The Dragon of Moston

I can't believe it has taken me so long to get back here on the blog, but what a lot of distractions in the meantime, all the more to write about though, so expect some more updates very soon!  Anyway, as I type it is the Thursday of National Storytelling Week so I thought I would share a tale from Cheshire which is one of the most popular ones with visitors and tale listeners at our events...

Well, if you were to go looking for Moston, you'd find it betwixt Sandbach and Middlewich.  It is only a little place now with a few folk living there, and when you hear this you'll see why that may be.  Now, the people of Moston were a happy and jolly lot who made most of their living from the fine apple trees in their orchard.  They bore the largest and juiciest apples in all of Cheshire, and in truth the rest of the county were more than a little jealous of this.  The apples of Moston were bigger than even your head.  And a fine head it is you have sir.  The people of the village didn't know why it was that their apples grew so large, but I do, and I'll tell you. 

The apples grew in an orchard which was beside a boggy marsh, full of dark, dank swamp water.  The trees reached out their roots through the soil and into that marsh and drew the water up along the roots, rising through the trunk, along the branches and caused those apples to swell. 

The people of Moston looked forward to those days at the end of summer with autumn beginning to make itself felt in the air, the days when the apples would be ripening and ready for the harvest and they eagerly awaited the day to go picking, dreaming of the juice trickling down chins, or the warm smell of the apples baking.  And now the day was here!  Each of the Moston folk headed out to whichever tree in the orchard which was their own, carrying baskets and buckets ready to be filled.  There was laughter and singing as the apples were gathered in.  And then someone shouted out, "Look, up there!"  And the crowd looked up through the leaves to see something flying high in the sky.  It was higher than any bird they knew, it didn't move like a bird and wasn't shaped like anything they'd seen before.  The excitement grew until it turned to horror when the people of Moston realised it was a dragon flying above them.

This dragon had flown out from Wales, you could tell because it was red, and was looking for a new home.  Now, you may have heard that dragons like to live in caves.  Well, that is true, but it's not their first choice.  Or perhaps you've heard that dragons like to live in burial mounds of an ancient king surrounded by treasure?  Well, that's true as well, but still not their preference.  Where dragons like to live, if they can really find it, is in a slimy, smelly swamp.  And the boggy marsh beside the orchard at Moston was the perfect place.  The dragon circled around for a while, then settled down in the middle of the swamp beside the orchard.

The people of Moston weren't fools.  They knew that if they ventured close to the dragon they would likely be eaten.  But then they looked at the trees, and saw their finest apples beside the marsh.  So one brave chap came up with a plan.  He would make his way to the apple trees, keeping his eye on the dragon all the while and should the dragon make the slightest move, he would be off!  He walked through the trees and set down his basket beside the apple tree closest to the boggy field, making sure to keep his eyes fixed on the dragon.  He took one apple from the tree, then another, but then the next apples were higher, he looked up to the branches for a moment and then... The dragon was upon him.  It opened its mouth and breathed upon the brave fellow.  Not fire as you might think, but the foulest, stinkiest breath you'd probably rather not imagine.  The poor chap was overcome and fell to the ground.  The dragon pulled him by the feet into the swamp where he lay asleep until the evening, when he awoke.  Just in time for dragon supper time and being eaten in one gulp! 

This happened again, and again.  And again.  Until half of the people of Moston had been eaten by the dragon.  As you'd imagine, those that were left went from being a happy and jolly bunch to being a sad and miserable lot.  Then one day, the local lord of the manor, Sir Thomas Venables was making his way around all of his lands to inspect them and came to the village of Moston.  "What's happened here?" said Sir Thomas, "Has there been a war?  For there are less of you than before, and you look miserable, and your fine trees have been left to wither."  The people of Moston explained how the dragon had come and, one by one, taken many of the folk from the village.  And what was worse, just this morning a young boy had been taken by the dragon, his poor mother had already lost her husband and was grieving for her son now sleeping in the swamp awaiting his fate at the dragon's supper time. 

Well, Sir Thomas, being a bold and brave knight, swore he would slay the dragon and save the boy.  Thinking to catch the dragon whilst it slept, he quickly put on his finest armour, took up his sword and dashed off through the orchard toward the marsh.  But the clanking and clattering of his armour awoke the dragon which began to make its way towards the knight. 

Sir Thomas fled.  But you must not think him a coward.  No, Sir Thomas had a plan.  In the days before he was a knight in his armour, he had been an archer, and being from Cheshire that made him one of the famed and feared Cheshire Archers, the finest bowmen in the land, better even than Robin Hood himself.  In fact, because of their skills with the bow, people round here say "Robin Hood? More like Robin No-Good!"  Sir Thomas made his way back to the orchard where he could just see the dragon in the marsh, snoring once more, and with the young boy asleep next to him.  Sir Thomas drew back his bowstring, then let loose his arrow which whistled through the air and found its target - right in the dragon's eye! 

The dragon roared and flew at Sir Thomas before he could ready another arrow.  But the arrow in its eye had so wounded and winded the dragon that it could not muster up its foul breath.  Sir Thomas did not waste a moment and struck the beast over the head a dozen times.  Just to be sure he cut off the head.  With the young boy under one arm and a dragon's head under the other, Sir Thomas returned to the village of Moston.

The people of the village were thrilled.  They insisted that this brave deed should be remembered for ever more, and that the Venables family should change their coat of arms to depict a dragon, with an arrow in its eye, about to eat a boy.  And so that is just what was done.  They even carved the scene in oak and set it on show in the church of St Michael and All Angels in Middlewich, where you can still see it today.

And that is the tale of the Dragon of Moston, the last dragon to be seen in England, so folks say, and here it was in our own fair county of Cheshire.

The Minstrels' Court

The wonderful medieval midsummer festival in Chester is fast approaching.  The Minstrels' Court will be taking place once again at St John's Church on Saturday 11th June, from 10.30am-4.30pm, a great celebration of the city's heritage, one of the world's largest medieval music festivals and one of only a handful of re-enactments to take place in its original and authentic location.

The tradition of the Minstrels' Court began back in 1204 when a ragged band of musicians and entertainers from Chester marched into Wales to save Earl Ranulf from a siege and thereafter gained his blessing and protection. There is a great legend around this.  This tradition continued with their gathering at the church of St John the Baptist each midsummer for over 500 years until it died out in 1756.  The tradition was revived back in 2008 by a group of musicians, re-enactors and community groups and has taken place each year since.

There are lots of living history displays in the church, recreating something of the bustling atmosphere of the medieval church where business transactions and meetings took place each day.  Scribes sit beside weavers and traders, soldiers and knights mingle with pilgrims and gamblers.  All the while music is performed by some of the finest medieval musicians in the land.

The church of St John the Baptist is surrounded by history, with the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre on one side, Grosvenor park on another, where a excavation is current in progress shedding light on lost buildings, and the river Dee to its rear.  St John's is the oldest church in Cheshire and the city's original cathedral.  Visitors can wander between huge Romanesque pillars and discover Saxon carvings alongside medieval effigies and even Civil War history.    It's a very atmospheric place and the perfect setting for the Minstrels' Court.

As well as the eye-catching medieval characters, storytelling and puppet shows provide lots of interest for families.  It's a free event too, making it a great day out for families.

At 1pm the minstrels leave St John's for a procession through the streets of the city, arriving back at the church at 1.30pm to collect their licences to perform in a recreation of the ancient ceremony.  

Living history displays and demonstrations take place through the day in the church, along with informal music sessions in the porch.  At the front of the church there are performances through the day.  The approximate timings are below.

10.30 - Maranella - Cheshire based medieval music ensemble
11.00 - Storytelling - medieval tales from Cheshire and North Wales
11.30 - Medieval Puppet theatre
12.00 - Trouvere - one of the finest medieval music groups in Britain
12.30 - Dressing a Knight demonstration
13.00 - Procession of Minstrels through the city
13.30 - Licensing of Minstrels
13.45 - The Time Bandits - Chester based group mixing music from 15th-18th centuries.
14.30 - Doucette - Renaissance recorder group
15.00 -Trouvere
15.30 - The Mulberry Tree - new music inspired by the Shakespeare 400 anniversary
16.00 - Maranella

There's so much to see, and it's all free.  Hope to see some of you there!

The Piper's Tale

As regular followers of this blog will know, we love traditional folk tales and we love bagpipes.  This year Tom will be out and about with his storytelling show - The Piper's Tale.  Here's the essence of the performance.  Do let us know if you'd like to see it near you...

Plucking a Noodle

Trawling through mentions of 19th century pipers in Chester and found this from the Chester Chronicle 26 April 1833, admittedly there's only a brief mention of bagpipes and the music, but the story is a familiar one from folk songs. And the epilogue shows a firm belief in witchcraft even at this date.
PLUCKING A NOODLE - A countryman named Francis Hanmer who said he came from Bryngwylla near Oswestry, charged Ruth Jones, a female of common repute, with stealing his watch. The complainant said he came to Chester on 27th February last, to sell a horse for his master, Mr. Lewis, of the Brook House, near Oswestry. In the evening he strolled out into Eastgate-street, where he met with Miss Jones, who invited her to accompany her to the Three Tuns in Frodsham-street. He, not liking to refuse Jones's request, went with her to the Tuns, where he found a number of Cyprians, engaged in a mazy dance. Aroused by the discordant squeakings of the Irish bag-pipes, on which a fellow was discoursing a most exhilarating music, he rose up from his seat and, as he expressed it, "had a bit of a hop - a three-handed reel with four females and during this time I lost my watch". He could not swear that she took it from him, but she was the nearest to him while engaged in the dance.
Alderman Morris (addressing Hanmer) asked him if he were married. Hanmer with a sheepish look replied "Oh yes Sir, I have a wife and five children". - Ald. Morris, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for being in such company. What will your wife say when she hears of this transaction?" Hanmer, "I'll not tell her anything about it" - As there was no evidence to prove that Jones stole the watch, she was discharged.
Hanmer visited the police office on Sunday evening, and while there he told one of the officers, that if the magistrates did not commit Ruth Jones, there was a "cunning fellow" (a sorcerer) that lived in his neighbourhood, and that he would engage him to bewitch Ruth: and that he would bring her, watch and all, across hedge and ditch, flying from Chester to Bryngwylla. One thing is quite clear, poor Hanmer is no conjuror!  

The Wedding Dance

Now here was a time to celebrate! A wedding to join two of the bonniest young people you would ever know. And all the village was there, and folk from further off too, all come for the festivities. And there had to be music for the dancing, so they called for a piper. He played such merry tunes that even the old aunts hopped to their feet to dance together with sober cousins.
All evening, one dance followed another, but then it drew close to midnight and the next day being the Sabbath, the piper told them he must stop. But the bride, she had gotten in a whirl with dancing see, finding such joy she’d never known before and didn’t want it to stop. She begged the piper keep playing saying he was the finest in the land.
Some warned her against this, how it was wrong to dance on the Sabbath, and others drifted off to their beds. But such is the folly of the young and such was the vanity of the piper at her flattery that there were many who continued in their dancing to the sound of the bagpipe.
And as it passed midnight, a cloud drew over the moon and the tune fell silent. When next the light shone, there were the dancers in a circle but standing still. They had been turned to stone, and the piper also.
And there they are today, as a reminder to all. So if you hear the hum of a drone, or a sweet melody as the wind whistles through the stones, you shall know why.
There are several stone circles which have this legendary origin, amongst them The Merry Maidens in Cornwall, The Pipers Stones in County Wicklow and Stanton Drew Stone Circle in Somerset.  This is my retelling of the tale.   


Of Pigs and Pipes

After “Are those Northumbrian pipes?”, probably the next most common question I get asked when playing in front of the general public is “That’s made from a pig’s bladder isn’t it?”. I’m sure many other bagpipers have experienced the same.

It seems there is quite a strong link between pigs and bagpipes in many people’s minds, even those who may not have much occasion to think of the instrument and I often wonder why this should be. To give an example, a few years ago I was at a fancy dress barbeque – and although I happily spend most of my working days in some historic costume or other I still cringe a little at this type of party – and a session was just starting. Someone arrived who happened to be dressed as a giant pink pig and spotting my smallpipes he immediately ran over to me and grabbed the bag wailing, “My brother, what have you done to my brother?!”

And it’s not just something that people think these days, the connection has been around for centuries. I’m sure many pipers will be aware of the medieval carving of the pig with the bagpipes at Melrose Abbey, one of the earliest images of bagpipes in Scotland. It is an iconic image, featuring on the abbey’s postcards and publicity. I even have a fridge magnet with a sculpted miniature of this carving.

There are plenty of bagpiping pigs to be found across England on misericords from the 14th and 15th century, often providing the music for piglets to dance to. These can be seen in churches in Richmond and Ripon in Yorkshire, Boston in Lincolnshire and Braddock in Cornwall, as well as Beverley Minster and Manchester Cathedral. These are fairly well known examples; I have a resin cast copy of the Ripon carving hanging on my living room wall. It is possible that some of these could be the work of one craftsman, but there are enough differences in the style and skill of the carvings to show that they are not all the work of the same individual. I’d suggest that this shows a general connection between pigs and bagpipes, rather than just being a favourite theme of a single woodcarver.

We can find other medieval woodcarvings of piping pigs. For example, a pulpit in St Leonard’s, Ribbesford, in Worcestershire has a pig playing a double chanter bagpipe which is very similar in design to the misericord at Ripon, though this version is a flatter relief as it was formerly part of the rood screen.

And it’s not just in England that we find this association. There is an example of Danish bagpiping bacon on a wall painting in Vestervig church as well as Dutch 15th century pewter badges of piping pigs that have been found in Utrecht and Amsterdam and in illuminated manuscript form in the exquisite Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from early 15th century France.

It’s worth remembering that pigs are not the only members of the animal kingdom that play bagpipes in the imaginative work of medieval artists, there are also several examples of piping apes and a couple of asses too, though not so many in number as pigs. Similarly, pigs can be found playing other instruments on occasion, including organs and harps, though they seem to favour the bagpipes most of all.

If we look to other animals and other instruments, there is also quite an association between cats and fiddles. This is most commonly known through a nursery rhyme, but also through misericords and medieval manuscripts, as we find with our pigs and bagpipes. Perhaps here we have a connection with common misconceptions about how these particular instruments are constructed, so whilst people may think the bag is made from a pig’s bladder, then they may also believe the fiddle has strings made from cat gut. So the depictions could represent the animals playing the instruments made from parts of themselves, a visual pun.

However, there is perhaps more of a connection to the sound of these instruments when played badly. So we could imagine the scratching of the strings of a fiddle being reminiscent of a cat’s night-time wailing, or a bagpipe resembling the squealing of a pig. I could believe that there was once a well known folk tale or joke that ran along these lines, but that it is lost to us today.

I realise this Alfred Hitchcock quote has appeared in Chanter, (the journal of the Bagpipe Society), more than a couple of times, but may be worth repeating to illustrate this particular point. “I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

A couple of years ago in Chanter, James Merryweather revealed the results of playing bagpipes to sheep, and I am well aware of the effects of bagpipes on cats – my playing had a laxative effect on our last cat and sets our present cat whining and heading out of the house. I wonder whether anyone has carried out an experiment playing bagpipes to pigs?

As to why pigs should be associated with bagpipes, there seem to be many opinions, often contradictory. For example in reading around the subject I have found people suggesting that it is because pigs are most like humans, they are intelligent and jolly and content with their life, whilst elsewhere there are those who say that pigs play bagpipes because they are symbols of greed, lust and idleness and so they should play such a base instrument so commonly linked with devils. I’m sure that fellow bagpipers would agree with the former – the pigs are clever and cheerful.

So, let’s celebrate these porky pipers, and next time we’re asked about the pigs’ bladders we can explain the long heritage our instrument has with our animal friends.

The Piper in the Mill

As followers of the blog will know, I do love bagpipes and storytelling, (it's Tom writing this post), and there is no shortage of traditional tales featuring pipers.  Having just discovered that demons in mills in the night are common in Serbian folklore just as they are in Britain, I'm prompted to share my version of fairies and a piper in a watermill at night.  This is my retelling of a tale found along the Wales/England border and which I always enjoyed telling at Stretton Watermill in Cheshire.  The picture is myself and Joan Rogers of FayrePlay, piping there to start our Cheshire events for the first ever International Bagpipe Day a few years back.

Well, if you don’t like, don’t listen, but there was this miller see, and he would be sitting in his cottage, just across the lane from his watermill, and when it got to the edge o’night he would hear the wheel turning and the gears rumbling inside the mill. But he weren’t afeart, he’d known it all his life and same had happened in his father’s time and his grandfer’s afore that. He was wiser than to go inside the mill, mind, he knew it was the little folk who were about their milling during the night. And each morning all would be clean and tidy, they’d caused none trouble.

This one evening the miller was sat at the corner table in the alehouse with the blacksmith and a bagpiper and he chanced to tell about the little folk in the mill. “Well now,” says the piper, “you shunner let them grind their meal without paying as others mun do.” But the smith and the miller insisted it was foolish to interfere with the ways of the little folk. “Fairies be beggared!” says the piper, “I’m not so tickle-stomached as you. I’ll bet you tha new green weskit I can spend the night playing my pipes to them, I’ll get them dancing to my tune, I will, thump!”

Now the miller and smith were about telling the piper not to be such a maggot-pate, that he never knew what would happen if he went in the mill that night. But after another tankard of ale, their minds had altered, see, and were for letting him get agate his piping. So, here’s all three setting off down the pad-road across the field to the mill. The wheel was turning and there was a dim light at the window. And here’s the piper striking up his bagpipes and making his way into the mill. Well, the miller and the smith, they listened a while, then off they went back to the alehouse. After some more beer they were thinking on how the piper had been away a pretty tidy time and was most likely he’d returned home.

The next morning the miller made his way into the watermill. It was the same as ever, not a thing out of place, but no sign of the piper. He set off to the piper’s tumbledown cot, but he wasn’t there, and the hearth was cold. And the smith and the miller never did see the piper again, but if they ever walked past the tump at the end of the lane as it was fetching dark, both of them reckoned on how they could hear the sound of pipes under the ground.

So it’s a queer thing isn’t it, but that’s as I heard it, so take from it what you wish and give the rest back to me.