Allotment C23

A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook,
tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?

A place to dig, to sow, to watch life grow,
leaving the battlefield and the ravens behind me

like the servicemen returning from the First World War?

Is it time to leave the heroes to be pecked apart
and join, instead, with the labouring poor?

To set aside the books of heroic poetry –
the verses on shattered shields and clashing spears,

the blood and bones to the soil return with spade
and hoe to feed the future generations?

Tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?
A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook

my Bremetennacum Veteranorum as I enter my later years?

As you might have guessed, after a year’s wait, I am finally the proud tenant of an allotment. This has come about after a difficult year during which I’ve felt like I’ve been kicked in the teeth by the universe in many ways, one of them being the landslide on Castle Hill cutting off my access to the yew tree where I dedicated myself to Gwyn on Fairy Lane.

I now feel my gods have gifted me with an alternative. It is happily within a bend of Fish House Brook, which begins near my house and runs through Greencroft Valley, where I run a friends group, before joining the Ribble at Fish House Bridge on the other side of the allotments. In this I see the guiding hand of Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, along with the land spirits and Gwyn and his ‘family’ – the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fairies’.

Whereas I had been considering moving away to find a job in conservation this has led me to decide to remain rooted in Penwortham, even if it means a longish commute. I am beginning a month of cotton grass planting on Little Woolden Moss near Manchester next week, which will be my first paid contract, and a couple of paid traineeships have come up in Bolton, so possibilities are opening up.

Having spent the last decade working with the heroic poetry of the Old North, not least in my latest collection ‘Co(r)vid Moon’ whose main characters are battlefield ravens, I’m sensing a shift away from the medieval courts, where I never belonged with the Taliesins, toward a poetry of the land, to where I belong, alongside other labouring poets.*

Although I’m far from retirement age I see this as a step in maturing and and stepping up to take responsibility for leading a sustainable life as I head toward the big 40 this November.

Since I took this photograph I have been clearing the paths, weeding, digging and putting manure on the beds, and chitting my first early potatoes.

I can now call myself an allotmenteer 🙂

*For example Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald whose work is based on their lived experience of working the land. (Although, of course, I do not claim to be as good!).

Landslip

Fairy Lane, January 2021

Landslip, landslide,
we live in treacherous times,
the very land we hold so dear to us
with the grounds of life as we know it is
being pulled from beneath our feet.

Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs
at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me
slipping by fay-like to bear witness
to another cataclysmic event.

For a long while railings, gravestones,
have been falling away and no-one speaks
of gathering up the bones of the dead.

This has been a place of peace with its
holy well, monastery, church, and chapel,
but has also been a place of penitence.

Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.

(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent
and whether I have served my time).

The weather gods have been cruel
this year with their freeze-thaw-rain
dichotomy opening fresh wounds.

The steps leading down to the yew
where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him
made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze

of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth
(except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times
may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)

are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.

He has thrown my world out of kilter again –
a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…

When I see trees upside-down I think how natural
it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright
and to go root over crown is certain death.

Yet as we grow older falls hurt more
and we come to wonder which will be the last.

~

I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)

It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.

Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.

Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.

In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.

There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.

The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.

Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.

My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?

I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).

What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.

This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…

The River Did Not Burst Her Banks

You did not burst your banks today…

River goddess your fearsome torrent pouring
from here to the sea how many times do I have to stand in you,
no, to drown in you, to know you are never the same?

What rites would you have me keep, Riga Belisama, as I walk beside you?

Long have I kept this piece of your humble mudstone close to my heart
(which I must give back should I ever leave), renewed your waters,
lit your candle, created for you a little temple

and cleared Fish House Brook – just one of your dirty daughters
running from one of the estates to the sea.

I have seen your many colours –
red, blue, green, grey as concrete bollards.

What is a river without a goddess or a goddess without a river
meandering, twisting, to the sea, like our own blue blood to our heart?

Sometimes I see you as a goddess but most often you are being a river,
fulfilling your purpose, delivering water, divine water-bearer.

To be one with your flow on days like this is a blessing,
to walk so close to the edge knowing I could be carried away

by your rush of waters, by your rush of deadly words,
but you did not burst your banks today.

I wrote this poem after my daily walk beside the Ribble yesterday during Storm Christoph. Contrary to the flood warnings the river did not burst her banks but came very close, the water lapping at the edge, at high tide. It’s not often we can walk so close to a force of nature, to a mighty goddess, whose might could destroy us if we take a false step – an experience awe-inspiring and humbling.

We were lucky, here in Penwortham, that the river did not burst her banks. Upriver Brockholes Nature Reserve has been forced to close due to the access road flooding. People from Didsbury and Northenden in Manchester, Maghul in Merseyside, and Ruthin and Bangor-on-Dee in North Wales have been evacuated. This must be a doubly awful experience during a pandemic. The combination of the virus with flooding feels like an ominous portent of decline and I fear worse is to come.

The first time I saw major floods on the Ribble was 2015 and she has flooded almost every winter since. In response, the Environment Agency and Lancashire County Council have implemented the Preston and South Ribble Flood Management Scheme, which will raise the current flood walls from 1.2 metres to up to 2.2 metres, with a glass screen at the top so people can see the river, and build new ones.

Some of the trees on the banks, such as the row of elms near the Continental pub, will be dug up to make way for the defences. Five new trees will be planted for each tree removed, but it will be forty to fifty years until they are the size of the original ones. Local people have asked for the old trees to be made into benches.

More positively, some of the area, which is now Preston Junction Nature Reserve, rather than housing, due to the Save the Ribble campaign, is going to be kept as flood plain. There are plans for the creation of a new wetland habitat with ponds with dipping platforms, species-rich wildflower meadows and grasslands, wet woodlands, and orchard trees.

My local stretch of the Ribble, where I have been walking for nearly forty years, is going to change dramatically. How long the defences will keep people’s homes safe I don’t know. As this past year has shown, our safety from the forces of nature, small and large, is very much illusory. The climate and the world are changing. The river will burst her banks again. Yet, on her banks, we find the very first snowdrops, who have weathered the floods. A small sign of hope in these apocalyptic times.

Memories of the Ice Age

Speak to me of dead ice
and glacial erratics.

Tell me the tales
of wandering stones* –

granodiorite from Southern Scotland,
Criffel granite, Shap granite, Eskdale granite,
granite from Loch Doon, Borrowdale volcanics,
Thornton limestone, Chatburn limestone.

Speak to me of glaciers that had no names.

Speak to me not of the death of your children
and how they laid their gravestones
in a ritual long long lost to us.

Speak to me not of your sacrifice in shaping this land.

We must be as stone
and not mourn the snowflakes
vanishing from the palms of our hands.

Outside the office at Brockholes Nature Reserve there is a 2.5 tonne boulder made of grandiorite which was extracted from Number One Pit beside the M6. Unlike the sandstone boulders nearby it does not fit with our local geology. This has led geologists to the conclusion it was transported from the Lake District or Southern Scotland by a glacier during the Last Ice Age 115,000– 11,700 years ago.

This reached its maximum 24,000 years ago and two of the ice advances, Heinrich 2 and 4**, extended to and covered Lancashire and Cheshire, whilst Heinrich 1 and Loch Lomond did not. When the glaciers melted they deposited their ‘suspended load’ of ‘boulder clay’ or ‘glacial till’. At Brockholes the sand and gravel were 20 metres thick leading to the area being used a quarry.

With these materials the grandiorite boulder was removed along with other erratics such as granite from South Scotland, Borrowdale Volcanics from the Lake District, and Chatburn Limestone from Clitheroe. The sandstone boulders near the car park may be local or from Pendle Hill or Longridge Fell.

Near Kirkham and Oldham, where ‘the rate of the ice melt’ was ‘equal to the movement of the ice sheet’ for a long period of time, lines of moraine (accumulations of glacial till), were deposited.

The vast volumes of water from the melting glaciers were also responsible for forging the valley of the Ribble – ‘the meander belt between the river cliffs is too wide to have been created’ by the river.

When dead ice was left behind by glaciers, became surrounded by sediment, then melted, it left kettle holes. This resulted in the formation of lakes such as Martin Mere and Marton Mere and the others that formed Lancashire’s Region Linuis ‘Lake Region’ and some of its numerous ponds.***

Since then we have dug out the sand and gravel and drained the lakes yet new lakes have formed in old pits. Number One Pit at Brockholes, where the grandiorite boulder was found, is now a lake and 182 species of birds have been recorded there including bittern, curlew, lapwing, and sand martins.

The Nature Reserve as we know it has originated from a combination of geological and man-made factors. In the shaping of the land during the Last Ice Age I see the work of Winter’s King and his glacial children. When I touch the glacial erratics or watch birds descending onto the lakes I see his hand.

*The term ‘erratic’ originates from the Latin errare ‘to wander’.
**Heinrich events are caused by the the collapse of northern hemisphere ice shelves and release of icebergs which affect the climate elsewhere.
***Most of the present-day ponds in Lancashire formed in former marl pits dug in the 18th century.

With thanks to Geolancashire from whose Brockholes Geotrail Guide I gained most of this information.

Pondscapes for Great Crested Newts

Over the past year I have been observing with interest within my locality the development of a project run by the Lancashire Wildlife Trust and funded by Natural England that aims to create new ponds and improve existing ponds for Great Crested Newts. In Hurst Grange Park, Walton Park, near Dog Kennel Wood, and at Brockholes Nature Reserve I have seen old ponds dug out and new ones created and this is only a small portion of the work that is taking place across Lancashire.

The great crested newt is ‘the UK’s most pond-dependent amphibian’. Since the last half of the twentieth century it has been in decline due to the destruction and loss of the pondscapes it inhabits. Many ponds on agricultural land have been filled in or destroyed because ‘they reduce the extent and crop yield of fields and are no longer needed for livestock due to piped water systems’. More have been got rid of to make way for housing, roads, industry, commerce, and recreation.

Some ponds have been lost to natural succession – if a pond is not regularly cleared of vegetation the dead plant matter builds up and the pond is filled in and dries out. Chemical pollution, nutrification, and the introduction of fish also make ponds unsuitable for great crested newts.

Another factor is the loss of terrestrial habitat – great crested newts favour ‘rough grassland, scrub and woodland’ and need dead wood and underground crevices beneath roots to shelter. Habitat fragmentation caused by human-made obstacles to their movement is another cause of decline.

North West England has ‘the highest pond density’ in England and Wales. Whilst many of these ponds are ‘flooded, abandoned marl pits’ dated to 150 to 200 years ago ‘they are interspersed with ponds of diverse origin’. Some are also man-made such as ‘brick pits, tile pits, pottery clay pits, gravel pits, sand pits, rock quarries, peat diggings, spoil hollows, water mill ponds, bomb craters, saw pits, mine entrances, textile mill lodges, public reservoirs, farm reservoirs, angling ponds, man-made subsidence hollows (flashes)… moats, duck decoys,’ and ‘ornamental ponds’.

Other ponds are much older and of natural origin such as ‘proglacial lakes, meltwater channels, kettleholes, inter-dune slacks, cut-off meanders and ox-bow lakes’ and ‘ancient subsidence hollows’. These could date back to after the Ice Age and have existed for over 10,000 years during which lowland Lancashire was a water country* of marshland, peat bog, reed bed, alder carr, willow scrub, and damp oak woodland interspersed with countless lakes, ponds, and pools – perfect newt habitat.

Great crested newts are one of Europe’s oldest amphibians. They belong to the family Salamandridae. The remains of their ancestors, salamanders, have been dated to the Jurassic (160 million years ago). The great crested newt (Tritutus cristatus) developed as a species 40 million years ago and spent the Ice Age in the Carpathians then expanded its range across the rest of Europe after the glaciers melted.

It is possible to imagine a march of great crested newts moving slowly northwards, much like our ancestors, from pond to pond, crossing the land-bridge of Doggerland, making their homes here in Britain.

The great crested newt is so dependent on ponds because they are central to its life cycle. After hibernating through the winter under dead wood or underground it emerges between February and April and moves to ponds to mate. The male chooses a display area known as a ‘lek’ in an open part of the pond. Displaying his remarkable crest he rocks, leans, and whips and fans his white-striped tail to waft pheromones at the female. Once he has gained her interest, touching his tail with her nose, he deposits his spermatophore, which she collects in her vent before fertilisation takes place internally.

The female lays around 250 eggs in a jelly capsule with a light yellowish centre 4.5 – 6mm long on the submerged leaves of plants, carefully wrapping them with her back legs. Species favoured include grasses such as sweet or flote grasses (Glyceria spp.), small wide-leaved plants such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), and narrow-leaved plants such as water forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides).


The larvae hatch and develop in the pond and reach a length of 50 – 90mm before metamorphosing into juveniles known as ‘efts’ who grow up to 120mm in length and leave the pond for the first time. They have all the features of adults – black or dark brown skin with a warty appearance and orange ‘nail varnish’ on their claws, but it isn’t until the second season that the distinctive black patterning on their fiery bellies which marks each as an individual becomes fixed and, upon reaching sexual maturity that the male develops his eponymous crest and white tail-stripe. Males reach a maximum length of 170mm and females 130mm and on average they live for around 14 years.

Ponds are the only food source for newt larvae and and are an important part of the diet of adults, who feed on the tadpoles of frogs and sometimes other newts and invertebrates such as ‘water lice (Asellus spp.), water shrimps, small snails, lesser water boatmen (Corixa spp).,’ ‘fly larvae including the phantom midge (Chaoborus spp)’ and also ‘zooplankton such as water fleas (Daphnia spp)’. They also forage above ground, eating invertebrates ‘such as earthworms, insects, spiders and slugs.’

Most of the foraging activities of great crested newts take place within 250m of their breeding pond. When the juvenile newts disperse they may travel up to 1000m to colonise new ponds and attract a mate. Great crested newts fare best in a metapopulation – ‘a group of associated populations’ who ‘breed in, and live around a cluster of ponds.’ This means there is less threat if one or more ponds are lost.

Thus current conservation efforts are focusing on areas that are already well endowed with ponds in the North West. A whole new terminology, coined by Robin F. Grayson in 1994, has developed around this topic. A pondscape is a ‘landscape with six or more ponds shown on Pathfinder maps in each adjacent 1 km square of the National Grid.’ A ‘core pondscape is ‘where the mapped pond density is 15 or more ponds per 1 km square’. A pondway is ‘a linear tract of pondscape, typically 10 or more km in length’. A pond supercluster is ‘a large tract of pondscape, typically covering 100 square km.’

Pondways have been identified across Lancashire. I was delighted to find out there is a South Ribble Pondway, which is located not only in the borough of South Ribble, but covers a strip 25km long and 5km wide from the estuary of the river Douglas to Brockhall Hospital in Blackburn. Grayson links the end of the pondway with the failure of Northern Drift – sands, clays and erratics deposited by glaciers. There is also a North Ribble Pondway 9km long and 2.5km wide, a Wigan Pondway that links to the South Ribble Pondway in Croston that stretches 50km, and a Fylde Supercluster.

The creation of pondscapes for great crested newts fits well with other projects aiming to restore the water country such as the re-wetting of the drained wetlands around Martin Mere (WWT) and Leighton Moss (RSPB) and peat bogs such as Chat Moss and Winmarleigh Moss (LWT).

As winters become cooler and wetter and summers hotter and drier as a result of the climate crisis, the restoration of wetlands will be essential not only for human needs such as flood mitigation and carbon capture, but as homes for the wetland plants and creatures who are at increasing risk due to human and climatic pressures.

*The area around Martin Mere was known as ‘the Region Linuis’ ‘the Lake Region’ and John Porter refers to the Iron Age Setantii tribe of the Lancashire lowlands as ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’.

SOURCES

Robin F. Grayson, ‘The Distribution and Conservation of the Ponds of North West England’, Lancashire Wildlife Journal, Numbers 2 & 3, (1992/3)

Robin F. Grayson, ‘Surveying and Monitoring Great Crested Newts’, English Nature, vol. 20, (1994)

Tom Langton, Catherine Beckett, and Jim Foster, Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook, (Froglife, 2001)

‘New life to Europe’s oldest reptile and amphibians’, LIFE-Nature Project, (2006)

Water Dogs

At the beginning of last month, the day after the heavy rain and flooding, I saw an otter. I was crossing a small bridge over one of the tributaries to the Ribble, taking the side route after yet another bridge had been removed or blocked because it had become too dangerous.

As I crossed and looked upstream my eyes were drawn to what, at first, I thought was a tyre. I then realised it was in fact a rump of sleek fur and beneath the water I made out legs and an otter-shape. Thrilled and excited I was torn between the impulses to stay stuck-eyed in this wonderful moment or to try and capture it on the camera of my phone for longevity and unfortunately the latter won out. Having fumbled off my thick gloves, turned my eyes to the screen to enter the pin, and opened the camera, by the time it came into focus, the little hump of the miniature sea monster had all but gone.

I didn’t take a picture at all and, the day after when I returned, the water was much lower – far too low for an otter to swim. I realised the moment I had witnessed had been exceptional, for not often do both heavy flooding and a high tide make it possible for an otter to swim upstream.

Since then I’ve returned to look for paw prints and spraint, but found nothing. I’m guessing I’m unlikely to find anything in areas of the Ribble that might be erased by the tides. Still, I’ve been looking out for other signs such as tunnels in the grass and rolling places. I’m aware the Ribble Rivers Trust have filmed otters on the river and farmland locally.

*

This got me researching the natural history of otters and their cultural representations. Otters belong to the Mustelid family, which includes badgers, weasels, stoats, skunks, and pine martens. They evolved 30 million years ago (in contrast to hominids have only been about for 2.7 million years). There are 13 species of otter and those we see in the wild in Britain are European otters (Lutra lutra).

On average male otters are 140cm long and weigh 10kg and female otters are 105cm long weigh 7kg. The females begin to breed at 2 years old and give birth to 2 – 5 pups. The males leave them to raise the cubs alone and they must be taught to swim and catch fish before they leave home after 18 months. They can live up to 10 years but usually only survive for 5 due to the countless dangers they face.

Otters lead liminal lives between land and water patrolling territories up to 40km long. Within a territory they have a number of holts, underground dens formed in the cavities of tree roots or in old fox earths or rabbit burrow, along with resting-places called hovers, and lying-places called couches.

To survive the wet cold conditions they have developed a thick, thermal, waterproof pelt with two layers – an undercoat of short hairs and a top layer of guard hairs totalling 70,000 hairs per square centimetre.

Their metabolisms are so quick they must eat 15 per cent of their body weight a day – 1 1/2kg. Their favoured food is eels because they move slowly and have plenty of fat on them. They also consume fish, shell fish, and amphibians, turning them inside out to avoid the poison on their skins. Ducklings and rabbits are also occasionally on the menu, along with slugs, snails, and dragonfly larvae.

The end product is spraint, which is used to mark their territories, and is renowned for its sweet smell, like jasmine tea. In an otter’s spraint the shells and bones of their last meals can easily be seen.

In the 1960s it was noticed that otters were disappearing rapidly from our rivers – the result of the use of organochlorines and other chemicals that built up in their reproductive organs and left them blind. These damaging chemicals have been banned and since the 1990s efforts have been made to clear up and restore our rivers. This has led to the reappearance of otters on the Ribble with a 44 percent increase being claimed by the Environment Agency in 2011 (although this was the result of an increase in spraint rather than individual otters). The otter is described by Miriam Darlington as the ‘spirit level’ of our rivers – as an apex predator a measure of their health.

*

The term ‘otter’ derives from the Old English otor which shares similarities with the Norwegian oter, Icelandic otur, and Swedish utter. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *udrós ‘water animal’.

In the Norse myths we find a dwarf named Ótr who is the son of the king Hreimdar. Ótr takes the form of an otter and is killed by Loki for his pelt. Hreimdar demanded a large weregild for Ótr’s death – his pelt stuffed with yellow gold and covered with red gold. Loki covered all of Ótr but one whisker, which he was forced to conceal with the cursed ring, Andvarinaut. Afterwards greed for these treasures, known as Otter’s Ransom, brings disaster and death to Hreidmar and his other two sons.

In Welsh the otter is known as dŵr-ci, in Irish as dobhar-chú ‘water dog’, and in Scottish as dobhar or beaste dubh (black beast). These names also refer to a folkloric creature known as ‘King Otter’ who, in Ireland, was half-fish and half-dog and resembled an otter, but was five times as large.

The otter is the central character in the literary classics Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. It appears in poems by Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and Elizabeth Bishop, and recent books by authors tracking its disappearance from and return to our rivers such as Otter Country by Miriam Darlington and The Otter Among Us by James Williams.

In the Wildwood Tarot the otter is the Page of Vessels and John Matthews claims it is one of the oldest animals in the story of the search for Mabon, but I cannot find his source.

However, on a personal level, his claim relates to my desire to craft an oldest animals story for Mabon/Maponos here on the Ribble (where he was worshiped with his mother, Modron/Matrona, upriver at Ribchester and possibly here on Castle Hill). Beside the river are wooden sculptures of five creatures who I perceive to be ‘the Oldest Animals of Peneverdant’ and they are an owl, a dragonfly, a great crested newt, a trout, and an otter, all vital species within our local ecosystem.

The original story of the search for Mabon ends on the river Severn with Arthur and his men riding upriver on the back of a huge salmon to Mabon’s prison in a House of Stone at Caer Loyw.

Overlooking the Severn is a temple to Nodens/Nudd, ‘the Catcher’, a god of hunting, fishing, water, dreams, and healing. Bronze statuettes of dogs were offered to him in exchange for healing dreams. Nodens has no known associations with otters, but seems to share a kinship with them as a fellow fisher. He is associated with dwarves who might, like Ótr, take otter form. In the reappearance of water dogs on the Ribble, after years of pollution, I detect the healing touch of Nodens’ silver hand.

SOURCES

Environment Agency, “More otters living in the North West
than ever before,” August 2011, http://test.environment-agency
.gov.uk/cy/new/132443.aspx
Nicola Chesters, RSPB Spotlight: Otters, Bloomsbury Natural History (2014)
Miriam Darlington, Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, (Granta, 2013)
Paul and Katy Yoxton, ‘Estimating Otter Numbers Using Spraints: Is It Possible?’, Journal of Marine Biology, (2014)

Monsters of the Mere

In Beowulf, after the protagonist has defeated the monstrous Grendel in the hall of Heorot, he travels beyond the safety of its walls to the mere from which the monsters come to slay Grendel’s mother.

Beforehand, Hrothgar, King of the Danes, whose hall Beowulf is defending, describes ‘the haunted mere’:

‘a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere-bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.’

When Beowulf and his warriors arrive they find:

‘… The water was infested
with all kinds of reptiles. There were writhing sea-dragons
and monsters slouching on slopes of the cliff,
serpents and wild things…’

These quotes reflect a view of the wild land beyond the hall as uncanny and peopled by monsters. Beowulf is set in sixth century Scandinavia, but was composed in East Anglia during the seventh century and written down in the tenth century. I believe it was popular amongst the Anglo-Saxons due to the similarities between the landscapes and beliefs in Scandinavia and England.

Grendel is described as a ‘dark death shadow / who lurked and swooped in the long nights / on the misty moors’. The ‘shadow-stalker’ comes ‘In off the moors, down through the mist bands… greedily loping’. His mother is a ‘monstrous hell-bride’, a ‘hell-dam’, a ‘swamp thing from hell’, ‘a tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, a ‘she-wolf’, and a ‘wolf of the deep’ who lurks in the mere. We find repeated associations between monsters and an untamed landscape viewed as hellish.

No doubt the descriptions of the Danish landscape and its monsters resonated with the people of East Anglia with its extensive fenlands and lowland moors and bogs and its many meres – Trundle Mere, Whittlesey Mere, Stretham Mere, Soham Mere, Ug Mere, and Ramsey Mere, now sadly drained.

It’s likely the Anglo-Saxons and the Brythonic people whose culture they replaced here in Lancashire viewed the Region Linnuis, ‘the Lake Region’, where Martin Mere (at twenty miles in diameter once the largest lake in England), Shoricar’s Mere, Renacres Mere, Gettern Mere, and Barton Mere once lay, as similarly haunted, before they were all drained with the bogs and marshes.

In the fourteenth century Middle English story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the protagonist battles against an array of monsters as he travels north ‘into the wilderness of the Wirral’ and beyond.

‘He had death-struggles with dragons, did battle with wolves,
Warred with wild trolls that dwelt among the crags,
Battled with bulls and bears and boars at other times,
And ogres that panted after him on the high fells.’

Memories of Grendel-like monsters might be retained in Lancashire’s rich boggart lore. Boggarts are malevolent spirits who haunted the bogs then later the farmhouses when the land was drained. Some merely caused mischief, scaring children with their penny-whistle like voices, breaking pots and pans or curdling milk but others made livestock lame or ill and even killed animals and humans.

King Arthur’s Pit, on the shore of Martin Mere near Holmeswood Hall, was haunted by ‘boggarts and ghouls’. There are traditions of ‘shadowy night-time figures passing marl-pits near the old mere edge’.

Roby records the story of a ‘mermaid’ or ‘meer-woman’ abducting a baby from its natural father then leaving the child with a fisherman who gives him to a Captain Harrington to be fostered. This puts me in mind of the monstrous claw that steals a foal and, implicitly, Pryderi in the First Branch of The Mabinogion then leaves the boy in the care of Teyrnon who raises him as a foster-father.

Coupled with Martin Mere’s associations with the nymph, Vyviane, disappearing into the lake with the infant Lancelot du Lac (who is said to give his name to Lancashire) and with Arthur’s sword we might intuit these stories originate from the presence of a female water deity or monster who stole children.

During the digging of the sluice to drain Martin Mere ‘human bodies entire and uncorrupted’ were found and its seems possible they were deliberately deposited in the water. From the surrounding area we have evidence of bog burials at North Meols and, further afield, Lindow and Worsley Man. Lindow Man was sacrificed, dying a ‘three fold death’, and others may have been sacrifices to water deities.

Bog burials took place from the Bronze Age through the Romano-British period in Britain and were common across Germany and Denmark showing shared practices and beliefs surrounding wet places.

Unfortunately we do not know for certain who these sacrifices were to or how these people perceived their deities. It is clear that by the sixth century, due to the influence of Christianity, both Grendel and his mother and the wild landscape they inhabited had been heavily demonised.

This is evidenced by the Christianised explanation of the origins of these ‘fatherless creatures’ as springing from the exile of Cain for killing Abel with ‘ogres and elves and evil phantoms / and the giants too’.

The pagan beliefs of the Danes are referred to and condemned in Beowulf:

‘Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.’

Yet these explanations come up against the conflicting belief these ‘huge marauders’ are ‘from some other world’ and that their origin ‘hidden in a past of demons and ghosts’, defies explanation.

The grendelkin, like the later boggarts, occupy liminal places in the landscape and between the worlds. A wonderful verb, scripan, ‘meaning a sinewy and sinister gliding movement’ is used to describe the way they move and may also apply to the way they shift between the worlds. The dobbie, our northern British waterhorse, a similar kind of being, ‘is described as a big, black, horrible, misshapen thing that “slips about”’ and is ‘more likely to be seen out of the corner of the eye’.

Here, in Lancashire, the deities of the lake were not slain by a dark age ‘hero’ but met a slower, more ignominious end at the hands of the wealthy landowners who drained the mere. The first was Thomas Fleetwood who secured an Act of Parliament in 1694. He employed 2,000 workers to dig the 1.5 mile channel known as the Sluice to the coast at Crossens. His draining of the mere was completed by 1697.

Fleetwood died in 1717 and the following is written on his monument in the church in Churchtown:

‘He wished his bones to be here laid, because he made into dry and firm land the great Martinesian Marsh, by the water having been conveyed through a fosse to the neighbouring sea – a work, which, as the ancients dared not to attempt, posterity will hardly credit… These labours having been accomplished, he at length, alas! Too soon, laid down and died, on the 22nd April, A.D. 1717, in the 56th year of his age.’

Fleetwood’s success was short lived. The flow of the water was not strong enough to prevent the Sluice from silting up and the floodgates were breached leading to winter flooding. In 1778 Thomas Eccleston employed Mr. Gilbert (who built the Bridgewater Canal) to redesign and rebuild the drainage system, which again was successful for a while, until the mere was inundated by the Douglas.

So continued the cycle of rebuilding and flooding until the new pumping station at Crossens was built in 1961 which is capable of 373,000 gallons per minute and is already running to full capacity at peak times.

This leads me to wonder whether the deities of the mere and its monsters are dead or merely waiting beyond the lumbs and deeps of the mere bottom in places ‘never sounded by the sons of men’.

Sétanta – A Hero of the Setantii?

Sétanta and the Setantii

I have recently been revisiting the theory that Sétanta (later Cú Chulainn), a hero and perhaps a deity the Irish myths, was associated with the Iron Age Setantii tribe of northern Britain. Writing in 2CE the Roman geographer, Ptolemy, refers to Portus Setantiorum ‘the Port of the Setantii’, which was located at the mouth of the river Wyre, and also to Seteia, the river Mersey. This suggests the Setantii occupied the lowlands of present-day Cheshire and Lancashire from the Mersey to the Wyre.

The etymology of Setantii is one of much debate. Graham Isaac suggests it is emended from sego ‘strong’ and Andrew Breeze that is corrupted from ‘the Celtic *met “cut, harvest”, as in Welsh medaf “I reap”, Medi “September” (when corn is cut), Middle Irish methel “reaping party”’. Breeze notes these people were not ‘harmless agriculturalists’ and ‘Welsh literature indicates a bloodier sense’. Medel means ‘reaper’ ‘killer, mower down (of enemies in combat)’. The warrior-prince Owain Rheged is referred to by Taliesin as medel galon ‘a reaper of enemies’. Thus Metantii or Setantii is best translated as ‘reapers (of men), cutters down (in battle)’ and Meteia or Seteia as ‘reaper’.

In Celtic and Manx Folklore John Rhys puts forward the theory that Sétanta Beg means ‘the Little Setantian’, which we might translate as ‘reaping one’, and this would certainly fit with his ferocity in battle.

Rhys associates both Sétanta and Seithenin with the lost lands between Ireland and Wales. In Welsh legend Seithenin caused the flooding of the lands of Gwyddno Garanhir (1) when he failed to close the flood gates due to his liason with Mererid, the ‘fountain cup-bearer’, whose waters were loosed. Traditionally this story is associated with Cantre’r Gwaelod, ‘the Bottom Hundred’, ‘the shallows of Cardigan Bay’. Yet this area extended ‘northwards… off the coast of Cheshire and Lancashire, and occupied Morecambe Bay with a dense growth of oak, Scotch fir, alder, birch, and hazel’.

Gwyddno had two ports – Porth Wyddno (Borth) in Wales and ‘Porth Wyddno in the North’, one of Three Chief Ports in The Triads of the Island of Britain, which was likely Portus Setantiorum.

Holder theorises that Sétanta derives from Setantios and he was originally a Celtic god. Is it possible his mythos, the best developed of all the Irish deities, originated from the people who occupied the lost lands off the Lancashire coast and were later known as the Setantii?

Sétanta’s Birth and Boyhood

The stories of Sétanta/Cú Chulainn were written down by medieval Irish scribes during the 12th century in The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster and are now firmly embedded in the Irish landscape. He is associated with Ulster, the Ulstermen, and their king, Conchobar.

‘The Birth of Cú Chulainn’ is a story with much mythic depth. Conchobar rules Ireland from Emain Macha. The plain is devastated by a flock of magical birds, ‘nine-score’ ‘each pair… linked by a silver chain’. Conchobar, his daughter and charioteer, Deichtine, and nine other charioteers hunt them. A heavy snow falls and they are forced to seek refuge in a storehouse where they are welcomed to feast by its owner. His wife is in labour and Deichtine helps her give birth to a son. At the same time a mare gives birth to two colts outside. Deichtine nurses the boy and he is given the colts.

Afterwards Conchobar and his company find themselves east of the Bruig (Newgrange) ‘no house, no birds, only their horses and the boy and his colts’. Deichtine takes the boy to Emain Macha and continues to nurse him but, to her heart break, he dies. Afterwards she drinks a ‘tiny creature’ from a copper vessel. That evening the god, Lug, appears to her and tells her she is pregnant by him and must call their son Sétanta. Because she is engaged to Sualtam mac Róich and fears he may suspect she slept with Conchobar she aborts the child, then becomes pregnant by Sualtam and bears a son. He is called Sétanta and thus has both thisworldly and otherworldly fathers – Sualtam and Lug. His dual paternity, like that of Pryderi, son of Pwyll and Arawn in the Welsh myths, marks him as a ‘special son’.

Lug is an Irish deity who is descended from Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Irish gods, and Eithne, daughter of Balor, one of the monstrous Formorians ‘Undersea Dwellers’. Sétanta’s descent from a human woman on one side and gods and giants on the other goes a long way to explain his superhuman qualities.

As a mere boy he is described as going to play with the others and fending off fifty javelins with his toy shield, stopping fifty hurling balls with his chest, and warding off fifty hurleys with his one hurley.

Sétanta receives the name Cú Chulainn after being attacked by a hound belonging to Culann the smith. He puts an end to it in a grotesque manner. ‘The lad struck his ball with his hurley so that the ball shot down the throat of the hound and carried its insides out through its backside. Then he grabbed two of its legs and smashed it to pieces against a nearby pillar stone’. As recompense to Culann, he offers to be Culann’s hound and guard Muirthemne Plain until a pup has been raised to take his place. From then he is known as Cú Chulainn – the Hound of Culann.

Training with Scáthach

Cú Chulainn trains with the warrior-woman Scáthach ‘the Shadow’ at Dún Scáith ‘The Fortress of Shadows’ on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. From her he learns the arts of war including ‘the apple-feat, the thunder-feat, the blade-feat, the foen-feat, and the spear-feat, the rope-feat, the body-feat, the cat’s feat, the salmon-feat of a chariot-chief, the throw of the staff, the jump over […], the whirl of a brave chariot-chief, the spear of the bellows, the boi of swiftness, the wheel-feat, the othar-feat, the breath-feat, the brud geme, the hero’s whoop, the blow […], the counter-blow, running up a lance and righting the body on its point, the scythe-chariot, and the hero’s twisting round the points of spears’.

Most fearsome is his use of the barbed spear known as the gae bolga:thrown from the fork of the foot; it made a single wound when it entered a man’s body, whereupon it opened into thirty barbs, and it could not be taken from a man’s body without the flesh being cut away around it’.

During this period Cú Chulainn battles against Scáthach’s rival, another warrior-woman called Aife, defeats her, and offers to spare her life but only on the condition that she bears him a son.

The story of Cú Chulainn’s training with Scáthach shows links with Britain and the existence of a tradition where male warriors were trained by warrior women. This is also found in the Welsh myths where Peredur is trained by the Nine Witches of Caer Loyw and it might be suggested that Orddu, the Very Black Witch, of Pennant Gofid, in the North, fulfilled a similar role.

The Battle Rage of Cú Chulainn

After his training Cú Chulainn’s feats are many and his greatest is defending Ulster and the Brown Bull single handedly against the armies of Connacht whilst the Ulstermen are laid up with the Curse of Macha (1). This is recorded in The Tain. After putting them off by magic, picking them off with guerilla tactics and fighting against them in single combat he defeats them in three great massacres.

Here we witness his ability to cause incredible violence. With ‘his scythed chariot that glittered with iron tangs, blades, hooks, hard prongs and brutal spikes, barbs and sharp nails on every shaft, strut, strap and truss’ he drives into the ranks ‘three times encircling them with great ramparts of their own corpses piled sole to sole and headless neck to headless neck’, slaying ‘seven-score and ten kings’.

When he fights, Cú Chulainn is taken over by a battle rage known as his ‘warp spasm’ or ‘torque’. Its vivid descriptions, no doubt a delight to storytellers, driven to greater exaggerations, are worth citing.

‘The first Torque seized Cú Chulainn and turned him into a contorted thing, unrecognisably horrible and grotesque. Every slab and every sinew of him, joint and muscle, shuddered from head to foot like a tree in a storm or a reed in a stream. His body revolved furiously inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees jumped to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams to the front. The bunched sinews of his calves jumped to the front of his shins, bulging with knots the size of a warrior’s clenched fist. The ropes of his neck rippled from ear to nape in an immense, monstrous, incalculable knobs, each as big as the head of a month-old child.

Then he made a red cauldron of his face and features: he sucked one of his eyes so deep into his head that a wild crane would find it difficult to plumb the depths of his skull to drag that eye back to its socket; the other popped out on to his cheek. His mouth became a terrifying, twisted grin. His cheek peeled back from his jaws so you could see his lungs and liver flapping in his throat… The hero’s light sprang from his forehead… thick, steady, strong as the mast of a tall ship was the straight spout of dark blood that rose up from the fount of his skull to dissolve in an otherworldly mist…’

In his battle fury Cú Chulainn is described as warped and monstrous and these transformations may derive from his Formorian heritage. This is hinted at in a further passage: ‘Cú Chulainn torqued himself a hundredfold. He swelled and bellied like a bladder full of breath until he arched up over Fer Diad like a monstrously distorted rainbow, tall and horrible as a Formorian giant or a deep-sea merman’.

He also displays the ability to call up otherworldly spirits. His ‘roar of a hundred warriors’ is ‘echoed by the goblins and ghouls and sprites of the glen and the fiends of the air, for their howls would resound before him, above him, and around him any time he shed the blood of warriors and heroes’. ‘The clouds that boiled above him in his fury glimmered and flickered with malignant flares and sultry smoke – the torches of the Badb.’ This puts us in mind of the Scream over Annwn.

Even when he displays his ‘true beauty’ he is otherworldly with his hair in three layers, dark, blood-red and yellow, ‘four dimples in each cheek – yellow, green, blue and purple. Seven brilliant gems gleamed in each regal eye. Each foot had seven toes and each hand seven fingers, the nails or claws or talons of each with the grip of a hawk or griffin… He held nine human heads in one hand, ten in the other’.

Sétanta/Cú Chulainn is depicted a monstrous reaper of men and as a hunter of heads. Head-hunting was common amongst the Celtic peoples, particularly the Setantii, which is evidenced by the large number of severed heads ritually buried across their territories. It has been noted, whilst there is an absence of chariot burials in Ireland, there are many in northern Britain. So there is, at least, an argument that this otherworldly figure, like a giant or merman, originates from the people who once occupied the drowned lands between Britain and Ireland and may have been a Setantian god or hero.

The Tragedies of Cú Chulainn

Amidst the relentless violence endemic to a warrior culture whose greatest aim was winning everlasting fame through battle prowess we find some moving scenes based around Cú Chulainn’s relationships. When Cú Chulainn is badly wounded during his battle against the armies of Connacht his otherworld father, Lug, appears to fight his battle for three nights and days whilst he heals.

Tragically Cú Chulainn kills his son by Aife because he does not know who he is until he sees his ring. In an equally tragic scene Cú Chulainn faces and kills his foster-brother who was also possibly his lover, Fer Diad, with whom he trained with Scáthach. Their relationship is described in poignant verse:

Two hearts that beat as one,
we were comrades in the woods,
men who shared a bed
and the same deep sleep
after heavy fighting
in strange territories.
Apprentices of Scáthach,
we would ride out together
to explore the dark woods.

After many days of battle with various weapons Cú Chulainn puts an end to Fer Diad with the gae bolga.

His lament is heart wrenching:

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I wounded and dripping with gore,
your chariot standing empty.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
I leak blood from every pore
and you lie dead forever.

Sad is the thing that became
Scáthach’s two brave foster-sons –
you dead, I bursting with life.
Courage has a brutal core.

It puts me in mind of the lines spoken by Gwyn, our British death-god and gatherer of souls, who is doomed to live on whilst the warriors of Britain perish in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’ (2), which perhaps speaks of a shared origin to these poems.

Cú Chulainn’s love life also contains tragedy. His main lover is Emer but their relationship is put into jeopardy when Cú Chulainn goes to hunt her one of two magical birds ‘coupled with a red-gold chain’. He shoots but does not kill one. They turn out to be fairy women and, when he falls asleep against a stone, they take revenge by beating him with horsewhips until ‘there is no life left in him’.

He takes to his sick bed for a year and learns the only cure is to help one of them, Fand, to battle against her enemies. They fall in love and sleep together yet she is the wife of the sea-god, Manannan. Cú Chulainn returns to Emer but both are heart-broken. Cú Chulainn wanders the mountains neither sleeping nor drinking (3) until Manannan shakes his cloak between Cú Chulainn and Fand so she is forgotten.

Cú Chulainn’s death is fittingly tragic. His old enemy, Queen Medb of Connacht conspires to kill him with the sons of her enemies. He is tricked into breaking his geis of not eating the meat of his sacred animal, the dog, and by this he is weakened. He is killed by Lugaid, the son of Cú Roí, another otherworldy figure with whom he battles and defeats to win a maiden called Blathnat (4).

With a magical spear destined to kill three ‘kings’, Lugaid kills Láeg, Cú Chulainn’s charioteer, Liath Macha, Cú Chulainn’s horse and finally Cú Chulainn himself. Mortally wounded, Cú Chulainn ties himself to a standing stone so he can die on his feet facing his enemies. They remain afraid of him even after his death, not daring to approach until a raven lands on his shoulder. This symbolises he has been beaten by the only opponent worthy of defeating him, the death goddess, the Morrigan (5).

A Hero of the Setantii?

Here I have provided only glimpses into the rich mythos surrounding Sétanta/Cú Chulainn: his birth and dual paternity, his naming as Culann’s Hound, his training with Scáthach, his feats as a warrior, his love life (which features a number of women and possibly a man), and his death.

As we have seen, these stories are now firmly embedded within the Irish landscape. However, we know that many centuries ago Britain and Ireland were near joined together and that the gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Children of Don, share many similarities. Nodens/Nuada, the king of the gods, was worshipped on the Lancashire coast and his son, Gwyn, might have conversed here with Gwyddno. Lug(us) was the patron god of Carlisle (Luguvalium) further north. If he was venerated here it would make sense his son, Sétanta/Setantios, was also viewed also an important deity or hero.

The evidence suggests there is at least a possibility the stories of Sétanta originated from the lost lands off the coast of Lancashire where gods and giants gave birth to monsters, that this monstrous and beguiling head-reaping hero was one of the deities of the Setantii, the reapers of men.

(1) After Macha raced against the horses of the king of Ulster and won she gave birth and screamed that for five days and four nights any man who heard her would be afflicted by her labour pains. She then died. Her curse was passed on for nine generations. Macha’s name was given to Emain Macha.
(2) I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the north;
I live on, they are in the grave.

I was there when the warriors of Britain were slain
From the east to the south;
I live on, they are dead.
(3) His state resembles geilt/wyllt ‘mad’ or ‘wild’ in the Welsh and Irish myths where we find Suibhne Geilt and Myrddin Wyllt taking on bird transformations and Cynedyr Wyllt ‘nine times wilder than the wildest beast on the mountain’.
(4) ‘The contention of Corroi and Cocholyn’ (Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn) is referred to in the medieval Welsh poem ‘The Death Song of Corroi’ in The Book of Taliesin and the beheading game Cú Chulainn plays with Cú Roí perhaps depicts a conflict with the Head of the Otherworld, here known as Gwyn.
(5) The Morrigan appears earlier in the stories as young prophet then fights against him as an eel, a she-wolf, and a hornless red heifer. After the battle she tricks him into healing her when she appears as a one-eyed hag milking a cow with three teats by drinking from each which heals her three wounds.

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra, and Pen-Y-Ghent, Northern History, XLII: 1, (University of Leeds, 2006)
Ciaran Carson (transl.), The Tain, (Penguin, 2008)
Eoin Mac Neill, Varia. I, Eriu, Vol. 11, (Royal Irish Academy 1932)
Greg Hill, (transl.) ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, https://awenydd.cymru/the-conversation-between-gwyn-ap-nudd-and-gwyddno-garanhir/
Jeffrey Ganz, Early Irish Myths and Sagas, (Penguin, 1981)
John Rhys, Celtic and Manx Folklore: Volume One, (Project Gutenberg, 2017)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)

With thanks to Wikipedia for the images of Cú Chulainn. The photographs of the former site of Portus Setantiorum near the mouth of the river Wyre and the coast from Rossall Point where the remnants of the forest have been seen are my own.

The Buttercup Meadows

The tunnel
leads to Paradise.

To the buttercup meadows
where the goalposts
have no goals.

Although the bike sheds
and the mural of St Teresa
in her ecstasy are gone
her sigh lingers on.

The last gasp of a steam train
on the railway lines
overgrown.

The smoke no longer stains
the city walls.

I walk here like a dog
without a master

thrown by life’s curve balls

whilst he sleeps in
deep Annwn.

In the future
will I be your guide dog
or the one that went barking
into the unknown?

The Well of Life

‘From the Well of Life Three Drops Instilled’
John Milton

This image is based on a combination of the lines above from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a sketch of St Mary’s Well in Penwortham by Edwin Beattie (which can be viewed HERE), and the following words written about it by James Flockhart in 1854:

‘On the road which leads from Penwortham Bridge to the Church, at some distance before reaching the avenue leading to the entrance, there is a narrow pathway by which the traveller, after descending a few rude steps, may reach the fields on the left hand. At the bottom of the steps, a little to the right, is a spring of clear water flowing into a sort of natural basin, surrounded by brushwood, near which I have seen primroses and other wild flowers blooming in the greatest luxuriance. This well, like others in the olden time, had its patron saint. It was one of those acts of piety practised by our forefathers to acknowledge the inestimable value of water by dedicating all springs to some saint, but more particularly to the Virgin Mother of our Saviour, as being emblematical of purity. The well at Penwortham, in accordance with this custom, is said to have been dedicated to ” Our Blessed Ladye,” and to have been formerly remarkable for working extraordinary cures; and it is even believed by some to possess this power at the present day; in fact, I have heard many people in the neighbourhood say, that to wash the hands in its water is a certain antidote to evil.’

St Mary’s Well, at the foot of Castle Hill in Penwortham, dried up between 1884 and 1888 when the aquifer was shattered by the moving of the river Ribble during the creation of Riversway Dockland. As a Well of Healing and a Well of Life, which I believe was sacred to an older goddess named Anrhuna before it was re-dedicated to Mary, it continues to exist in Peneverdant, which for me is becoming a mythic reality of Penwortham much as Avalon is to Glastonbury and Blake’s Jerusalem is to London.