The village of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales is set in a landscape of remarkable natural beauty which includes the great curved cliff of Malham Cove and the dramatic narrow gorge of Gordale Scar. Turner painted Malham Cove (see above) and Wordsworth wrote a sonnet about Gordale, 'terrific as the lair/Where lions crouch', and imagined it haunted by the deity of the waterfall 'with oozy hair and mineral crown'. Romantic notions like these may well have shaped a local legend, as we shall see.
You can walk to the Scar along the road from the village, but it’s prettier to take the path by the side of Gordale beck. (A gore or geir is an ancient name for an angular or triangular piece of land, an appropriate term for the ever-narrowing valley which leads into the gorge.) The streamside walk leads through flat pastures into a wooded limestone ravine called Little Gordale, in springtime full of the starry white flowers of wild garlic, the beck tumbling ever down over stones at your right hand. Before you get to Gordale Scar itself, in fact at about the half-way point, the winding up-and-down path brings you to the brink of a deep pool at the foot of a small waterfall – Janet’s Foss. Over on the far side of the pool is a shallow cave tucked under a ledge of rock, and if you cross the natural stepping stones that dam the pool, and clamber up the rockface to the right of the fall, you may – if the water isn’t roaring down too hard – wriggle your way into a much smaller cave that’s actually hidden behind the waterfall itself. It’s pretty damp. But this is the home of Janet, the local fairy queen.
Everyone in Malham knows this. But though I lived in the village for years and my parents lived there for decades, I was never able to find out any more about Janet the fairy queen. No one local ever seemed to have heard any stories about her. And I recently started wondering … well, is she a genuine piece of folklore? Or could she have been invented relatively recently, perhaps as a tourist attraction? All I had to go on was what Arthur Raistrick wrote in his 1947 book “Malham and Malham Moor”:
Foss is the old Norse name for a waterfall, and Janet was believed to be the queen of the local fairies … The fall is not high, but is remarkable for the beautiful tufa screen over which it falls. … Across the stream there is a beautiful little curved fold in the limestone under which there is a cave. … Janet is said to inhabit the smaller cave behind the tufa apron of the fall.
That’s it. He has nothing more to add. Could Janet be traced further back in time? I decided to find out.
My first port of call was an 1891 book called “Through Airedale from Goole to Malham”, written by one Harry Speight under the pseudonym ‘Johnnie Gray’. Writing of the various walks to be had around Malham, he provides both a factual and a fanciful description of ‘Janet’s Cave’:
About a quarter of a mile above the last houses on the Gordale road a step-stile on the right (opposite a row of thorns) leads down fields towards a barn, near which a foot-bridge crosses the Gordale beck… By keeping this side of the stream, a walk of little more than half a mile conducts through the wooded ravine of Little Gordale to Janet’s Cave, a charming sylvan retreat of which, in the words of Milton, we may justly exclaim,
In shadier bower
More sacred and sequestered, though but feigned,
Pan or Sylvanus never slept, nor Nymph
Nor Faunus haunted.
A small cascade set within a living framework of moss and foliage; in Autumn the scarlet berries of the rowan or witch-tree contrasting beautifully with the white foam, renders the scene exceedingly attractive. And what more fit and abiding place for Queen Janet and her airy little people, whose humble dwelling, guarded by the oft-swollen stream, we see in the rock above! Imagination alone is left to picture the lone witching hour when the moon-silvered waterfall pours forth its music to the dance of the fairies!
It’s striking that this late Victorian writer turns what’s really a set of walking instructions (‘take the right-hand stile opposite the row of thorn-bushes’) into something more picturesque. Gray wants to remind us that a rowan is a ‘witch-tree’; he brings in classical nymphs and fauns; ‘airy little’ fairies dance in the silver moonlight of the ‘witching hour’ – before the prosaic conclusion:
Emerging from this cool and shady recess the visitor descends a field path to a small gate, whence the return to Malham may be made l. by the high-road; or r. to Gordale Scar.
Flowery as it is, this account demonstrates that a tradition of a fairy queen named Janet was already associated with the spot by 1895, though her name is attached to the cave rather than to the ‘foss’ or waterfall itself. “Jennet’s Cave” is also the name marked on the 1853 Ordnance Survey map of the area (six inches to the mile), proving that the name at least was current a good forty years before Johnnie Gray’s book.
Delving further into the past, in 1839 a schoolteacher named Robert Story, ‘of Gargrave, Craven’ (a village about eight miles from Malham) published a remarkable play in Shakespearian blank verse, dedicated to “Miss Currer of Eshton Hall”. Miss Frances Richardson-Currer was an accomplished woman who collected historical manuscripts and rare printed works, and Eshton Hall was one of the most important houses around, situated in parkland a mile outside Gargrave on the Malham road. Story, who was born at Wark, Northumberland, in 1795, and whose father was a farmhand, had worked as a shepherd and a gardener before discovering a love of poetry. He became a schoolteacher and moved to Gargrave in 1820, where he gained a reputation as ‘the Craven poet’. His play – so far as I know, never performed – is called “The Outlaw”. It’s set in and around Malham and Goredale – most particularly in the mysterious “Gennet’s Cave”, renowned habitation of the fairy queen.
“The Outlaw” is great fun, an extravagant, fast-moving melodrama, and the poetry’s not bad. Knowing the local area as well as she must have done, I can see how much pleasure it must have given Miss Currer to read the play, especially since in his letter of dedication, Robert Story flatteringly explains that his heroine Lady Margaret Percy is based upon herself! Henry the Outlaw (of course he is a disguised nobleman) leads a band of merry robbers in the style of Robin Hood. We first meet him carousing on the Abbot of Sawley’s stolen ale at a friendly inn under Kilnsey Crag, and singing a defiant song:
At Malham there is flowing beer
But few to drink it but the elves,
And those prefer the gelid wave
That from the Fall leads out its line,
But when we sit in Gennet’s Cave,
Our choice is still the Abbot’s wine.
So little Malham is the home of elves who love cold water, and Gennet’s Cave is the hideout of an outlaw band! Of course it never happened, and in any case the author exaggerates. You would be hard put to cram more than a couple of outlaws into either of the caves at Janet’s Foss, still less roast ‘savoury haunches’ of venison there on open fires. It’s hard to stand up even in the larger cave, and the smaller one is barely more than a crawl space. But, poetic licence. Anyway. We never meet any actual fairies in this play, but they are frequently spoken of as Henry, now disguised as a monk, escorts beautiful Lady Margaret, with whom he is in love, through the wild landscape – whilst his ‘secret enemy’ Norton, another outlaw, plots against him. And there's an obligatory ‘cottage girl’, Fanny Ashton from nearby Kirkby Malham, who is in love with Henry herself and runs mad when Norton tells her of Henry’s attachment to Margaret. True to genre, her madness takes the form of hanging around graveyards and singing mournful songs about lost love, flowers and moonlight.
The scheming Norton disguises himself as Henry disguised as a monk – impersonating him in order to frame him, if you follow me – and sets up an ambush for the Lady Margaret at Gordale Scar, where she has come to view the chasm. There’s some vivid Romantic scene painting here:
All gaze in silence
Your silence moves no wonder. Gordale hath,
In its first burst of unexpected grandeur
A spell to awe the soul and chain the tongue.
How great its Maker then!
… it might seem a tower
Whose architects were giants, did yon stream
Mar not the fancy.
Or a cavern hewn
From out the solid rock by genii!
Or fairy palace, by enchantment raised
To hold the elfin court in!
‘Tis a scene
Too stern and gloomy for those gentle beings,
That love the green dell and the moonlight ring.
I like my first impression.
Gordale Scar is indeed not the sort of place you would associate with skipping fairies, but each and every one of the characters is determined to apply some fanciful simile to the landscape. The play is supposed to be set in the time of Henry VIII, but the characters are so unashamedly Romantic that Lady Margaret is reluctant to tear herself away from Gordale even as a thunderstorm looms. “It were a sin ‘gainst taste,” she cries, “So soon/To quit this scene of wild sublimity”! Oh that word ‘taste’, so redolent of 18th and early 19th century aesthetics when the appreciation of sublime landscapes became a fashionable and almost a spiritual duty! I can’t resist quoting the remainder of Lady Margaret’s speech, since it really does conjure up the impression the Scar makes on visitors:
The shadows deepen, as the clouds o’ersweep
The almost-meeting crags above our head,
Until the cataract, that whitely falls
As if from heaven, becomes its only light –
Seeming, indeed, a gush of moonlight poured
Through a rent cloud, when all besides is gloom.
Like Lady Margaret, people visiting the Lakes or the Dales – not yet an easy journey in the early 1800s – were determined to get their money’s worth out of the experience. Writing at the more hard-headed end of the century, Johnnie Gray points out that some early accounts almost double the true heights of some hills, representing Whernside and Pen-y-ghent as mountains well over 5000 feet high, for instance. This tendency to exaggerate and romanticize local attractions means we cannot assume, when the lovelorn Fanny talks about the Fairy Queen Gennet, that her words are based on genuine folklore.
This is the Fairy’s cave. Hast seen her, Norton?
But she ne’er shows herself, except to eyes
That soon must close in death.
Just possibly this may be a remnant of a once-held belief that to meet the fairy Gennet was an omen of death. Or it may be Robert Story’s invention, since poor Fanny is about to be stabbed in the heart and die (after breathing twenty-two lines of farewell) in Henry’s arms. There’s no way to know.
Not every visitor was prepared to rhapsodise about fairies and elves. Two years previously, in 1837, amateur botanist Samuel King of Halifax was touring the Dales with an eye to rare plants and set out from Malham to visit “Jenny’s Cave”. But he never got there: having left the excursion too late in the day he turned back as it grew dark, sensibly avoiding the risk of a sprained ankle or a tumble into the beck. And he did not mention any fairies; perhaps as a man of science he took no interest. All the same, they were there. For now we come to the earliest reference that I have been able to find.
Thomas Hurtley was a native of Malham. He was the village schoolmaster, and Johnnie Gray knew of him, writing:
Hurtley died about 1835 and was buried in Kirkby churchyard. His granddaughter, Miss Hurtley, lives at Malham now [ie: in 1891]. She is an active, chatty old dame, (in her 80th year) and keeps a small lodging and refreshment house on the Gordale road.’
In 1786 Thomas Hurtley published a book about Malhamdale called ‘A Concise Account of some Natural Curiosities, in the Environs of Malham, in Craven, Yorkshire’. His intention was to praise the ‘beauties and Topography’ of his own region:
Born in the midst of these romantic Mountains, where his Ancestors once enjoyed a happy independence;– his mind naturally impressed with admiration of the magnificent works of the Supreme Architect;– remote from the hurry of business, and partly secluded from any knowledge of the world except what he has collected from a few books, the Author of the following sheets entertains a hope that his talents may not have been uselessly employed in endeavouring to describe a Country, which seems in his (perhaps partial) estimation to have been hitherto unaccountably neglected.
He really does his utmost. Gordale, for example, is a ‘stupendous Pavilion of sable Rock apparently rent asunder by some dreadful although inscrutable elementary Convulsion’; it is ‘tremendous and umbrageous’, a ‘gloomy Cavern’. But Hurtley also adds charming personal touches, telling how the last time he ‘paid his vows’ to the ‘Genius’ of the Scar, one of the ‘haggard Goats’ which roamed the cliffs ‘stood and scratched an ear upon a shelf where I would not have stood stock still “For all beneath the Moon.”’ I love that! The book is of general interest to anyone who knows Malham: but concerning Janet’s Foss, Hurtley tells us that ‘GENNET’S CAVE’ is
…so called from the Queen or Governess of a numerous Tribe of Fairies which a still prevalent tradition assures us anciently infested it.
It is a spacious and not inelegant Cavern, having a dry tessellated Floor, arched over with solid Rock resembling an Umbrella, surrounded and encircled with a verdant Arbour.
Whether any of these imaginary Beings ever frequented this Ivy-circled Mansion is needless to dispute, but in later times it has been occupied by a much more profitable tenantry;– the Smelters of a valuable Mine of Copper from Pikedaw in the Manor of West-Malham, then belonging to the Lambert Family… To this day there is the evident Ruins of a Smelt Mill.
That phrase, ‘a still prevalent tradition’, suggests that some folk-belief in a fairy ‘infestation’ (gorgeous word!) of Janet’s Foss was old, though perhaps fading, by 1786. And here history fails us. I have found no earlier record. But I would like to speculate a little.
Why ‘Janet’? Janet – or Jennet, Jenny, Gennet, however you spell it – the name appears consistently in all accounts spanning 230 years. It’s not as though someone suddenly names the fairy queen in the middle of the record. The small cave behind the waterfall has been Jennet’s home as far back as she can be traced.
Now it so happens that across the north of England, particularly in Lancashire but also in Yorkshire, there are folk tales about a malevolent water spirit or nixie who goes by the name of ‘Jenny Greenteeth’. (Variants include ‘Ginny’,‘Jeannie’, etc.) In 1870 John Higson, a correspondent to the journal ‘Notes and Queries’, wrote of ‘a deep dismal pool’ he remembered from his childhood. A flooded marl-pit near Gorton, it was a dangerous place for children to play, and anxious mothers would warn “solemnly (as we then thought) that Jenny Greenteeth was artfully lurking in the water below.” He adds that other pits in the same area were supposedly haunted by the same spirit, and quotes the ‘Gorton Historical Recorder’ of 1852:
To restrain their children from venturing too near the numerous pits and pools which were found in every fold and field, a demoness or guardian was stated to crouch at the bottom. She was known as ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, and was reported to prey upon children...
Similar stories were told at Walton-le-Dale, at Warrington, and at Fairfield near Buxton in Derbyshire as well as Manchester, where in about 1800 a stream called ‘Shooter’s Brook’ passed in a culvert under the aqueduct which carried the Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyme canal over Store Street, near the London Road Station (now Manchester Piccadilly):
At that period there existed an opening or break left in the culvert forming a dangerous spot for children to play beside, and yet they often selected it. Their mothers tried to destroy the fascination by stating that Jenny Greenteeth laid in wait at the bottom to ‘nab’ children playing there.
Higson claims not to know of any Yorkshire examples of the story, but John Nicholson, in ‘Folk Lore of East Yorkshire’ (1890) tells of a hole like ‘a dry pond’ near Flamborough in which a girl committed suicide (presumably by drowning before the pond dried) and became a dangerous spirit:
It is believed that any one bold enough to run nine times around this place will see Jenny’s spirit come out, dressed in white; but no one has yet been bold enough to venture more than eight times, for then Jenny’s spirit called out,
‘Ah’ll tee on me bonnet,
An’ put on me shoe,
An if thoo’s nut off,
Ah’ll seean catch you!’
A farmer, some years ago, galloped around it on horseback, and Jenny did come out, to the great terror of the farmer, he put spurs to his horse and galloped off as fast as he could, the spirit after him. Just on entering the village, the spirit, for reasons unknown, declined to proceed further, but bit a piece clean out of the horse’s flank, and the old mare had a white patch there to her dying day.
The pool and waterfall at Janet’s Foss might well be considered a dangerous place for children to play, especially when the beck runs high after rain, and with those tempting caves to scramble up and explore. It’s true that Gennet is supposed to live in the cave behind the fall, rather than in the pool itself, but the Stockport manifestation of ‘Jenny Greenteeth’ perches in the tops of trees! Given all this, and given the chance, however slight, that Robert Story is repeating a genuine piece of folklore when he suggests that people see the fairy of Gennet’s Cave only when they are at the brink of death, I put forward the tentative suggestion that she may originally have been another incarnation of Jenny Greenteeth – the bogywoman conjured by mothers in an attempt to keep their children safe. When the gentrified classes began visiting the Dales in the late 1700s and asked the locals about the ‘Gennet’ of Gennet’s Cave, the simplest answer was probably to shrug and say ‘a fairy’. And the fairies which visitors could most easily and pleasantly imagine were the romantic, tiny, dancing-by-moonlight kind. Not a lurking monster with ‘sinewy arms’, as Higson describes her, waiting to drag children to their deaths.
And was Jenny Greenteeth once more than a nursery tale? Responding to John Higson’s piece in ‘Notes and Queries’, a correspondent named James Bowker claimed that ‘the water spirits of the Gothic mythology, although in other respects endowed with marvellous and seductive beauty, had green teeth…’ He provides no reference, but Jacob Grimm, in his ‘Teutonic Mythology’ (1835) says that the Danish water spirit, the nøkke, wears a green hat and that ‘when he grins you see his green teeth’. Grimm adds that ‘there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness which is not easily found among daemons of mountains, woods and homes.’ He adds, ‘To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: “The river-sprite demands his yearly victim,” which is usually an innocent child.’ Thomas Keightley in his ‘Fairy Mythology’ (1850) describes the German Nix as ‘like any other man, only he has green teeth’. Green was a colour associated with the dangerous fairy otherworld (it’s still considered unlucky to wear green at your wedding, a liminal day on which you change from one status to another), and is a natural colour to associate with water and the weed that covers the tops of stagnant pools. Robert Chamber’s ‘Popular Rhymes of Scotland’ (1841) includes a chilling dialect story from Annandale told by an old nurse:
A’body [everybody] kens there’s fairies, but they’re no sae common now as they were langsyne. I never saw ane mysel’, but my mother saw them twice – ance [once] they had nearly drooned her, when she fell asleep by the waterside: she wakened with them ruggin [tugging] at her hair, and saw something howd [bob] down the water like a green bunch of potato shaws [the leaves and stalks].
Monica Kropej describes the Slavic povodna vila, the water-maid who lives in the mill dam and may pull you under, and the rusalke who live at the bottom of clear rivers: dressed in green, with green shoes, green coat and green hair, they take young men and keep them for their lovers, forever young. Which, of course, means dead. Could Gennet of Janet’s Foss once have been a member of this sinister sisterhood? We will never know for sure…
But I’d like to think so.
 Tufa is a gradual deposition of calcite over moss growing on the edge of the fall – so, petrified moss.
 So perhaps he was wise to turn back!
 Higson, John, Notes and Queries, Fourth Series, Vol 5, Jan-June 1870, p.156-157
 Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, Vol II, tr. Stallybrass, Dover Editions, p. 491
 Keightley, Thomas, the Fairy Mythology, 1850, p 258
 Chambers, Robert, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, 1841, p 70
 Kropej, Monica, Supernatural Beings from Slovenian Myth and Folktales, Studia Mythologica Slavica, 2012, p156,157
Malham Cove by Turner, Tate Britain
Janet's Foss, Gordale, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128605
The Fairy's Lake by Jon Anster Fitzgerald 1866, Tate
Gordale Scar, James Ward, 1811, Tate Britain, part of a collection entitled "Gordale Scar (A View of Gordale, in the Manor of East Malham in Craven, Yorkshire, the Property of Lord Ribblesdale)"
Nøkken, Theodor Kittelsen, 1904, National Musem of Norway
Näcken (Water Spirit) by Ernst Josephsenm Nationalmuseum of Sweden
Gordale Scar, James Ward, Tate Britain.