Bristol, a city in the south west of England, is my home. It’s also a bit of an abnormality when it comes to folklore. Although it shares many traditions with its neighbouring counties of Gloucestershire and Somerset, Bristol-specific folklore is hard to come by. One of the reasons could likely be the contested nature of Bristol. Today it stands alone without a county, but in the past it was part of Somerset, Gloucestershire, and the now defunct Avon.
However, Bristol has one prominent folk story that I absolutely love – that of Vincent and Goram, or the Bristol Giants. The first recorded version of the tale is from William Camden’s Britannia, published in 1586, although it is likely that oral versions existed for a long time prior to Camden’s account. The tale, as I’ve heard it from local Bristolians, is a more updated version:
Vincent and Goram – two giants and brothers who lived in the Bristol area – both fell in love with the same woman, the stunning Avonia. She offered her hand to whoever could drain a vast nearby lake first.
Goram sped off to Henbury in the north west and started digging a gorge to drain the water. However, he worked too fast and became overheated. After drinking an awful lot of ale he fell asleep in his favourite chair.
Vincent, on the other hand, headed west to Clifton. He paced himself and completed the gorge before his brother could wake up from his ale-induced nap.
When Goram awoke, he was raging. He stamped his feet in fury, creating a huge pit in the woods above Henbury gorge. Then he fell into the Severn estuary, creating two islands with his head and shoulders.
The tale of Vincent and Goram were likely developed as a way of providing explanations for the creation of natural features were otherwise unexplainable at the time. Every variation focuses on the brother’s creation of natural landmarks in Bristol. This can be seen in a version by Anne Beale from 1882:
The Two brothers were trying to dig a river to the sea. Unfortunately, they only had one pick between them. They took it in turns to dig, throwing the tool between them.
Goram became quite tired and took a nap. Alas, Vincent did not realise and threw the pick to him, killing him instantly.
In his sadness Vincent continued digging, eventually creating the magnificent Avon Gorge as a monument to his deceased brother.
Every variant of the tale focuses on the Avon Gorge, a large geological feature with magnificent rock formations and its own endemic plant species. It’s now a popular tourist attraction thanks to the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge which spans it, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The other main location is Henbury Gorge, which is quite a narrow gorge – because Goram fell asleep before completing it, I guess.
Neale (2000) argues Goram’s furious reaction to the loss of Avonia was added to the tale at a later date as a way of providing further explanations for the formation of other natural features in the local area – the Giant’s Footprint in Henbury woods, and the two islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm located in the Severn Estuary. In some variants the giants were also responsible for the creation of Maes Knoll (an iron age hillfort) and Wansdyke earthworks, both situated south east of Bristol (Tongue 1965).
Naturally occurring events such as lightning, droughts and earthquakes have long been explained through folk tales and beliefs. I love seeing how creative minds from the past developed tales to describe the world around them at a time when scientific explanation was not necessarily available.
Beale, A. (1882) ‘A City of Charities’ in Quiver: London. Vol 17: Issue 829.
Neale, F. (2000) William Worcestre: the Topography of Medieval Bristol. Bristol: Bristol Record Society.
Tongue, R. L. (1965) Somerset Folklore in Folktales of England. London: Folk-Lore Society.