Northern Earth: Local folklore, old wives' tales and stories celebrated

Ancient cairns, tales of buried treasure, church gargoyles and mysterious standing stones – the Yorkshire landscape is awash with folklore and history and one man has been chronicling it for the last 30 years.

Neil Hudson travelled to the rugged moorland beyond Hebden Bridge to meet him.

In 1979 a group of like-minded people who were interested in unexplained mysteries, old folk tales, myths and legends gathered at the Griffin Hotel in Leeds.

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From that first informal meeting came a magazine called Northern Earth and, over 30 years later, it is still going strong, thanks to a small but loyal following.

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It stands as a lone voice outside the established scientific mainstream

and will entertain just about any topic,

Founding member and Northern Earth editor John Billingsley is a mine of information about local folklore, old wives' tales and stories that would make your hair stand on end.

Fittingly, he lives in a little cottage nestled in a valley on the windswept Yorkshire moorland.

The view from his living room window in Old Town, near Hebden Bridge, is one you could stare at all day long.

His house is set high up on the rugged moors just above Mytholmroyd, where the landscape looks bleak and unforgiving and yet is all the more beautiful for it.

A great valley drops steeply away, winding its way down toward Hebden Bridge between great hills which lie like the shoulders of sleeping giants.

It is a place where the fingers of civilisation barely reach, where there are views which have remained unchanged for thousands of years and where even the dry-stone walls and cottages seem to somehow belong.

"We get the wind coming straight up from the valley," says Mr Billingsley, carrying two cups of steaming hot tea from the kitchen of his terraced cottage. "They say the difference between here and Hebden Bridge is two coats."

Mr Billingsley is originally from the south of England but moved to Yorkshire in 1975 to find work and like so many before him, fell in love with the place.

"There was a local distinctiveness in the way people talked and acted which you don't get in London and it woke me up to differences in culture between places, which lies at the root of folklore and tradition.

"Folklore is not just about stories and traditions but the way people talk and how they use the land.

"In this area, communities are separate but closely spaced, which is ideal for maintaining local identity and traditions. When people move about they are lost."

Mr Billingsley soon met like-minded people with an interest in alternative ways of thinking about the landscape and culture – a field which came to be called 'earth mysteries' or 'neo-antiquarianism'.

In the beginning it covered anything from standing stones and ley lines to strange lights in the sky, even fairies and ghosts.

However, the 'science', if it can be called that, has moved on and while any topic is still fair game, the magazine has developed a level of self-awareness which enables it to approach such discussions in an unbiased manner.

Mr Billingsley said: "When I moved up here in 1975, the field of alternative archeology was mainly concentrated in the south and west of England – the usual haunts, like Glastonbury. Coming here, it struck me how people had a slightly different – and more down to earth – take on things.

"People didn't lock their doors, there was a day when the whole street was cordoned off so people could hang washing. It was even down to things like the colours used in supermarket advertising, which were more primary here compared to the south."

Northern Earth carries articles from the bizarre to the reflective.

There are discussions on the late poet laureate, Mytholmroyd-born Ted Hughes's links to shamanism, the Pendle Witches, druidism, the layout of Stonehenge, 'earth lights' and the significance of Renaissance paintings as they relate to astronomy, a most notable example being the painting of Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, said to be a representation of the summer constellations as they travel across the sky from the east.

Mr Billingsley, a former lecturer in folk traditions at Bradford University, who now works as a library assistant and walk leader, said: "The point of the magazine is to research things like this, not to dismiss them out of hand; we always ask the sceptical questions.

"Northern Earth is a vehicle for linking different fields of study or for things which might not be adequately investigated in the scientific framework. We try to follow an academic framework in research but even if you're not academic, you can still use the tools and learn something about the landscape. It is a voice outside the academic mainstream.

"We are each a product of our own history and it affects everything from the way we talk to the clubs we join, the friends we keep and the way we act.

"Dialect is a good example, it affects the way we look at the world and our beliefs.

"Many places have something magical or mysterious about them, something that makes them stand out. An old path will have a different sensation to a new road. It's the kind of subconscious experience most of us take for granted but nonetheless we are aware of them and so formerly 'sacred' places still have significance for us."

* Northern Earth is available in Leeds from Id Aromatics, Global Tribe Crystals, and Radish in Chapel Allerton, from stockists in Haworth, Whitby and Hebden Bridge or via subscription by logging onto


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