I’d like to tell you about my latest book, which will be published very soon. For a long time, I’ve had this sense that embedded in the landscape is an invisible but very tangible layer of legend. Very often these legends are attached to prominent landmarks, either natural or man-made, and the stories have been handed down from one generation to the next, in an unbroken chain that goes back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. This idea has given rise to Britain’s Landmarks and Legends, a new book for The National Trust which will be published on 14th September.
I’ve chosen 50 landmarks, scattered right across Britain from south-west England up to Scotland. Some are well known – Stonehenge, for example, and Glastonbury Tor, and Sherwood Forest – while some are less familiar, but still harbour some fascinating stories. Where, for example, is the cairn said to mark the grave of the last King of Cumberland, visited by the ghosts of his warriors who retrieve his crown from the depths of a nearby tarn? Which castle in North Wales gave rise to one of the most famous songs in the Welsh language, and who is said to gallop over Shropshire’s Stiperstones in times of imminent war?
Colourful characters inhabit these places: Wayland the blacksmith, by turns benevolent and vengeful, lurks in the Neolithic barrow called Wayland’s Smithy; a lake-dwelling nymph in Llyn y Fan Fach bestowed healing powers on the Physicians of Myddfai; and the wizard of Alderley Edge used all kinds of trickery to get hold of King Arthur’s last horse. North of the border, in places like Loch Etive, Ben Gulabin and Ossian’s Cave, the legends take on a slightly different character as kings and warrior-heroes gallop across Scotland’s landscape in their quest for love, power and vengeance.
Some of the spookiest legends swirl around hilltops: Blencathra, for example, with its spectral army, and Ben Macdui whose ‘Big Grey Man’ has scared the daylights out of seasoned hillwalkers. And who knew that a ghost is actually marked on an OS map? Expanding this sense of mystery, I’ve included a couple of places that survive only in our imagination: the legendary kingdoms of Lyonesse and Cantre’r Gwaelod, said to have been lost long ago, beneath the sea. Their stories are absolutely fascinating, not least because there are supposed to have been survivors of the deluge that destroyed them.
All in all, this has been a fascinating book to research and write, and the beautiful illustrations by Claire Harrup capture everything that is ancient and mystical about Britain’s landscape.
Britain’s Landmarks and Legends is published by HarperCollins for The National Trust, and will be available in the UK from 14th September. (It will be released in other countries later this year, dates to be confirmed).
More information from HarperCollins, including ordering options. In the UK, it can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles and other bookshops. Signed copies can be pre-ordered via Colin’s website and will be despatched as soon as possible after publication.
I’ve also written a blog post for HarperCollins, focusing on three landmarks that feature in the book: Stonehenge, Cantre’r Gwaelod, and Ossian’s Cave.