A display created for the Precarious Landscapes Exhibition
The Old English name of Preston, Preosta Tūn, ‘Priest Town’, suggests it was once considered an especially sacred place. I believe this was because of its numerous watercourses and natural springs. The surrounding area has been inhabited since the Mesolithic period (10,000 years ago). The Ribble was venerated by the ancient Britons as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’, a mighty goddess. The spirits of each spring and well, offering nourishment and healing, would have been worshipped for thousands of years.
When Christianity was introduced the rivers were adopted for baptisms and the wells were rededicated to saints. Priest Town was founded in 670 when lands iuxta Rippel were granted to St Wilfrid’s Abbey at Ripon. Wilfrid was Preston’s patron saint. In the 12th century priories formed around the wells at Tulketh and Penwortham and a friary around Lady Well in Preston. After the dissolution of the monasteries the wells continued to be venerated and visited by pilgrims seeking cleansing and healing. For those of a less religious nature their medicinal qualities were valued.
It was not until the industrial period, when all that was sacred was profaned, the waters lost their sanctity. The brooks were culverted and the Ribble moved from its original course during the building of Riversway Docklands. The introduction of piped water and extensive engineering works to build the canal and docks caused Preston’s wells to run dry. In two hundred years the complex network of watercourses that nourished local people physically and spiritually since the last Ice Age was displaced and destroyed.
As climate change brings the threat of floods we are left in a precarious position with only the technology that engineered our crisis to rely on. And our prayers to Belisama and her daughters. ‘Precarious’ and ‘prayer’ share their root in the Latin precarius, ‘obtained by treaty’. If we wish to survive these precarious times our treaty with our sacred watercourses must be renewed.
Lady Well was close to Preston Franciscan Friary. Its location off Marsh Lane, in the Maudlands area, and proximity to the leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, suggest its Lady was the Magdalen. The Grey Friars (who gave their name to Friargate and the Grey Friar’s pub) lived by begging, saying masses, and praying for the souls of the wealthy. After the friary was dissolved in 1539 the devout continued to venerate the well. In 1794 the digging of the Lancaster Canal altered the water table and it dried up. Excavations for the Legacy Hotel in 2007 revealed the location of the friary and well. It gives its name to Lady Well Street and lies beneath the car park of Brunel Court.
Spa Well was located on Spring Row in the Spa Brow valley where crystal springs were abundant. Nearby was Spa Bath, an open-air cold-water bath constructed in 1708, which survived for 150 years (Cold Bath Street led to it). Spa Well possessed strengthening qualities and children were taken to it. Preston Waterworks Company formed in 1832 and built the Grimsargh reservoirs in 1835. When piped water was introduced, Preston’s wells and springs were drained and covered. Spa Well was the last. Its site lies east of Spa Street on the bank behind the gardens of Wellington Terrace.
Ashton Quays Well
Ashton Quays Well was situated on the north bank of the Ribble at Marsh End and possessed medicinal qualities. Like Spa Well it was probably drained and covered when piped water was introduced. Another factor in its demise was the movement of the Ribble from Watery Lane to its current position near to Castle Hill. Its site is on the north of Watery Lane to the left of Key Line Civils and Drainage.
The Dolphin Fountain
The Dolphin Fountain, set in a stone alcove built in the 1860s on Avenham Park in Preston, was served by pipes from a nearby spring that never ran dry and was reputed to cure eye ailments. It was used until the mid-20th century when the tap and two cups on chains were removed. The alcove remained empty until re-instated in 2011. Oddly, the feature, remodelled from the 19th century, looks more like a sea-serpent than a dolphin. I wonder if it represents a serpentine water spirit? No water flows from the fountain, but it runs from a rock on the left down a channel to a drain.
Main Sprit Weind Well
Near the bottom of Main Sprit Weind was a well frequented by young petticoated ladies who carried water along with milk and butter to the town centre. For this reason this narrow passageway was also called Petticoat Alley. The well had disappeared by 1840, indubitably replaced by piped water.
The Syke (from Old English sīc, ‘small stream, rill), originated as a spring of water at the junction of present-day Queen Street and Grimshaw Street. It flowed from Syke Hill, along what is now Syke Street, supplying the water troughs in Avenham and feeding Avenham Mill. Its course can be traced under Winckley Square, the Fishergate Centre, and the railway station, running parallel to Fishergate before emerging into the Ribble from its culvert south of Fishergate Bridge. It’s said that if you put your ear to the drain at the bottom of Main Sprit Weind it can be heard rushing beneath at times of heavy rain.
Swill Brook’s source lay in present-day Waverley Park in Ribbleton. It entered Preston north of Salmon Street then flowed across London Road, through Larkhill Grounds, down the steep bank which forms part of Frenchwood Knoll Nature Reserve into the Ribble at the Tram Bridge. At the confluence was a washing stead where local women used the fast-flowing water to swill their clothes. This is how Swill Brook got its name. Swill Brook Lane marks the route the washer-women used.
The Moor Brook began east of present-day Deepdale Road then ran across Preston Moor, feeding Brunswick Place Mill and Brookfield Mill, giving its name to Brook Field Street and the Moor Brook pub. From the car park behind the pub you can see the steepness of its valley. Its course can be traced from Moor Brook Street to Brook House Street (where it fed Brook House Mill) and Greenbank Street. It finally became Swansea Gutter (near Swansea Terraces) at Ashton Quays and entered the Ribble at Watery Lane.
There are two unnamed streams between the Moor Brook and the Syke on the 1774 map of Preston. Keith Johnson mentions that one of them has its source near Bow Lane in a field called Springfield, thus providing the names for Springfield Place and Spring Bank. On a local walk Aidan Turner-Bishop mentioned that the second stream was culverted beneath the Lamb and Packet, but I have not been able to find any further information.
The Last Bend in the Ribble
Prior to 1884, when the Ribble was moved south to make way for Riversway Docklands, swinging sharply and artificially left between its concrete training walls, it followed a different course. Curving slowly it passed Victoria Quays (Neptune House is the last reminder) and Ashton Quays at Watery Lane, following present-day Chain Caul Way before joining its natural course at the end of Nelson Way. The remains of the caul – a man-made jetty with a scouring effect – can be seen to this day. Its movement had a detrimental effect on other water sources. The removal of sandstone bedrock shattered the aquifer beneath Castle Hill, causing St Mary’s Well, which was renowned for its healing properties to dry up. The dock silted up by 1981. Its benefits were short lived and came at great cost.
David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie Publishing Ltd, 2009)
Keith Johnson, Secret Preston, (Amberley Publishing, 2015)
Norman Darwen, ‘Some Holy Wells in and Around Preston’
Margaret Burscough, ‘The Development of Frenchwood’, Tales of Frenchwood, (Preston City Council, 2009)
Peter Smith, Preston History
Information board beside the Dolphin Fountain on Avenham Park