Mermaid tales in folklore run as deep as the waters they swim in, they have been both feared and revered, celebrated and abominated. From the stories of my youth where benevolent beauties bestowed magical gifts upon menfolk, (often falling in love with them, thus transforming themselves into radiant women) to the older, darker fables of enchanting sirens luring unsuspecting sailors and seafarers to the inky black depths of a watery grave.
The earliest mention of mermaids was most likely Atargatis, a Syrian goddess associated with water. She was reputed to have dove into a lake, wishing to take the form of a fish. However, she was rescued and emerged piscatorial from the waist down. Ataragatis was worshiped at a magnificent temple built in her honour, surrounded by pools of sacred fish.
Martin Mere is situated on the West Lancashire Coastal Plain, close to the village of Burscough, the outcome of the last Ice Age, when the glacial drift sculpted the landscape leaving behind vast depressions which filled with peaty, black water. When the pools became larger their waters merged, forming the largest body of fresh water in England covering 3,000 acres. In 1695 the land was reclaimed for agriculture following an act of parliament and work began on digging drainage channels. Although it was not until the Industrial Revolution, when steam powered pumps were introduced, the landscape began to look recognisable.
These days Martin Mere is home to a wildfowl collection, overseen by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. It attracts pink footed geese, whooper swans, wigeon, numerous birds of prey and even the rare snow goose.
Surprisingly, the wetlands also have a history steeped in folklore, local fables link the area to several sagas in Arthurian Legend.
Close companion of the King, Sir Lancelot (of the Lake) was brought from France to the safety of Lancashire by his birth mother and left beside the mere, whereupon he was stolen by a nymph and taken into the lake by her.
Martin Mere is also supposedly the body of water from which The Lady of the Lake handed Arthur Excalibur after his weapon was broken during an altercation with the King of Listenoise. Ostensibly, it has been named as the lake into which Sir Bedivere returned the aforementioned Excalibur, hurling the sword into the dark waters to fulfil Arthur’s dying wish.
But let us travel now to the seventeenth century, for I promised you a mermaids tale! A yarn filled with melodrama, abduction and murder!
Captain Harrington and his friend Sir Ralph Molyneux embarked on a ride around the mere, well caparisoned cavaliers the pair of them. As they trotted along enjoying the silence they observed the setting of the golden sun as it seemed to slide beneath the water. Simultaneously and unexpectedly, their curiosity was piqued by a female form raised half way above the pool, her long dark hair floating behind her as she mysteriously glided along.
Captain Harrington was the first to regain his composure and cried out to the creature, he addressed her as ‘Sea- wench’ which certainly attracted her attention.
After momentarily returning the gentlemen’s gaze, she flicked up her iridescent tail and disappeared with a small splash. Convinced their eyes had deceived them and the woman had just sunk they considered searching for her, but twilight was rapidly drawing in so they instead instructed their mounts to head for home.
Their progress was rather difficult as their steeds were barely able to keep their footing, often often plunging knee deep into the quagmire.
Although completely lost by now the fellows continued, eventually spotting a light in a lone hut bordering the lake. They were greeted by a kindly fisherman who bade them welcome to his simple abode.
As they recounted their experience to the peasant and his wife, they were surprised to see no incredulity on the couple’s faces but alarm, or something similar perhaps, which awakened their suspicions.
Noticing the infant on the woman’s lap beginning to stir, Harrington paid it the obligatory attention, but as she smiled Harrington was at once smitten, for never before had he seen such a beautiful child, he thought her the image of perfect loveliness.
Suddenly, a low, guttural muttering was heard at the window causing the peasants wife to turn as white as a ghost. Her husband disappeared outdoors for a while before returning to relate quite the series of events.
It had indeed been the ‘meer-woman’ who had called at the hovel with a warning the child must be removed speedily. It transpired she had been stolen by the mere hag in an act of vengeance and could not be returned ‘till the wrongs were righted.
As the abducted babe’s life appeared in mortal danger Harrington agreed to her becoming his ward. His signet ring was passed, as a promise, to the mere hag in agreement that whomever presented the ring back to him would be able to rightfully claim the child.
Many years passed and Harrington was as good as his word, little Grace (as he had named her) flourished and blossomed. He went on to marry an altruistic lady who happily raised Grace as her own.
Haunted by the pact he had made Harrington took to seeking the elusive mere hag, but never could he find her.
Although their existence was a blessed one, the vow caused feelings of grave foreboding to grow in his heart.
One fine evening Mrs Harrington spoke openly with her husband, recalling a dream she’d had of a mermaid stealing away their precious daughter and began to sob as she repeated tales she’d been told of a mermaid haunting local waters.
Just days later, glancing over the balustrade, Harrington spied his worst fear. Beside a pillar, staring straight at him was a hooded, cloaked figure. The signet passed over, and he knew what he must do.
The next day Grace’s mare was prepared and Harrington mounted his steed, the child was filled with excitement as never before had she been permitted to ride to the mere. All the way she prattled on about ‘seeing a mermaid’ as her ‘father’s’ heart grew heavier.
When they arrived at the fisherman’s hovel it was dirty and damp with decay, but inside they went – and they waited. A low guttural muttering was heard by Harrington, he was in no doubt who was outside. He raced to the door to confront the mere hag, walking along the shore trying to catch a glimpse of her.
When the muttering became distant he returned to the hut to find his beloved daughter gone. He threw himself to the floor in anguish and wept as though his heart would break.
Abruptly, Harrington felt his arms pinioned as a bandage was wound tightly around his eyes. Rough hands steered him to a boat upon which he was forced to embark. Before long he was transferred to a larger vessel and thrown unceremoniously into the cabin.
As his bandage was removed and his eyes became accustomed to his dimly lit surroundings he found himself facing a weather beaten pirate, armed with both cutlas and pistol.
The captain told the tale of his own precious daughter, entrusted to a siren, stolen by Harrington, then dying in infancy. Harrington’s protestations fell on deaf ears.
As the ships clock began to strike midnight the fierce mariner drew his weapon. On the count of three as the bloodthirsty freebooter squeezed the trigger, the mere hag appeared, at once throwing herself between the executioner and the condemned.
The pirate seemed horror struck at his deed and as the mere hag threw him a look of reproach her spirit departed.
Years later, in a tiny cottage on the Harrington estate, dwelt a wisened old man and his beautiful daughter. The savage grew tame, he repented his many sins. The young woman, with her two devoted fathers, felt the richest in the land.
More recently there have been strange occurrences witnessed at Martin Mere, an unknown large creature has been spied attacking swans and large birds on the lake, dragging them beneath the surface, never to be seen again. There have been many reports of local folk observing something huge and dark circling the mere, one of whom described it as ‘a powerful, fast swimming creature of immense proportions’.
Richard Freeman, former head keeper of Twycross Zoo claims the beast is a very old, huge, Wels catfish.
Perhaps it is . . . but perhaps there’s just a possibility it’s something far more interesting.
Deborah Contessa Hargreaves