Caught by the River

Is England Eerie?*

Mathew Clayton | 23rd June 2017

Wester Ross Folklore Tapes Volume 1 – Sacred Island: The Legend and Magic of Isle Maree. Out now and available here.

Review by Mathew Clayton

I spent last Saturday night standing on Keswick High Street watching two rituals uncomfortably interact: men getting drunk and men running long distances. I was there to watch my brother-in-law Ryan Smith’s attempt to break Billy Bland’s extraordinary 1982 record for running the Bob Graham Round: a 66-mile route round the Lake District that takes in 42 peaks, and starts and finishes with the runner touching the town’s belltower door. Ryan was due to finish around 6pm, and by then the town was awash with men on stag weekends. Most of the groups were wearing costumes: midget leprechauns, saucy dinner ladies and even Alan Moore’s V. Every few minutes through this merry throng a bedraggled runner would appear – the majority had been on the go since midnight.

These two very different ways of spending Saturday night had more in common than you might expect. They both had incorporated rituals into their behaviour as a way of giving their activity extra meaning and importance. The wearing of costumes, following a set route with specific journey points, and the touching of a hallowed object are all things you find throughout history in religious and secular rituals.

And whilst, from a historical perspective, Keswick’s stag dos and the Bob Graham Round are relatively recent inventions**, it is also true that ritual behaviour has always clustered around specific locations. Traditionally these are prominent features in the landscape – hills, islands, wells, causeways or cliffs (and more recently, prominent features in towns and cities, like the belltower).

But this is when it becomes complicated. Whilst no-one sees Keswick as being particularly weird (the Pencil Museum notwithstanding), we currently seem caught in a trap whereby our default reaction to older places in the countryside where rituals have taken place is to describe them as being ghostly, strange or eerie. Often, we attribute their history to some ancient and vaguely expressed inherent ‘spirit’ or ‘atmosphere’. The straightfaced seriousness of this approach leaves little room for the stupidity, vanity and contradictions (let alone power relationships) that lie close to the heart of most human endeavour.

All of this makes it harder to produce something original when using these places as inspiration. In a piece in the Guardian rounding-up a collection of eerie England practitioners, Robert Macfarlane also made the distinction between eeriness (interesting) and horror (less so). Whilst semantically there is a difference, in practice it is hard to see where one ends and another starts. Is the mystification of these places just a lazy shortcut to make them sound more appealing? Or is it a subversive reclaiming of the rural from the Countryside Alliance and other total cunts? Is the lack of a strong archaeological influence (and thus proper historical understanding) in the resurgence of nature writing the cause? How do you creatively explore somewhere that is a bit weird without going the full Alan Garner? Would any of this have happened if Britt Ekland had kept her clothes on in The Wicker Man***?

For the last few years Folklore Tapes have dabbled in this area, producing some wonderfully original work that revolves around rural stories and people. Their mission is to, ‘bring the nation’s folk record to life, to rekindle interest in the treasure trove of traditional culture by finding new forms for its expression’.

Their approach is unique. Each release consists of a selection of artefacts that usually includes music, writing and ephemera (this doesn’t quite do justice to the beauty of the material they produce). Their multi-format approach, attention to design and the collaborative nature of their projects form a creative blueprint that I am sure will have great influence over the next decade. I am forever harping on to writers that they should copy them.

Their latest release is a flexi disc (the music is brilliant), a 24 page booklet (with fantastic photos) and keepsake coin, all inspired by the small island of Loch Maree in Scotland – one of those places that is genuinely a bit eerie. It is a collaboration between Ian Humberstone and Jordon Ogg (editor of the most excellent On the island is a dead wishing tree -– ironically, killed by all the coins that have been bashed into it — a graveyard, and a history of boar sacrifice (how did they get them across the lake?). Oh, and it had a reputation for curing lunacy if you circled round it enough times. Pretty weird, but also what a crucible of human folly!

* It was very tempting to call this piece ‘Is England Irie?’ in homage to Black Grape’s 1996 anthem that features the worst ever football themed rapping in the history of recorded music. Yes, Keith Allen is worse than John Barnes.

** The first ever stag do in Keswick took place in 1932. On July 4th The Cumberland Times reported, ‘Arrests were made on Saturday night in Station Road after a group of twelve men from Manchester, in town to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of one of their party, got into a brawl with members of the local Socialist League who took exception to the attire of the visitors who were all dressed as Neville Chamberlain’. My brother-in-law completed the BGR in 14 hours and 17 minutes, the second fastest time ever. Go Ryan!

***A few months ago, my dad told me he had stayed up late the night before to watch The Wicker Man. I was somewhat taken aback, but he explained, “I remembered Leon’s partner was in it, so I thought I should stay up and watch it. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it to be honest”. We didn’t mention Britt. I did meet her once though, at a sparsely-attended daytime party in a Battersea warehouse, hosted by Tango to celebrate the start of the 1996 World Cup – the same week that Shaun Ryder et al were riding high in the charts with ‘England’s Irie’. Tango couldn’t afford Black Grape, so instead we got the Mike Flowers Pops. At the time I was more excited by another pop star at the party: twelve bar boogie merchant (and film star in his own right) Rick Parfitt. RIP.


You can buy a copy of The Legend and Magic of Isle Maree here.

Mathew Clayton will be appearing on our stage at Port Eliot Festival on Thursday 27 July.

Mathew Clayton on Caught by the River / on Twitter