Tag Archives: mermaid

A surprising lack of mermaids

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The Orwell Mermaid is a proper mermaid story, very similar to Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, but with an even more tragic ending than the Anderson story.  It’s a strange thing, though.  This mermaid story is one of very few in Suffolk.  There’s the Wildman of Orford, of course, but others are few and far between.  There’s a tale that a mermaid tried to gain entry to All Saints church in Sheringham, in Norfolk, but was told to go because she wasn’t a Christian – she nipped in, though, and is immortalised on a bench end.

Then there’s the Kessingland Nessie – or Kessie? – first spotted in 1750, it was seen by H Rider Haggard’s daughter in 1912, further up the coast in Norfolk by the crew of the Kellett in 1923, and again at Kessingland by beach walkers in 1978, but not seen as far as I know since – do you know? Captain Haselfoot of the Kellett writes in the log of the ship this account: ‘The time was about 9am. It was a summer day and the weather was calm and clear. I am not sure whether the sun was actually shining. I then observed rising out of the water about 200 yards from the ship, a long, serpentine neck, projecting from six or seven feet above the water. I observed this neck rising out of the water twice, and it remained up, in each case, for four or five seconds. Viewing with the naked eye only, I could not make out precisely what the head was like.’ It’s hard to doubt the captain – and it was also seen by another officer.  Who knows what lurks beneath?  One feels that Pleasurewood Hills has missed a trick in not having ride dedicated to our local Kessie…

In Suffolk the place to find mermaids, though, is not in la mer, but in freshwater – especially in pools. These mermaids are not the romantic (but still potentially deadly) figures we know from fairy stories, but rather a slightly different kind of monster.  In the northern Midlands and she’s called Jenny Greenteeth, in Yorkshire and Lancashire she’s a grindylow, and Peg Powler on the River Tees.  She’s like the Japanese kappa, and the Slavic vodyanoi or vodnik, the Scottish kelpie and many many more. She’s there as a bogeyman with one role – a role adults have assigned her.  She’s there to frighten children off from playing too near water, and expose themselves to the very real and present danger of drowning.

They are most prevalent in the Ipswich area and around – Yoxford and Rendlesham have sightings, and they’ve also been seen on the River Gipping between Needham Market and Ipswich. No surprise then that our sea mermaid came up the Orwell.  This is from an old man writing into the Ipswich Journal in 1877, ‘When I was quite a child, in 1814, we used to play at Rendlesham where there was a pond at one end with trees round it, the grass in early spring full of flowers … If we went too near our nursemaid would call out to us not to go so near ‘lest the mermaid should come and crome us in.’ A crome is a pond raking tool with sharp tines that curl over a bit like a person’s hand. There are still a few pools out of Rendlesham heading towards Campsea Ash, so beware if you are taking your children there, our mermaids are beautiful with long green hair and will entice your children if they can…

Image © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2013

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In the bleak midwinter – a test of memory at Pin Mill

DSC00247 - cropTalking with my Mum yesterday about the weather (among other things!) made me think about the long-distance research I had to do for Suffolk Folk Tales. It hammered down with rain on Saturday morning, but was glorious with sunshine in the afternoon … here in Gloucestershire.  Just the opposite in Suffolk.  Weather’s always tricky, and it’s impossible to second guess it, especially four counties away!  And of course, if you work as well as write, you can only go on outings at set times – especially with train prices being what they are.  On the weekend I went over to research the Orwell Mermaid it snowed.  Oh boy, did it snow.  And then the snow bedded down.  But I had things to do, research deadlines to meet.  So off we went – and though I might have plenty to say about 4x4s in general, but stepdad really does need one to access his remote clients, and we wouldn’t have done this trip without it.

Because the story was set on the River Orwell, in that evocative location: Pin Mill. Down one of the steepest slopes in Suffolk!  Down we slithered – there is no way we could have got any further than the car park at the top of the village, I am sure.  Then we teetered down on foot – and straight into the famous Butt and Oyster pub for a warming morning coffee.  Then Mum and I went out to walk into the woods, to get an idea of the landscape around the village, away from what would have been a bustling port and boatyard.

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The walk was silent except for the crunch of our boots in the crisp frosted snow. We walked past the houseboats along the shoreline, seemingly deserted in this cold weather, and then up the hill – we could barely work out where the path was going in some cases, there was so much snow.  Now, this is where memory starts to let you down.  In my memory, there was a dog, who barked, and I am sure that it was that melded for me the last scene of the story, where the fishermen’s dogs discover the mermaid lying on the frozen earth.  But am I imagining that now?  Whether or not there was a dog, the ethereal snowy landscape set the scene for me, and I knew how that last section had to be – the chill landscape reflecting the bleakness of our heroine’s emotions.  Would I have felt it so strongly if we’d visited in summer, with the birds singing in the trees, and lots of other folk tramping the paths, and coming in and out of the houseboats?  Well, the story only has one possible ending, but I know it would have felt very different, and thus I would have written in differently.

All images copyright Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012