The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 2/Two Folk-Tales from Herefordshire
Told by a Herefordshire Squire, 1845-6.
HEN I was a child," writes his daughter (27 June, 1882), "my father used to tell me the stories of Kentsham Bell and the King of the Cats, as they were told him by his nurse, who is now living near Ross, and is upwards of ninety years of age."
Great Tom of Kentsham was the greatest bell ever brought to England, but it never reached Kentsham safely, nor hung in any English tower. Where Kentsham is I cannot tell you, but long, long ago the good folk of the place determined to have a larger and finer bell in their steeple than any other parish could boast. At that time there was a famous bell-foundry abroad, where all the greatest bells were cast, and thither the Kentsham people sent to order their famous bell, and thither too sent many others who wanted greater bells than could be cast in England. And so it came to pass at length that Great Tom of Lincoln, and Great Tom of York, and Great Tom of Christchurch, and Great Tom of Kentsham, were all founded at the same time, and all embarked on board the same vessel, and carried safely to the shore of dear old England. Then they set about landing them, and this was anxious work, but little by little it was done, and Tom of Lincoln, Tom of York, Tom of Christchurch, were safely laid on English ground. And then came the turn of Tom of Kentsham, which was the greatest Tom of all. Little by little they raised him, and prepared to draw him to the shore; but just in the midst of the work the captain grew so anxious and excited that he swore an oath. That very moment the ropes which held the bell snapped in two, and Great Tom of Kentsham slid over the ship's side into the water, and rolled away to the bottom of the sea.
Then the people went to the cunning man and asked him what they should do. And he said, "Take six yoke of white milch-kine, which have never borne the yoke, and take fresh withy bands which have never been used before, and let no man speak a word either good or bad till the bell is at the top of the hill."
So they took six yoke of white milch-kine, which had never borne the yoke, and harnessed them with fresh withy-bands which had never been used, and bound these to the bell as it lay in the shallow water, and long it was ere they could move it. But still the kine struggled and pulled, and the withy-bands held firm, and at last the bell was on dry ground. Slowly, slowly they drew it up the hill, moaning and groaning with unearthly sounds as it went; slowly, slowly, and no one spoke, and they nearly reached the top of the hill. Now the captain had been wild with grief when he saw that he had caused his precious freight to be lost in the waters just as they had reached the shore; and, when he beheld it recovered again and so nearly placed in safety, he could not contain his joy, but sang out merrily,
"In spite of all the devils in hell
We have got to land old Kentsham Bell."
Instantly the withy bands broke in the midst, and the bell bounded back again down the sloping hillside, rolling over and over, faster and faster, with unearthly clanging, till it sank far away in the very depths of the sea. And no man has ever seen it since, but many have heard it tolling beneath the waves, and if you go there you may hear it too.
The King of the Cats.
Many years ago, long before shooting in Scotland was a fashion as it is now, two young men spent the autumn in the very far north, living in a lodge far from other houses, with an old woman to cook for them. Her cat and their own dogs formed all the rest of the household.
One afternoon the elder of the two young men said he would not go out, and the younger one went alone, to follow the path of the previous day's sport looking for missing birds, and intending to return home before the early sunset. However, he did not do so, and the elder man became very uneasy as he watched and waited in vain till long after their usual supper-time. At last the young man returned, wet and exhausted, nor did he explain his unusual lateness until, after supper, they were seated by the fire with their pipes, the dogs lying at their feet, and the old woman's black cat sitting gravely with half-shut eyes on the hearth between them. Then the young man began as follows:—
"You must be wondering what made me so late. I have had a curious adventure to-day. I hardly know what to say about it. I went, as I told you I should, along our yesterday's route. A mountain fog came on just as I was about to turn homewards, and I completely lost my way. I wandered about for a long time, not knowing where I was, till at last I saw a light, and made for it, hoping to get help. As I came near it, it disappeared, and I found myself close to a large old oak-tree. I climbed into the branches the better to look for the light, and, behold! it was beneath me, inside the hollow trunk of the tree. I seemed to be looking down into a church, where a funeral was in the act of taking place. I heard singing, and saw a coffin, surrounded by torches, all carried by —— But I know you won't believe me if I tell you!"
His friend eagerly begged him to go on, and laid down his pipe to listen. The dogs were sleeping quietly, but the cat was sitting up apparently listening as attentively as the man, and both young men involuntarily turned their eyes towards him. "Yes," proceeded the absentee, "it is perfectly true. The coffin and the torches were both borne by cats, and upon the coffin were marked a crown and sceptre!" He got no further; the cat started up shrieking, "By Jove! old Peter's dead! and I'm the King o' the Cats!" rushed up the chimney and was seen no more.
- Parallel stories in Shropshire Folk-Lore, pp. 67, 68, 74. Both this and the following legend bear, as might be expected, the impress of the educated minds through which they have reached us.
- References to parallel stories in Shropshire Folk-Lore, p. 52, note.