Episode 33: Bizarre Botany and Curious collections

“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow”

Central Manchester

This episode is the first of two looking at some legends from the nearly 2000 year old city of Manchester, The Venice of the North, Cottonopolis, Madchester, with a name seeming likely to originate with a word meaning “Breast-like hill”.

In this episode where we’ve got two stories. In the first there’ll be some pleasing names, that folklore necessary liminality and yet more ill-advised ways to win a woman (see the last episode).

And in the second story we’ve lots of mentions of a particularly shaped table that must be far bigger than I’d previously assumed.

Stories in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)

The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.

If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the stories, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…

He was called Plant. And appropriately enough he was interested in Botany. And not just the regular kind – he tended to herb lore, even to alchemy, and he had wider interest in astrology and various other occult practises.

Today had been a day of hunting for herbs around Gristlehurt but now he was sheltering from the storm in a regular farmhouse. A regular farmhouse that didn’t need an expensive alcohol license because it was just a regular farmhouse. So it didn’t have one.

And he was being served beer and eating a hearty meal, and he might accidentally leave some money on the way out.

And he was overhearing the conversation of a couple of the other custome.. *cough* guests.

They also had unusual names – Bangle and Chirrup.

Bangle, the younger of the two, was bemoaning his lack of success in wooing a young woman, as young men are wont to do. Chirrup, as the older man, was giving him sage advice, as older men are wont to do. Bangle’s mother, who ran the place, was occasionally embarrassingly chipping in with advice as well.

So much so run of the mill. But the conversation took an unexpected turn that made Plant’s ears prick up. Turned out that Bangle had gone so far as to have consulted local cunning man “Limping Billy”. A cunning man is essentially a worker of low level magic, providing advice for a fee.

And Limping Billy had advised this – that Bangle would only get his unnamed gal if he procured for himself the seed of the St. John’s Fern.

This Fern dropped its seeds just once per year – on the Eve of St. John, at about midnight. There was a spell that could be done with the seeds. The only catch was that  the cunning man had not known the location of the ferns.

But here Plant jumped in. Because he very much did. “Boggart Hole Clough!” he cried out. “And it’s only a couple of days to St. John’s Eve.

“You’ll show me?” asked Chirrup.

“I’ll do better than that. Wouldn’t miss the fern seeding. I’ll come with you.”

And so it came to pass that at sunset on St. John’s Eve the trio made their way down the valley (the “clough”). They made their way down past Boggart’s farm house – the story of that boggart is another one, for another time.

To the St. John’s Fern Plant led them. And as darkness fell they brought out the components for limping Billy’s spell and said the words. Plant had an earthenware dish “Rough and Brown”, Chirrup a platter “Bright and silver”.

And then Bangle produced his. Hung from his neck. A human skull, hollowed out, suspended by the hair of the woman he was trying to woo. And the interior had been lined with clay and moss, mixed with Bangle’s own blood.

“Wow!” said the other two men. “That’s a bit more intense than ours.” It was clear the seriousness of this endeavour had just shifted up several notches.

But they were in it now, there was no turning back. Lanterns were lit, a rod of Hazel was hacked down by Plant. They had all the pieces now.

And on the stroke of midnight it began. They shook the ferns with the Hazel rods and down fell the seeds, into the platter, into the earthenware dish and into the hollow of the skull. The moon was bright and they said the rhyme as Billy had instructed.

In the air all around them was the feel of magic. And then things happeend fast: The seeds fell. The platter and the dish smashed. There was a screech from the skull. :ight poured from its sockets and suddenly, all around them it was bright as if a summer’s day.

And they were surrounded! Beautiful ethereal woman sung enchanting songs, bright eyed children happily trooped through the valley, men dressed in rich finery walked arm in arm.

The three of them staggered to their feet, gazed at the scene all around them in wondrous stupefied astonishment…

“God bless ” exclaimed Bangle instinctively…

And that. That was a mistake.

The beautiful people disappeared, and in their place from the bushes and thickets all around them emerged horrible misshapen figures. All sharp teeth and pointed angles, their attention focused on the group.

“Run!” screamed Plant, and the others needed no encouragement. They sprinted through the night, pursued by the creatures.

The next few breathless panicked moments were a horrifying whirl for Plant. He got split up from his companions, cut himself on bracken branches and was dripping with sweat by the time he leapt over the stream at the top of the Clough. He was exhausted, he couldn’t go any further without a break. He turned ready to meet his fate.

And to his hysterical delight he saw that the things, the tangled mishmashes of men and beast and shadow, they were holding back. They couldn’t cross. But looking upon them properly caused his mind to break. With the last drops of his sanity he turned and fled.

He did recover though. He somehow made it home and after days in bed he finally came back to himself, at least of a sort. Chirrup was found on the moor later talking to the birds. His mind did not come back.

It appeared that Bangle had fared best of all because when Plant located him it turned out that the spell had worked!

His love had come to him and they were to be wed. Bangle told Plant this with a manic grin. It was all going to work out! “It’d been worth it!”” he insisted loudly, over and over.

Plant left the area, never to return. He would later hear on the grapevine that there had never been a wedding. Bangle had died in mysterious circumstances before the date.

Plant eschewed his connections with the occult. Took an interest in politics and changing the world for the better. Even married. But one day, without warning, he disappeared, leaving his bride and his comrades behind. Nothing more was ever heard from him.

And as for Limping Billy, he who had orchestrated all of this. He took his money. And seemed to do just fine.

And Boggart Hole Clough? Well It’s still there today. Even as the city took all the lands around, somehow it survived. Which I’m sure has nothing at all to do with its supernatural inhabitants. Nothing at all.

Even so, take care if ever you visit on St. John’s Eve.

The End

Sir Tarquin had a problem. It hadn’t started as a problem. And he didn’t recognise it as one now. But his servants did. He was a collector. And all fine in moderation is that.

Some people like stamps and go a bit odd over them, and others Gwent cards but Sir Tarquin’s was a unique collection and on a par with Joe Exotic’s for maintenance upkeep and danger.

For Sir Tarquin collected Knight’s of the Round table.

You like me might be surprised to learn that there were enough to make a collection. But given that Sir Tarquin had tens of the things and no one seemed to have particularly noticed yet, well, it seems the land was fair crawling with them.

He promised himself and his servants that he’d hold back now though. He had enough.

But of course if some were just to come sauntering right past his castle. Well then.. You could hardly blame a man could you?

 And wouldn’t you know it but not too far away were Sir Launcelot, bold famous knight of the round table, and his cousin Sir Lionel, who had some big side-kick energy.

They were out seeking adventure. And Launcelot was having a lovely nap under a tree in a forest.

Lionel was standing attentively, as was his job. He got the best jobs.

And there came a sound of thundering hooves, and three knights of the round table rode past Lionel and Launcelot, horses at full gallop.

Lionel turned his head to watch them go by, but then turned his head back as immediately after came another. This was a huge fearsome looking knight who didn’t bear the insignia of the Knights of the round table.

A knight clearly in pursuit of the other three.

Lionel watched horrified as Tarquin caught up with the three knights, and with a practised ease dismounted them, and captured them, horses and all.

Launcelot slept on. He didn’t need Launcelot to deal with this villain, thought Lionel, overconfidently, and off he rode to confront Tarquin.

Launcelot woke up cold and unexpectedly alone several hours later. Lionel was gone and his horse with him.

There were horse tracks near by. Lots of them. Signs of a struggle. Launcelot sighed. This felt awfully like the start of an adventure.

And off he rode.

Several more hours had elapsed and Launcelot had fair lost the trail by this point. He was vaguely riding around in lands that would one day be central Manchester, but now were eerily deserted. What scraps of vegetation there were was dried out and seemed oddly lifeless.

This was a good sign. He must be getting a close.

And a beautiful woman appeared, seemingly out of nowhere on the path.

This was an even better sign. 

The woman addressed Launcelot, who was used to this kind of thing. “Brave and wondrous Sir Knight: You have entered a place of great peril! For the castle of the giant knight Sir Tarquin is hereabouts. And he has taken captive a great many of your comrades in his foul dungeon.”

“Ahh, that’s what fine mess Lionel has gotten himself into this time!”

And the mysterious woman took up behind Launcelot on his horse and directed him to the castle, which now stands in the heart of Manchester.

Well she kind of did. Actually Launcelot found himself a little way from the castle still, near a tree filled with tens of shields. Shields bearing the coats of arms of many captured knights of the round table.

And hanging beneath them was a great metal basin inscribed with the words:

““He who valueth his life not a whit, let him then this basin hit!”

A challenge. Launcelot valued his life but was not to be intimidated. He struck the basin repeatedly with his spear and loud clangs rang out.

Launcelot noticed his mystical female guide had disappeared, her task complete. But they did that. He was used to it.

Tarquin responded to the challenge. “Another one” he exclaimed. Well he’d just have to have today as a cheat day then. He rode towards his tree of shields basin.

Si Tarquin was a huge Knight, towering over Launcelot. But Launcelot was top tier round table. And that was a very different proposition to the many others Tarquin had taken magpie-like. 

“Your reign of terror ends here!” declared Launcelot. 

“Yes, yes” said Tarquin who’d heard it all before.

They charged at each other, lances hit shields with terrific force and both men were dehorsed with the first blow. 

But it didn’t slow either of them down Up they jumped, they drew swords and took at one another furiously. And the fight went on… and on… and on even more. As epic clashes of this nature are wont to do.

They seemed in every way equally matched. Eventually after many hours and neither gaining the advantage sir Tarquin held up his hands.

“Sir Knight, you have fought most honourably indeed. I tell you what, I’ll offer you a deal – If you wish you may leave and take all my captives with you. You’ve fought a hundred times better than any of them and you have earned it.

“Right…” began Launcelot.

“Just one thing though…. Tiny thing, very unlikely to be an issue. But could you just tell me your name first?”


“Well there’s one Knight this deal wouldn’t apply to. The Knight who slayed my brother… Sir Cadros. He would not be eligible for the deal.”

“Oh” said Launcelot. “I’m Launcelot. And I don’t remember killing any Sir Cardros. So it’s fine.”

*a deathly silence*

It turned out this was not the right thing to have said. For he had slain Tarquin’s brother… but for him I suppose it was just a Tuesday.

Sir Tarquin bellowed and he swung his mightiest blow yet, bringing it down full force onto Launcelot. Who smartly sidestepped.

Launcelot tore off Tarquin’s helmet as he fell. And he brought his own sword down cleanly through Tarquin’s neck.

And that’s about the all of it. There was the rescuing to do of course. The grateful knights. Their effusive thanks. All in a day’s work for Launcelot, who was soon riding off into the sunset with Lionel, another successful adventure complete.

What locals remained knew only that the place was Tarquin’s castle and so it remained as it fell into ruin.

And many centuries would pass until the castle wound up in the centre of the greatest city in the North.

The End
Disappointingly little folklore about this fellow but it’s still a cracking badge (sorry Man City)

Boggart Hole Clough

The ferns probably didn’t look like this. But this is pretty

So there’s a lot more supernatural activity going on at Boggart Hole Clough (or Feyrin-Ho Cloof as Bamford stylized it) than just the tale of Bangle I relate in this podcast

If you interested in going deeper into the other stories around the Clough a really deep dive can be found at Dr Ceri Houlbrook’s The Suburban Boggart Folklore in an Inner-City Park. Dr Houlbrook has lots of other interesting folkloric research topics including fairies, love locks and wishing trees and is well worth a look. Follow over on Twitter: @cerihoulbrook.

If you’re after a more succinct list of the many many phenomenon you could do worse than start here: Boggart hole clough is one of the most haunted places in greater Manchester.

On the other magical uses of Fern seed, which doesn’t technically exist, see this article: Fern seed and invisibility, which also mentions Samuel Bamford.

“We steal as in a castle, cock-sure. We have the recipe of fern-seed, we walk invisible”

Shakespeare, Henry IV Part I, Act 2, scene 1

Samuel Bamford

Samuel Bamford doesn’t make it into our collection of folklorists, because he wasn’t an antiquarian, folklorist, chronicler or the like at all, and his strange account of the events at Boggart Hole Clough is his only notable foray into the area.

He was however an interesting and impressive figure in a number of other areas.

He was, in no particular order: A journalist, A skilled weaver, One of the leaders of the rally that was attacked by the military at the event now known as the Peterloo massacre, a dialect poet, a political prisoner, the authour of a fascinating memoir featuring a weird story about ferns and other-worlds amongst a lot of much more ordinary stuff, and eventually someone who came to be seen as not radical enough by a newer generation.

You can read a bit more about him here: My Peterloo Hero, his autobiography is here: Passages in the life of a radical and if you really want you can read some of his poetry here: Hours in the Bowers. But that latter is perhaps not quite so highly recommended. It’s pretty bad.

Mamucium and Sir Tarquin

I said in the episode I wasn’t going to dive into Arthurian legend and I’m not going to deviate from that here. While I could give a very pithy overview the subject really is too vast to do justice.

So instead admire these pictures of Mamucium and of Sir Tarquin’s shield and bucket tree.

You can visit Castlefield in Manchester today – as well as the fort there are bars, an art gallery, restaurants and a stone’s throw away is the science and industry museum where I spent many a happy hour as a child staring and planes and rockets and imagining a brighter future, that was also somehow stuck in the 1970s.

If you want to know more about the fort and want far too much detail (which might also be ever so slightly out of date give the 1909 publication date) then I can’t recommend more highly the Second annual report: The Roman fort at Manchester. But you probably are better starting with this BBC Guide to the Roman Fort at Castlefield.

“Who valueth not his life a whit,
Let him this magic basin hit”

– That hanging pot

The Ruin – Anglo Saxon Poem

During the episode I read out an extract of this poem. I find it a fascinating poem, looking at the Roman ruins from the perspective of an Anglo Saxon, when those ruins were already hundreds of years old. It’s a very evocative verse showing that ruins had just as much ability to light the fires of imagination, stir strong emotions of wonder and of loss, and generally lead to pondering on decay, destruction, and humanities frailty in the face of time, as they do now.

It likely refers to the ruin of Bath, rather than Manchester, but that’s by the by. A whole translation from old English is here: https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/.

The Ruin

These wall-stones are wondrous —
calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants
corrupted. The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Ice at the joints has unroofed the barred-gates, sheared
the scarred storm-walls have disappeared—
the years have gnawed them from beneath. A grave-grip holds
the master-crafters, decrepit and departed, in the ground’s harsh
grasp, until one hundred generations of human-nations have
trod past. Subsequently this wall, lichen-grey and rust-stained,
often experiencing one kingdom after another,
standing still under storms, high and wide—
it failed—

 The wine-halls moulder still, hewn as if by weapons,
    penetrated [—–]     savagely pulverized [—–]     [—–] shined [—–]     [—–] adroit ancient edifice [—–]     [—–] bowed with crusted-mud —

The strong-purposed mind was urged to a keen-minded desire
in concentric circles; the stout-hearted bound
wall-roots wondrously together with wire. The halls of the city
once were bright: there were many bath-houses,
a lofty treasury of peaked roofs, many troop-roads, many mead-halls
filled with human-joys until that terrible chance changed all that.

Days of misfortune arrived—blows fell broadly—
death seized all those sword-stout men—their idol-fanes were laid waste —
the city-steads perished. Their maintaining multitudes fell to the earth.
For that the houses of red vaulting have drearied and shed their tiles,
these roofs of ringed wood. This place has sunk into ruin, been broken
into heaps,

There once many men, glad-minded and gold-bright,
adorned in gleaming, proud and wine-flushed, shone in war-tackle;
There one could look upon treasure, upon silver, upon ornate jewelry,
upon prosperity, upon possession, upon precious stones,
upon the illustrious city of the broad realm.

Stone houses standing here, where a hot stream was cast
in a wide welling; a wall enfolding everything in its bright bosom,
where there were baths, heated at its heart. That was convenient,
when they let pour forth [—–] over the hoary stones
countless heated streams [—–] until the ringed pool
hot [—–] where there were baths
Then is [—–]. That is a kingly thing—
a house [—–],
a city [—-]

Selected Sources

Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music

Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:

Daniel Birch
Roaming the Streets At Night

Lionel Schmitt
Fairy Tale of Spring
Rise of the evil
The beast

Railroad’s whiskey co

Steve O’Brien

Damiano Baldoni
A Ghrà

Hot October

Kevin Macleod (incompotech.com)
Scheming Weasel


Doctor Turtle
Rotisserie Graveyard

Patrick Patrikios
The awakening

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