Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire

What do you see in this picture? In Victorian times, the local people called this The Dancing Bear. In a more PC age where we don’t humiliate animals for our entertainment (much) the name has been changed to The Dog. Looks like he’s begging at his master’s dinner table.

This is one of many rock formations at Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, England. An ancient river laid down grit and sand in this region more than 300 million years ago, forming a sandstone called Millstone Grit. Wind and rain have been scouring it away ever since. Softer portions go first, while those layers with tougher ingredients take longer to weather. Thus over millions of years the once-featureless stone has been twisted into odd formations like this one.

Needless to say the rocks have been a Yorkshire landmark since before recorded history. In Victorian times it became a tourist destination, with lots of colorful names and stories attached to the stones. One spot is called Lover’s Leap where, according to an 1863 guidebook, a couple named Edwin and Julia decided to end their lives.

“They were madly in love with each other but Julia’s father wasn’t having any of it. Especially when Edwin asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade them to see each other any more. But of course, they couldn’t stand to live without each other. They decided to leap off Brimham Rocks and spend eternity together that way. Julia’s father got wind of the plan and dashed up there to dissuade them – but they jumped before he could reach them. However, by some miracle, instead of plummeting to their dooms, they floated gently to the ground. “Some said that a fairy who lived among the rocks had witnessed their misery and knew they could be happy if only they were allowed to marry.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Druids – or maybe even the magic in the rocks themselves. More boring people put it down to Julia’s skirts being so voluminous. But whatever, her Father at last consented to their marriage and naturally they lived happily ever after.”

The mention of the Druids is significant. The Victorians were fascinated by all things Celtic and many scholars thought archaeological sites like Stonehenge had been built by these Celtic priests. Natural formations were attributed to the Druids too. One table-like formation is called “The Druid’s Writing Desk” although many people say it looks more like E.T. There are dozens more, like the Idol, the Bulls of Babylon, and the turtle. There are also spots where Mother Shipton, the famous Yorkshire soothsayer, made her prophecies and practiced her magic.

While Brimham Rocks didn’t make it onto our list of the 17 strangest natural wonders, it’s well worth a visit not just for its natural beauty but also for all the strange and funny folklore that’s glommed onto it over the years. How much of it is “real” folklore and how much has been made up by the guides? Who knows? Our guide did admit that in Victorian times visitors paid only what they felt like, so the guides were under some real pressure to entertain.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: York: capital of England’s north!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.


Polish fortune-telling holiday: Get a candle, a key and a right shoe

Tonight is St. Andrew’s Eve where fortunes are told if you happen to be in Poland or around a large Polish community. These days, the fortunes are male or female friendly, but in the past were female fare. Also called Andrzejki, this holiday is thanks to St. Andrew (as in one of the disciples) who is the patron saint.

The night of fortune-telling designed to predict a person’s fate in love, wealth and marriage involves a bit of practice it seems–and a vivid imagination. The love and wealth prediction is the trickiest. People gather at parties where each tells the others’ fortunes based on information gathered from melted wax and shadows.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Get a candle. Melt the wax
  2. Turn off the lights
  3. Pour the melted wax through the hole of a key into a bowl of water. Naturally, get a key with a large hole.
  4. When the wax hardens into a shape, look at it, or the shadow that it makes to see what that person’s fortune is.

This is what you can tell if you are an intuitive fortune-teller type. The person’s country of origin (if the person speaks Polish and if you are in Poland, this might be a safe bet), the person’s future love match, and what the person’s profession will be.

If this sounds a little dicey and complicated, try shoe throwing. It’s another St. Andrew’s Eve tradition. Here’s how you do this one. Everybody at the party takes off his or her right shoe. Stand in a line across a room from a door. Throw the shoe towards the door. Whoever gets his or her shoe closer to the door will get married first. I would say if you don’t really want to get married first, don’t lob it. A gentle toss will suffice. You can always say, “Ooops, it slipped.”

Here’s another way to play this one. Starting at the wall across from the door, one person puts the heel of her shoe against the wall. Another person puts the heal of her shoe against the toe of the other person’s shoe. Another person repeats the step with her shoe. Whichever shoe is the one that reaches the door is the one that the owner will get married first. Clear as mud?

I looked around to see if I can find a particular St. Andrew’s Eve event for you to go to. Nope. I did find several articles talking about it. Here’s one from the Warsaw Voice where I culled my how tos. You can practice your Polish with this one. The cities in the U.S. and Canada mentioned as having large Polish communities are Detroit, San Francisco, Toronto and New York. This article describes even more fortune-telling games.

Fortune-telling on the rise in Iran

If you happen to be in Iran and want to have your fortune told, you’re in luck. The news on the streets, (in the paper-see article by Zahra Hosseinian) is that fortune tellers are on the rise. Tarot cards, reading coffee grounds, or having a love bird pick a poem written by 14th century Persian poet Hafez out of a hat are part of the process. Although fortune telling is not accepted by Islam according to the clerics there, it’s not stopping business. People of all ages and all levels of religious beliefs are heading to soothsayers.

The fortune tellers say that people who come to see them are looking for happiness and security. Security, often meaning love and wealth. That sounds a lot like the reasons anyone would head to a fortune teller. Friends of mine tell fortunes at ComFest. They set up a booth, cover a table with gauzy fabric and take out their Tarot card decks. My friends will read cards for $5 a pop.

The reasons for heading to a fortune teller also sound similar to why people might go in the U.S. Uncertainty about the future. In Iran, one reason for shaky feelings is the relationship Iran is gaining with the West. Hmmm. What is adding to some unshakiness on this side of the globe? Well, I’ll be. The relationship to Iran sort of gives a person pause.

In Iran, one fortune teller charges $21 and it takes about an hour. If you’re looking for a job that will make you loads of money. This one is probably not it. Don’t be a tour guide either.