The West Midlands Folklore That Inspired Robert Plant
Imagine, if you will, soaring folkloric images belted out by a bare-chested, blonde-maned god, loudly proclaiming the tales of eras gone by, accompanied by a curly haired wizard, a hammer-wielding madman, and a stolid sage of all knowledge.
Rather, if you’d prefer, put on a Led Zeppelin album and listen to the tales that Robert Plant grew up with. Plant's lyrics proclaim the wonders of the West Midlands countryside, with its woods and hills and moors. Growing up in the Black Country region of the UK with a family who traipsed across the countryside, even vacationing in Wales, young Robert’s imagination peopled the landscape with giants and witches and Knights of Camelot. Having a Romani grandmother, Mother Celia, who enjoyed regaling him with the local lore certainly played a large part, as well.
Sadly, I don’t have the tales straight from Robert’s grandma, but I do have many books that contain stories of the same tales. So sit back under the gaze of your old Hermit black light posters, and enjoy some West Midland wonderment!
Endon Sacred Well
The Endon Well Dressing Festival is an annual event in Endon, not very far north of Birmingham, has become so popular that thousands of visitors arrive every year. The festival started in 1845, and is believed to be an extension of when wells were considered sacred in the British Isles. Sacrifices would be made in order to ensure safe and healthy water, and well dressing is a modern version of those sacrifices (albeit without all the messy blood and screaming). Although there are many well dressings in the region throughout the year, the Endon occurs and May, adding a May Day aspect to the festivities (May Day being the modern version of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane). Given the May timing and that a Queen is chosen every year, perhaps a small piece of this stuck with Robert when he wrote about the May Queen in his arguably most famous set of lyrics, Stairway to Heaven.
A regional aspect of the Wild Hunt, Ol’ Harry was said to be the Devil’s own huntsman. He hunted around the Clent Hills, riding out with his own pack of Gabriel Hounds from their pen at Halesowen (a nearby town, whose name is said to mean Hell’s Own). Riding about on a wild bull, his prey of choice was typically boars, but woe upon the poor soul who would be caught in the midst of the hunt. If Harry is anything like other leaders of the Hunt, the best thing to do if caught up in its wind is to avoid eye contact and for the love of everything good and holy, do not ask for anything at all! You may end up with your own child being supper.
It’s said that Harry-ca-Nab was taken by the Devil because he would go hunting on Sundays, rather than recognize the Catholic Sabbath day. A typical motif, anyone flouting that they were too busy having fun to celebrate Mass typically found their life full of misadventure.
Gabriel Hounds are an English version of Hell Hounds, and while the name of their pen’s town of Halesowen is said to be mean Hell’s Own, it’s more likely that the name is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word for valley, “halh,” being given as such in the Norman conqueror’s Domesday Book. It was later gifted to the Welsh prince David Owen, and hence became Halas Owen.
If you enjoy modern folk music, the Uffmoor Woods Music Club called “(This is) The Storm of Harry-Ca-Nab” which I found quite enjoyable, although I would’ve liked a bit more metal in it.
Clent Hill Fairies
The green hilltops of Clent Hill contained several openings, which appeared to be doorways to another realm. In the evening, the song of the fairies could be heard coming through these holes. In addition, the area is covered with bluebells, a sure sign of fairies living nearby. However, beyond the occasional sheep gone missing and the warnings of the elders for children to stay away and be home before dark, I could find little else. If only I knew the stories Robert’s Gran told him about this!
Although, who knows! Perhaps, though, the problems are caused by the ghost of Saint Kenelm, boy king of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, another tale Robert enjoyed hearing about. He was murdered by his own sister for the throne. If so, though, the young boy-king must be busy, for he not only roams the Clent Hills, but the Uffmoor Woods, which are located at the base of the hills.
The Four Stones
A modern take on ancient monoliths, these were placed near the apex of the Clent Hills. Erected in the latter half of the 1700s by Lord Lyttleton of Hagley Hall, it was more a sight for the Lord as he looked out his window than it was an ancient pagan religious setting. Sitting within the fields of bluebells, it can appear as a fairy fortress in the middle of the green hills. Perhaps it is result of the local fairies, or other otherworldly forces, the stones are said to move about, either on full moons or at equinoxes. Although there is no hard evidence, pagans who celebrate at the site insist that the runes carved into the stones seem to change position with some frequency.
The Wych Elm
Four years before the birth of Robert, a group of young men were roaming the countryside, when they discovered a woman’s corpse in a wych elm in Hagley Wood, in the West Midlands. This became the popular cultural tale “Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?” Even now in modern times and on both sides of the Atlantic, this is a popular tale. The body was found as one of the young men climbed the tree and saw a human skull. The story spread and the police investigated, finding the entire body inside the wych elm. Having just made it through World War II, the number of missing people made identifying the body extremely difficult. Even early attempts weren’t taking hold until after Plant was a fair bit older, at the perfect age of a young man to become entranced by such a nearby true tale of terror. Several hypotheses have been put forth as to the identity of the corpse, but it will more than likely always remain a mystery.
The Giant of Cadair Idris
Now we move into Wales, where sits Cadair Idris (which translates into Chair of Idris), named after the giant warrior poet. Here he sat to gaze up into the stars and ponder philosophy and get in touch with his lyrical nature. His poetic soul is still a part of the landscape, as any who sleep on the slopes of this mountain will wake up either a poet or a madman, a distinction sometimes without a difference, if you believe the poets of old.
Not just the giant and his poetry of madness, but this is also the hunting ground of Cymru Celtic god of the Underworld Gwyn ap Nudd, riding with his supernatural dogs, the red-eared white-coated Cwn Annwn, looking for lost souls to take back to Annwn, the Welsh underworld. Much like Harry ca Nab is for the Clent Hills, Gwyn is Welsh’s aspect of the Wild Hunt.
As if a psychopompic deity isn’t enough, the bottomless glacial lake Llyn Cau on the mountain holds a dragon, captured by King Arthur to stop it from terrorizing the countryside. Talk about a busy place!
Not so incidentally, Cadair Idris is within yelling distance of Machynlleth, at the edge of which sits the Bron-Yr-Aur cottage, where Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote much of Led Zeppelin III, which is replete with Folk Rock goodness. Perhaps the area still held the lyrical nature of the giant?
If you enjoyed reading about Welsh giants, I’ve also written this article on letterpile.com.
If you enjoyed reading about the Cwn Annwn, then you can find more of my writings on owlcation.com.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tromp through the misty moorlands, spooky woods, and shining hilltops of Robert Plant’s childhood. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my bootleg album “Jennings Farm Blues.”
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© 2017 James Slaven