The Wolves are Running…

January is Wolf Month.

“The month which we call January they called Wolf-Monat, to whit, Wolf-Moneth, because people are wont always in that Moneth to be in more danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season of the yeare, for that through the extremity of cold and snow those ravenous creatures could not find other beasts sufficient to feed upon”

Richard Verstegan (1550-1640), Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most Noble and Renowned English Nation

The first full moon of January (on the 21st this month) was also called the Wolf Moon by the Anglo-Saxons. At this time of year when the moon is full, the bare branches of trees rake across the sky and the air is icy and thin, you can almost hear the distant howl of wolves.

Wolves, with their silent feet, big teeth and glowing eyes, thronged my early childhood imagination.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember the BBC’s The Box of Delights and the chilling reminder to Master Pip that, “The wolves are running!” Those words drilled deep into my mind as a young girl. Wolves seemed semi-mythical because they no longer existed in the UK (as I was constantly reminded by my parents, bored to tears of my nightmares) but they definitely still existed ‘elsewhere’ and they were everywhere in art and literature.

I had a jolt years later when I recognised several scenes from The Box of Delights in my new locality when we moved out of Birmingham: the Severn Valley Railway featured as did Wassell Wood Hall, perched on the hillside above Bewdley. The wolves had followed me into early adolescence.               

Another favourite book of mine as a child was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. It was the exciting tale of two girls maltreated and hunted down who eventually brought their abusers to justice. Although the girls were chased through the countryside by wolves a couple of times, they always faced more danger from the humans (whom themselves appeared to be more wolfish than the wolves). I saw that the landscape we live in could be both hostile and welcoming and you could make friends wherever you found yourself though danger was never far away: always, in the background, the wolves were running.

My two girls love the vicarious thrill of a hairy fairy story where the wolves are ever eager to eat a tasty young morsel. Nowadays I understand that Little Red Riding Hood is a coded warning to wise young women about predatory older males: again, humans are to be feared more than the wild beasts.

However, the wolves of my childhood were not just imaginary: they had real bite. My grandfather was born near Lvov in the 1920s, when it was part of Poland (now part of the Ukraine). He would tell me how even as a child, he learnt never to visit the (outdoor) toilet alone during the winter because of wolves. The heavy snows and lack of food would defeat their natural fear of humans and drive them into the towns and villages at night to look for easy prey. A burning torch and several friends were important accessories to a midnight toilet trip.

During the earlier part of WWII, Russia and Germany split Poland down the middle and hundreds of thousands of eastern Poles were shipped off by the Russians to Siberia to work in slave labour camps. My granddad and his family were some of those people.

Prisoners in a Siberian Gulag

He would sit me on his knee and tell me how he and some friends would be given what little their families had to trade (shirts or boots) and they would climb up the nearby mountain to a small town to exchange their clothes for potatoes or flour. Strapping these bags to their backs, they would put on their skis and start to travel back down the mountainside as the sun set and the light leached from the landscape. Then the wolves would come out and start to follow their tracks. I learnt that wolves will hunt with their noses until their prey is in sight, making the speedy zigzag of my granddad’s flight doubly important. Chilled by the moonlit snowy chases conjured up by him and emphasised by his deep rolling voice that never truly lost its Polish accent, my overactive mind produced nightmare after nightmare about wolves. I always wanted to hear more though.   

As my interest in folklore grew, I kept an eye out for anything featuring wolves; if only to feel that delicious prickle of horror down my back at their mere mention. Despite several local place names recalling their wolfish origins (Wolverhampton, Wolverley, Wollaston), there was little to go on. There was a dragon at Drakelow just outside Wolverley, black cat sightings around and about, maybe a few black dogs and once even a ghostly cow at Rindleford near Bridgnorth. But no wolves. Given their powerful hold on the imagination, how come there weren’t more of them around?

Was it the case that the early extinction of wolves in England and Wales (they hung on in Ireland and Scotland until the late 17th/early 18thCs) meant that the folk stories just fell out use in a way that they couldn’t in the Black Forest where the Brothers Grimm were collecting their tales? Not being a folklorist, I couldn’t hazard a guess at how long folk tales of this sort might remain in the collective memory. Surely a good old wolf story would have sticking power for more than a couple of centuries? Perhaps finding out when wolves were exterminated might help?

There’s a well known story in Cumbria that the last wolf was killed at Humphrey Head in 1390 and naturally there’s a rollicking good story attached to it. Author Annie Whitehead writes about it here:

Humphrey Head, Cumbria – perfect scene for the last wolf’s last stand

Nevertheless, as Annie notes, there are also similar rumours about the last wolf in Perry Oaks in Hampshire, Ludgvan in Cornwall, Barthomley in Cheshire and Wormhill in Derbyshire, amongst others.

However, there is also a rumour that the last wolf to be killed was in Shropshire at Monkhopton, just outside Bridgnorth. My dear friend Elly who lives nearby heard the story from an older local man and I know I read about it somewhere though I’ll be buggered if I can find the original source. (If I find it, I’ll update this post).

The interesting thing about this particular rumour is that it has historical back-up. In Robert Winder’s recent book The Last Wolf: The Hidden Springs of Englishness, he writes about Peter Corbet (a Shropshire name since the Conquest),

The Corbet family seal – a pair of crows

“…a Shropshire knight who, in 1281, was commissioned by Edward I to “take and destroy wolves with his men, dogs and devices, in all ways in which he shall deem expedient”

Corbet, nicknamed the Mighty Hunter, and his pack of hounds spent 9 years roaming the forests of Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and Staffordshire. Finally, in 1290, his mission came to an end. There had been one last report of wolves attacking deer in the Forest of Dean, “but since then… nothing”. Wolf hunters were employed into the late 1400s but none had such full time occupation as Peter Corbet.

Once the predatory wolf was dead, England and Wales were free to become the sheep/wool capital of the world and vastly wealthy because of it. According to Winder this, amongst sundry other events, was the birth of the Englishman’s singular character and something to be celebrated.

As time went on, I found that I couldn’t let go of the last wolf. A real wolf, in a place I drive by regularly. If I had lived here 800 years ago, I might well have walked faster during winter to get home before night fell. Wolf-monat would have had real meaning for me.

Oh, but that lonesome howl… Imagine being part of a dwindling pack, stalked by the remorseless Peter Corbet, fewer each year, until there is just one left, running through the wilderness it once shared with its pack. Imagine the utter loneliness of being the very last of your kind, taking food where you could snatch it until your final, inevitable confrontation with the Mighty Hunter.

I wonder how it ended; did the ravening beast spit defiance at the gathering hounds or was he caught in a trap and shot by a distant arrow? Did Corbet know he was victorious as he bagged that last wolf? Did he share any grains of sympathy with an adversary he must have come to know well over the last few years? Or, his direct orders from the king fulfilled, did he travel south-east in triumph to report back to his monarch?

However it happened, a silence fell upon the hills and forests. England’s last great predator was no more and deer and sheep alike could move through them with relative ease (bearing in mind that humans were never far away). It might have changed the British character but it had also changed the British landscape for good. Forests were cut down to create grazing land for sheep which was a visible change but, as this George Monbiot narrated video shows, removing this important apex predator from the landscape caused a trophic cascade: a catastrophic series of changes that run throughout the food chain in that landscape and alter even the route of the rivers flowing through it.   

At one and the same time, the loss of wolves in England and Wales changed the folklore for good. It made the countryside a lot safer but in that safety, we lost our wild side. The only thing to be feared in the British countryside now is the (possibly imported) rarely seen ABC (Alien Big Cat) and perhaps a wild boar invading the supermarkets of the southern shires.

So it was with some interest that I read about the recent sighting of a were-wolf in Hull called Old Stinker (no bad jokes about the locals, please). It had been reported as far back as the 18thC but in 2016 several women said that they had again seen an 8ft high wolf with a man’s face and atrocious breath. Why had such a thing been seen and what was going on in Hull?

Sam George, of the University of Hertfordshire, has written very convincingly about our collective guilt in wiping out an entire species revealing itself in such sightings, especially at this time of huge climactic change in our local landscapes. Dr Kaja Franck elaborates in her thesis entitled The Development of the Literary Werewolf: Language, Subjectivity and Animal/ Human Boundaries about the ecogothic: a new way to look at our fear of nature, animals and ourselves and how that is expressed in literature and literary criticism.

Read about Old Stinker here

I wondered now whether I had to just let the wolf go, to run free in my imagination if not in the Shropshire hills. Re-wilding is discussed in the distant and unpopulated mountains of Scotland but not here on the Welsh border. Shropshire is pretty scarcely populated but it’s still not that far away from some major conurbations.

Then I discovered Wolf Watch UK.

Somewhere secret in Shropshire wolves roam the hills again. This 100 acre sanctuary takes in wolves displaced by zoo closures, dominance fights or overly-successful breeding programmes. Tony Haighway, the founder, takes visitors on tours of the woodland where you stand in front of the creatures and even feed them if you dare. Some of the wolves he has had for years are tame enough to stroke. Again, it makes you wonder who we should fear more: the wolf or the man.

Wolves! In Shropshire! Amazing!

Even more amazingly, you can book short holidays in the on-site cottage: a tiny stone-built place in the woods with a roaring fire and comfy beds. And a hefty lock on the front door, hopefully.  

If you time it just right, when the moon is full, you might be able to travel back eight centuries to hear the howl of the wolves coming once more from the Shropshire hills…

…and if you hear a midnight knock on the door, don’t answer it, will you?

I’d like to say a special thank you to the @FolkloreThursday contributors on Twitter who have been so helpful in pointing me towards so many interesting and useful articles. In particular, @hauntedohiobook, @Countrymaned, @ALWhitehead63, @KajaFranck, @modquokka, @NeoPteridoMania and @DrSamGeorge1 – thank you.