The Shropshire Vole

Welcome to Shropshire. A beautiful, mainly rural county on the border between England and Wales.

Borders are interesting places. Caught betwixt and between. Neither quite one thing or the other. On the edge. They are places where things change from one state to another. Places of transformation. Magical places.  Stand at the edge of the sea, at the border between earth and water. Or on a mountain top, between earth and sky. Stand on a riverbank. Stand in the fens. Stand at dawn or dusk. Between night and day. Stand at the equinox. Between seasons.  Stand there and you will feel their charge. In the past, our ancestors venerated such places and times. Recognised that they held a certain power and treated them with due respect.

Because it has remained relatively free of urbanisation, in Shropshire, the ancestors are still clearly not far away. The Shropshire Hills are awash with hill-forts, ancient wells and sacred stones. History is close to the surface here. The Past is still alive. Still very much part of the lived experience. Kept vital through the stories that weave through the landscape, threading the Past to the Future in the Present telling. Every hill. Every wood. Every river. Every rock. They all seem to have a story attached to them. Special stories. Magical stories. Strange stories.

And none stranger than that of the Shropshire Vole.

The Shropshire Vole is a shy, elusive creature. So elusive that some biologists question whether it truly exists at all. There is little evidence with which to counter their scepticism. There is no known photograph of the Shropshire Vole. No skeleton. No skin. No scat. No remains. No scientific research that can verify the existence of the animal. Many scientists contest that claimed sightings are merely mistaken meetings with the much more common Shropshire Mole.

But, ask the villagers of Middleton Scrivelton, and they will tell you different. For the fields surrounding this ancient settlement lying in the lea of the limestone escarpment of Wenlock Edge are the sole remaining habitat of the Shropshire Vole. In days past, the Shropshire Vole was abundant throughout the county but modern farming practices have wrought havoc with the delicate natural balance that supported the peculiar life cycle of the Vole and, today, only in Middleton Scrivelton, can we find traces of the old customs surrounding the Vole. Customs that were once a part of the annual cycle of life in all the villages of Shropshire. Customs that remember how it was in Days Long Past:

Every year, on the first day after the Summer Equinox, the villagers of Middleton Scrivelton gather at dawn in the village square. Led by the VoleMaster, carrying the Vole Pole, they march to the fields at the edge of their village. They circle each field in an anti-clockwise fashion. Eventually, as the sun’s rays warm the soil beneath their boots, the Vole Master will select one field to be the site of The Summoning. The villagers form a large circle in the chosen field. All must attend. Old or Young. Sick or Well. Male or Female. Rich or Poor. All must be there. There can be no exceptions. Babes are carried in mothers’ arms. Those that are strong and healthy lend an arm to the elderly and infirm. The Vole Master strikes the Vole Pole three times upon the ground then leads the whole village in reciting The Summoning:

“Shropshire Vole, Shropshire Vole,

Come on out of your Shropshire Hole.”

Over and over, the villagers repeat the words.

“Shropshire Vole, Shropshire Vole,

Come on out of your Shropshire Hole.”

As they do so, they beat out a rhythmic accompaniment on the ground beneath their feet. Their boots stamping in time to their voices.

“Shropshire Vole, Shropshire Vole,

Come on out of your Shropshire Hole.”

Steadily the chanting grows louder, the stamping stronger.

Louder. Stronger. Fiercer. Wilder.

“Shropshire Vole, Shropshire Vole,

Come on out of your Shropshire Hole.”

They call until their throats are raw. They stomp until their feet bleed.

And then ……

……..the Voles appear.

At first a single one. Then two. Then many. Until the field is one writhing carpet of warm brown fur.

At this point, the villagers recoil in horror. They live in constant fear of the Vole. Their entire lives are made a misery by the existence of the Vole. For, in truth, the Vole is not a pleasant creature. It is small, ugly and viscous. Scientists say that there are no venomous mammals, yet a bite from the Vole will easily kill a good hunting dog and small children have been rendered witless after feeling the sharpness of its teeth. Touching its fur brings on insufferable itching that takes days to subside. Grown men have scratched themselves raw. The Vole is malicious. It spits in milk. The Vole is territorial. Not content to live alongside Man, it actively sets out to drive us from its homelands through its aggressive behaviours. It smells foul. If it excretes in your home, the stench is unbearable and impossible to clear. There is often no option but to burn your house to the ground and all your belongings with it. The Vole carries diseases. Its urine ruins crops. The Vole brings famine. If a Vole looks you in the eye, your soul is taken. The Vole bites babies’ faces.

Face-Biter. Soul-Taker. Famine-Bringer. Stench-Bearer. Dog-Killer. The Vole has many names.

So, the title of Vole Master is both honoured and dreaded. For, each year, the villagers must elect one of their number to serve that role. It is this person’s job to lead the fight against the Vole. It is dangerous work and requires constant vigilance. Each day, the Vole Master must check the entire village for signs of Vole ingress. He is allowed access to every kitchen, every stable. Nowhere is denied. The Vole Master has complete freedom of the village. In acknowledgement of the seriousness of his role, the Vole Master is granted certain privileges. The Vole Master may eat and drink at any table. May take any man or women to his bed. May sleep wherever he wishes. Behaviours are accepted that would otherwise be forbidden. For, it is acknowledged, to be a successful Vole Master, it is necessary to take on something of the Vole. In order to anticipate the cunning animals next move, one must learn to think like a Vole. In order to find their weaknesses, one must learn to act like a Vole. One must live for a year on the border between Man and Vole.

And the culmination of that year is The Summoning.

Now, the Vole Master, armed only with the Vole Pole, a stout stick of ash, three feet long, wades into the seething mass of wretched Voles that fill the field. Striking left, slashing right, stamping on heads, crushing spines, the Vole Master seeks to kill as many of the poisonous creatures as possible. All day, the Vole Master does his murderous work. All day and all night he chases the beguiled creatures down. All day and all night their teeth bite at the leather gaiters he wears to protect his legs. Inevitably the Vole Master sustains injuries from those putrid jaws. Slowly, as the day progresses into night, the amount of venom in his bloodstream grows. As it does, the world begins to blur and narrow. His vision becomes tunnelled as he struggles to maintain consciousness. The seen world is reduced to the sight of the fierce eye of the Vole staring back defiantly before his boot crashes down to close that eye forever. But still the Vole Master must fight on. Fight the poison coursing through his veins. Fight the darkness limiting his vision. Fight the exhaustion burning in his muscles. Fight on through the long dark night. Fight on. Until, finally, dawn’s light brings an end to his terrible ordeal.

For, as the sun’s rays begin to illuminate the morning sky, the Villagers strike up a new chant:

“Get back, get back you Shropshire Vole

Get back, get back in your Shropshire Hole.”

At first they chant loudly,

“Get back, get back you Shropshire Vole

Get back, get back in your Shropshire Hole.”

and a few Voles scuttle obediently to their subterranean homes.

But, as the sun climbs slowly higher above the horizon, their voices grow gradually softer.

“Get back, get back you Shropshire Vole

Get back, get back in your Shropshire Hole.”

and the quieter the voices, the more Voles do as they are bid, until the chant fades from a whisper to a breath to silence. And all the Voles that still live have returned from whence they came.

Leaving the Vole Master on his knees. Broken and exhausted. His body full of poison. His mind full of the horrors of the night. His ears still ringing from the shrieks of the dying vermin. He is surrounded by the bodies of dead Voles. The grisly evidence of his nights work.

Only then do the Villagers re-enter the Vole Field. They take the Vole Master in their arms and bear him back to the Village. Leaving a select few to begin The Counting.

They carry the Vole Master back to his cottage. There they gently remove his garments and bathe him. Being careful to clean his many wounds. They anoint him with perfumed oils and lay him down in a clean bed to rest. They then take their leave, step outside the house and lock the door. Douse the building in hot tar and torch it. They stand in respectful silence as the house of the Vole Master and he within it are engulfed in flames. For the Vole Master has spent too long in the company of Voles. His blood is too tainted with the venom of Voles. He has crossed a boundary, become too much Vole, and he must die.

Only one element of the ritual remains. The chosen Villagers will return with the results of the Counting. If the Vole Master has played his role well and the number of Voles dead is high, he will be granted the mercy of a swift death. A member of his family will be given a sharp knife and allowed into the flaming cottage there to slit the throat of the Vole Master and, afterwards, take their own life.

Some say that the Vole Masters of Middleton Scrivelton played their parts well and that not a single Shropshire Vole remains. The war has been won.

Some say that the only remnants of the old practices that remain are in the children’s game, The Shropshire Vole, that is still played by the youngsters  of Middleton Scrivelton.

Others claim that there have been recent sightings of the Vole. That, in reality, the Old Ways never completely died out. That they are enjoying a revival.

Who knows the truth?

Since, 2003, thirteen houses have burnt to the ground in the parish of Middleton Scrivelton. The Fire Brigade reports have failed to identify the causes of any of the fires.

PLEASE NOTE: Names of places in this piece have been changed in order to protect the fragile habitat of a flight of fancy. Any resemblance to reality is entirely unintentional.

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