The Fabled Coast, by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood

Review published on August 12, 2012. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

Folklore is still inherently entrenched into life in the United Kingdom and, indeed, in a vast number of countries and communities on an international scale. The introduction of The Fabled Coast: Legends and Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain and Ireland states that ‘… the coastline of the British Isles plays host to an astonishingly rich variety of local legends, customs and superstitions’, all of which the authors have tried to incorporate into the book. Their main aim, they tell the reader, is to ‘examine the facts behind the legends’.

The introduction, both far-reaching and well-written, describes how such legends came to be. The traditions of storytelling are outlined and then elaborated upon, and instances of the earliest recorded folklore of the sea have been included. Many historical figures also feature on the book’s pages, ranging from Sir Francis Drake to Grace O’Malley, ‘the sixteenth-century pirate queen of Connaught’.

The Fabled Coast is split into a variety of different sections, all of which encompass different counties and districts around the Britain and Ireland. These range from Wales and the Scottish Lowlands to Southern Eire and East Anglia. Every stretch of coastline has been included, as have the majority of the islands which are dotted around our shores. ‘Legends flourish in these borders between land and sea,’ we are told, and such places provide ‘a setting for some of the most beautiful, terrible, and memorable tales of folklore’.

Maps have been included at the start of each section in order to pinpoint the exact areas which the following text refers to. In each separate section, a host of different places have been incorporated, along with the legends, lore and tales which are believed to have originated in them. All are in alphabetical order, hence why the first section on ‘South-West England & Channel Islands’ begins with Abbotsbury, Bideford, Bodmin and Boscastle, and the ‘North-East England’ section ends with entries about Skinningrove, Staithes, Whitby and York.

The legends and folklore which the authors have included have been taken from almost every period in the history of Britain and Ireland, and the stories which are so wonderfully evoked are both ancient and modern. These range from a tale originating in seventeenth-century Bristol regarding a ship believed to have been ‘infested with witches’, to the unexplained phenomenon of St. Elmo’s Fire in Norfolk; from Mrs Leakey, the whistling ghost of Minehead, to the legend of King Arthur’s sword; and from the tale of how the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland came to be, to the ‘drowned city’ of Dunwich in Suffolk. These stories, ranging from the amusing to the chilling, are incredibly well-balanced, and great care has been taken to ensure that no two similar events have been included. References are made to similar tales occurring in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is an ingrained sense of astuteness on the part of the authors throughout to make certain that each tale can be viewed with the fresh eyes of the reader.

Not just legends and folklore people this volume. Double paged spreads dotted throughout reveal what we know and believe about such stories as Atlantis, The Flying Dutchman and smugglers and wreckers, as well as pages which explain the origins of figureheads and the naming of ships. Events of historical significance, findings from various archaeological digs, mythical creatures and the influence of sea gods upon ancient communities are all woven into the book, creating rather an astoundingly multi-layered volume. Various primary and secondary sources are referenced and quoted throughout the book, and the bibliography and list of references are both impressive in their scale in consequence.

The Fabled Coast is wonderfully set out. The headings are bold and the typeface throughout is consistent. Two sections of glossy pictures can be found in the book, most of which are in colour, and a whole host of black and white illustrations have also been placed next to the appropriate text throughout, adding a wealth of information to the stories they relate to.

Kingshill and Westwood’s book is a rich and far-reaching account, filled with exquisite historical detail. A lot of work has clearly been put into the volume and it is meticulous in its detail. The Fabled Coast is a must-read for anyone interested in folklore, the origins of British traditions and superstitions, or merely as our heritage as a nation. It is perhaps not a volume to read all in one go (as this reviewer did), but one to dip into here and there. Such a book is an incredible achievement, a vast collection of folklore and tradition which deserves to reach an extremely wide readership.

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