Tag Archives: Black Shuck

Shadows in the Fens

12 Jan

I’ve often considered the Fens, a vast tract of land stretching north from Cambridge right up to Boston in Lincolnshire, to be one of the strangest and most compelling of all English landscapes. They are not beautiful in the conventional picturesque sense but, with their huge skyscapes and curious translucency of atmosphere, they are quite unlike any other part of England. For centuries they were an inhospitable wilderness of quaking bogs and marshland, punctuated by clay islands on which small communities eked out a living cutting peat for fuel, using reeds for thatching and living on a diet of fish and wildfowl. Although systematic draining in the seventeenth century transformed the Fens, reclaiming the land and making it extremely fertile, its towns and villages remained scattered and isolated. Even today, much of the land is either water-logged or under water altogether, making it extremely treacherous. The few remaining areas of undrained fenland, in particular, are notorious for the tales told there of drownings, disappearances and all manner of other strange sights and sounds. There has even long been a theory – not mine I hasten to add – that paranormal activity might be conducted through water vapour, making damp areas like the Fens a fertile breeding ground for all manner of supernatural phenomena. Perhaps it should be no surprise, therefore, that ghost stories are one thing that this dark corner of East Anglia is not short of.

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Black Dogs and Demonic Hounds

9 Feb

Tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds are prevalent throughout the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles, from tales of Black Shuck in East Anglia to stories of Barghest in North Yorkshire. These terrifying beasts have even made their way into English Literature in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil, and its appearance is usually regarded as a portent of death. It is often associated with electrical storms and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways. The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern, as it has numerous precedents in a wide range of European myths. For example, there is the shape-shifting pooka of Celtic folklore, which was said to have a predilection for taking on the guise of a spectral hound when it appeared in animal form. It is notable that throughout European mythology black dogs seem to have an almost universal association with death: the Welsh Cŵn Annwn were the hounds of the underworld; the Norse Garmr was the blood-stained watchdog that guarded the gates of Hell; and the Greek Cerberus was the three-headed hound that  prevented those who crossed the river Styx from ever escaping. It is possible that the black dog, which similarly tended to have ominous connotations in British folklore, is a survival of these beliefs although it should be noted that there are some mythical hounds in Britain that are said to behave rather more benevolently, such as the Gurt Dog in Somerset.

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