Water World as Another Home for the English Nation Reflected in the English Folklore

The British are a most curious nation in many aspects. When a tourist
from whatever continent comes to visit Britain the first conclusion he
arrives at is how bizarre the people living there are. The main reason to
their uniqueness will certainly lie on the surface: Great Britain is an
island that had to grow up and all the long way of its history alone being
separated from the rest of the world by great amounts of water. This very
characteristics turned them into not only a curious nation, but also an
interesting and special one, whose history and culture one of the richest
in the world. And the water surrounding the island played not a minor part
in its forming. So the British people respect and cherish their “watery”
neighbour who from the earliest stages of their history up to now gave them
food, drink, work, power, respect of other nations, wealth and after all
entertainment. It inspired a huge number of stries, tales, poems ,
superstitions and prejudicies and it has always been worshipped by the
The field of the country’s economy connected with water was always a
great concern for those who ruled it for they naturally attached much
importance to it. From the times when the English society was being born
and only beginning to take shape kings already would interest themselves in
the conditions of trading across the sea. In the eleventh century Cnut on a
pilgrimage to Rome took the opportunity of obtaining from the Emperor and
other rulers he met there greater security and reduction of talls for his
subjects, traders and others, travelling in their lands. Already in the
eighth century an English merchant called Botta was settled at Marceilles,
perhaps as an agent for collecting goods to be sold in England. The Viking
rades of the late eighth and ninth centuries disrupted trade on the
Continent, but Englishmen may well have taken part in the Baltic trade
opened up by this time. At least, there is no reason to deny English
nationality to a certain Wulfstan who described to King Alfred a journey
taken to the Frisches Haff; he has an English name.
On the other hand, we hear of foreign traders in England from early
times. Bede speaks of London as the “mart of many nations, resorting to it
by sea and land”, and mentions the purchase of a captive by a Frisian
merchant in London. But the strongest evidence for the amount of sea
traffic in Frisian hands is the assumption of an Anglo-Saxon poet that a
seaman is likely to have a Frisian wife:

Dear is the welcome guest to the Frisian woman when the ship
comes to land. His ship is come and her husband, her own bread –
winner, is at home, and she invites him in, washes his stained
raiment and gives him new clothes, grants him on land what his love

Men from other lands came also. At the end of the tenth century a
document dealing with trade in London speaks of men from Rouen, Flanders,
Ponthieu, Normandy, France; from about the same date comes a description of
York as the resort of merchants from all quarters, especially Danes.
The merchants and seamen plied an honoured trade. The poets speak with
appreciation of the seaman “who can boldly drive the ship across the salt
sea” or “can steer the stem on the dark wave, knows the currents, (being)
the pilot of the company over the wide ocean”, and it was at least a
current opinion in the early eleventh century that the merchant who had
crossed the sea three times at his own cost should be entitled to a thane’s
rank. The merchant in Aelfric’s “Colloquy” stresses the dangers of his lot:

I go on board my ship with my freight and row over the regions
of the sea, and sell my goods and buy precious things which are not
produced in this land, and I bring it hither to you with great danger
over the sea, and sometimes I suffer shipwreck with the loss of all
my goods, barely escaping with my life.

As we see people working in the sea or over the seas gained much
respect in the society and were loved by others. But so much for the
economical aspect. The water, as we already mentioned earlier, was one of
the greatest attractions as a source of entertainment.
Fishing, like hunting, was highly popular in England, but these were
pleasures reserved for the nobility. In the twelfth century, when the kings
had normally been so strong, they had claimed such oppressive fishing –
rights that all the classes had united in protest. One of the demands of
the rebels in 1381 was that hunting and fishing should be common to all;
not only was this refused, but in 1390 Parliament enacted a penalty for one
year’s imprisonment for everyone who should presume to keep hunting – dogs
or use ferrets or snares to catch deer, rabbits, or any other game. Fishing
and hunting, said the statute, was the sport for gentlefolk.
So this is a scetch or an outline of reasons explaining why our
ancestors valued so much the rivers, lakes, seas of their land – and it is
worth mentioning that their land abounds in all that – and why they
respected the work of sailors, merchants or travellers. All this is
important for the understanding of how it was becoming an unseparable part
of their culture and how it is reflected in their culture. In this work we
would like to pay close attention to just one aspect of the whole rich
cultural inheritance, and that is folklore.


What is folklore? Funk and Wagnall’s “Standard Dictionary of
Folklore, Mythology and Legend” (1972) offers a staggering 22 definitions,
running to half a dozen pages. In recent years definitions have tended to
be all – embracing in their simplicity: folklore is made up of “the
traditional stories, customs and habits of a particular community or
nation” says the “Collins Cobuild Dictionary” of 1987.
More specific definitions also abound; perhaps, folklore should be
identified as the community’s commitment to maintaining stories, customs
and habits purely for their own sake. ( A perfect example of this would be
the famous horse race at Siena in Italy: the p a l i o attracts many
thousands of tourists, yet if not a single outsider attend, the people of
the community would still support the event year after year).
But what about those events or beliefs which have been recently
initiated or which are sustained for reasons of commercial gain or tourism?
Many customs are not as ancient as their participants may claim but it
would be foolish to dismiss them as irrelevant. Some apparently ancient
customs are, in fact, relatively modern, but does this mean they cannot be
termed as folklore? The spectacular fire festival at Allendale, for
instance, feels utterly authentic despite the fact that there is no record
of the event prior to 1853. There are many other cases of new events or
stories which have rapidly assumed organic growth and therefore deserve the
status of being recognised as folklore.
Any work covering the question of folklore must be selective, but here
we shall attempt to explore and celebrate the variety and vigour of
Britain’s folklore concerning “waterworld” traditions, beliefs and
superstitions. A wide geographical area is covered: England, Scotland and
Wales with some reference to Ireland and other territories.
Entire books – indeed, whole libraries of books – have been written on
every aspect of folklore: on epitaphs and weather lore, folk medicine and
calendar customs, traditional drama and sports and pastimes, superstitions,
ghosts and witchcraft, fairs, sea monsters and many others. While trying to
cram much into little work I have avoided generalisation. Precise details
such as names, dates and localities are given wherever possible and there
are some references to features that still can be seen — a mountain, a
bridge, a standing stone or a carving in a church.
Classic folklore belongs within the country to the basic unit of the
parish. Most parishes could produce at least a booklet and in some cases a
substantial volume on their own folklore, past and present . It would be a
mistake, however, to think that rural customs, dance and tale were the
whole picture, because there is a rich picture of urban and industrial
folklore as well – from the office girl’s prewedding ceremonies to urban
tales of phantom hitchhickers and stolen corpses.
In this age of fragmentation, speed and stress, people often seem to
thirst for something in which they can take an active part. There is a need
to rediscover something which is more permanent and part of a continuing
tradition. By tapping into our heritage of song and story, ritual and
celebration, our lives are given shape and meaning.
In some cases all we have to do is join in with an activity which is
already happening; in others it will perhaps mean reviving a dance or a
traditional play. But however we choose to participate, as long as we
continue to use, adapt and develop the elements of our folklore heritage it
will survive.
So this work may be regarded as an attempt to encourage us all to seek
out the stories and customs of country, county, town, village, to
understand and enjoy them and to pass them on.


Not a single town or village in England is situated more than a
hundred miles from the sea, except for a few places in the Midlands, and
most of those in Wales and Scotland are nearer still. The coastline lies
for thousands of miles, with a host of off-shore islands ranging from
Scilly to Shetland and Wight to Lewis. It is hardly surprising then that
our long and eventful maritime history is complemented by a rich heritage
of nautical stories and superstitions, beliefs and customs, many of which
continue to affect our daily lives – even oil rigs, very much a twentieth –
century phenomenon, have tales of their own. Inland water, too, are the
subjects of stories which echoes the folklore of the coasts and seas.


Many tales are told of submerged lands, and of church bells ringing
ominously from beneath the waves. Between Land’s End and the Scilly Islands
lies a group of rocks called The Seven Stones, known to fishermen as “The
City” and near to which the land of Lyoness is believed to lie, lost under
the sea. There is a rhyme which proclaims:

Between Land’s End and Scilly
Sunk lies a town that ocean

Lyoness was said to have had 140 churches. These and most of its
people were reputed to have been engulfed during the great storrn of 11
November 1099. One man called Trevilian foresaw the deluge, and moved his
family and stock inland – he was making a last journey when the waters
rose, but managed to outrun the advancing waves thanks to the fleetness of
his horse. Since then the arms of the grateful Trevilian have carried the
likeness of a horse issuing from the sea. A second man who avoided the
catastrophe erected a chapel in thanksgiving which stood for centuries near
Sennen Cove.
Another area lost under water is Cantre’r Gwaelod, which lies in
Cardigan Bay somewhere between the river Teifi and Bardsey Island. Sixteen
towns and most of their inhabitants were apparently overwhelmed by the sea
when the sluice gates in the protective dyke were left open. There are two
versions of the story as to who was responsible: in one it is a drunken
watchman called Seithenin; in another, Seithenin was a king who preferred
to spend his revenue in dissipation rather than in paying for the upkeep of
the coastal defences.
A moral of one kind or another will often be the basis of tales about
inland settlements lost beneath water. For example Bomere Lake in
Shropshire – now visited as a beauty spot was created one Easter Eve when
the town which stood there was submerged as a punishment for reverting to
paganism. One Roman soldier was spared because he had attempted to bring
the people backto Christianity, but he then lost his life while trying to
save the woman he loved. It is said that his ghost can sometimes be seen
rowing across the lake at Easter, and that the town,s bells can be heard
ringing. There is another version of the same story in the same place, but
set in Saxon times: the people turn to Thor and Woden at a time when the
priest is warning that the barrier which holds back the meter needs
strengthening. He is ignored, but as the townsfolk are carousing at
Yuletide the water bursts in and destroys them.
There is a cautionary tale told of Semerwater, another lake with a
lost village in its depth. Semerwater lies in north Yorkshire not far from
Askrigg, which is perhaps better known as the centre of “Herriot country”,
from the veterinary stories of James Herriot. The story goes that a
traveller – variously given as an angel, St Paul, Joseph of Arimathea, a
witch, and Christ in the guise of a poor old man – visited house after
house seeking food and drink , but at each one was turned away, until he
reached a Quaker’s home, just beyond the village: htis was the only
building spared in the avenging flood that followed.
One lost land off the Kent coast can be partially seen at high tide:
originally, the Goodwin Sands were in fact an island, the island of Lomea
which according to one version disappeared under the waves in the eleventh
century when funds for its sea defences were diverted to pay for the
building of a church tower at Tenterden. The blame for that is laid at the
door of a n abbot of St Augustine’s at Canterbury who was both owner of
Lomea and rector of Tenterden. However, sceptics say that Tenterden had no
tower before the sixteenth century, nor can archeologists find any trace of
habitation or cultivation of the sands. Even so, the tales continue to be
told; one of these blame Earl Godwin, father of King Harold, for the loss
of the island. He earl promised to build a steeple at Tenterden in return
for safe delivery from a battle, but having survived the battle, he forgot
the vow and in retribution Lomea, which he owned, was flooded during a
great storm. The Sands still bear his name.
Yet worse was to follow, for scores of ships and the lives of some 50
000 sea farers have been lost on the Goodwins, and ill-fortune seems to dog
the area. For example, in 1748 the “Lady Lovibond” was deliberatly steered
to her destruction on the Sands by the mate of the vessel, John Rivers.
Rivers was insanely jealeous because his intended bride, Anetta, had
foresaken him to marry his captain, Simon Reed. The entire wedding party
perished with the ship in the midst of the celebrations, but the remarkable
thing is that the scene made a phantom reappearance once every fifty years
– until 1948, when the “Lady Lovibond” at last failed to re-enact the
Another fifty — year reappearance concerns the Nothumberland; she
was lost on the Goodwind sands in 1703 in a storm, along with twelve other
men – of — war, but in 1753 seen again by the crew of an East Indiaman –
sailors were leaping in to the water from the stricken vessel though their
shouts and screams could not be heard.
The Nothumberland was under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovel, to
whom is attached a further tale. Three years afterwards, the admiral’s
flagship, the Association, was wrecked on the Gilstone Rock near the Scilly
Isles. The fleet was homeward bound after a triumphant campaign against the
French and some maintain that the crews were drunk. But the story which
Scillonians believe to this day is that a sailor aboard the flagship warned
that the fleet was dangerously near the islands, and that for this he was
hanged at the yardarm for unsubordination, on the admiral’s orders. The man
was granted a last request to read from the Bible, and turned to the 109
psalm: “ Let his days be few and another take his place. Let his children
be fatherless and his wife a widow”. As he read the ship began to strike
the rocks.
The admiral was a very stout man and his buoyancy was sufficient to
carry him ashore alive, though very weak. However, official searches found
him dead, stripped off his clothing and valuables, including a fine emerald
ring. The body was taken to Westminster Abbey for interment, and his widow
appealed in vain for the return of the ring. Many years later a St Mary’s
islander confessed on the deathbed that she had found Sir Cloudesley and
had “squeezed the life out of him” before taking his belongongs. The hue
and cry had forced her to abandon the idea of selling the emerald, but she
had felt unable to die in peace before revealing her crime.
A commemorative stone marks the place where the admiral’s body was
temporarily buried in the shingle of Porth Hellick, on St Mary’s Island. No
grass grows over the grave.


Many hundreds of shipwrecks have their own songs and stories. Although
the Ramilies, for example, was wrecked well over 200 years ago, tradition
perpetuates the event as clearly as if it had happened only yesterday. In
February 1760 the majestic, ninety – gun, triple decked ship was outward
bound from Plymouth to Quiberon Bay when hurricane – force winds blew up in
the Channel and forced the captain to turn back and run for shelter.
Sailing East , the master thought he had passed Looe Island, and had only
to round Rame Head to reach the safety of Plymouth Sound. In fact the ship
was a bay further on and the land sighted was Burgh Island, in Bigbury Bay.
The Promontory was Bolt Tail with its four hundred foot cliffs, and beyond
lay no safe harbour at all, but several miles of precipitous rocks. As soon
as the sailing master realised his mistake the ship was hove to, but the
wind was so violent that the masts immediately snapped and went overboard.
The two anchores that were dropped held fast, but their cables fouled each
other, and after hours of fierce friction, they parted and the ship was
driven to destruction on the rocks.
Of more than seven hundred men on board only about two dozen reached
safety. Led by Midshipman John Harrold, they scrambled up the cliffs, by
pure luck choosing the one place where this was possible. Next day a
certain William Locker travelled to the scene to try to find the body of
his friend, one of the officers. Locker himself would have been aboard the
“Ramillies” but his lieutenant’s commission had come from the admiralty too
late, arriving just a few hours after she had sailed. He found the shores
of Bigbury Bay strewn with hundreds of corpses, their clothing torn away by
the sea’s pounding, their features unrecognisable. The village nearest to
the scene of the wreck was Inner Hope, and some there still maintain that a
Bigbury man aboard the “Ramillies” pleaded with the captain to alter
course; but he was clapped in irons, and went down with the ship. They say
that only one officer survived because others were prevented from leaving
the stricken vessel.
Most of the bodies were washed ashore at Thurlestone, a few miles to
the west. There used to be a depression in the village green which marked
the place where many of the seamen had been buried in a mass grave; this
has now been asphalted to make a carpark. Then in the mid – 1960s a child
digging in a sand dune found a bone. He showed it to a man on the beach who
happened to be a doctor and identified it as human. Further digging
revealed the skeletons of ten men, small in stature and buried in five –
foot intervals — perhaps these had been washed up after the mass burial.
No scrap of clothing or equipment was found, and finally the bones were
thrown into a lorry and consigned to a rubbish tip. Even though two
centuries have elapsed since their deaths, one feels that the men of the
“Ramillies” deserved better. The ship still lies six fathoms down in the
cove which which has borne her name since 1760, and Wise’s Spring on the
cliffs is called after one of the seamen who scrambled ashore with the tiny
band of survivors.


Great pains are taken when first launching a vessel so as to ensure
good fortune, and one of the most important portents is the ritual bottle
of champagne which must break first time ( the liquid may be a substitute
for the blood of a sacrifice ). It is interesting that the various ships to
bear the name “Ark Royal” have always been lucky; for example when the
World War 11 vessel sunk there was minimal loss of life. The original ship
dated from Elizabethan times and had a crucifix placed beneath the mainmast
by the captain’s mistress; this apparently secured the good fortune for all
her successors. On the other hand there are vessels which seem perpetually
unlucky, some even jinxed and quite incapable of escaping misfortune.
Brunel’s fine ship the “Great Eastern” was launched in 1858 after
several ominously unsuccessful attempts. She ruined the man in whose yard
she was built, and caused a breakdown in Brunel’s health – he died even
before her maiden voyage. And despite her immense technical advantages, she
was never successful as the passenger — carrying vessel.
In 1895 she was in port in Holyhead. When the “Royal Charter” sailed
by, homeward bound from Australia, the passengers expressed a desire to see
her and their captain was only too pleased to oblige. However, the ship
strayed off course and a wild storm blew up. The ship was wrecked, with
great loss of life. Some of the trouble was attributed to the story of a
riveter and his boy who were said to have been accidentally sealed to the
famous double hull. Unexplained knockings were heard at various times but
although searches were made, nothing was found. When the vessel was broken
up at New Ferry, Cheshire, in 1888 it was rumoured that two sceletons were
discovered, their bony fingers still clenched round the worn – down hammers
which had beaten in vain for rescue.
The “Victoria” was commissioned on Good Friday, the thirteenth of the
month – and if this were not ill-luck enough, the fact that her name ended
in ‘a’ was considered another bad sign. In 1893 she sank with heavy losses
after a collision during the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean off Beirut,
and interestingly, various things happened which indicated calamity: two
hours earlier a fakir had actually predicted disaster, and at the time of
the collision crowds had gathered at the dockyards gates in Malta, drawn by
an instinctive apprehension of impending doom. At the same time during
lunch at a Weymouth torpedo works the stem of a wine glass had suddenly
cracked with a loud retort; and in London’s Eaton Square the ship’s Admiral
Tryon was seen coming down the stairs at his home. He was in fact aboard
the “Victoria”, where he survived the impact but made no effort to save
himself. As he sank beneath the waves he is said to have lamented: “It was
all my fault” – and so it was, for he had given the incorrect order which
led to the collision.

Generations after her loss the “Titanic” is still a byword for
hubris. In 1912 the “unsinkable ship” struck an iceberg on her maiden
voyage and went down with 1 500 passengers and crew. Again, a variety if
omens anticipated the disaster: a steward’s badge came to pieces as his
wife stitched it to his cap, and a picture fell from the wall in a stoker’s
home; then aboard the ship a signal halliard parted as it was used to
acknowledge the ‘bon voyage’ signal from the Head of Old Kinsale lighthouse
– and the day before the collision rats were seen scurrying aft, away from
the point of impact. After the calamity Captain Smith, who went down with
the ship, is rumoured to have been seen ashore.
One cause of the “Titanic” disaster is said to have been an unlucky
Egyptian mummy case. This is the lid of an inner coffin with the
representation of the head and upper body of an unknown lady of about 1000
bc. Ill-fortune certainly seemed to travel with the lid – first of all the
man who bought it from the finder had an arm shattered by an accidental gun
shot. He sold, but the purchaser was soon afterwards the recipient of the
bad news, learning that he was bankrupt and that he had a fatal disease.
The new owner, an English lady, placed the coffin lid in her drawing –
room: next morning she found everything there smashed. She moved it
upstairs and the same thing happened, so she also sold it. When this
purchaser had the lid photographed, a leering, diabolical face was seen in
the print. And when it was eventually presented to the British Museum,
members of staff began to contract mysterious ailments – one even died. It
was sold yet again to an American, who arranged to take it home with him on
the “Titanic”. After the catastrophe he managed to bribe the sailors to
allow him to take it into a lifeboat, and it did reach America. Later he
sold it to a Canadian, who in 1941 decided to ship it back to England; the
vessel taking it, “Empress of Ireland” , sank in the river St Lawrence. So
runs the story, but in reality the coffin lid did not leave the British
Museum after being presented in 1889.
The former prime minister, Edward Heath, in his book “Sailing” (1975)
revealed that he too had experienced the warnings of ill omen. At the
launch of the “Morning Cloud 1” the bottle twice refused to break, and at
the same ceremony for the “Morning Cloud 111” the wife of a crew member
fell and suffered severe concussion. This yacht was later wrecked off the
South coast with the loss of two lives, and in the very same gale the
“Morning Cloud 1” was blown from the moorings on the island of Jersey, and
also wrecked. Meanwhile, the Morning Cloud 11” had been launched without
incident and was leading a trouble free life with the Australian to whom
she had been sold.
As recently as December 1987 a strange case came to light as a result
of a Department of Health and Social Security enquiry into why members of a
Bridlington trawler crew were spending so much time unemployed. In
explanation, Derek Gates, skipper of the “Pickering”, said that putting to
sea had become impossible: on board lights would flicker on and off; cabins
stayed freezing cold even when the heating was on maximum; a coastguard
confirmed that the ship’s steering repeatedly turned her in erratic circles
and in addition, the radar kept failing and the engine broke down
regularly. One of the crewmen reported seeing a spectral, cloth-capped
figure roaming the deck, and a former skipper, Michael Laws, told how he
repeatedly sensed someone in the bunk above his, though it was always
empty. He added: “ My three months on the Pickering” were the worst in
seventeen years at sea. I didn’t earn a penny because things were always
going wrong”.
The DHSS decided that the men’s fears were a genuine reason for
claiming unemployment benefit, and the vicar of Bridlington, the Rev. Tom
Wilis, was called in to conduct a ceremony of exorcism. He checked the
ship’s history, and concluded that the disturbances might be connected with
the ghost of a deckhand who had been washed overboard when the trawler,
then registered as the “Family Crest”, was fishing off Ireland. He
sprinkled water from stem to stern, led prayers, and called on the spirit
of the dead to depart. His intervention proved effective because the
problems ceased, and furthermore the crew began to earn bonuses for good


Sailors used to be very superstitious – maybe they still are – and
greatly concerned to avoid ill-luck, both ashore and afloat. Wives must
remember that “Wash upon sailing day, and you will wash your man away”,
and must also be careful to smash any eggshells before they dispose of
them, to prevent their being used by evil spirits as craft in which to put
to sea and cause storms.
Luck was brought by:
— tattoos
— a gold ear-ring worn in the left ear
— a piece of coal carried
— a coin thrown over the ship’s bow when leaving port
— a feather from a wren killed on St. Stephen’s Day

— a caul
— a hot cross bun or a piece of bread baked on a Good Friday

The last three all preserved from drowning. David Copperfield’s caul
was advertised for sale in the newspapers “for the low price of fifteen
guineas”, and the woman from the port of Lymington in Hampshire offered one
in “The Daily Express” as recently as 23 August 1904. One Grimsby man born
with the caul has kept it to this day. When he joined the Royal Navy during
World War 11 his mother insisted that he take the caul with him. Various
other sailors offered him up to L20 – a large sum for those days – if he
would part with it, but he declined.
For over two hundred years now a bun has been added every Good Friday
to a collection preserved at the Widow’s Son Tavern, Bromley – by –Bow,
London. The name and the custom derive from an eighteenth – century widow
who hoped that her missing sailor son would eventually come home safely if
she continued to save a bun every Easter. Some seamen had their own version
of this, and would touch their sweetheart’s bun (pudenda) for luck before
Other things had to be avoided because they brought ill-luck.
For example:

— meeting a pig, a priest or a woman on the way to one’s ship
— having a priest or a woman aboard
— saying the words: pig, priest, rabbit, fox, weasel, hare
— dropping a bucket overboard
— leaving a hatch cover upside down
— leaving a broom, a mop or a squeegee with the head upwards
— spitting in the sea
— whistling
— handing anything down a companionway
— sailing on a Friday
— finding a drowned body in the trawl (in the case of Yorkshire

Although many of these beliefs are obscure in origin, others can be
For example, the pig had the devil’s mark on his feet – cloven hoofs –
and was a bringer of storms; furthermore the drowning of the Gadarene swine
was a dangerous precedent. Then the priest was associated with funerals,
and so taking him aboard was perhaps too blatant a challenge to the malign
powers – if he were to be designated in conversation he was always “The
gentleman in black”. The pig was curly tail, or in Scotland “cauld iron
beastie” since if it were inadvertently mentioned the speaker and hearers
had to touch cold iron to avoid evil consequences; if no cold iron were
available, the studs to one’s boots would do. The other four animals were
taboo because they were thought to be the shapes assumed by witches who
were notorious for summoning storms.
Perhaps women were also shunned because they were considered potential
witches, although a good way to make a storm abate was for a woman to
expose her naked body to the elements. Bare — breasted figure – heads
were designed to achieve the same result. Nevertheless, during HMS “Durban”
’s South American tour in the 1930s the captain allowed his wife to take
passage on the ship. Before the tour was halfway through there were two
accidental deaths on board, besides a series of mishaps, and feeling
amongst the crew began to run high. At one port of call a group of men
returning to the ship on a liberty boat were freely discussing the run of
bad luck, attributing it to “having that bloody woman on board”. They did
not realize that the captain was separated from them by only a thin
bulkhead and had overheard the whole conversation. But instead of taking
disciplinary action, he put his wife ashore the next day; she travelled by
land to other ports, and the ship’s luck immediately changed for the
Fridays were anathema – “Friday sail, Friday fail” was the saying –
since the temtation of Adam, the banishment from the Garden of Eden, and
the crucifixion of Christ had all taken place on a Friday. One old story,
probably apocryphal, tells of a royal navy ship called HMS “Friday” which
was launched, first sailed and then lost on a Friday; moreover her captain
was also called Friday. Oddly enough, a ship of this name does appear in
the admiralty records in 1919, but the story was in circulation some fifty
years earlier. This fear of Friday dies hard. A certain Paul Sibellas,
seaman, was aboard the “Port Invercargill” in the 1960s when on one
occasion she was ready to sail for home from New Zealand at 10pm on Friday
the thirteenth. The skipper, however, delayed his departure until midnight
had passed and Saturday the fourteenth had arrived.
Whistling is preferably avoided because it can conjure up a wind,
which might be acceptable aboard a becalmed sailing ship, but not
otherwise. Another way of getting a wind was to stick a knife in the mast
with its handle pointing in the direction from which a blow was required –
this was done on the “Dreadnaught” in 1869, in jury rig after being
dismasted off Cape Horn.
In 1588 Francis Drake is said to have met the devil and various
wizards to whistle up tempests to disrupt the Spanish Armada. The spot near
Plymouth were they gathered is now called Devil’s Point. He is also said to
have whittled a stick, of which the pieces became fireships as they fell
into the sea; and his house at Buckland Abbey was apparently built with
unaccountable speed, thanks to the devil’s help. Drake’s drum is preserved
in the house and is believed to beat of its own accord when the country
faces danger.


With the mirror and comb, her ling hair, bare breasts and fish tail,
the mermaid is instantly recognisable, but nowadays only as an amusing
convention. However, she once inspired real fear as well as fascination and
sailors firmly believed she gave warning of tempest of calamity.
As recently as seventy years ago, Sandy Gunn, a Cape Wrath shepherd,
claimed he saw a mermaid on a spur of rock at Sandwood Bay. Other coastal
dwellers also recall such encounters, even naming various landmarks. In
Corwall there are several tales invilving mermaids: at Patstow the harbour
entrance is all but blocked by the Doom Bar, a sandbank put there by
mermaid, we are told, in relation for being fired at by a man of the town.
And the southern Cornish coast between the villages of Down Derry and Looe,
the former town of Seaton was overwhelmed by sand because it was cursed by
a mermaid injured by a sailor from the port.
Mermaid’s Rock near Lamorna Cove was the haunt of a mermaid who would
sing before a storm and then swim out to sea – her beauty was such that
young men would follow, never to reappear. At Zennor a mermaid was so
entranced by the singing of Matthew Trewella, the squire’s son, that she
persuaded him to follow her; he, too failed to to return, but his voice
could be heard from time to time, coming from beneath the waves. The little
church in which he sang on land has a fifteenth – century bench – end
carved with a mermaid and her looking – glass and comb.
On the other hand, mermaids could sometimes be helpful. Mermaid’s Rock
at Saundersfoot in Wales is so called because a mermaid was once stranded
there by the ebbing of the tide. She was returned to the sea by a passing
mussel – gatherer, and later came back to present him with a bag of gold
and silver as a reward. In the Mull of Kintyre a Mackenzie lad helped
another stranded mermaid who in return granted him his wish, that he cpuld
build unsinkable boats from which no man would ever be lost.

Sexual unions between humans and both sea people and seals are the
subject of many stories, and various families claim strange sea – borne
ancestry: for example the Mc Veagh clan of Sutherland traces its descent
from the alliance between a fisherman and a mermaid; on the Western island
of North Uist the McCodums have an ancestor who married a seal maiden; and
the familiar Welsh name of Morgan is sometimes held to mean “born of the
sea”, again pointing to the family tree which includes a mermaid or a
merman. Human wives dwelling at sea with mermen were allowed occasional
visits to the land, but they had to take care not to overstay – and if they
chanced to hear the benediction said in church they were never able to
rejoin their husbands.
Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Forsaken Merman” relates how one human wife
decides to desert her sea husband and children. There is also a Shetland
tale, this time concerning a sea wife married to a land husband:

On the island of Unst a man walking by the shore sees mermaids
and mermen dancing naked in the moonlight, the seal skins which they
have discarded lying on the sand. When they see the man, the dancers
snatch up the skins, become sea creatures again, and all plunge into
the waves – except one, for the man has taken hold of the skin. Its
owner is a mermaid of outstanding beauty. And she has to stay on the
shore. The man asks her to become his wife, and she accepts. He keeps
the skin and carefully hides it.
The marriage is successful, and the couple has several
children. Yet the woman is often drawn in the night to the seashore,
where she is heard conversing with a large seal in an unknown tongue.
Years pass. During the course of a game one of the children finds a
seal skin hidden in the cornstack. He mentions it to his mother, and
she takes it and returns to the sea. Her husband hears the news and
runs after her, arriving by the shore to be told by his wife: “
Farewell, and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I
lived on earth, but I always loved my first husband more.”

As we know from David Thomson’s fine book “The People of the Sea”
(1984), such stories are still widely told in parts of Ireland and in
Scotland and may explain why sailors were reluctant to kill seals. There
was also a belief that seals embodied the souls of drowned mariners.
The friendly dolphin invariably brings good luck to seafarers, and has
even been known to guide them to the right direction. As recently as
January 1989 the newspapers reported that an Australian swimmer who had
been attacked and wounded by a shark was saved from death only by the
intervention of a group of dolphins which drove off the predator.
Also worthy of mention here is another benevolent helper of seamen
lost in open boats: a kindly ghost known as the pilot of the “Pinta”. When
all seems lost he will appear in the bows of the boat and insistently point
the way to safety.
Other denizens of the deep inspired fear and terror. The water horse
of Wales and the Isle of Man – the kelpie of Scotland – grazes by the side
of the sea or loch. If anyone is rash enough to get on him, he rushes into
the water and drowns the rider; furthermore his back can conveniently
lengthen to accommodate any number of people. There are several tales
believed of the water horse, for example, if he is harnessed to a plough he
drags it into the sea. If he falls in love with a woman he may take the
form of a man to court her – only if she recognises his true nature from
the tell-tale sand in his hair will she have a chance of escaping, and then
she must steal away while he sleeps. Legnd says that the water horse also
takes the shape of an old woman; in this guise he is put to bed with a bevy
of beautiful maidens, but kills them all by sucking their blood, save for
one who manages to run away. He pursues her but she jumps a running brook
which, water horse though he is, he dare not cross.

Still more terrible are the many sea monsters of which stories are
told. One played havoc with the fish of the Solway Firth until the people
planted a row of sharpened stakes on which it impaled itself. Another
serpent – like creature, the Stoor Worm, was so huge that its body curled
about the earth. It took up residence off northern Scotland and made it
known that a weekly delivery of seven virgins was required, otherwise the
towns and villages would be devastated. Soon it was the turn of the king’s
daughter to be sacrificed, but her father announced that he would give her
in anyone who would rid him of the worm. Assipattle, the dreamy seventh son
of a farmer, took up the challenge and put to sea in a small boat with an
iron pot containing a glowing peat; he sailed into the monster’s mouth,
then down into its inside – after searching for some time he found the
liver, cut a hole in it, and inserted the peat . The liver soon began to
burn fiercely, and the worm retched out Assipattle and his boat. Its death
throes shook the world: one of its teeth became the Orkney Islands, the
other Shetland; the falling tongue scooped out the Baltic Sea, and the
burning liver turned into the volcanosof Iceland. The king kept his
promise, and the triumphant Assipattle married his daughter.

Perhaps, the most famous of all water monsters is that of Loch Ness,
first mentioned in a life of St Columba written in 700 AD.
Some 150 years earlier one of the saint’s followers was apparently
swimming in the loch when the monster “suddenly swam up to the surface, and
with gaping mouth and with great roaring rushed towards the man”.
Fortunately, Columba was watching and ordered the monster to turnback: it
obeyed. The creature (or its successor) then lay dormant for some 1 300
years, for the next recorded sighting was in 1871.
However, during the last fifty years there have been frequent reports
and controversies. In1987 a painstaking and and expencive sonar scan of the
loch revealed a moving object of some 400 lb in weight which scientists
were unable to identify. Sir Peter Scott dubbed the monster “Nessiterras
Rhombopteryx”, after the diamond – shaped fin shown on a photograph taken
by some American visitors; the Monster Exhibition Centre at Drumnadrochit
on Loch Ness describes it as “The World’s Greatest Mystery”. Tourists from
all over the world flock to visit Loch Ness, monster and centre.


The seas will always be potentially dangerous for those who choose to
sail them and most seafarers tried hard to avoid incurring the wrath of
Davy Jones – they once were sometimes reluctant even to save drowning
comrades lest they deprive the deep of a victim which would serve as a
propitiatory sacrifice though the dilemma could be resolved by throwing the
drowning man a rope or spar. This was a much less personal intervention
than actually landing a hand or diving in to help and therefore less risky.
Various shipboard ceremonies were observed and maintained religiously:
at Christmas a tree would be lashed to the top of the mast (the custom is
still followed, and on ships lacking a mast the tree is tied to the
railings on the highest deck). At midnight as New Year’s Eve becomes New
Year’s Day the ship’s bell is rung eight times for the old year and eight
times for the new – midnight on a ship is normally eight bells – the oldest
member of the crew giving the first eight rings, the youngest the second.

“Burying the Dead Horse” was a ceremony which was continued in
merchant ships until late in the nineteenth century, and kept up most
recently in vessels on the Australian run. The horse was a symbol for the
month’s pay advanced on shore (and usually spent before sailing); after
twenty-eight days at sea the advance was worked out. The horse’s body was
made from a barrel, its legs from hay, straw or shavings covered with
canvas, and the main and tail of hemp. The animal was hoisted to the main
yardarm and set on fire. It was allowed to blase for a short time and was
then cut loose and dropped into the sea. Musical accompaniment was provided
by the shanty “Poor Old Horse”:

Now he is dead and will die no more,
And we say so, for we know so.
It makes his ribs feel very sore,
Oh, poor old man.
He is gone and will go no more,
And we say so, for we know so.
So goodbye, old horse,
We say goodbye.
On sailing ships collective work at the capstan, windlass, pumps and
halliards was often accompanied by particular songs known as shanties.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries big, full-rigged
vessels were bringing cargoes of nitrate, guano and saltpetre to Britain to
South America ports. When a ship was loaded and ready to sail round Cape
Horn and home, the carpenter would make a large wooden cross to which red
and white lights were fixed in the shape of the constellation known as the
Southern Cross. As this was hoisted to the head of the mainmast, the crew
would sing the shanty “Hurrah, my boys, we’re homeward bound”, and then the
crew of every ship in harbour took turns to cheer the departing vessel.

Seafarers crossing the equator for the first time – and sometimes the
tropics of the polar circles – are often put through a sort of baptism or
initiation ceremony. The earliest recorded reference to such a ritual dates
back to 1529 on a French ship, but by the end of the following century
English vessels were involved in the same custom, which continues to this
day in both Royal Navy and merchant service.
One of the crew appears as Neptune, complete with crown, trident and
luxuriant beard; others represent Queen Amphitrite, a barber, a surgeon and
various nymphs and bears. Neptune holds court by the side of a large canvas
bath full of sea — water, and any on board who have not previously crossed
“the Line” are ceremonially shaved with huge wooden razors, then thoroughly
ducked. Finally, the victim is given a certificate which protects him from
the same ordeal on ane future occasion. Even passengers are put through a
modified form of the proceedings, though women are given a still softer
version of the treatment.

When a naval captain leaves his ship he can expect a ritual farewell.
Even Prince Charles was unable to escape when in 1976 he relinquished
command of the minesweeper, HMS “Bronington”; he was seized by white –
coated doctors (his officers), placed in a wheelchair and “invalided out”
to the cheers of his crew members who held up a banner inscribed: “Command
has aged me”.
Other marines departed in a less jovial manner. When a man died at sea
his body would be sewn into canvas, weighted, and committed to the deep.
The sailmaker was responsible for making the shroud, and would always put
the last stitch through the corpse’s nose, ensuring that there was no sign
of life and that the body remained attached to the weighted canvas. This
practise was followed at least until the 1960s, the sailmaker receiving a
bottle of rum for his work. Nowadays the bodies are seldom buried at sea
but are refrigerated and brought back to land. However, those consigning a
body in this way still receive the traditional bottle of rum for their


We have had a look at some samples of well and carefully preserved
British folklore that tells about the British “waterworld”. But a question
of our time no less important is whether the people with such an affection
for their land try to preserve it from the harm that may cause our age of
highly developed machines, ships, tunkers, etc.
Britain’s marine, coastal and inland waters are generally clean: some
95% of rivers, streams and canals are of good or fair quality, a much
higher figure than in most other European countries. However their
cleanliness cannot be taken for granted, and so continuing steps are being
taken to deal with remaining threats. Discharges to water from the most
potentially harmful processes are progressively becoming subject to
authorisation under IPC.
Government regulations for a new system of classifying water in
England and Wales came into force in May 1994. This system will provide the
basis for setting statutory water quality objectives (SWQO), initially on a
trial basis in a small number of catchment areas where their effectiveness
can be assessed. The objectives, which will be phased in gradually, will
specify for each individual stretch of water the standards that should be
reached and the target date for achieving them. The system of SWQOs will
provide the framework to set discharge consents. Once objectives are set,
the enterprises will be under a duty to ensure that they are met.
There have been important developments in controlling the sea disposal
of wastes in recent years. The incineration of wastes at sea was halted in
1990 and the dumping of industrial waste ended in 1992. In February 1994
the Government announced British acceptance of an internationally agreed
ban on the dumping of low- and intermediate – level wastes was already
banned. Britain had not in fact dumped any radioactive waste at sea for
some years preveously. Britain is committed to phasing out the dumping of
sewage sludge at sea by the end of 1998. Thereafter only dredged material
from ports, harbours and the like will routinely be approved for sea
Proposals for decommissioning Britain’s 200 offshore installations are
decided on a case – by – case basis, looking for the best practicable
environmental option and observing very rigorous international agreements
and guidelines.

Farm Waste

Although not a major source of water pollution incidents, farms can
represent a problem. Many pollution incidents result from silage effluent
or slurry leaking and entering watercourses; undiluted farm slurry can be
up to 100 times, more polluting than raw domestic sewage. Regulations set
minimum construction standards for new or substantially altered farm waste
handling facilities. Farmers are required to improve existing installations
where there is a significant risk of pollution. The Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes a “Code of Good Agricultural
Practice for the Protection of Water”. This gives farmers guidance on,
among other things, the planning and management of the disposal of their
farm wastes. The Ministry also has L2 million research and development
programme to examine problems of farm waste and to minimise pollution.

Britain is a signatory to the 1992 North East Atlantic Convention,
which tackles pollution from land – based sources, offshore installations
and dumping. It also provides for monitoring and assessment of the quality
of water in the convention’s area. In order to minimise the environmental
effects of offshore oil and gas operations, special conditions designed to
protect the environment -–set in consultation with environmental interests
– are included in licences for oil and gas exploration.
Pollution from ships is controlled under international agreements,
which cover matters such as oil discharges and disposal of garbage. British
laws implementing such agreements are binding not only on all ships in
British waters, but also on British ships all over the world. The Marine
Pollution Control Unit (MPCU), part of the Coastguard Agency, is
responsible for dealing with spillage of oil or other substances from ships
in sea.
So great care is being taken to manage to preserve all that precious
that Britain has. Keeping the waters in a good conditions would help to
keep the traditions connected with it as well, and to pass them on to other

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