The Reverend Francis Kilvert is known for the diaries he kept between 1870 and 1879, when he was a vicar in various parishes in Herefordshire, along the border with Wales. These records provide valuable evidence of many aspects of rural life at the time- which includes scraps of folklore.
There are scattered references in Kilvert’s entries to faery belief. We can probably label these faery folk as the tylwyth teg, the Welsh fair folk, rather than seeing them as more anglicised beings. The border between Powys and Herefordshire is not sharp break between Welsh and English culture and there are plenty of Welsh place names to be found on the English side: doubtless alongside Welsh folk beliefs.
Faery belief was beginning to fade at the time Kilvert wrote. He was told by David Price of Capel-y-ffin that “We don’t see them now because we have more faith in the Lord and don’t think of them. But I believe the fairies travel yet…” This was not complete disappearance or extinction, therefore; more, it was a matter of the human eye of faith failing, or being distracted by the Christian teachings heard in the Wesleyan chapels. The fairies were still there, but showed themselves less often than before. In July 1872, for example, Kilvert was told that the fairies had last been seen at the Rocks of Aberedw, in the Wye Valley, south of Builth Wells. The fair folk were, in any case, naturally elusive. Kilvert heard on Midsummer’s Day 1873 how the grandfather of Walter Brown of Marsh had once seen the fairies in a hedge in a lane. Sadly, by the time he had stopped his horse and cart and scrambled off, the tylwyth teg had vanished.
At the same time, faery lore was still told to local children. Kilvert noted in October 1870 how boys feared the ‘Goblin Lantern’ and that ‘Hob with his Lantern’ was often seen at Sheepcot Pool at Wernwg. Wills of the wisp were still very real apparitions, therefore, and boys still turned their hats to save themselves from being pulled into faery rings to join their dances. The faeries remained a potent and persistent threat- as proved by the story of a girl from Llan-pica, near Painscastle, who was led astray by them and, it was reported, killed. This violence, especially against a child, is unusual, but the habit of stealing people, especially kids, is of course very familiar.
The tylwyth teg weren’t all bad, by any means. An old man at Rhos Goch Mill used to hear the fairies entering the mill at night and dancing to the sweet music of their fiddles. Indeed, a tune that (for no apparent reason) was titled ‘The Fall of Paris’ had, apparently, been taught to a human by the fairies. The association of the faes with songs and with tunes is very strong, and is known throughout the British Isles, from Wales and the Isle of Man up to Orkney and the Shetlands.
Kilvert’s records of the fairies of the Marches, brief as it is, is fascinating, because it combines general and unique features together creating a very specific faerylore for this region- and one that is highly localised, and the more real and believable for the fact that the incidents can be sited so precisely.