The Things We Should Not Mention

Unlike sex, politics or religion, folklore is a perfectly suitable subject of conversation for the dinner table. I do love a bit of folklore which, if you're wondering comes from the words folk (meaning: People) and lore (meaning: Learning) so people-learning then. There are hundreds of myths and legends that fit into the folklore category, but there are a few, and only a few, that must never be spoken of.

It's a bit like that scene in an American werewolf in London where the two American hitchhikers enter the local pub (for local people) on the edge of the moors. The silence that hits "The Slaughtered Lamb" is almost audible. "Strangers? Round here?" and the local darts player misses the board just to emphasise the things that will not be mentioned.

Now, I know I shouldn't be mentioning these things, but, what the hey. It's 2011 for heaven's sake. We're all grown ups and really, what's the worse that can happen? For those of you of a nervous disposition, or a weak stomach, or more importantly, that are likely to believe some of this drivel.... Look away now. For the rest of you, good luck, and stick to the road. Keep off of the moors.

First up is the story that's local to Gloucester and that prompted me to write this entry in the first place. The Bear. Anyone from the Gloucester area that's ever visited The Forest of Dean (or to give it it's more colloquial name, simply 'the forest') will know that under any circumstances you must never, ever mention the Bear. Even today people still say it with an air of mystery when someone says they're "Going down the Forest" ... "Really?.. Don't mention the Bear!" and the conversation halts.

It turns out that this is all about two Russian bears who came to the Forest in 1889 with four Frenchmen. The story goes that the bears had been on display in Cinderford, and that whilst en route to nearby Ruardean, they were chased by an angry mob. There were rumours circulating that the "foreign" (and therefore dangerous) bear-keepers fed the animals on the flesh of children and that the animals had killed a child and mauled a woman in the nearby village.

As a result, some of the residents attacked the troop, slaughtering the innocent animals and belting the living daylights out of two of the Frenchmen. Witnesses from Ruardean came to the rescue, took in the injured Frenchmen and nursed them back to health. Those that carried out the attack, were heavily fined, but during the case, they were only ever referred to as "residents of Ruardean".

To this day, if you're down that way, it really is best not to mention the subject at all.

Next up... And I have to tip my hat to the Badman for pointing this one out to me.. "The Monkey of Hartlepool". I know you think I'm making this stuff up, "but it's all true I tell thee, and I'm not looking forward to the journey home neither"

Around the turn of the 18th century while the Napoleonic Wars were in full flight, a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool. Naturally the British were ever fearful of a possible French invasion at the time, and so also, ever vigilant. The local fishermen of Hartlepool observed the shipwreck and kept a close eye on it while it was dashed and battered and eventually sunk by the sea. As the wreckage was washed ashore one of the fisherman spotted a survivor, that of the ships pet monkey who was dressed in a naval uniform and had presumably clung for dear life to the wreckage.
Being "brave and upstanding countrymen" the fishermen took it upon themselves to question the monkey and held a "kangaroo court" (although that should probably be monkey court) on the beach. Naturally, they'd never seen a frenchman, let alone spoken to one, so the opinion they derived was that this was clearly a French spy and as such must be sentenced to death. And so it was that the monkey was hung from the mast of a fishing boat in the bay of Hartlepool.

Just like the bear, it's suggested that you probably shouldn't ask who it was that hung the monkey. But it's up to you...

And finally the Tregaron Elephant. Now you've probably heard about this one on the news this week. This time, it doesn't involve any Frenchman (which makes for a nice change) and is actually not quite as dark and desperate as our two earlier tales. Here's the breakdown straight from good old Aunty....

Archaeologists having started digging up a pub beer garden in search of a legendary Victorian circus elephant.

The Tregaron Elephant has long had its place in local folklore, and is thought to have been buried behind the town's Talbot Hotel after dying on tour. The elephant was said to have fallen ill after drinking contaminated water in the Ceredigion town in 1848. It is believed to have been part of Batty's Travelling Menageries, a circus troupe which entertained widely in the area that year.

The small-scale excavation started on Saturday morning and the hunt for clues about the animal's final resting place will continue until next Thursday. About 10 people from the University of Wales Trinity St David are taking part. The dig has started in the beer garden at The Talbot in Tregaron.

Dafydd Watkin and his partner Tracy Batt are licensees of the Talbot Hotel, and they said about 30 people had watched the start of the dig. Mr Watkin said the archaeologists were working in the hotel's beer garden, but had found nothing so far.

"They started digging this morning and they'll be here until next Thursday," said Mr Watkin.

"There's been quite a crowd here. About 30 people have been in and out watching the dig in the beer garden, and we're expecting more people over the weekend.

"Before the dig started the local councillor Catherine Hughes said a few words."

Mr Watkin said he was not worried about losing trade because of the dig, and added that it would probably draw in more customers.

The dig is part of a wider project by the University of Wales Trinity St David's archaeology department. Dr Jemma Bezant of the School of Archaeology, History and Anthropology is heading it up. She said last month that the project was about celebrating the story of the Tregaron Elephant and less about "finding out the truth".

She added that it was likely the effort would generate more questions than answers. 


Now if that doesn't sound like a jolly good wheeze to enable the Archaeology department to get few sherberts down their necks while sitting out in the sun, I don't know what does. I'm sure they'll be fine as long as they steer clear of the water.

I could go on at length about the Beast of Basingstoke, The Panda of Penge, the Unicorn of Barry Island or the Lions of Longleat, but then you'd know I was just making it up.

Until next time. Don't mention the (insert animal not from round these parts, here).

This post originally appeared here: Posterous