In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the Little Mermaid lives, ‘Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal”. Our Staffordshire mermaid lives in Blake Mere high up in the Peak District, where the water is as black as the local peat, and as murky as the truth behind this classic bit of local folklore.
At midnight, the Blake Mere mermaid rises from her pool to entice single men travelling along the road between Leek and Buxton to a watery grave. Some say that animals refuse to drink there, sensing this malevolent presence in the dark water. Others insist the pool is bottomless, although I certainly wouldn’t call it that after seeing a man skinny dipping in there. As it was around two in the afternoon, he presumably hadn’t been lured in by the siren’s call. To be honest, even if she’d been singing her heart out he’d probably not have heard her anyway as she’d have been drowned out by the sound of my kids arguing about crisps.
One version of the mermaid’s tale is that a sailor from the nearby village of Thorncliffe fell in love with her and brought her back to landlocked Staffordshire from the sea like a goldfish won at a fair. This may explain her animosity towards single men. A more sinister explanation for her presence is that she was once a young woman who rejected the advances of a local man called Joshua Linnet. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned and he accused her of being a witch, convincing some of the other locals to drown her in the pool. Three days later he was found dead in the water, his face clawed to pieces.
Of course, I don’t believe in mermaids but I also don’t believe that such stories emerge from out of the blue. In 1679, a woman was murdered by a man who overheard her talking about the money she’d earned from selling lace at Leek and followed her home over the moors where he attacked and robbed her, throwing her body into Blake Mere. The pool was also the scene of an attempted murder, undated but described in detail by Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire (1686). However, in recounting events, Plot makes no mention of the mermaid folklore and I can’t help but wonder if someone took the true events which took place here and reworked them into a legend.
But who and why? There is a reported sighting of the mermaid in the mid nineteenth century when locals apparently began to drain the pool in an attempt to discover whether it truly was bottomless. Their antics supposedly incurred the wrath of the watery wraith, causing her to get up from her lakebed before midnight for once to warn them that she’d flood nearby Leek and Leekfrith if they didn’t stop immediately. It seems to have been around this time that The Mermaid Inn got its name and somewhere within its walls the legend of the eponymous creature has been inscribed.
She calls on you to greet her
Combing her dripping crown
And if you go to greet her
She ups and drags you down
I suspect the story may have been a clever PR stunt by the landlord possibly in cahoots with the locals (I’d happily say I saw a mermaid in Minster Pool if Suzie at The Drum offered me free beer). Or perhaps I’m being a cynical southerner and strange things really do happen up in the wild and mysterious north….. These days The Mermaid Inn is self catering accommodation and so you’ll have to go elsewhere if you want to drink like a fish. I headed for Flash and what’s probably the highest pub in England. Other drinking establishments are available (as I found out when that was shut too, albeit it only for the afternoon).