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Black Annis of Leicestershire

by herself

Some of those fuddy-duddy men who like to collect quaint stories - "folklorists" is how they've started to call themselves in the last century or so - come up with some right howlers as they sit there in their armchairs getting boozed. Let's you and I get a thing or two straight. The name's Black Annis, but you may call me 'Cat' Anna between yourselves - but not to my face, if you value the appearance of yours. As any kid growing up in Leicester would have told you, my home used to be Black Annis' Bower Close - a posh address for a cave, but that's what happens when you're famous. It's in a small natural outcrop on the Dane Hills - that's off to the west of the city on the way to Glenfield, if you're not from these parts.

When I come into town most know I hang around near the gateway of the castle, and get some kip in the cellars there. When you've been around as long as me, you'll find out how easy it is to get over to Dane Hills in the flash of a frog's tongue. The locals tell each other I use an underground tunnel to help me travel so quickly; I'll let them carry on thinking just that, but perhaps the cunning ones know better.

Many of the folk still remember my prophesies when King Richard went past me on his way to the battle at Bosworth and his spurs struck a stone pillar on the bridge. Mark my words I said, it'll be his head that'll hit that stone when he comes back. "Silly old fool" they called me, or worse. But I had forseen clearly and, after losing the battle, the crown and his life, his naked body was thrown across the saddle of a horse and, his head hanging down as low as the stirrups, it hit that very stone.

As I'm getting on in years, and there are days when the aches and pains make me a bit crotchety (I'll admit as much myself) I have been known to get a bit upset when silly little kids play around outside my cave and shout rude remarks like me being an old witch. When I've showed them I can still move a bit quicker than them and given them a good hiding they go off howling. There have been just a few occasions - not more than one or two, I'll swear - when I've been real put out and laid into the little brats so hard they don't get up. But they've only got what they asked for, if you want my opinion. There's no reason for their mams to go around inventing tales about me scratching them to death, eating them and saying it's their hides hanging on my tree. And as for that Victorian gentleman, John Heyrick, and his epic effort at prosy, well I'm surprised he could write for so long, being so limp-wristed, as I've heard said. How would you like folks starting to say things like this about you:

Where down the plain the winding pathway falls,
From Glen-field vill, to Lester's ancient walls;
Nature, or art, with imitative power,
Far in the Glenn has plac'd Black Annis's Bower.
'Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil'd
To view Black Annis's eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and her features livid blue,
Glar'd in her visage; whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims embrac'd.

With all this bad press no doubt you'll guess I've got a bit of a reputation to live down. Every little kid in Leicesterused to get told that if they're bad "Black Annis'll come and get yer!" and the mother's tittle-tattle about an unpopular neighbour being a 'Cat Anna'. Let them take my name in vain, see if I care.

But all that didn't stop everyone coming up here to Dane Hills every Easter Monday to see the Mayor and the dignitaries set off for a hare hunt at noon. Well, you know what that type are, they couldn't catch a hare even if a whole coven of witches shape-shifted into furry form in front of them, so they get a dead cat, soak it in aniseed, tie it to the tail of a horse and set off at full cry after that. Well, I ask you! Still, as long as it's not one of my cats they take and everyone has a good time, I suppose it's all for the good. Anyhow, the fair and the good times got to be more important and it must be four hundred years since anyone did anything like that - even the fair died out by the mid-1700's, if my memory serves me right.

If you want to go up to Dane Hills now, there ain't no hares to be had - well, you don't find the likes of them in the middle of an housing estate, do yer? Nonetheless, they still have an annual Hare Pie Scramble down at Hallaton, which gets lots of people out on Easter Monday and is pretty well-known, so its not just Easter bunnies, and a nasty bit of misspelling by the clergy, that remind me of how sacred the hare was to my cousin Eostre.

Yes, I know you're wise enough to be thinking I'm even older than I appear to be, hideous old crone that I am. Round these parts, when they still respected us Old Ones, they got to know me as Anu, but perhaps the Irish were more proper when they wrote about me as Danu - just perhaps, that's why my temple was in a cave on the Dane Hills - so forget about those ill-bred Scandinavian thugs. And as for the idea that Danu comes from some foreign floozie calling herself Diana - well, what do you expect from learned professors who spend all their time reading latin instead of using some common-sense?

Folk have come down to these parts and talked about me as if I were called Brigit, Brigid, Bride or Brigantia, but I wouldn't know about that. Those names are a bit fancy for round here. But, sitting thinking for a bit, perhaps they're right. All those Black Virgins that go back to the Middle Ages seem to tie in with Brigid, and it was a speciality of those dark madonnas to grant eternal bliss to dead babies. So perhaps with my name being Black too, they are keen to connect me with dead kiddies. But as for that Geoffrey Dickens saying things about my worshippers molesting and sacrificing their kids - if he chooses to come up here from Westminster, it'll be his hide I hang out if he doesn't change his tune. Perhaps his time would be better spent finding out rumours about MP's who have interfered with little boys and then try to get all MP's outlawed.

Now, you know I started by slagging off them armchair folklorists. Well, I'll tell you why they get up my orifices. This is what one of them came up with. There is a memorial brass to an Agnes Scott, who died in 1455, in Swithland church (as you probably know, that's about five miles north from here). She was a Dominican nun who is described on this plaque as an anchorite and cave dweller and ran a leper centre. O.K., so you can go there and see that much for yourselves, if you don't mind doing a spot of translation from the dog-latin. But, according to our folklorist this leper centre was "probably" near Dane Hills and so "the memory of a solitary nun dressed in black Dominican robes could well have engendered the folk memory of Black Annis". As if to support this, he says that "curiously, a modern convent now stands in the same area" (he means the Convent of St Catherine right by the Glenfield Road).

Well, if you'll believe all that, you've got so perverted by too much God the Father/God the Son/and don't forget the Holy Ghost (whatever anyone can decide he or she might be) to forget that I, Old Crone, am part of of a much older and wiser three-in-one. I don't care what name you prefer - let's just leave it open.

Which reminds me. There's something them smart-arsed folklorists don't seem to have spotted yet. Out on Sewstern Lane, that really old track which marks the boundary between Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, where another old track crosses it to the east of Croxton Kerrial (No! - pronounce it Crow-ston like the folks round here do) there you'll find a place that used to be a coaching inn and which is still called The Three Queens. Queens, my ass, we Triple Goddesses are more important than them mortals. Surprising, really, that no one's spotted this before, because them archaeologists down at Leicester Museum found out quite a bit about the barrow cemetery that is right by there - or was, 'cause that was all ploughed out yonks ago.

Anyhow, I won't let on everything those folklore geezers have been up to round here when it comes to misunderstanding us Old Ones. They're getting a bit smarter now, and disguising themselves by fancy titles such as "earth mysteries researchers", and sit in front of newfangled word processors, but I'll put you right about their funny ideas another time.

Originally published in Earth No.13 1989 and reprinted in Mercian Mysteries No.6 August 1991.


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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw / bobtrubs@indigogroup.co.uk
Created April 1996; updated November 2008