I FANCY that many people still picture Lincolnshire to themselves as a region of bogs and swamps, of fever-haunted marshes, and ague-infested lowlands. I know that I, personally, expected something of the sort, when I first entered the county, and in speaking about it to strangers, their first remark is apt to be, that we must have suffered much in those “dreadful fens”. Now this is an entirely mistaken idea of the shire.

Even in the South, the true fen district, the drainage system has been so widely carried out, that I am told the great marshes have been almost entirely reclaimed, and many hundreds of useless acres are now turned into fertile farm-lands. If this be true of the South, it is much more so of the Northern Division, which, to begin with, has in general a higher average level, and is more uneven in its surface, being also traversed by two long low hill ranges from N.W. to S.E. In the parts of Lindsey, there are no fens, their place being taken by the Cars, which were once wide swamps, bordering the course of a small stream or river. These have been drained, and I do not think that any now exist in their old barren condition, so great is the change that has taken place during the last half century. Broad dykes now intersect the fertile fields, and run beside the roads, on their way to join a central canal which {146} carries the waters of the district to the sea, the original river meandering now on one side now on the other, a mere brook of but a few feet wide, often dried up in summer. Drained cars like these lie along the wide shallow valley of the Ancholme, between the parallel ranges of the Wolds and the Cliffs; the original Ancholme, a tiny twisted stream, being replaced, both in name and use, by a broad canal, which runs northwards for some thirty miles, as straight as an arrow, to join at last the wide Estuary of the Humber.

Were this the place, I might speak of the elaborate system for regulating the outlet of the water; of the yawning dykes that border or cross the roads, making them by no means safe on dark nights, holding, as they do, from two to ten feet of water and many more of shiny treacherous mud; or of the lonely dwellings along the Ancholme banks, only to be reached by a narrow bridle-path, with bewildering lanes of water on either hand, where a horse must be blindfolded before it will cross the frail wooden bridges over the noisy water gates at the joining of the dykes with the main Canal; but I am more concerned at present with memories of the Cars as they once were, a wild desolate dreary marsh, full of strange sights and sounds, than as they now exist.

Nevertheless they are still worth seeing, and have a beauty, or rather an attraction of their own. Stunted willows mark the dyke-sides, and in winter there are wide stretches of black glistening peat-lands and damp pastures; here and there great black snags work their way up from submerged forests below. When the mists rise at dusk in shifting wreaths, and the bleak wind from the North Sea moans and whistles across the valley, it is not difficult to people the Cars once more with all the uncanny dwellers, whose memory is preserved in the old stories. Then in summer, with its charm of wide vision, and something of the amplitude and serenity of the sea, in its stretching levels and far-off horizon, it seems to hold the brightness {147} and reflect the gloom of the great arch of heaven overhead, in plots of vivid greenery and waving corn, and a maze of glittering dancing lanes of water. At all times, it seems a fit resting-place for the last days of a dying mythology.

With the barren Cars of the older times is connected a peasantry that is changing as the soil itself has changed, only more gradually, for the sluggish current of their life and habit is but slowly beaten back by the impetus of modern innovations. Still, in time, the running water carries away the stagnant, and so already, it is only here and there that one can find traces of the poor ague-shaken, opium-eating creatures of earlier times. Many an old woman eats opium openly, and I fear all the men who can get it—will drink gin. But the days are, gone by when the one or the other was in constant and daily need, to still the shaking or deaden the misery born of the fever-mists and stagnant pools. Nevertheless, whether it be due to the climate, or the scarcity of railways, or the character of the people themselves, civilization seems a long way behindhand in North Lincolnshire, when compared with other parts of England.

It seems as if it were off the high-road, so to speak, of busy modern English life. Lindsey is entirely agricultural, and in these days of depression amongst farmers, and of absentee landlords, it is visited by few strangers and the only resident upper class is represented by the clergy, and a very mixed set of tenant-farmers, who, in trouble themselves, generally care little for the people under them, except as regards their work and pay.

This is, I dare say, unavoidable; but it throws the people back on themselves, and accounts, no doubt, for the survival of much amongst them which has decayed elsewhere. Even their speech sounds strange to a modern English ear, for it is almost pure Saxon, and keeps many of the original inflexions which we have lost. Certainly it bears signs of the many races that have dwelt in Lincolnshire, and surely no county in England has known more {148} varied masters; there are many Norse and Danish words, and some Roman and Norman names; but in the common speech, French and Latin derivatives are conspicuous by their absence.

The people themselves are not easy to make friends with, for they are strongly suspicious of strangers; but once won over, are said to be staunch and faithful. They are grave, long-featured, and rather melancholy in face, touchy and reserved in disposition, and intensely averse to change or innovation of any sort; many of them live and die within the limits of a narrow parish, outside of which they never set foot. The younger generations are changing; but they show less disbelief in the old legends than indifference to them; they seem growing, not so much less superstitious, as less impressionable. But in some of the old people, there is still a simple serious faith that is delightful, and I do not think that elsewhere in England one could nowadays find such a childlike certainty of unseen things or such an unquestioning belief in supernatural powers.

I have given this slight outline of the district and some of its inhabitants, in order to show amid what surroundings linger these wild tales of witchcraft, and the spirit-world, in this little isolated home of folk-lore. Here, in this bleak and lonely tract, scarcely yet won over to civilization, has dwelt for ages a people, ignorant, poverty-stricken, weakened by malaria, and strongly affected by their wild home; and here still, amongst a few elders, who remember the traditions of their youth, and the beliefs of their fathers, linger tales that tell of the old pagan customs, that have perhaps existed in these parts since the very dawn of history.

I have gathered together a number of these stories—some of them were told me by devout believers, mostly aged folk, who dated from the days of universal credulity; some were repeated as “my grandad used to tell”—by younger people, and some were pieced together by scraps {149} gained from several sources. One, which I call “The Dead Moon”, I first heard of in a sort of nursery rhyme some children were singing. I have listened to awesome tales of “boggarts” and “todlowries” that have still local habitations as well as names; and to weird stories of witches, and woe-women and their spells, till I nearly believed in them myself; and to strange, rambling histories that seemed like peeps into a bygone world, where the fantastic spirits were more real than the trembling, fearing, conciliating people they alternately helped and oppressed. I fear I cannot preserve the rude poetry and grace of the vernacular; but I tell these stories of the Cars of the Ancholme Valley exactly as told to me, lest in altering I might spoil them. I heard the first from an aged woman, a life-long dweller in these Cars, who in her young days herself observed the rite she describes, though she would not confess to it within the hearing of her grand-children, whose indifference and disbelief shocked her greatly. To her, “Tiddy Mun” was a perfect reality, and one to be loved as well as feared. She is now dead, and I doubt whether anyone else knows the legend, which she said had been forgotten for many, many years, by all but herself and one or two old friends, all gone before her.

I think the legend is, if not so poetical as some, at least a curious one; and particularly so, as showing the innately heathen idea of propitiation by offerings. There is an inconsequence and an incompleteness about it for which I am not responsible; I tell it as it was told to me, and I have tried to keep to the old woman’s words as closely as possible, only changing them where they would certainly not be “understanded of the people” without an intimate knowledge of the dialect.