In the Old English epic Beowulf the hero dives into a pool so deep that ‘no man living knows where the bottom of it may be’. There are many like it in local folklore, some of them being said to lead straight down into Hell, others to have channels linking them to the sea; some really are unusually deep, but others are not—Dozmary Pool (Cornwall) is quite shallow, and owes its uncanny reputation to its isolation. Storytellers provide lively details; they may, for example, say that a fully loaded haywain once overturned into the pool and vanished without trace, or that bell-ropes from a nearby church were tied end to end and still did not touch the bottom.
Such pools may contain a treasure, a dragon, a sunken church, or a whole sunken village, as at Bomere (Shropshire); at Semer-water (Yorkshire) and Talkin Tarn (Cumbria), a bottomless lake appeared overnight, to swallow up a wicked town. This association with damnation is also illustrated by three small round pits near Darlington (Durham), called Hell Kettles; Holinshed reported (Chronicles, 1577) that ‘foolish people’ believed they were not only bottomless but boiling, so that the souls of sinners ‘haue oft beene harde to crye and yell about them’. A sceptical investigator in the 1690s found they were only 30 yards deep, and cold (Westwood, 1985: 332–3). Bottomless pools are also an appropriate place to which evil ghosts could be banished (Brown, 1979: 24–34).
Burne, 1883: 64–73;Palmer, 1973: 70–1;Simpson, 1973: 38–9;Westwood, 1985: 332–3.