By James Brown, Science Communicator and photographer
One of the main themes of the Between Worlds exhibition is the relationship between encounters with fairies and specific geographical locations. As the exhibition developed, photographer James Brown visited the sites where the selected stories were set, capturing these locations as they appear today and looking for traces of the folklore which forms their history.
David Wright, Assistant Curator at Palace Green Library
The fish served at breakfast had been caught just 90 minutes previously by two of the guests, obviously regular visitors to the B&B for the fishing opportunities that were available in the rivers around the Eildon hills. They were more than happy to share their catch with the table, garnished with stories and tales of their morning work in the mist. I’m not a fisherman, but even I thought that the picture they painted of the early morning river bank sounded rather idyllic. Eventually, the topic of conversation turned to me and the purpose of my visit. Unable to resist, I explained that, like them, I was there to capture something out in the wild; I was on the hunt for fairies.
When I was asked by Dr Victoria Flood if I would be able to contribute some pictures of the locations of fairy tales for the Between Worlds exhibition, I leapt at the opportunity. I wasn’t familiar with any of the stories she forwarded me, nor the places where they occurred. The extent of my knowledge about the subject was limited to having read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a different world.
For each location I visited (Melrose, Aberfoyle, Middridge, and Inglewood), I would read the tale(s) and then spend a day or two walking the surrounding area taking photographs. In both Aberfoyle and Melrose it very quickly became apparent that these tales were still in the forefront of the local consciousness. The woodland around Aberfoyle has been decorated with carved fairy houses, warning signs about the supernatural denizens of the woods, and of course the Fairy Tree perched atop the hill with its brightly coloured but weathered ribbons containing prayers, wishes, hopes and dreams. Despite the carefully maintained paths and walkways, there is still enough superstition contained in the mound of dense woodland on the edge of town to compel people to make a pilgrimage up to this site of special supernatural interest.
Similarly, in Melrose there are plenty of signs that the old tales are still remembered. At the base of the Eildon hills there is a monument to Thomas the Rhymer, sheltered by an Eildon tree, which relates to his story. Like Aberfoyle, the landscape has been tamed and sanitised, but the stories have not been erased – they are there to be discovered, hewn into the rock (literally in the case of Melrose), perhaps as a reminder of what lurks in the shadows. Rhymer’s glen is still marked on the OS maps and in fact is advertised at the local tourist information office. When I visit the path is closed off; industrial logging is taking place and it’s unsafe to enter. Danger has returned to the woodlands again, at least for a short time.
If both Melrose and Aberfoyle proudly display their links to the fairly world in the midst of modernisation, Middridge and Inglewood have no trace of the stories that are set there. Inglewood forest itself has almost gone entirely. A small copse of trees surrounded by farm land, it is a tiny time capsule back to a pre-cultivated Britain. It feels like the modern world has slowly encroached on the woodland down to this last bubble which could pop at any moment. Yet it holds out, surrounded by barbed wire and ditches to keep people out (with the exception of intrepid fairy hunters).
In Middridge, this battle between ancient and modern is much less a done deal. The village and surrounding farms feel under siege from the natural world. Bus stops are dwarfed by trees, houses are covered in ivy, fences strain to hold back the weeds from carefully manicured lawns. The allotments on the edge of the village are half-way between cultivated and untamed. The people of Middridge are in a constant war, trying to hold back the green tide from their little corner of civilisation. Totems line the road, human simulacra designed to ward off the dangers from outside the village (well – reckless drivers at least).
As I say, I’m not a fisherman, but I understand the attraction of heading out of the town and into the wild. All the locations I visited, the scenes of these fairy tales, demonstrate the push and pull between humans and their relationship with the wild borders around their homes. These twilight areas where town and country meet are fertile ground for stories and tales, inspired by the landmarks that dominate the local geography and have a strange attraction to those of us who want a little less civilisation every now and then.
Entry to Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairytales from Northern Britain is free; opening hours are 10am – 5pm 7 days a week until February 25 2018. For further information about your visit, please visit the Palace Green Library website at: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=36250.
If this blog has inspired you to find out more about fairies and folklore, then why not come along to the final public lecture running alongside the Between Worlds exhibition. Find out more about this exciting free talk here: https://www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green/whatson/details/?id=37740.