by Frank E Earp
In April, May and June,
The cuckoo sings a merry tune.
But in August and July.
Having sung, away does fly.
(South Nottinghamshire Rhyme).
I must admit that I have not heard the call of the cuckoo for a number of years now. It is not that there have been no cuckoos to hear, – although there has been a marked decline in bird numbers since 2009, – just that I have not been in the right place at the right time. The right place, anywhere in the British countryside. The right time, as the old rhyme says, is between April and May when the birds return from their winter migration in Africa.
The cuckoo has always been one of the animal stars of British folklore. Its sudden and mysterious arrival in April has marks it as the ‘herald of spring’. Before the mystery of migration was understood there were several stories explaining the bird’s sudden arrival in spring and its equally sudden disappearance in winter.
The Iron Age Celts tell how once, the door between the ‘world of the gods’ and our world was always open, with humans and animals alike freely able to pass through. The gods became tired of the constant traffic and decided that they would close the portal, allowing only the chosen to pass through. Before they did so they ask all of the animals in which world they would prefer to live. Most animals quickly decided. The female cuckoo however, hesitated, uncertain as to which of the two worlds suited her most. Anxious to close the door they decided that the cuckoo and her kind would have no permanent home in either world. She was to spend the first half the year in the world of men and the second half in the world of the gods. This the cuckoo agreed to, however the gods imposed a price. First she was to act as their messenger between the worlds and second, – and more cruelly, – her children would be born and raised in our world. That is why the cuckoo is forced to lay her eggs in the nest of other birds and leave them to be raised there, whilst she returns to the gods.
We can see that there is an element of truth in this ancient legend. The cuckoo does indeed famously lay its eggs in the nests of other birds before its return to Africa. An equally ancient legend, – with elements of truth, – again explains the bird’s disappearance over winter. The cuckoo is a shape-shifter and just before the start of the cold months, turns itself into a hawk. With the approach of summer the bird returns to its own form. The male cuckoo inflight does indeed resemble a hawk and often uses this fact to mimic raptor behaviour in order to confuse other birds. A third ancient legend tells that the cuckoo sleeps away the winter months in a fairy mound, – a tumulus.
On the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, can be found one of the remotest megalithic structures in Western Europe, the Callanish Stones. Here, an avenue of tall stones leads to a stone circle, the whole of which was constructed nearly 5,000 years ago. Local legend states that the stones where brought to the Isle by giants who wore feathered capes. The complex was constructed by ‘black men’ under the direction of a high priest. On mid-summers morning, ‘the shinning one’ walks down the avenue, his arrival heralded by the call of the cuckoo.
Am I ‘going cuckoo’ in writing to many articles on Gotham? Some might say-so! When I was younger, – in fact very much younger and still in the school playground, – ‘going cuckoo’ was a common expression for anyone who said or did a silly or foolish thing. Often this name calling was accompanied by the gesture of circling the index-finger about the side of the head and calling-out “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”
The word ‘cuckoo’, has for centuries been interchangeable with the word fool. The northern dialect word ‘gowk’, means both cuckoo and fool. Someone who has what others believe to be foolish ideas is said to be; ‘Living in cloud cuckoo land’. It is hardly a surprise then, that the bird should take centre stage in the tales of the most foolish place on earth, Gotham!
There are said to be 100 tales of the foolish things the folk of Gotham did to keep away the tyrant King John. In fact there are many more. These ‘Tales’ circulated throughout the country as popular ‘jokes’. A Jester, – himself a cuckoo, – might start his routine with the words; “Have you heard the one about the man from Gotham?” But it was not just the people of Gotham who claimed the Tales as their own. There are over 40 villages in Britain which also claim the Tales as theirs. The Jester might equally have said; “Have you heard the one about the man from Heathfield?”
In 1540, twenty of the Gotham Tales were published for the first time. They appeared in a single chap-book volume call ‘The Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham’, (later Wise Men). The book was published anonymously under the initials ‘A.B. of Pisike Doctor’. This led to the assumption, – and still does, – that the work was that of Dr Andrew Borde (Doctor to Henry VIII, Travel Writer and Professional Fool).
The work remained popular and with very little change continued in circulation for the next 400 year. For the whole of this time the cover has carried a picture of a cuckoo in a bush, surrounded by a fence or hedge, with a single Gothamite looking on. This image refers to the third of the Twenty Tales in the book, ‘The Hedging of the Cuckoo’.
Here is the story as it appears in the 1630 edition of the Merry Tales, – complete with original spellings; ‘On a tyme, the men of Gottam would haue pinned in the Cuckoo, wherby shee should sing all the yeere, and in the midst of ye town they made a hedge round in compasse, and they got a Cuckoo, and had put her into it, and said: Sing here all the yeere, and thou shalt lacke neither meate nor drinke. The Cuckoo, as soone as she perciued her selfe incompassed within the hedge, flew away. A vengeance on her! Said they: we made not our hedge high enough”.
This story is widely believed to be the origin of the saying; “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!”
The ‘Hedging of the Cuckoo’ has always been central to the Gotham Tales. Its popularity and importance testified by its appearance on the cover of the chap book. Whilst some of the Tales are unique to the village of Gotham alone, all of the villages which lay claim to the Tales include a version of this Tale. However, there is something wrong with the written version as it was first published. It has been simplified from a much stronger oral tradition which appears to date back thousands of years. This may be the true origin of the Gotham Tales.
Local tradition states that the cuckoo was ‘hedged in’, not within the village, but on a hill top mound to the south. Known as The Cuckoo Bush Mound, it appears on O.S. Maps as a ‘tumulus’ – an ancient burial mound.
Other villages too, – like Marsden Yorkshire and Cwnbran South Wales, have their own hill top mounds where the cuckoo was hedged in. In some cases where the Tales occurs, these sites are known as Cuckoo Pens or Cuckoo Pounds. In Berkshire, – along the Downs, – there are a number of Cuckoo Pounds which are isolated from any particular village and there is no tradition of the Gotham Tales. However, they are all counted as sites where the cuckoo was ‘pend in’.
Given the volume of ‘cuckoo lore’ and its associations with spring. I believe that this Tale is an ancient ‘eco’ of a Spring Ritual. The Cuckoo Mounds were built as a place for the bird, – synonymous with Spring, – to sleep over winter and as a portal to the Other World.
Ideas in this article are the Intellectual Copy Right of the author!