Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, The fairy ring
“We’ll trace the lower grounds/ When Fayries in their Ringlets there
Doe daunce their nightly rounds.” Michael Drayton, The queste of Cynthia
Fungi are closely associated with the fays- for example, it is said in Wales that mushrooms serve as fairy parasols- and, as is widely known, fairy rings mark the sites of the fairies’ nocturnal dancing. This fact could easily be proved: set up a stick in a ring overnight and it would be found knocked down by the fays the next morning.
Lost landscape features
The rings used to be much more widespread than today, and much more noticeable. They appeared in all kinds of fields except those sown with corn. Modern farming practices, with increased cultivation and use of fertilisers and pesticides, has drastically reduced the evidence, but we can get an idea of what our predecessors would have seen from the writings of naturalist Robert Plot. Discussing the Staffordshire countryside in the late seventeenth century, he describes rings that were forty or fifty yards in diameter, often encircled by a rim between a foot and a yard wide. These rims might be bare, or the grass might have a russet, singed colour. The grass within could also be brown but was more often dark green. Plot sought to explain the rings scientifically, blaming moles or penned cattle, but given their size and distinctness, it is unsurprising that others would readily resort to supernatural causation.
Changes in and intensification of agriculture have largely eradicated fairy rings from fields. A large ring still existed as late as 1875 at Quebec House between Seagrave and Sileby in Leicestershire, but the very fact that it was remarked upon shows how rare they had become, even by this date. Writing about Mid-Wales in 1911, Jonathan Caredig Davies remarked that the rings (cylchau y tylwyth teg in Welsh) had been numerous when he was a boy about forty years earlier. It had been believed to be bad luck to enter them, but by the early twentieth century he found this superstition had entirely died out- no doubt a combination of waning belief and the disappearance of the rings themselves.
The rings were a mysterious feature that had demanded explanation. As they vanished, the need for a justification of their presence and persistence also disappeared. In his account of the Folklore of Hereford and Worcester, for example, writer Roy Palmer made an explicit link between rings and belief. The fairy faith was a long time dying, he wrote, lasting until the early twentieth century. Palmer went on to note that fairy rings were still pointed out at Stanford on Teme in the late 18th century and at Ledbury in the late 19th.
A variety of fairy beliefs attached to the rings. It was widely believed that they should not be cultivated. Grazing them and, even more importantly, ploughing them, was strongly discouraged: a Scottish ballad warned that-
“He wha tills the fairies’ green
Nae luck shall hae;
And he wha spills the faries’ ring
Betide him want and wae;
For weirdless days and weary nights
Are his til his deein’ day!”
Anyone foolish enough to ignore such advice would find their cattle struck down with murrain. In any case, it was also widely believed that any attempt to eradicate the rings would fail. Ploughing could not remove them and they would return immediately, as was said to have happened with two rings in the churchyard at Pulverbatch in Shropshire.
Just as those who interfere with rings will suffer, it was believed that those that cared for them would be rewarded: as the Scottish rhyme promised, “an easy death shall dee.”
Large and lasting rings were once notable landscape features and attracted their own mythology. For example, the famous ring at Brington village in Northamptonshire couldn’t be ploughed out and possessed supernatural properties. If you ran around it nine times on the first night of a new moon, you would be able to hear the fairies feasting below the ground.
An aura of magic attaches itself to fairy rings, therefore. Mostly the tendency is to avoid them: in Shropshire people used to be reluctant to use those parts of a church graveyard marked with rings. To sleep in one is especially perilous- you are at considerable risk of being ‘taken’ by the fairies. There’s a bit of good news though- May Day dew collected from a fairy ring is said to be excellent for preserving youthful skin.
Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.