As Summer draws to a whimpering close, I am beginning to feel the promise of Autumn approaching. For me, September has always been an exciting time of year, from the new-stationery-and-shiny-shoes of my Primary school days to the deep-breath-and-the-plunge of starting University (twice). The cooler weather and the shorter nights bring me thoughts of reinvention, of creative projects and of ‘starting again’.

For three out of the last eight years, this has meant an earnest attempt at NaNoWriMo – or National Novel Writing Month, to give it its full title. Running from the 1st to the 30th November, it’s a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, stream-of-consciousness, write-now-edit-later extravaganza that has left me with a two-part Young Adult fantasy novel called Echo Peninsula (2005 and 2006) and a rambling pile of nonsense loosely based on the Tam Lin legend (2011). I doubt either will ever see so much as a red Biro, let alone the inside of a bookshop, but I love the challenge and the excitement of trying to pen 50,000 words in the space of a month.

Though my own efforts are pretty poor, not everyone who completes the NaNo challenge is destined for the slush pile. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus started life as a NaNoWriMo project before being published last year. For many amateur writers, the 30-day challenge is a fantastic – if highly-concentrated – way of hammering out ideas, improving focus, or even just increasing typing speed (I can type a good 60-70wpm, thanks mainly to the effort of trying to churn out 1660 words every evening).

One of the problems I had last year when deciding what to write about was the fact that I couldn’t come up with anything that seemed remotely original. Each idea I had seemed a poor imitation of something I’d once read or seen or heard; none of the plots I tried to string together seemed like they would produce anything that could keep my attention for 50,000 words.

Then I realised something – there aren’t any original stories. Every folk tale or fairy story I Googled had links to other, similar fables; each continent seemed to have its own version of Peter Pan or Cinderella. The more research I do for this blog, the more I realise that it is not the tale but the way it is told; King Arthur, Robin Hood, giants and fairies and witches, all capture the collective imagination as much now as they did a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago.

So perhaps my route to successful storytelling lies in crafting something new and fresh from the raw materials passed down to us by our ancestors. It is an encouraging thought, and has led me to look at this November’s NaNoWriMo preparation not with apprehension but with a new enthusiasm. With the help of the collective back-catalogue, anything is possible.


A child born with a caul is a fortunate child indeed, according to legend. The ‘caul’ is most commonly formed from the membranes of the amniotic sac in which the baby develops during pregnancy; on rare occasions, babies are born with a part of this membrane covering the face and/or the head: they are ‘born with the caul‘. It shouldn’t be confused with a birth in which the baby emerges with its amniotic sac still fully intact around it(‘in the caul’); although this is also an uncommon occurrence, it is slightly different, as the membrane isn’t specifically enclosing the face or head.

Very few babies are born with the caul; the rarity of this phenomenon has contributed to its reputation as a good-luck charm.

A locket created to hold fragments of the bearer’s birth caul, from the V&A Museum collection

After the birth, the caul would be carefully removed from the newborn, taking care to keep it as intact as possible. It would then be preserved and would be kept with the child as a protective talisman.

“A lass if born in June with a caul
Will wed, hev bairns & rear ’em all.
But a lass if born with a caul in July,
Will loose her caul & young will die.
Every month beside luck comes with a caul
If safe put by,
If lost she may cry:
For ill luck on her will fall.
For man it’s luck – be born when he may –
It is safe be kept ye mind,
But if lost it be he’ll find
Ill-deed his lot for many a day” (Fairfax-Blakeborough, 1923) –  From the Pitt Rivers Museum website

It was thought that children born with the caul would never die of drowning, and so made good sailors; in Victorian times it was not unheard of for cauls to fetch good prices at auction, purchased by anxious seafarers wishing to gain protection. It was also thought to be an indicator that a child would have ‘second sight’, or supernatural powers of premonition. The Caul-Bearers United website makes for interesting reading concerning the perceived characteristics of a person born with the caul.


Things have been rather quiet on the blog front of late – the main reason for this is the arrival of the school holidays, as I’ve been spending the past few weeks pulling all sorts of tricks out of my sleeve in an effort to keep my newly-minted five-year-old entertained.

I’ve introduced him to Star Wars (lots of questions about goodies and baddies) and Lord Of The Rings (lots of questions about Hobbits and big flaming eyes). We’ve been for a trip to the South Lakes, where we trawled the shingle flats of the Morecambe Bay estuary for adder-stones:

I also picked up a rather interesting little book in a charity shop in Grange-over-Sands : Folk Medicine by Jacques Veissid is a curious compendium of old French folk remedies for almost every ailment imaginable, from anthrax to migraines.


I’d planned a post about Lughnasadh for the beginning of August, but despite my best efforts I didn’t finish in time, so it shall have to be posted late. *blush* We are also planning a trip to Alderley Edge at some point over the next couple of weeks – expect lots of photos and waffling about Wizards and Weirdstones…
For now, I shall leave you with a picture of Childe The First messing about with a cairn:




The entry in my Encyclopaedia of Superstitions about Barnacle Geese really caught my attention. I remember reading years ago about the supposed connection between barnacle geese and the little black-and-white crustaceans (not molluscs, thankyou Google!)  that can be found clinging to the wooden undersides of boats.

The book contains a passage from Topographica Hibernicae written in 1186 by Gerald of Wales, in which he claims to have witnessed for himself the spectacle of juvenile barnacle geese growing from timber on the seashore of the Irish coast:

“Bernacae […] are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. having thus in the process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. I have frequently seen, with my own eyes, more than a thousand of these small birds, hanging down on the sea-shore from one piece of timber, enclosed in their shells and already formed. They do not breed and lay eggs like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh.”

The origins of this myth probably lie in the fact that Barnacle Geese are migratory birds, and thus never breed in the British Isles where they spend half of the year, choosing instead to nest in the colder climes towards the Arctic. It isn’t really that great a leap to imagine that there was more than just a passing aesthetic similarity between the clusters of molluscs clinging to driftwood, and the flocks of black-and-white geese that appeared along the coastline each year.




On Sunday I was fortunate enough to be lent a copy of this fantastic old book, first published in 1948: An Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, by E. & M.A. Radford. I’ve barely managed to keep my nose out of it since – it’s a fascinating collection of curious beliefs and ancient customs, and is staggeringly thorough – who’d have thought that front doors, eyebrows and ants all had their own little rituals?

There’s so much in this book that I want to share and explore here – far more than I could fit in one post. I’ve decided instead to pick my favourites, in alphabetical order, and post them here as an occasional series. We’ll start, predictably, with A:

Adder Stones

An adder stone (also known as a hag-stone, witch-stone or serpents’-egg) is a small rock or pebble with a naturally-created hole running through it. Usually found on beaches, they were thought to possess several magical properties. They were used as a cure for certain illnesses and ailments such as whooping cough, and were often worn as a charm to protect against witchcraft or evil. They were also thought to prevent nightmares.

The name ‘adder-stone’ is derived from the story of their origins: according to legend, the stones were formed from hardened snakes’ saliva, occurring as a result of a strange and rare phenomenon where a cluster of snakes would wind themselves together to form a living ‘ball’ or ‘egg’. The resulting stone could be used to draw venom from a snakebite wound, as described in the Encyclopaedia:

“Severe pains came on […] and a terrible swelling, which grew worse and worse, till a wise woman was summoned with her adder’s stone. On her rubbing the place with the stone, the swelling began to subside.”

I actually used to own an adder stone myself, though I didn’t know it as that at the time. I bought it in Gravesend Market one Saturday when I was perhaps 14 or 15 years old, and wore it on a string round my neck for a while. I remember the man who sold it to me telling me how rare they were, and how he travelled the coast of Kent looking for them on the beaches, and thinking it seemed a very exciting kind of treasure. I’ve no idea what happened to it, sadly…

fairy ring