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The Tale of the Woolhope Fairies

You may not know but in years past Woolhope was a poor place to live and this is where our story starts. A young boy lived alone with his mother in the village and there came a time when he had to leave and make a life for himself. As he set out on his journey he inadvertently took the wrong path and found himself deep within the woods between Woolhope and Hereford. Night was drawing in and he was a little scared so he decided to stop walking, sit by a tree and wait for the dawn to appear.

He drifted off to sleep and after a little while he woke with a start and was perplexed to find a bear asleep alongside him, his head resting on a bundle of clothes. The boy fearing for his life let out a cry and accidentally nudged the bear with his foot and as he did so the bear awoke, sniffed the air and set off into the dark woods.

Not wanting to be alone in the dark woods, the boy decided to follow the bear and after some while they came upon a little hut, as he drew closer he could see a fairy ring outside the door. Undeterred by the warnings of his mother about such strange things as fairies and ghosts, he decided to knock the door. It had been a long day and he was hungry. The door was opened by a little old lady who smiled and beckoned him in. Inside he spotted another old lady sitting by the fire who welcomed him and invited him to sit down for supper with them.

During supper the boy regaled them with his stories about how he was going to make his fortune in Hereford and they spoke about their other sister who was currently out on her travels, all in all the evening seemed to go well. Filled with food and feeling weary, he accepted the women’s offer of a bed for the night. After a few hours he was awoken from a deep sleep by the sounds of the women leaping out of the bed. Pretending to be asleep he watched them put on their white caps which hung on their bed posts, mutter the words ‘Here’s off’ and ‘Here’s after’ and suddenly they disappeared.

Fascinated as to where they may have gone, he spotted another cap on the bed post and decided to put it on and recanted the same phrases as the women had before him. Within what seemed like seconds he had been transported outside of the hut next to the fairy ring and there in front of him were the two women. We’re off to the Mayor’s House one said and with a “Here’s after” they were both gone. The boy as before decided to follow and with a “Here’s after” too he found himself in the mayor’s kitchen. Before him he saw the old women helping themselves to the mayor’s food, so he did likewise and before long they all made their way to the cellar.

Drinking the mayor’s finest wines took their toll on him and before long the young boy started to feel tired and fell asleep. When he awoke he found himself alone in the mayor’s cellar and could hear the household above waking up. In a panic he looked for the white cap so that he could transport himself back to the hut but it was nowhere to be seen.

Within minutes a servant found him in the cellar and the young boy was hauled before the mayor by two burly henchmen. A disgruntled mayor asked the boy where he had come from and after ascertaining it was Woolhope the mayor said, “then it’s true what they say, beggars at Weston and thieves at Woolhope”. Within minutes the young boy found himself locked up in the gaol next to Castle Green wondering what his fate might be when he came up before the magistrate.

The next day there was quite a gathering for his hearing, he was found guilty and the crowd jeered him with rude comments while throwing old vegetables at him. As he made his way to the scaffold in High Town and just before the noose was put around his neck, he spotted a familiar figure pushing through the crowd. The little old lady was wearing a white cap and carrying another in her hand. She approached the hangman and asked if her boy could be hanged in his old cap, the hangman seeing no harm allowed her to put the cap on the young boy’s head. She then muttered the familiar words “Here’s off” and the boy followed as before with the words “Here’s after” and in a flash they were both gone.

Back at the fairy hut deep in the woods the old women admonished him for taking their possessions and told him never to steal from fairies again. He was fed and sent on his way with a flea in his ear. Given that the women had made free with the mayor’s possessions the night before the young boy smiled about their double standards but felt that he had learned a lesson for life. Onward he went to make his fortune in Hereford.

Photo credit: Eliza Giermaniuk