Preserving Pasts: Todmorden’s Folklore Centre

Academic Research, Tourism, Community Cohesion and exploration of People and Place combine in the Upper Calder Valley
Megan Jones
April 17, 2024

To tell a story is to preserve it. The term ‘folklore’ was popularised in the nineteenth century, during attempts to record what Marc Alexander cites as the “traditional beliefs, customs, etc. of the people” in A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain (2002, ix). Two centuries later, the concept of folklore is far from irrelevant; we have merely found new ways to document it. From the inter-generational stories that grandparents tell children to prevent them from wandering off to TikTok compilations of subway ghosts and fairy circles, tales of the supernatural continue to thrive in everyday life. But how do we ensure we continue to tell stories, and how do we come to understand the tellers that came before us? 

This is where resources such as the Folklore Centre become invaluable. Describing itself as “a home and meeting point for Folklore in the North of England”, Todmorden’s Folklore Centre connects cultural heritage, creative learning and innovative storytelling. The centre was opened by local folklore enthusiast Holly Elsdon, and since then it has flourished into a pioneering hub for the conservation and dissemination of the folkloric. It is a multi-faceted space; downstairs, besides the populated exhibition space, a shop sells folklore-inspired items from an array of local artists and backs onto a cosy tearoom; upstairs, the membership-access library boasts an incredible selection of global and historical titles. 

The library is an evolving collection, an amalgamation of resources on folklore, fairy tales, myths, witches, the occult, the supernatural, and more. It is both an inviting and unsettling space, with a scattering of the botanical, the occult and the mythic in its decoration. Dolls peer from the shelves or sit poised, encased in wooden boxes. Carved mushrooms and pumpkins populate a small side table, whilst figures of the gargoyle, phoenix and serpent are positioned at intervals across the shelves - a cheery penmanship detailing their historical significance and assigned superstitions. As for the books themselves, the centre has acquired over 5000 books from the Museum of Myth and Fable and, more recently, the library of renowned folklorist Kai Roberts has been generously donated to their archive following his untimely death in 2022. This approach to acquisition holds a poignant resemblance to the composite process of collecting and memorialising tales into broader collections.  

Alongside its archive, the Folklore Centre is host to workshops, talks and exhibitions. At the top of the stairs, a temporary exhibition on photographing fungi adorns the left-hand wall. Breaking Through to Faerie - with words by Claire Slack and photos by Holly Elsdon - captures the beautiful and unsettling nature of mushrooms, their ability to appear otherworldly in the most naturalistic settings, and the magical properties they were once - and remain - associated with. Currently on show in the downstairs exhibition space is Tzipporah Johnson’s The Museum of Monotropism, a multi-disciplinary installation that draws on the botanical and the folkloric to reflect the artist’s autistic experiences. Previous exhibitions have included Dr Francesca Bihet’s consideration of Andrew Lang in Into the Kaleidoscope of Fairy Land, Folkloristan’s Whispers of the Past: Pakistani Folklore Unveiled, as well Fairy Light, a site-specific immersive installation created by Amy Cutler, Elizabeth Dearnley and Tamsin Dearnly. 

Display Cases At Todmorden's Folklore Centre

As well as drawing upon globalised perspectives on folk tales, the centre champions its local talent. On display in the library room are two inked artworks, poem and original audio that comprise The Wizard of Whirlaw, a multi-media project pioneered by Todmorden-based artist Michael Powell. It is in these instances that the centre embodies a real sense of the “folk”, with a communal, people-oriented approach to inspiring folkloric practices. Its exhibitions and workshops also highlight the current propensity for what Neil Philip terms a folkloric ‘rewilding’. In The Watkins Book of English Folktales (2022, xvii), Philip suggests “the taking possession of folklore by storytellers rather than scholars has been part of what might be called a rewilding of the English folktale, in which narrators in both oral and written contexts have felt free to both absorb and recast their source material.” The Folklore Centre’s focus on alternative forms of learning moves beyond the written form, generating both new and reworked stories in mediums from art, craft and music to drama and dance.  

As a volunteer-run space, its recent awarding of a Heritage Fund grant has been welcome news, enabling the centre to continue to encourage new learners and long-time folklore enthusiasts to discuss, share and foster their knowledge and experiences of storytelling. In the words of Kai Roberts, from Folklore Of Yorkshire (2013), “we are all immersed in popular culture” (8). We must continue to preserve our own stories, and to celebrate the enduring legacies of the past.