Meet the Researchers

Ceri Houlbrook

Photo of Ceri Houlbrook

Research Area: Folklore and Archaeology

What is it like being a researcher?

One word: variety. It’s not just about finding a quiet corner in the library and getting lost in a pile of musty, dusty books (although I have to admit, that’s one of my favourite parts). Research is much more than reading; it’s about drawing on a vast variety of resources and engaging with lots of different types of people. Just today I’ve phoned to make enquiries at a museum; engaged in email correspondences with a National Trust ranger, a research coordinator at Ordnance Survey, and the government’s Administration of Environment and Transport; I’ve had help from the university’s Graphics Support Workshop in designing a leaflet about coin-trees; and I’ve sent photographs of coin-trees back and forth with a lecturer at Stanford University – and all this before lunch! I wonder what I’ll learn and who I’ll be talking to this afternoon…

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Folklore has always interested me. It’s an aspect of our society that, in my opinion, receives so little attention because people believe we simply don’t possess folklore anymore. But every time I blow out candles on a birthday cake, hang a bauble on a Christmas tree, carve a pumpkin at Halloween, toss a penny into a fountain, knock on wood when I’ve tempted fate, or throw salt over my left shoulder, I’m reminded of how prevalent folk customs are in modern-day Britain. My younger sister recently asked me: ‘Why do you research folklore? Why not research something important, like global warming?’ She has a point: my subject has far fewer practical applications than, say, environmental science, medicine, or politics. But it’s still ‘important’ because it tells us something about ourselves, our culture, our values. And hey, I love doing it, so why not?

What is the best thing about being a researcher/your job?

The joy of collecting folklore is the vast variety of people I get to meet and places I get to visit. I’ve taken a boat out to visit a coin-tree on a tiny island in the remote Highlands of Scotland. I’ve been entertained by the lord of a Scottish castle. I’ve chatted about rag-trees to locals in a Limerick pub. I’ve had tours of dozens of forests by rangers and wardens, keen to share stories of their coin-trees. I’ve borrowed a pair of wellies off a Wiccan in Cornwall to wade across the pool at the bottom of a waterfall to see her coin-tree. I’ve counted geese at a lake on a snowy morning with a local environmental group to gather some of their folktales. I’ve hiked up Snowdon, explored the shores of Lough Neagh, and been driven through Portmeirion village on a golf cart by the manager, all to see coin-trees, not to mention having interviewed over 200 fascinating members of the public.

What do you do in your free time?

I try to get out of the city as often as I can, catching the train out to Derbyshire or Yorkshire for long muddy walks and a breath of fresh air. But when I’m Manchester bound, I’ve found ways of giving my brain a break from thinking: I go to the cinema and watch cheesy Hollywood movies or commandeer a comfy armchair in Waterstones and read cheesy fantasy novels. I also set aside some time for writing fiction, for letting my imagination take charge for a few hours a week (and producing even more cheesy fantasy fiction).

What is the first ‘science’ you remember doing?

My primary school class counted daisies in the playground for ‘ecology’. But I think that it was nice weather and the teacher just wanted to be outside…

What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?

I was travelling around the Republic of Ireland visiting holy wells and their respective holy trees, and the owners of the B&B I was staying in told me of a rag-tree in Clonfert, Co. Galway. Armed with my camera I went to take a look, and found St. Brendan’s Tree tucked away in dark and eerie woodland behind Clonfert Cathedral. Up to a height of 2 metres, every inch of the tree’s bark was covered with offerings: coins, rags, rosary beads, jewellery, photographs, notes, toys, and medallions, deposited there by hundreds of people who had come to make their offerings to St. Brendan over the years. And at the foot of the tree, clustered together, was a trinity of deposits which captured the irony, mutability, and colourful variety of ritual in the British Isles: a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a small wooden laughing Buddha, and a naked Barbie doll. A small moment, but certainly a poignant one.

What discovery or invention could you not live without?

The written word. Even a folklorist who collects oral traditions needs the written word. The best present I ever got was a thesaurus and I love flicking through the pages; my motto in life is ‘There’s always a better word’.

What do you think is the most important thing yet to be discovered/invented?

Although completely unrelated to my research – without a doubt, fat-free chocolate.