By Emily Oldfield

Goblin hunts, searching for dragon eggs and strange storytelling – it is the Doctor’s orders. That Doctor is Dr Oliver Bishop, a Greater Manchester maker and storyteller behind the truly unique events company Yan Tan Tethera.

Dr Oliver Bishop

Yan Tan Tethera delivers a diverse range of workshops and interactive features that encourage the exploration of the natural world and often involve inspiration from the outdoors, myth, magic, nonsense and fun. Adopting the guise of the eccentric and energetic character Professor Jigget, Dr Oliver, often along with a band of vibrant storytellers, creates custom-made items and activities that have enchanted audiences young and old. From puppets and props to stories and scenery, Yan Tan Tethera certainly leaves an impression.

And proving that there is no need to travel far to find mystery, much of this takes place within Greater Manchester. Yan Tan Tethera works with a number of local organisations to celebrate the magic of the natural world, especially with young people; appearing at the likes of Touchstones Rochdale, Bury Art Museum, HOME and Manchester University, to name just a few. Stories, adventures and nonsense are an intrinsic part.

The vintage aesthetics are also sure to attract attention – flying goggles and bowler hats at the ready - as well as Yan Tan Tethera’s various ideas for exploring Greater Manchester. So far these have included goblin hunts, finding dragons on the Bridgewater Canal, wandering through the woods, and telling the story of Fair Ellen of Radcliffe as part of ‘The Cabin of Curiosity’ series of videos. Fair Ellen, so the story goes, was killed and baked into a pie on the orders of her vengeful stepmother, inspiring a tale which takes Radcliffe Tower on Radcliffe’s Church Street as its inspiration.

Events, festivals and guided walks can all be given the Yan Tan Tethera treatment. Most recently HAUNT Manchester found Dr Oliver delivering Yan Tan Tethera activities at Touchstones Rochdale, and decided to speak to him to find out more…

Hello Oliver! Can you tell us, why the name Yan Tan Tethera and how does this link to Northern England?

“The name Yan Tan Tethera means ‘1,2,3’ in the old shepherd language of the north.  It is said that shepherds would use a rhyme in order to count their sheep and that they would say this rhyme while passing stones from one hand to the other.  When they got to twenty (Jigget) they would place a large stone on the floor and start again.

“The reason I adopted ‘Yan Tan Tethera’ as my trading name is that it has a magical, mysticism to it.  It is a simple counting exercise but when it is said out loud it sounds almost like the incantation of a spell.

Why do you think it is important to engage with the slightly stranger stories of a place – and can you give some examples of how you have done this?

“Our brains latch onto the extraordinary – the experiences that depart from the mundane. And historically accurate stories of a place can become just that – mundane.  They are often too close to everyday life to be worth listening to.  But, if a place has a connection to the ‘strange’, to the ‘other’ and the ‘unknown’ we are more likely to wake up and take notice.

“I use the weird and wonderful everyday in my work.  From leading tree identification walks alongside goblin hunts to practically re-writing history.  An example of the later would be a guided walk I delivered as part of Salford’s Bridgewater Canal project ‘Est 1761’.  I found that trying to retell the tale of trade and industry was rather dull, especially to children.  And so I added a new part of the story – dragons!  The facts were still the same; it’s just the reason for them were made more fanciful.

“Of course, I don’t always just ‘add a dragon’ to a place – some places already have dragons associated with them.  Take Unsworth in North Manchester. Its name comes from a local lord who defeated a foul, fire-breathing dragon in 1845.  And when there isn’t a dragon there’s always a boggart, a faerie, or cockatrice nearby!” (Image below: with thanks to ‘Friends of Boradane Woods’)

Stories In The Woods

Tell us a little more about your creative inspirations…

“I’ve always loved goblins, especially after growing up on films like the Labyrinth and Legend.  I also have a passion for nature – especially woodlands and forests.  I love the folklore of the woods, the forest has always been the ‘outside’ – separate from civilization, where the faerie folk roam and magic stirs.  And so magic and nature are my inspirations and there are plenty of places in the North of England where you can find both!”

You are currently delivering a range of goblin hunts and dragon egg hunts in Greater Manchester. What was the inspiration behind this and do you think we can still engage with fictional tales to enhance our perception of place?

“The inspiration comes from when I was a child and would go looking for goblins in the woods!  I’d always keep a look out for any strange movement from the corner of my eyes, or try and collect evidence of their presence – like beech mast helmets, small but sharp stone spear heads, and holes in old trees, anything that seemed out of the ordinary.

“When I grew up I started studying the natural world at university and part of my PhD in environmental studies was all about how people benefit from interacting with nature.  As part of my studies I started to deliver some guided walks around the campus – telling the stories of the trees.  It wasn’t until I started running walks for children that I had to think of a way to make and keep them engaged  - how to make an out of the ordinary experience so that (hopefully) the information I gave them stayed with them.  And so I thought, for about a second, a word came into my head – goblins.  From there I introduced dragon eggs so I could deliver woodland flower walks in spring.” (Image below: with thanks to Hollymount Orchard)

Orchard Stories
Folklore and magic are often stereotyped as dark concepts. What is your view on this?

“I suppose they are dark.  It seemed to be a way for people to understand or cope with the dark, unusual, terrifying and sometimes horrific things they had to live with.  Folklore and the faerie folk belong to the people.  The old mythological gods and heroes belonged to the powerful – the mighty Thor or the brave and beautiful Lugh were strong, smart, and extremely rich (I mean how much would a magical hammer or spear be worth nowadays)!  The people who worked the land probably didn’t see much of themselves within these characters.  But the crooked, strange, weird faerie folk that lived near them or even with them were theirs.  And because they were theirs they took on their fears.

“However, the magical creatures of folklore were also ridiculous, nonsensical, funny and strange.  Magic is unpredictable and so the creatures born within it will be too.”

Do you know of any particularly spooky or strange Greater Manchester tales you would like to tell us?

 “Well, one of my favourites is the Ballad of Fair Ellen of Radcliffe.  Ellen was the daughter of Lord Radcliffe and when he re-married her step mother (as always) didn’t like her.  And what do you do to your step daughter if you don’t like her?  Get the cook to put her in a pie and feed it to her father!  A bit extreme if you ask me!

“I also love the tale of the Goblin Builders which explains why St Chad’s Church in the centre of Rochdale is at the top of a hill.  Apparently every time the foundations were laid at the bottom of the hill the goblins would move them to the top.  In time the local lord decided just to keep the church at the top of the hill, because what else are you going to do?

“Finally, Greater Manchester has a severe boggart* problem. Boggarts are tricksy, mostly malevolent creatures that try their best to run people out of their homes.  They are neither spirit nor goblin – but something in between – or that is how the stories go, there hasn’t been any real biological or ecological study of the faerie folk so we’re not quite sure. There is one in Boggart Hole clough in Blackley, one in Rochdale living within Clegg Hall (though some say it is actually a ghost) and there is even a burial site containing the remains of the boggart that used to torment the old hall at Gristlehurst in Birtle, Bury.”

You can find more information and watch some short films on the website and follow Yan Tan Tethera on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook also.