MATTHEW RICHLEY is best known as a great Bishop Auckland local historian from Victorian times, but his great-grand-daughter, Ann Best, has just re-published a little book of his poems that first appeared in 1879.

Many of his verses are based around local events, such as the Bishop Auckland hirings or the Byers Green hoppings, and famous local stories, like the mass murder at Kirk Merrington and the fairies of Middridge.

The fairies occupied a strange hill near Cobbler’s Hall, which is still marked on the Ordnance Survey map as a plantation on the north-west edge of Newton Aycliffe. In his introduction, Richley tells how there’s a boggy patch on top of the hill, and “the water makes a loud, bubbling noise, as if it fell a considerable distance into the earth, and sending up a very peculiar and not very pleasant odour”.

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In the traditional version of the story, an arrogant nobleman rode to the top of the fairies’ hill in a bid to prove they did not exist, but he was chased home by Oberon, the king of the fairies, who wielded an enormous javelin, which was discovered the following day embedded in the stable door.

In Richley’s version, a foolhardy ploughboy, Willie, is dared to take on the fairies.

Scarce had he rode the hill once round
When sounds arose from under ground,
And elves came flocking on each side,
To try to check him in his ride…
Then one more fierce than all the rest,
In fairy garb superbly dressed,
Rush’d forth, and with his iron gad
Tried to unhorse the daring lad.
At this poor Will was seized with dread,
Each hair stood stiff upon his head;
And sticking spurs into his steed,
He gallop’d over hedge and mead.
But as the first one gave him chase
A hundred more joined in the race;
So swift he passed each tree and gate,
No man e’er rode at such a rate.

With the fairies in hot pursuit, Willie makes it back to his Middridge stables where the horse collapsed from exhaustion and where Willie was found by his friends reduced to a nervous, quivering wreck.

And in the door was sticking fast
The iron gad the elf had cast
Which took the strongest Middridge smith
And all his cunning, strength, and pith,
With chisel sharp, and maul to boot,
To pull the buried jav’lin out.

In his conclusion, Richley says the fairies no longer terrify the people of the area.

But nowadays the place is changed,
O’er which the elfin legions ranged;
For hissing steam and curling smoke,
Have banished all those little folk,
And in the place of elf and fay,
The snorting engine cuts its way.

The beautifully bound book is available by emailing chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk and we’ll pass all inquiries on. Ann is accepting a donation for Herriot Hospice Home Care in Northallerton in return for the book.

And although the poet says that modern technology has done away with the fairies, it would be fascinating to know whether there is still a strange smelly boggy patch between Aycliffe and Middridge.