the classic motif that once the man had crossed 'the first beck' and put moving water between himself and the hobs, he was safe. Grinsell notes a version of the story, which was told to Raymond Hayes by a local in 1938. The important point here is that the beck was specifically named as the Gypsey Race. Rather grossly, when the man got there the fairies were just catching up with him, and they cut off the back half of the horse, which hadn't quite crossed the stream. He escaped clinging to the forequarters, which managed to struggle ashore!
The Gypsey Race is right by Willy Howe, so our hero didn't have far to go, luckily!
I hope Fitzcoraldo won't mind me reiterating the folklore he's recorded, because I was fascinated with the extra bit I found out. Apparently the story originally comes from something written by William Newburgh - and considering he died in 1198, that's proof that the story is pretty old. Often tales were only written down in the Victorian era, and then you can say they're only Victorian romanticism - but this time it suggests that stories with the same themes and motifs go back a long way. It's interesting that the Gypsey Race should get first billing. The 'unknown material' of the goblet is also interesting and even reminds me of modern tales of alien abduction rather than fairy abduction.
A farmer returning home late one night heard music coming from Willy Howe. On investigation he found a door which neither he or anyone else had seen before.
He peeped inside and saw a table groaning with food and a bunch of hobs making merry.
The hobs invited him in and offered him a drink. He took the drink and then dashed off with the cup. The hobs gave chase but as soon as he crossed the first beck on his route they gave up and returned to their feast.
On arriving home he saw that the cup was a fabulous gold vessel.
He presented this cup to King Henry I who later passed it on to his brother-in-law King David of Scotland
Aubrey Burl (in 'Prehistoric Avebury') hypothesises that Willy Howe is another Silbury Hill or Duggleby Howe - a Neolithic mound with no burial, and with significance other than a mausoleum (the burial mentioned by fitzcoraldo below was a later interment). It was trenched into by Canon Greenwell in 1886, who like Lord Londesborough before him found no bones, but did find a rock-cut pit. Greenwell was an enthusiastic digger, "a clergyman whose methods have led archaeologists to wish that he had used his knees more often in prayer and less frequently in excavation."
Another type of Bronze Age burial was burial in an oak coffin, consisting of a hollowed out tree trunk. The most recent example was found in the barrow at Willie Howe, 2 miles from Sledmere (NGR SE 955 658). the coffin burial was in fact the third burial on the site. The primary grave was in a deep rock cut pit, just off centre, which had been robbed prior to 1863. This was surrounded by a ditch 70ft in diameter.
In phase 2 another grave was dug outside the ditch, containing an adolescent lying on a bier of chalk blocks and accompanied by a bronze awl and a long necked beaker. The oak coffin belonged to the final phase, and was set in a deep rock cut grave and was surounded by a ditch 110ft in diameter. Only a few charcoal fragments of the coffin itself survived, but it had been surrounded by compressed chalky rainwash which left its shape quite clear. It had been covered by a wooden lid, part of which had caved in. The coffin contained an adult male lying on the right side, with two rough flint blades as grave goods. a radiocarbon date of 1600 +/- 70 bc was obtained from one of his bones".
From "Five Yorkshire Barrows"
Vol. VIII No. 11
Published October 1984