Dr Ceri Houlbrook has always been able to see the magic in the so-called ordinary.
And now, she’s using her love of all things mystical to help us award Guinness World Records titles.
Ceri, a Lecturer in History and Folklore at the University of Hertfordshire, admits she was absolutely thrilled when we got in touch to ask if we could borrow her particular set of skills.
She’s one of many expert consultants we use to research and authenticate record titles… and she’s the latest subject of our Behind the Scenes series.
With a particular interest in the culture of ritual and folklore in the British Isles as far back as the 1700s, Ceri has a wealth of knowledge on some fascinating traditions.
Ceri is pretty new to the GWR family, coming on board last year to help find some records for our 2024 book, and she’s found some corkers so far.
“It was Ben Hollingum (GWR Senior Editor) who originally got in touch with me, and I remember he put in his email, ‘this isn’t a prank by the way’, which was good, because I did kind of think that at first.
“It was so exciting to be asked to get involved and it was a very different way of looking at my research, which was a little bit scary at first because I’m so used to not saying, ‘this is the biggest or oldest or earliest.’
“I thought, ‘how on Earth can you prove things like this?’ But Ben explained it’s not necessarily the earliest ever, it’s the earliest known and earliest we have on record so that reassured me and then it was just a matter of going back over my research and thinking about the different elements of it that could be quantified in that way.”
Together with Ceri, we’ve catalogued records such as the most concealed shoes found in a house – 58 shoes and 189 shoe fragments discovered beneath a fireplace in Wales in 2010 – and the oldest coin tree – a 159-year-old oak tree in Scotland that people have been pressing coins into from as early as 1863.
So, what’s the story behind these particular practices?
Concealed shoes have been found hidden in the fabric of buildings around the world; in chimneys, under floors, around doors and windows, and in roofs.
One theory suggests they protected the occupants from supernatural threats, however Ceri believes it’s a lot more likely that people did it to bring good luck to their households.
Coin trees are a type of ‘wish tree’. Over the years, people have hammered coins into the stumps and trunks of trees as a way of making a wish, or an offering that would bring good fortune in return.
The record Ceri found which has been the biggest success for her is the most coins hammered into a wish tree, and that’s because she counted all 48,000 of them herself!
The Ingleton Coin Tree is on the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail in Yorkshire, UK.
And as part of her PhD, Ceri was tasked with painstakingly counting them, which she did by laying a grid on the tree, taking pictures of each square, and ticking them off as she counted them on her computer.
She said: “I just remember thinking this is hours and hours of my life I’m never going to get back, I thought it was useless and no one would ever care about how many coins are in this coin tree but now they do so it validates all those hours I spent counting them.”
To this day, we don’t REALLY know the reason why someone first concealed a shoe in a wall, or why the first person decided hammering a coin into a tree would bring them good luck.
But it’s something that has captivated Ceri’s attention and imagination for years.
She said: “There’s still quite a lot in history that we don’t know, but there must be an explanation for it. We know there’s a reason that someone put those shoes up their chimney, but we still don’t know why.
“But it’s nice that not all the questions have been answered, this is more about increasing awareness so if someone does find an old shoe bricked up in a wall they’ll know there’s some importance to it and to report it rather than just throw it away.”
Ceri had to switch up her usual way of looking at these subjects for her work with GWR, but she says it was a “fascinating process”.
“It really made me look at my research in a very different way, so I loved it,” Ceri told us.
Ceri has a degree in Classical Studies, an MA in Constructions of the Sacred, the Holy, and the Supernatural, and a PhD in Archaeology.
As well as being a lecturer, she’s also on the council of the Folklore Society, has written three books, co-authored another, edited a further two, and penned countless journal articles.
She also enjoys writing fiction in her free time, and admits that seeing her name in the upcoming Guinness World Records book is a particularly exciting thought.
Ceri said: “I’d get the book as a Christmas present every year and I always absolutely loved it, some of the images from it really stuck with me. So, to be working on it is so exciting.
“I’ve been telling all my friends and family and they’re far more excited about this than any of the other books I’ve published. This is going to be my claim to fame!”
She added: “I guess it kind of validates the things I’ve been researching for years as a phenomenon and as something that’s interesting. Coin trees are fairly new, they’ve not been written about much and for it to be validated by Guinness World Records is amazing .
“It’s also nice to think this kind of research is going to be read by people other than professors.
“I’ve written books that have probably only been read by my students so to actually reach an entirely different kind of audience is really nice.”
Ceri has always been fascinated by mythology and fairy tales and feels incredibly lucky to have turned her passion into a career.
She grew up near a park that had a huge amount of folklore attached to it, and remembers being told stories as a child about the evil boggarts who lurked there and would steal children.
It was looking into the origins of this story from the 18th Century that led to her becoming completely gripped by all things mystical.
She’s passing her affection for the subject onto the next generation through her teaching and is proud to have helped create the only folklore MA that’s available in England.
With Ceri’s help, we’ve also found the earliest description of a werewolf and the oldest depiction of a witch on a broomstick.
Thank you for sharing your magic with us, Ceri!
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