5 interesting Yorkshire folktales

If you want to learn a little about Yorkshire folktales, you’ve come to the right place. Yorkshire is a quirky country and we’ve got lots of folktales to share. Here are 5 of our favourites.

Mother Shipton

Mother Shipton is one of the most well-known and loved folktales throughout Yorkshire. The tale weaves a story full of magic, prophecy and hardship and there’s a fantastic attraction in Knaresborough that you can visit and witness the petrifying waters and the cave where Mother Shipton was born.

Ursula Sontheil, later named Mother Shipton, was born in 1488 to 15 year old Agatha. The identity of her father is unknown, despite Agatha being brought before the local magistrate at the time. Cast out, Agatha had no choice left to her but to retreat to the protection the cave on the bank of the River Nidd offered.

Raised in the cave for the first two years of her life, Ursula was then taken in by the Abbott of Beverley. Agatha was taken to a nunnery and never saw her daughter again. However, with a crooked nose, twisted legs and bent back, Ursula was taunted mercilessly by the local people and returned to her cave. She studied in the forest, learning how to make remedies and potions with the flowers and herbs.

Ursula met York carpenter Tobias Shipton when she was 24 and took his name, although he died before they could have any children. She started making a living selling her services as a witch and prophetess, sharing visions of the future until her death, aged 73, in 1561.

petrifying-well-at-Mother-Shipton's-cave-image Petrifying well at Mother Shipton’s Cave. Image Credit: Mother Shipton’s

Mother Shipton is said to have foretold the Great Fire of London in 1666, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, cars, aeroplanes, and possibly even the internet:

“Around the world thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye.”

So, if you find yourself in North Yorkshire and want to find out more about the prophecies of Mother Shipton, be sure to visit Knaresborough. You can watch the waters turn items to stone, make a wish in the well and see Ursula’s birthplace.

While you’re there, make sure you check High Bridge for cracks. It’s already fallen twice, and Mother Shipton warned us that:

“The world shall end when the High Bridge is thrice fallen…”

Plan your visit to Mother Shipton’s Cave.

The Gytrash

The Gytrash is one of Yorkshire’s most menacing creatures from our folktales. It’s said to be a giant, ghostly dog that leads lonely travellers astray on their journeys. It sometimes appears in the form of a horse rather than a dog, but it’s eyes always glow like burning coals. One of the earliest recorded mentions of the Gytrash is in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1874.

While the Gytrash is usually feared, there are some accounts of it being benevolent. Rather than steering people astray, there are times where the Gytrash will guide a lost traveller to the right road.

If you’re traveling through Yorkshire late at night and you see two bright eyes staring out at you, make sure you don’t venture off the road…you can’t be certain what mood the Gytrash will be in…

brimham rocksBrimham Rocks

Lake Semerwater

Lake Semerwater is the second largest naturally occurring lake in North Yorkshire and it is absolutely beautiful. If you’re in the area, it is well worth a visit, but be aware of the secret that lies within its depths.

There are many folktales about the lake, but the most popular one tells us that Semerwater used to be a prosperous town. One night, an old man, thought by some to be an angel in disguise, came to the area looking for some wood and drink. He went from door to door, speaking to the residents and getting turned away each time.

It wasn’t until he reached the very last house, the hovel of an elderly couple with little money to spare that he found any kindness. They invited him in and shared what little they had with him. After he’d rested and eaten, he turned to leave the city, but bestowed a curse on all the cruel people who had turned him away:

“Semerwater rise, and Semerwater sink, and swallow the town all save this house where they gave me food and drink.”

The waters of the lake we see today rose up and flooded the town, drowning all the inhabitants. Only the elderly couple and their home were saved.

Archaeologists have examined the lake’s bed. They found evidence of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements there, indicating a long history of human habitation there before the land became submersed by water.

Was it really remaining water from the last Ice Age that created the lake? Or was it the curse of a man just looking for kindness?

Lake SemerwaterLake Semerwater. Image credit: Lake Semerwater Wensleydale

Beggar’s Bridge

A 20 minute drive from the lovely coastal town of Whitby will put you in Glaisdale, a small village you might recognise from its appearance in Heartbeat. In Glaisdale, you’ll find a bridge over the River Esk with a romantic history.

The folktale weaves a romantic story between poor farm boy Thomas Ferris and Agnes Richardson, daughter of a Squire. The two families lived on opposite sides of the river, and yet Thomas and Agnes fell in love. Thomas would risk crossing the river every time the two wanted to meet and when her family discovered their romance they were forcibly separated.

Agnes’s family rejected him as a suitable match for their daughter and he was named a ‘beggar’ by her father. Thomas knew if he wanted to take Agnes as his wife he would first need to make his fortune. He arranged to set sail and make his fortune at sea, but was unable to say goodbye to Agnes as the river had flooded and become unpassable.

Years later Thomas returned as a wealthy man from his time spent in the Caribbean. He married Agnes and built the bridge in 1619 so that no other lovers would be separated like they were.

Beggar's BridgeBeggar’s Bridge. Image credit: British Listed Buildings

Boggarts and Hobgoblins

Boggarts and Hobgoblins are a popular folktales across the North of England, but you’d much rather meet a Hobgoblin than a Boggart. Hobgoblins could be helpful or mischievous, and it’s thought that each of the Yorkshire Dales had its own. These creatures would help with work on the farm and in the house in exchange for fresh cream, but would take offence at the offer of clothes.

Boggarts are less kind and not something you want living in your house. They live in the marshes, but will move into family homes and cause lots of mischief. If they attached themselves to a family, they would never leave. Even if the family decided to move, the Boggart would move along with them.

Boggarts would cause milk to go sour, dogs to go lame and things to go missing around the house. If you named them, things would get even worse and the Boggart would turn violent.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of the quirky Yorkshire folktales from across our county. If you’ve heard any other interesting stories you’d like to share with us, please get in touch!