In the VV's novel, Elijah's Mermaid, two children in landlocked Herefordshire create a small grotto beside a stream in the hope of luring a mermaid to come along and live there.

Such an idea is not original, for there are some locals who still say that the sight of a mermaid in Herefordshire is very far from fantasy.

Back in 1848, when the river Lugg near Marden Church was being dredged of mud and sludge the workmen discovered an ancient bell - the sort of bell that was often used when a church was connected with a saint, used to call the villagers to church, or to ring at the time of funerals. According to Celtic tradition, such bells were called by their saints' names and were thought to be especially sacred.

The Marden bell can now be seen in the Hereford museum. It is thought to be Welsh in origin and dating from between AD 600-1100. It is not of a circular construction, but created by attaching two sections of metal together - to look almost like a cow or sheep bell.

These bells were often 'enshrined' in ornately made iron casings, though if there was one for the Marden bell, it has never yet been found.

The Marden bell is thought to have been created in honour of Saint Ethelbert - the king who became a martyr when beheaded by King Offa; his remains then buried at Marden, very near to the River Lugg.

At the time there were many rumours that Ethelbert's ghost haunted that place and, as a sign of repentence, King Offa ordered that a church should be built on the site of the dead king's grave. He also ordered the construction of the nearby Hereford Cathedral, to which Ethelbert's body was eventually taken, then becoming a place of pilgrimage. Many miracles are said to have occurred during the body's journey there. And, in Marden, from where it was exhumed, a well sprang up within the Church where it still remains in the western nave.

It is not known how the Marden bell came to be submerged in the River Lugg. But the myth of the mermaid who lived there predates its Victorian finding. Old timers say that she seized the bell when it was accidentally dropped, immediately dragging it down to the bottom. At the time a local wise man said that the bell could be retrieved again if a team of twelve white heifers wearing yokes made of sacred yew tree wood were somehow attached the treasure, which could then be pulled out of the water. But, the deed must be done in silence. If not, then it would fail. And so it did when one of the men present forgot himself and suddenly cried, 'In spite of the all the devils in hell, now we'll land Marden's bell.' 

This outburst woke the mermaid who swam up to the surface and hung onto the bell, which she then dragged back down to bottom again - where it was hidden from human eyes until the nineteenth century.

But, even to this very day, it is said that ghostly chimes can be heard rising up from the depths of the river bed - as if the mermaid rings it still.


  1. Great story. The idea that the chimes can still be heard is reminiscent of the stories about Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast.

    Meanwhile here in East Sussex - mermaids on the liminal threshold:


  2. Interesting post - wonder why it ended up in the river?!

  3. I enjoyed this. But I think that the Ethelbert connection is highly unlikely. First of all, this kind of bell is associated almost uniquely with Gaelic- and Welsh-speaking churches, not with Anglo-Saxon ones. And secondly, such bells were not made to honour dead saints. Rather they were bells made for and used by living monks; when those holy monks died the bells they were associated with became relics of them. As Ethelbert was not a monk, but a king, the bell is unlikely to have had that kind of connection with him.

  4. Thank you, Beannachd. I am no expert about this period, but the only thing I can suggest is that this church is right on the Welsh border and therefore may well have been Welsh-speaking, or at least heavily influenced by that culture and its stories or traditions. The rest is local legend - and admittedly may have been 'adorned' or embellished over the passing of the years.