Collection of northern folk tales brought to life

From a castle haunted by a mischievous brownie to a fearsome worm which devastates the countryside and drinks the milk from seven cows each day '“ a new book of northern folk and fairy tales for children has been published by an Alnwick mum.

Sunday, 17th January 2016, 5:00 am
Karen Hirst with one of the characters from her book Once upon a time in the North. Picture by Jane Coltman

Karen Hirst is behind the entertaining work, Once upon a time in the North, which features an array of magical, brave and evil characters.

Based on the traditional stories, myths and legends of the northern region, the 48-year-old’s book is a modern take on some scary, funny, silly and thrilling yarns.

A volume of six stories, Once upon a time features The Cauld Lad of Hylton Castle; The Men From Lorbottle, My Ainsel; The Laidley Worm of Spindlestone Heugh; The Nut Brown Maid and Sir Guy The Seeker.

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The idea for the book came about through Karen’s work with Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC), which is based at Alnwick Playhouse.

She originally wrote it as a play, which was performed by the group in Christmas 2013. But, after a suggestion from an audience member, Karen worked at turning the piece from the stage to a book.

Karen, who is NTC’s part-time finance manager, said: “When NTC lost its funding a few years ago, we were looking around for new ideas.

“I collect fairy-tale books so for new ideas I hit the books, reading tales from around the world, some well-known and others less so.

“I started to wonder why I couldn’t find any tales from Northumberland in my collection, but digging around, I found a wealth of humorous, scary, magical and exciting tales from the North East.

“It seemed sad that these tales were lost in time. I took some of these tales and I wrote a play, entitled Once Upon a Time.

“One of the audience suggested that a small booklet be produced telling the stories, the dedication at the front of the book is to them.

“Initially, it seemed like an overwhelming task, but, due to the support of Gillian Hambleton, artistic director of NTC, and Keith Pattison Limited, photographer, the illustration of the book was solved. Slowly but surely, the book has been produced.”

Karen says that she has enjoyed adapting the stories from stage to book.

She said: “You have got a little bit more scope with a book, so there are some details in the book which were not in the play.”

Karen admits she is delighted with the book and says she is pleased to push some fairy tales back into the public consciousness.

She said: “Somewhere along the line, English fairy tales have got a bit lost along the way, so it has been nice to get some back out there.

“I really enjoyed putting the book together. A lot of reading and research was done for the book and hopefully I picked the bits that people love most.”

As part of her research, married mother-of-one Karen discovered something shocking about fairies.

“They are just horrible creatures,” she said. “When you read Northumbrian tales, they are blinding people and taking people away into the hills, never for them to be seen again. It was a revelation really to find out what the fairies are like.”

Reflecting on the stories in the book, Karen says that The Laidley Worm of Spindlestone Heugh – which tells the tale of a princess who is changed into a dragon by her evil stepmother – is her favourite, describing it as a smasher.

Karen has written a number of children’s books and she says she loves creating stories for younger readers.

She said: “I love children and you can really do what you want in children’s books.”

Creative Karen is also writing a new play for the NTC.

For more information about the group, visit or call 01665 602586.