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“The Fairy Tale Has No Landlord”: On the Enchantments of Kitnocks Hill

Kafka did not consider the age in which he lived as an advance over the beginnings of time. His novels are set in a swamp world. In his works, created things appear at the stage which Bachofen has termed the hetaeric stage. The fact that it is now forgotten does not mean that it does not extend into the present. On the contrary: it is actual by virtue of this very oblivion. An experience deeper than that of an average person can make contact with it.

Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”.

There was an old woman lived under the hill,

And if she’s not gone she lives there still.

Traditional rhyme.

Discussing the conflict between different ways of interacting with the geographical environment in Mongolian culture, Caroline Humphrey refers to the privatising of the Mongolian economy in the 1990s and the policy of allowing private ownership of land. The expression coined for this new status, ‘land master’ (gazarin ezen), is a term which, however, has been used for centuries with quite another meaning, the genius loci. The original Mongolian ‘landlord’ from whom permission had to be obtained to use the land was not a human but a supernatural being.1This article turns on an analogous contradiction, that between the abstract legality enshrined in the principle of absolute property in land and the perception of real forces residing in a certain locality, in this instance an unquiet corner of the Hampshire village of Curdridge. Here, the legal owner of a triangle of land on Kitnocks Hill has planning permission to build on it, even though this plot (known as the Triangle) – delineated by Lockhams Road, Chapel Lane and the A334 between Botley and Wickham – is also believed to be the burial place of the legendary figure of Kitty Nocks. She emerges as a veritable genius loci herself, in that the Triangle really seems to be the seat of her power and manifestations. Her surname may be a variant of Noakes, which means ‘at the oaks’, an apt title for the presiding spirit of this special place, which I remember being woodland when I used to walk or cycle past in the 1970s, struck by its ‘shadowy ambience’, though not knowing the area’s magical associations at the time. Here I explore the wealth of legendary and archaeological associations evoked by a supernatural lady whose fate is intertwined so closely with the Triangle.

“A CURIOUS LITTLE SUPERSTITION”

Kitnocks appears as the name of this area on Greenwood’s map of 1826, proving an association of near 200 years and more. So celebrated has Kitty Nocks been in the area that her anguish-stricken stone face gazes out as a gargoyle from the south-east corner of the tower of St. Peter’s church towards the hill that bears her name.2 Today, the ‘quirky’ pattern of roads forming the Triangle suggests that it has long been regarded as too risky to be built on – the modern A334 Wickham Road from Botley swerves as it reaches the junction with Lockhams Road, as if avoiding some invisible barrier – though the reputed existence of a pond would account for this pattern.

A gargoyle representing Kitty Nocks gazes from the south-eastern corner of Curdridge church towards the hill named after her (Photo: Simon Crook).

According to various local accounts remembered in the present day, Kitty Nocks is said to have drowned herself in a pond which once existed within the Triangle, distraught at being betrayed and deserted by her lover. She is also said to have eloped with her true love after being refused permission by her parents to marry him. Either way, she came to a tragic end and consequently her ghost “haunts the road over the hill”.3 She is reputed to be seen at midnight of the full moon, mounted on a white horse as she rides around the site of the pond.4 As a suicide she would have been prohibited from burial in consecrated ground, her burial in the Triangle being consistent with the practice, established at least from Anglo-Saxon times, of the burial of the so-called “deviant dead” at crossroads or at boundaries towards the edge of settlements. Although the practice of crossroads-burial was outlawed in 1823, the last documented suicide burial actually took place in Wiltshire in 1849.5Comparison could be made with the figure of the rusalka in southern Russia, the unquiet spirit of a girl who committed suicide by drowning because she was pregnant out of wedlock. She lives “in the body of water in which she died, along with the child who is born after her death”. As such, they are regarded as part of the “unclean dead”.6

Kitty is mentioned in connection with “a curious little superstition practised at Kit Knox Hill”, whereby people would visit her grave to seek advice, the inquirer alone, and most effectually at midnight, invoking her name solemnly three times… “at which she would appear”.7 Such popular magic has a long history, diabolised in the following unsympathetic account by Aelfric, writing in the late tenth or early eleventh century, telling how witches resort to crossroads and heathen burial sites to “call upon the Devil, and he arrives in the form of the person who lies buried there as if he had risen from death.”8 Today, Montague Summers’ “curious little superstition” is redolent of shamanic spirit-cults still current in south Siberia and Mongolia. Caroline Humphrey describes how the contemporary Selenga Buryats worship a female spirit who is envisaged as mounted on a black stallion. This is the spirit of a woman who was travelling in the direction of the Xori Buryats to the north. Stopping on the southern slope of Bayan-Tugud hill she tied her horse to a single tree and then she died of disease. The local people buried the woman there, untied her horse and let it wander off. Caught by people of the Selenga Tubsheten clan, the horse was killed and used for food. They began to die of a terrible disease. Only after sacrifices were made to the spirit (woman and horse) did the disease disappear. Although the sacrifices are now (1980s) made at the tree, the spirit is considered to be the ezen (‘master’) of a lateral section of land which extends between the Bayan-Tugud hill and another called Olzeitei-Ondor and this area is known as güideltei gazar (literally, ‘running-track land’, a güidel being a track or run of a spirit or an animal).9 A striking parallel with the tragic fate of Kitty Nocks is offered by the idea that such ‘tracks’ are homologous, in many stories, with the movement of women between male social groups, a movement which often fails in one way or another (through ill-treatment, divorce, and flight of the wife with nowhere to go). This creates “a hiatus of abandonment, from which asocial place the female spirit wreaks her revenge”.10

While “nothing attaches to her memory that is evil”,11 a terrifying encounter with what is believed to be Kitty Nocks’ ghost occurred one summer night in 1978.12 The witness had been visiting his girlfriend in Southampton and had caught the last bus to Curdridge (the no-longer-running Hants and Dorset service which would have departed from the central bus station at about 22:50 and would have taken about 30-40 minutes to reach the bus-stop by the Triangle on Kitnocks Hill). The bus-stop was situated halfway along the Triangle (now redundant, but a park bench remains at the spot) and passengers often took a short-cut across the Triangle to reach Lockhams Road.13 It was in Lockhams Road that he saw what he assumed to be an ‘old lady’ standing in a ditch. She appeared to be wearing what he thought was a see-through plastic mac with pop-up buttons. Thinking she was stuck in the ditch, he reached out his hand to help. To his horror, his hand passed right through her. Screaming, he ran as fast as he could up the road towards his home in Gordon Road, only to find that the apparition was alongside, keeping up with him, still in the ditch. He was found by neighbours, traumatised, at the top of Gordon Road and its junction with Lockhams.

AN UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENT

A local resident, born and brought up in Curdridge and knowledgeable about the history of the Triangle, remarked on how her mother was insistent that there was a pond in this once densely-wooded, unfenced playground for local children. While there now appears to be no trace of a pond, there has been an unexpected development since the landowner had most of the trees felled, in defiance of the Tree Preservation Orders which ‘protected’ them: much of the land within the Triangle is now noticeably waterlogged, seemingly an unintended consequence of his clearance work. In 2008, it was reported that “the site is very wet and storm water had puddles on several areas during the Engineer’s site visit, thus indicating that the ground has poor absorbency”.14 This wet condition is further marked now by the profusive emergence of wetland plants – a carpet of sphagnum moss and abundant tussocks of soft rush (juncus effusus), offering further evidence of a buried pond in this area. The presence of juncus effusus – in Ireland woven as Brigid’s Crosses for the saint’s feast day on February 1st – allows a ‘circular digression’ which returns us to the theme of the nocturnal visit to Kit Nocks’ grave to seek her counsel. For this plant features as the clothing of heroines of some Cinderella variants, such as Rashin Coatie (Moray, Scotland) and Cap O’ Rushes (Suffolk), a botanical alternative to the rags or animal-skin worn by the put-upon girl in other variants of the story. The heroine of Rashin Coatie (‘Rush Coat’, to transliterate into standard English) is assisted by a red calf sent by her deceased mother. When it is killed on the orders of the stepmother it instructs Rashin Coatie to gather up its bones and bury them beneath “yon grey stone” and to visit this grave whenever she wanted a wish granted. For Carlo Ginzburg, the magic fable of Cinderella in all its variants, from China to Scotland – involving an animal helper (playing the ‘fairy godmother’ role) and the ritualised burial of its sacrificed remains – suggests the heroine can be thought of as a reincarnation of the ‘mistress of the animals’,15 the story revealing the heroine’s dawning consciousness of her own magical vocation as a shaman or witch.16 In some versions of these narratives, such as the Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel, the girl plants a hazel twig on her mother’s grave. Watered by the daughter’s tears, it grows into a tree which bears gifts from her mother when she visits her grave. Perhaps a parallel can be seen too between the advice sought from Kitty Nocks at her hill-top grave and the name of Curdridge, which is derived from Cuthredes Hricgce (Cuthred’s Ridge):17 the personal name, Cuthred, means ‘famous advice’.

WHITE HORSES

It seems wrong to iron out the particulars of a tale and a tragic biography that deserves to be appreciated in its own right, lending a special character to this part of Curdridge, but Kitty Nocks’ drowning and her spectral moonlight ride around the pond on a white horse does have striking correlations with other entities in folklore and myth, notably otherworldly women and magical animals associated with water. For instance, Kitty’s surname may be linked etymologically to the Nix, the water nymph of German folklore, as well as the nøkken or näcken, water spirits in Scandinavian folklore, which sometimes took the form of a white horse, luring unwary people to their deaths by drowning (a form depicted in Theodor Kittelsen’s painting of 1909, Noekken som hvit hest, juxtaposed in this text with a shaky photo of the full moon over the Triangle – see below). In Greek myth the winged horse Pegasus (‘of the wells’) created the Hippocrene fountain for the Muses of Mount Helicon by stamping his hoof on the ground,18 just as Anne Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton, Surrey, bubbled up when her horse kicked a stone. In Irish legend, Cuchulain’s horse – ‘The Grey of Macha’ – is a gift from the goddess Macha, which magically emerges from the waters of Linn Liaith. The Irish goddess Boann (‘White Cow Woman’) created the River Boyne when she approached the magical well of Segais, walking around it three times (much like Kitty’s circumambulation of the pond). This caused the waters to surge up violently and rush down to the sea, the cold white water drowning Boann in the process.19Similar legends account for the creation of some lochs and lakes in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, when a careless dairymaid forgets to replace the stone lid over a well, which then gushes forth.

 

The story of Kitty’s betrayal and drowning in the pond – a narrative motif explaining many ‘White Lady’ apparitions across Britain – may be a rationalisation of another recurrent mythological theme, concerning an otherworldly woman who emerges from a lake or the sea and takes a human husband. In this genre of stories a subsequent slight or betrayal by the husband provokes the flight of the supernatural wife and her return to the watery world from whence she came – many Welsh lakes have their own stories of this kind, whilst the story of Melusine in Europe is a classic of this genre of ‘Swan Maiden’ or ‘Serpent Wife’ narratives. If there was such a mythological prototype for the Kitty Nocks story it is easy to see how the such a departure could be rationalised as a drowning, when she may have been be a ‘lady of the lake’ returning to her ‘natural habitat’. Similarities can be seen with the figure of Frau Holle in German folklore, from whose pond newborn children come into the world, who also appears at Christmas Eve in a white robe, mounted on a white horse.20

“THE SHATTERING OF THE VESSELS”

The discovery of “a number of cinerary urns… with a lump of hair and cinders inside”21 buried on the lower slope of Kitnocks Hill, just north of the main road and about 350 metres to the east of the Triangle, adds an archaeological dimension to the hill and its legend. These bucket urns – of the Deverell-Rimbury style, dating from the Middle to Late Bronze Age (1500-800 BC) – were found in 1896 during the building of “three or four cottages”. Today only fragments of these vessels survive because, on finding them, the workmen immediately set about smashing them up with their picks, a Mr. Grabham managing to retrieve some fragments.22 When Miss Pasley went to the site she was told by the men that “they didn’t pay no attention to they things”. The location of the buried urns – overlooking the course of a stream, Shawfords Lake (which marks the boundary of Curdridge and Shedfield when it passes under the road at the foot of the hill, near the evocatively-named Silverlake Garage), fits in with a pattern in the Neolithic and Bronze Age of placing the dead and associated monuments close to springs, watercourses and ‘wet places’. Indeed this crossing is believed to be the Syle Ford (‘ford of the miry place’) mentioned in a Saxon charter – a name which survives as Silford Copse and a field name, Silford Lockhams.23

Some of the fragments of cinerary urn unearthed on Kitnocks Hill (Winchester Museums collection, ARCH 3.00.1. Photograph copyright Winchester City Council).

According to the find report accompanying the broken fragments – now in Winchester City Museum – the pieces are characterised by “large quartz gritting”. The inclusion of quartz as temper was likely in recognition of its ‘symbolic qualities’, a stone traditionally associated in Ireland – and north and west Britain – with burials and remembrance, the dead and the spirit world.24 The resemblance of this white stone to foaming water or moonlight may have been a consideration in its selection. For instance, at Saveock Water in Cornwall a buried quartz-lined pond, dating from the Neolithic, has been found; fed by a spring, it would have glowed in the moonlight. The same site yielded evidence of a ‘bird-cult’, with ritualised burials of swans, magpies and other animals being found, dating from the 1600s right up to the 1970s, many burials – over a period of 350 years – accompanied by a deposit of non-local, purple crystalline sand. These organic remains have survived because of the waterlogged ground.25 The resemblance here to the ritualised burial of the animal helper in Cinderella narratives is also noteworthy. Returning to the shattered vessels from Kitnocks Hill, the lunar/horseshoe motif indented around the shoulder of one of the fragments is another interesting feature, evoking images of animal tracks, the lunar crescent, as well as the circular course of Kitty Nocks’ moonlit ride on her white horse.

Such associations suggest that Kitnocks Hill itself was the focus of a ‘ritual landscape’, of a kind evident on a grander scale around the Uffington White Horse in present-day Oxfordshire. Indeed, Uffington is evidence that popular ritual practices can be maintained, unbroken, for millennia – the White Horse has been dated to the Bronze Age/early Iron Age (c1400 – 600 BC)26 BC) and has been renewed regularly by local inhabitants in the intervening years to within living memory. Its position by the prehistoric track, the Ridgeway, is appropriate considering this ancient path may first have been created by migratory herds of animals. Perhaps a prototype of the story of Kitty Nocks has been told for as long, developing new historical details in its retelling.

RETRIEVING THE FRAGMENTS

In Pushkin’s drama, Rusalka, a miller’s daughter is seduced and betrayed by a prince, who leaves her with child and marries a princess. In despair she drowns herself and her unborn daughter. Ultimately, she is avenged when the prince catches a glimpse of their beautiful daughter under the water and, filled with regret, drowns himself. This is redolent of Walter Benjamin’s conception of a history concerned with winning back lost modes of experience, not for the restoration of a traditional ethics, but to settle a moral debt to a past in need of redemption.27 It is hard to envisage how building on Kitty Nocks’ grave could offer her unquiet spirit any succour – if anything, the threatened development is in step with a history conceived as “the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate”.28 The Triangle is a “heterogeneous fragment” that disrupts this forward march of economic progress because it embodies an immeasurable quality that cannot be bought and sold like a commodity; it is evidence that magic – one of Benjamin’s lost modes of experience – is, in Max Weber’s words, potentially “one of the most serious obstructions to the rationalisation of economic life”.29The contention around public access to and the protection of the integrity of the Kitnocks Triangle is a microcosm of the titanic historical struggles, worldwide, over land tenure, which saw the extinguishing of the lifeways of traditional communities as their access to the special places which offered meaning to their lives was curtailed by the enclosure of land, the prerequisite for the domination of the economy over social life.Winchester City Council’s Footpath Stopping Up Order of November 2011 partakes of this struggle. This attempt to curtail customary rights of access to the Triangle undermines the kind of local knowledge that can only be maintained through the exercise of these rights – albeit clandestinely, as shown by Montague Summers’ account – which add to the uniqueness of this locality, coloured by the lingering sadness of Kitty Nocks.

1Humphrey, C. 1995.Chiefly and Shamanist Landscapes in Mongolia. Hirsch, E. and O’Hanlon, M. (eds.) The Anthropology of Landscape. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.145.

2http://southernlife.org.uk/curdchur.htm She is one of eight gargoyles on the tower. The church was consecrated in 1888 to replace a Chapel of Ease, the tower being added in 1894.

3Moutray Read, D.H. 1911. Hampshire Folklore. Folklore Vol.22,No.3, p314.

4My mother was told this detail of the midnight, moonlight ride by the late Daphne Stevens, wife of Dennis Stevens, editor for many years of Hampshire: the County Magazine. Daphne learnt this from her aunt who “lived in a cottage by Silverlake Garage” (at the bottom of Kitnocks Hill).

5Reynolds, A. 2009. Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.216.

6Kononenko, N. 1994. Women as Performers of Oral Literature: A Re-examination of Epic and Lament. Clyman, T.W. and Greene, D. (eds.) Women Writers in Russian Literature. Westport,CT: Praeger, p. 27.

7Summers, M. 1946. Witchcraft and Black Magic , London and New York: Rider and Co., p.192.

8Griffiths, B. 1996. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Hockwold-cum-Wilton: Anglo-Saxon Books, p.35.

9Humphrey, C. 1995. op.cit. pp.150-151

10 Ibid. p.151.

11 Stevens, F.E. 1934. Hampshire Ways. London: Heath Cranton, p.51.

12 I was told of this incident the day after this happened by my mother, who herself was told by a friend and work colleague, Daphne Stevens, who was a neighbour of the victim. I committed the information (most crucially, the date) immediately to a notebook which has since been ‘misplaced’… I’m still looking for it!

13 This emerged in evidence given to the Public Inquiry (January 2011) into an application to have the Triangle registered as a village green.

15 Ginzburg, C. 1990. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath. London: Hutchinson Radius, p.247

16 Ibid.,p.249.

17 Brooks, N. 2000.Anglo-Saxon Myths. London: Hambledon Press, p.256.

18 Graves, R. 1960. The Greek Myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin, Vol.1, p.253.

19 The Metrical Dindschenschas.

20 Róheim, G. 1992. Fire in the Dragon and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 186, 188.

21 Miss Louisa Pasley, letter dated January 5th 1920 (copyright Winchester City Council). This letter is held, along with the urn fragments, by the Winchester Museums service. I am grateful to Robin Iles, for retrieving this and the urn fragments (ARCH 3.00.1) from the Museum stores for me to view.

22 Miss Louisa Pasley, letter dated January 5th 1920 (copyright Winchester City Council).

23 Brooks, N. op.cit., p.258.

24 Cooney, G. 2000. Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland. London: Routledge, p.177.

26 Miles, D. and Palmer, S. 1995. “White Horse Hill.” Current Archaeology, Vol. 142, pp. 372-378.

27 Honneth, A. 1998. A Communicative Disclosure of the Past. Marcus, L. and Nead. L. (eds.) The Actuality of Walter Benjamin. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.127.

28 Benjamin, W. 1999. Theses on the Philosophy of History. Illuminations. London: Pimlico, p.248.

29 Thomas, K. 1971. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.786.

* A version of this article has also appeared in Folklore Frontiers Issue 69.