The visitor information board at the twin chalk ponds of Silent Pool and Sherbourne Pond states: ‘There are many thoughts on how Silent Pool got its name and one of them is the legend of Emma, a woodcutter’s daughter who is said to have been bathing in the clear water when she was disturbed by a lecherous horseman. As she swam out to escape his advances her cries were heard by her brother working nearby. The horseman fled as Emma’s brother dived in to save her, but the siblings drowned in the cold, deep water. The next day the woodcutter found the lifeless bodies of his children in Silent Pool, and the horseman’s hat – bearing the crest of Prince John – the very man who went on to become King John I.’
The Visit Surrey tourism website repeats the legend of Silent Pool: ‘…many feel an eerie stillness looking out over the still water surrounded by the evergreen box trees. Legend has it that this is due to the fate of a woodcutter’s daughter…’ The Ghost Hunter website adds a titillating variation: ‘[The] peaceful scene is sometimes disturbed, local legend has it, by a most beautiful and mysterious figure. Splashing about in the pure waters is sometimes seen an attractive young lady. Entirely naked, the spirit washes herself and swims playfully before diving into the waters and disappearing from sight’.
Where do legends come from? From the raw materials of actual events and real people, transmuted by bards into enduring story? From the tale spinning of nameless entertainers travelling from village to town to village? In the case of the legend of Silent Pool, the circumstances of creation are quite clear. Martin Tupper was a nineteenth century writer who made his name and his fortune (one million copies sold in the US alone) with a volume of pompous, moralizing verses called Proverbial Philosophy (sample: ‘Deep is the sea, and deep is hell, but pride mineth deeper’). In the 1850s, now living at Albury in Surrey, he published a novel called Stephen Langton, a Romance of the Silent Pool. The book combines purplish prose with historical farrago, taking various liberties with events and characters from the 13th century. It was Tupper’s stated intention to ‘add a new interest in Albury…to make our country classic ground’. Seeming to contradict himself, Tupper also claimed that the novel ‘may be depended on for archaeological accuracy in every detail…rather reality than romance’.
His making of this ‘classic ground’ included moving the birthplace of Stephen Langton, the hero of the book and Archbishop of Canterbury during King John’s reign, from Lincolnshire to Surrey. He also has Langton and the barons meeting at Reigate Castle to plan the revolt that leads to Magna Carta. And, of course, there is Emma, the woodcutter’s daughter. She is based on no-one, transplanted from nowhere, a complete fiction according to Matthew Alexander, the then Curator of the Guildford Museum, in his 1985 book, Tales of Old Surrey.
It’s odd how cheated I felt when I learned that the legend began with Tupper’s novel. The mechanics of creation were exposed and the magic vanished. And yet aren’t all legends ‘made up’ in most of their details? Even so, the patina of age and obscurity of origin are what I wish and expect from legends, with all the Tuppers of antiquity hidden from view. Odd too, that I still want to believe that maybe, possibly, there was an existing legend of a drowned maiden that Tupper heard told in a pub or by a parish pump and that he embellished it for his novel of Stephen Langton and King John. And that, on a still evening, a visitor to Silent Pool might catch a glimpse of…