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The Tale of Wade

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Old Friday, June 3rd, 2005   #1
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Post The Tale of Wade

The tale of Wade

(Mike Haigh)

I first encountered Wade on the road to Goldsborough in North Yorkshire after noticing the name Wade's Stone on the OS map at NZ 830 144. I vaguely recalled roads in Scotland that had been built by General Wade after the Jacobite Rebellion. I thought the stone may have been connected with this military engineer, but later research proved me wrong.

I first visited Wade's Stone late one October afternoon in the early 1980s. As I strolled along towards the monolith on that pleasant autumn day I noticed that something wonderful was happening to me...I felt an overwhelming bliss welling up in my body and a gradual enhancing of my perceptions. I became entranced by the shape and colour of my surroundings. This euphoria reached its peak as I arrived at the stone and gazed in wonder at the transformed landscape around me. As I touched it, all of creation seemed fascinating to me and I felt an awesome, overwhelming freedom. It all faded as I walked back to my car, but I still carry with me the memory of that blissful moment. I do not use artificial stimulants, and also I'd had a quiet relaxing day, so I do not think endorphins were involved, so since then I have associated that unusual emotional state with Wade's Stone; this prompted me to look into the site and the 'Wade' of its name. I discovered some interesting facts and fascinating legends. Firstly I found out that the stone was thought to be prehistoric and that Wade was not the English general, but a mythological character with roots stretching back into Nordic paganism.

Where shall I begin? Like all oral traditions, the story begins and and ends around a fire where men and women gather to hear tales of magic and enchantment. But all too often the tales disappear with the smoke, leaving only the sense of wonder behind. So it was with the tale of Wade. In Chaucer's time stories of Wade were well known, but today only a few bare fragments of folk lore remain.

The origins of Wade lie in Nordic myth and saga. Scholars speculate that he was originally a sea-giant known to the coastal tribes around the North Sea and Baltic regions. The earliest knowledge we have of him is a brief mention of his name in the 7th-century Old English poem Widsith There is further information on Wade in a 13th century German poem called Kundrun. Here, Wade is a white-haired, faithful retainer who led the fleet that came to rescue Kundrun, the heroine of the tale. He is described as skilled at healing, which he learned from certain 'wild women' .

The most informative early fragment is contained in the 13th-century Norwegian Saga of Thidrek. This tells the story of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric of Verona. One day a certain King Villcinus was walking through the forest when he was stopped by a young woman. Later they met again when she rose out of the sea and stopped his boat. She told him she was to bear his child and was taken aboard. After the child's birth, she disappeared, presumably returning to the sea. The child was named Wade and grew up to be a giant with an affinity to the ocean. Later, he had a son and the saga also recalls how Wade forded the deep channel of Groenasund, between two Danish islands, with his little son Weland on his shoulder. The saga also reports the death of Wade in an avalanche .

Most surviving references to Wade come from England. The largest of these is contained in a tale set down by Walter Map in the 12th century. He records that Wade was the son of a Vandal king who left his homeland in boyhood and roamed the world in search of adventure. He was a lover of peace though he was also a skilled warrior; he was moreover a lover of justice. Though he took part in many conflicts he would always enquire about the motives of each side so that he would champion what was right. His experiences gave him great wisdom and he could speak all the world's languages.

The story related by Map tells of how Wade arrived in England and became a firm friend of King Offa. At that time the Roman Empire was seeking to annexe Offa's kingdom. Their fear of Wade was such that once they learned he was staying with Offa they abandoned their invasion plans. Now, after some time in England, Wade was asked to resolve a conflict in India, and as soon as they heard of his departure, the Romans assembled a great army and set sail for England. Wade in the meantime quickly set things right in India and set off again, hoping to return to his homeland. Fortunately for the English, the winds were against him and he arrived in England instead (though some have suggested that his boat had the magical property of transporting him where he was needed). He quickly learned of the Roman invasion and set off to join Offa, finding him at Colchester assembling the English army. First, Wade went to the Roman camp with a hundred of his finest warriors to try to meet the Emperor and prevent the conflict, but the Roman leader refused to turn back, so Wade returned to Offa. The Romans launched their attack, but were defeated in the streets of Colchester by a deadly pincer attack by the forces of Offa and Wade.

As it stands, this story has several anachronisms, the most obvious of which is the fact that by the 8th century, when Offa ruled, the Romans were in no position to invade England. Yet this story does draw attention to a curious fact: Offa is remembered today for the earthwork he constructed to divide Mercia and Wales - for most of its length it is known as Offa's Dyke, but in the north, near the Dee estuary, it is called Wat's Dyke, derived from 'Wade's Dyke'.

Most other references are fragmentary. There is a brief mention of Wade in a 13th-century Latin sermon on humility. He is also mentioned twice in Malory's Morte d'Arthur, where he is favourably compared to Lancelot, Tristram and Sir Lamorake. He is also mentioned in a mediaeval hero tale, 'Sir Bevis of Hamton', as having killed a dragon. The most famous allusion comes in Chaucer's Troilus, where a talc of Wade was part of the evening's entertainment. There was also mention of his wonderful boat named Guingelot in The Merchant's Tale. In an unpublished footnote to a later edition of Chaucer, Sir Geoffrey Kynaston mentions a tale in which Wade accepts a wager to travel by land and water from Abington to London. His route had to take him over the top of a square steeple. Kynaston gives no further details other than to say that Wade won the bet .

In the second part of this article I shall take a closer look at those parts of Northern Britain which retain a memory of this enigmatic hero.

From the tales and references I have introduced in the first part of this essay, we can build up a general picture of Wade. He was tall, if not a giant, and very strong. He was intimately connected with and had power over the sea. Of course, he was brave and would help people in difficulty. There are also hints that his boat, Guingelot, had magical properties, such as great speed and the ability to move under water. During mediaeval times, he was the renowned hero of many tales, but the world changed and the stories about him were gradually forgotten.

When Leland passed through Yorkshire in the 17th century, he was shown two standing stones known as Waddes Grave on a hill at Barnaby, north of Mulgrave Castle. They were eleven feet apart and said to mark the grave of a giant who at one time owned the old castle there. The name 'Wade' seems to have meant nothing to him.

Camden in the 16th century also heard a tale connecting Mulgrave Castle with someone called Wade, but this Wade was a Saxon duke who was defeated by a Northumbrian king and retreated here until he died of a 'languishing sicknesse'. There was also a place on Hadrian's Wall called Wade's Gap and Scott alludes to a tradition.that Wade had a castle in this area3. Apart from a cluster of tales from the North Riding of Yorkshire, that is all that remains of Wade.

The North York Moors around Whitby seem to be the last area of the country to retain any memory of Wade. One of the Wade's Stones at Barnaby is still standing, as is the one at Goldsborough where I had the strange experience described in Part One of this article. I later learned that there had been a second stone, 100 feet away. Local legend said that these two marked the position of the giant's head and feet. Tales of Wade still exist in the local folklore, though he has now become a semi-comical giant figure. He was said to live in the area with his wife, Bell; one built Old Mulgrave Castle, the other Pickering Castle. They only had one hammer between them, so they had to fling it to each other, giving a warning shout as they did so. Bell had an enormous cow which she had to go out on to the moors to milk. To help her, Wade built a road over the moors which is still there. In constructing this trackway, he altered the topography dramatically. When he needed some earth, he scooped some up with his bare hands, and the Hole of Horcum, a vast natural amphitheatre, steep-sided and flat bottomed, about half a mile across, was the result. When he finished his task, he cast the excess earth aside and this became either Blakey Topping, Roseberry Topping or Freeborough Hill, depending on who is telling the story. Bell helped her husband by carrying loads of stones in her apron. Once or twice, her apronstrings snapped, leaving a pile of stones on the moor.

In fact, Wade's Causeway is a Roman road from the old garrison at Malton to Eskdale. The piles of stones supposedly left by Bell are burial cairns from the Bronze Age, In the early 18th century, someone obtained the jawbone of a whale and passed it off as a rib from one of Bell's cows, charging a small fee to view it.

Bell and Wade had a son. He too was of enormous size. One day, he was sitting at Swarthowe, a tumulus above Aislaby, when he spotted his mother on Sleights Moor. Wanting her attention, he picked up a boulder weighing several tons and threw it at her. It bounced harmlessly off Bell's ribs, but the rock received a dent which was pointed out to the curious until it was broken up by roadmenders.

Thus this tale of tales ends, in rather a sad way; once Wade was a sea-giant of immense strength and courage, mentioned alongside the great heroes of Arthurian romance. Today, the only legends remaining tell of a less-than-serious figure who builds castles but can only afford a single hammer. Yet there is magic here still - Blakey Topping, Roseberry Topping and the other places associated with Wade are all numinous spots. I've felt a curious thrill as I strode, casting a giant shadow in the setting sun, along Wade's Causeway and I felt like I was standing on the threshold of nirvana at Wade's Stone at Goldsborough in the early 1980s. However, I feel closest to him when I visit the nearby beach at Sandsend and gaze out across the stormy North Sea. Beyond the grey seas is the land where Wade had his birth, among the people of the Anglo-Saxon tribes, and it was over those seas that he strode with them to his new home, the windswept moors of Northern England that still bear his imprint, however faintly, in their topography and folklore.
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Old Friday, June 3rd, 2005   #2
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A wonderful tale. I'll look out for a few of these landmarks next time I'm up that way.
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Post Re: The tale of Wade

Very interesting!
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Old Wednesday, June 8th, 2005   #4
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Post Re: The tale of Wade

My Father's name is Wade so this is especially interesting to me.
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Old Tuesday, June 14th, 2005   #5
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As I posted on the other board. Excellent post with personal relevance to me as it is my fathers name
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