Long, long ago there was a great famine in Shropshire. After a cold dry winter came a cold dry spring, and after a cold dry spring a hot dry summer. The rivers began to fall, and as their level sank the fish died and floated downstream, or lay rotting on the uncovered banks. The ground grew hard and dusty, and no crops would thrive. The wheat did not spring, and the roots did not swell. The fruit-trees were blighted and no blossom came; and the cattle, thin and bony, fell sick of strange diseases and died in their stalls. All men prayed for rain, but the skies remained cloudless and the pastures crumbled away.
Many died, and those who survived lived only by killing the dying cattle and eating them, by catching the hawks and owls that lived on, and by feeding on the hard dry berries and seedy fruits that grew in the woods. It was a time of great hardship, and greater despair, for all felt that God and his angels had abandoned them and that the end of the world was drawing near.
However, among those who suffered, there was one who did not give up hope. Every morning and every evening he would climb to the top of Corndon Hill and then look out into the west for the raincloud which he knew would, in the end, appear. He was mocked for his pains, but no hard words could dissuade him from his faith; and one evening, in a strange and unexpected way, this faith was rewarded.
It was an evening in late summer. The air was still and hot and thick. As the sun dropped closer and closer to the horizon, it seemed, as sometimes it does in desert lands, to shrink from capture and to take on strange unnatural shapes; and it threw around it a red and baleful light. It shone upon no summer landscape, for the fields were bare and burnt and dusty and the pastures sere and scorched. Already all the little greenery of the year had gone, and from the brown boughs hung dried and withered leaves, like bats. No birds sang, no cattle lowed, no cockerel crowed from the village. It seemed as if the world were dying.
The good farmer looked sadly at the wasted landscape, and for once his heart began to fail, for the sky was still cloudless and the air still thick and unstirring; but as he turned to go down the hill, there came to him from out of a copse, a beautiful white cow. Her black nose was glistening as if she had newly drunk, her horns polished and shining, her flanks fat and glossy with health, her udders full. She seemed no ordinary cow, but rather a fabled visitor, and such a beast as a goddess might have taken for her earthly shape. Yet she was no illusion, for she came and stood by the farmer, and licked him with her rough tongue, and he knew that she was asking to be milked.
Quickly he ran home, quickly he told the news to his neighbours, quickly and fearfully they climbed to the top of Corndon Hill, for they could scarce believe that the visionary cow would wait for them. Yet there she stood, and one by one the folk milked her, and took their share of her.
When they had done, one of the men suggested that they should drive her to the village and stall her there, but the farmer quickly forbade it.
‘”Friends,’ he said, ‘she is a gift from God, and a token that he has not forgotten us. Therefore we must not force her or impose upon her in any way. There is something that tells me that she will come again, if we do not restrain or compel her. Nor must we abuse her. Let no man take more than one vessel of milk from her, and she will not fail; but if any tries to get from her more than his due, then she will leave us as suddenly as she has come to us.’
The farmer was in the right. When the men had finished milking the cow, she wandered off to the copse, and all understood that she was not to be followed; but the next morning she came again and gave her milk again. No-one asked on what fairy food she fed, or at what fairy spring she found her water, but all venerated her and used her kindly like the gift from heaven that she was; and as long as no-one abused her, or drew from her more than his due, she let down her milk and gave freely.
So it was that the white cow saved the people of Corndon. For many months she came, morning and evening, to the milking-place on the hill, and had it not been for her there would scarce have been one man left alive there.
There lived near Corndon, however, and old witch whose name was Mitchell. When men begin to lose faith in God, they often turn to devils and witches, and when the great drought came, many, in bewilderment, had sought the advice of the old witch, for she had spells and charms, which although they did little good, yet gave the promise of doing good. However, when the white cow came, the witch began to lose favour. The cow was something that she had not foretold, and its milk was far better than all her spells and incantations. She grew jealous of it. Its meekness and its purity rebuked her. It was the agent of other and better powers than she served. It was her rival and stole away her clients, and she planned to drive it away.
One day therefore when the milking was nearly over, she climbed to the top of the hill. In her hand she carried a small vessel, but under her cloak she had hidden a sieve. With a show of modesty she waited till all the other milkers had been served; then, being left alone, she drew out her sieve, and began to milk into it.
The white cow stood patiently for her, and the milk came freely, but as it fell through the sieve and made puddles on the ground, she began to grow uneasy. She swished her tail and began to move her head. The witch milked on and on, until at last the udders went slack, and the flow began to fail. The cow grew distressed, as if she knew that she had fallen into the hands of an enemy. She turned her head and looked reproachfully upon the old woman, and shook her head as if in pain. Triumphantly the witch began to strip her, and as the last drops came, the cow kicked the sieve away, and putting up her tail ran off towards the copse as if the fly had struck her.
She never came back to Corndon. Some say that after this she lost her gentle nature and became wild, and ran like a beast possessed through Shropshire and Worcestershire until she was killed by Guy of Warwick. When she had gone, famine came again upon the people of Shropshire, and in the hungry days that followed, the witch Mitchell was among the first to die. They buried her on the top of Corndon Hill, and to keep her evil spirit in, built around her a strong wall, which is known to this day as Mitchell’s Fold. Not long after they buried her, the rains came and the famine ended; but none who survived ever forgot the gentle white cow that had succoured them in the hungry days.
How to Get There
Visiting Mitchell's Fold
How to Get There:
Corndon Hill itself is located a mere mile over the English border in Powys, Wales, yet this site is just about in the borders of the Marches.
Mitchell's Fold can be found on the moorland near Priest Weston, Montgomery, Shropshire, SY15 6DE. Following a track in a north easterly direction from the car park for approximately 300 metres, the stone circle is located over the brow of the hill.
Managed by English Heritage, this site is open all year round.
- Car Park
Please note that vehicles are not allowed beyond the cattle grid. Dogs must be kept on leads due to livestock grazing in the area. There are no public conveniences on site, and those with limited mobility may find access challenging.
© 2017 Pollyanna Jones