The Barle rises high on Exmoor, making its way down through moorland to merge with the Exe, not far from Dulverton. It is a compelling river, particularly several miles north of Dulverton, where it snakes through steep wooded banks, a brace of Iron Age hillforts standing sentinel.
After heavy rain, the river sounds like a constant loop of applause. Its dark, muddy surface is rumpled and rucked, with white foaming eddies seemingly spitting out their irritation as they break and crash over rocks. It’s not a river to take lightly. A few years ago a paddler in a canoe drowned in the aftermath of an autumnal downpour. Not long afterwards, I was sitting in a moorland pub discussing the event and an elderly man muttered: “The Barle’s got its life this year then”. When asked to explain further, all he would say was that some rivers demanded a life and the Barle was one. A hungry river.
Nobody else would confirm this sinister aspect of the Barle – although it does have a mythical bottomless pit where it passes Tarr Steps. However, tales abound about other ‘hungry rivers’ – a select group that includes the Dart, Ribble, Wye, Spey and the Dee in Scotland, about whom a rhyme was coined: “Bloodthirsty Dee, each year needs three”.
Up in Lancashire, the malevolent spirit Peg O’Nell was said to haunt the Ribble, claiming a life every seven years on a night when the air seemed electric. It was said that locals wouldn’t go near the water on nights like that. Some would drown a cat or dog in the river, an offering to appease the murderous spirit. It didn’t always have the desired effect. After one drowning in 1908, the local newspaper wrote: “It is curious that the last fatality in the Ribble took place exactly seven years ago and the one before that was 14 years ago”.
The folklore writer Lewis Spence told a similar tale of chronological fastidiousness after discovering the tale of a young
boy who drowned in the Wye in the 19th century. Two brothers survived and the parents warned them about getting close to the water. An old man overheard and said: “Let ’em go, let ’em go. No one else’ll be drowned this year. The river has had its dree”.
The cruel river
Dartmoor’s main river, the Dart, is summed up by the rhyme: “The Dart, the Dart – the cruel Dart, every year demands a heart”. Chilling stuff, though according to Philip Prowse, secretary of the Dart Angling Association, the reference to a heart could also have a much more benign meaning: “Everyone falls in love with this river”.
Noted 19th-century Dartmoor writer the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould would dismiss this sentiment. He wrote that the River Dart was heard to cry when it was hungry: “The sound is a particularly weird one; it is heard only when the wind is blowing down its deep valley. It is as if the river is calling out for a victim”.
All these tales are deliciously spooky, the sort of story you tell round the fireside in the pub, but what lies behind them? People do drown in rivers, some of which claim more than their fair share (the Ouse around York seems to have a fatal attraction). Rivers, especially when in spate, are dangerous. If you’re fishing in an insecure spot and there’s heavy rain further up, then it’s wise to take care. Anglers tell tales of drowned fishermen found with wader-covered feet in the air and heads beneath the surface. The Spey’s reputation was such that some fishermen still drop a dram of whisky into the waters at the start of the new season. They have the right idea; it is the fastest-flowing river in Scotland.
On a more metaphysical level, rivers are boundaries, lines in the land that once divided territories. Our ancestors knew this and venerated rivers (many of which have Celtic names). Rivers were deified and populated with spirits to which tribute was paid (find an ancient sword in a river and the chances are it was a sacrificial token). Communities would have been wary of rivers. When the river was kind it provided water for crops, but when it rained and became fast flowing this was a different matter.
You might also put two and two together and suspect human sacrifice. But according to prominent academic Ronald Hutton, who studies British folklore, this would be wrong. “There is no real evidence for human sacrifice in any British rivers,” says the author of The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles. “We just seem to find legends of murderous spirits in rivers [such as kelpies in Scotland and Jenny Greenteeth and Peg Powler in northern England], where the waters concerned are dangerous, with rocks, fast currents and a tendency to flash flooding.” Perhaps the stories were a means to scare children away from dangerous places.
Calling for its prey
Jacqueline Simpson, who co-authored Lore of the Land, is equally rational. “This story pattern is an international one, well known to folk tale scholars. Essentially it tells how a voice is sometimes heard coming from a river and calling out, and shortly afterwards a traveller comes hurrying there, intent on crossing. Local people tell him urgently not to try to cross, for the river is calling for its prey [some versions, but not all, make clear that this happens on regular dates]. The basic idea is that you can’t escape fate, however hard you or others try, and that is a timeless theme.”
So are our rivers sated in this modern age? Have their hungry spirits really departed to join the rest of the deities and beasties that once populated the British Isles in the eyes of its inhabitants?
I’m not so sure. Water is an elemental force and it pays to be respectful. As I walked along the swollen Barle, I was aware of its mesmeric pull and called back my dog so neither of us came too close. Maybe this feeling was taking me back to a folkloric past of unseen things. I suspect I am not alone. And really, it’s natural and highly sensible to respect our hungry rivers. Maybe, like those Scottish fishermen, we should offer up a dram now and again?
Watery tales – a round-up of monsters
Scottish rivers are believed to harbour kelpies, wraith-like creatures that sometimes resemble horses. They offer a ride to travellers and then sink below the water. The best chance of seeing a kelpie is said to be the River Conon in Perthshire, where one is supposed to live.
The crocodile-like afanc was a water monster that dwelt in Llyn Barfog, high in the hills of southern Snowdonia. It obviously got about, for further south, in Pembrokeshire, there’s a Neolithic grave called Bedd yr Afanc (grave of the afanc). It’s where one caught in a nearby pool thousands of years ago was supposedly buried. Probably best not seen.
Several mermaids are said to lurk in isolated pools on the Peak District’s western moors.The Mermaid’s Pool lies at the foot of the Kinder Downfall, a desolate mire that apparently casts its own spell of melancholia. Tradition has it that a mermaid bathes daily in the pool. Those that see her are granted immortality, though there is the danger of being known as a peeping Tom.
Brungerley Bridge over the Ribble at Clitheroe is the abode of evil spirit Peg O’Nell, the ghost of a servant who worked at a nearby hall in the 18th century. Every seven years, Peg and the river join forces and demand a life. If you know when that is, then stay at home.
The Cornish coast around Falmouth is supposed to be home to the sea creature Morgawr. It has been seen several times since the 1970s, and a humped back and snake-like neck suggest a close cousin in the Loch Ness Monster. It apparently likes to linger where there are plenty of conger eels: divers and anglers might like to take care.
Sorry, there were no results for your search. Please try again.