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…

Discovering Anrhuna

Anrhuna… it’s taken me many years to find out her name… nearly as many years as the many names I’ve known her by: Lady Ivy, Lady Green, Lady of Peneverdant (‘The Green Hill on the Water’), Lady of the Marsh, Mother of the Marsh, Mary of the Marsh, Marian, Mother of Annwn.

At my local sacred site, Castle Hill in Penwortham (Peneverdant in the Domesday Book), the church on the summit is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the well at the hill’s foot. I have known for a long time a goddess replaced by Mary lies beneath. I’ve felt her presence in the water dripping from the ivy, in ferns, hart’s tongue, enchanter’s nightshade, all the plants that love the damp.

Lady on the Mound - Copy

She’s gifted me with visions of how the land appeared to the ancient Britons who worshipped her. The Bronze Age Lake Village, the way across the marsh to the sacred hill marked out by stakes, the moonlit processions spiralling around the hill to light a beacon fire, the burial mound beneath the castle mound, the grove of trees circling the area where the church now stands, beloved of the druids.

Where the river Ribble (known then as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’) runs culverted and shifted from her course and on the other side stand the flats and out of town stores around the redundant docks I have listened to widgeon whistling and curlew calling across the marsh. I have seen tall, handsome cranes grazing beside the river and taller, mightier aurochs drinking deep, raising horned heads.

River Ribble, water level

Stranger still, two people from the US have contacted me to share visions of this place. A while back Heather Awen spoke of witnessing women making offerings from a wooden platform, praying for ‘a baby to fill their womb’, and seeing a woman ‘wrapped in burlap… tied with ropes’ lowered into the marsh. More recently Bryan Hewitt reported being drawn to do healing work in the area and seeing people in wooden boats traversing the river. Afterwards I had my first vision of the goddess as a person – a woman in a wooden boat getting bigger and bigger until she filled the skies, then trying to take the hill and docklands, severed by the moved river, in her arms to make her marshland one again.

Mother of the Marsh I

Bryan spoke to me of his relationship with a goddess he knows as the Mother of Annwn. When I met her on a journey she presented me with watery marshland imagery. A number of threads came together and I realised my local marsh goddess is this goddess of the waters of life flowing from Annwn.

Another thread that helped to complete this mysterious tapestry of place and deity is Bryan’s knowledge that the Mother of Annwn is the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, who I met in the damp woodland on the east bank of Castle Hill, where our local fairy funeral legend is set.

It is well known from his patronymic that Gwyn’s father is Nudd/Nodens, but the identity of his mother has fallen into obscurity. In The Descent of the Saints Gwyn is listed as the son of Tywanwedd, a little-known sixth century saint, who is also the father of Gwallog and Caradog, yet this has never rung true. Neither has the ungrounded claim of Robert Graves that Gwyn’s mother is Arianrhod.

The only real clue I have found is Ann Ross’s mention that at Nodens’ temple at Lydney there was found a stone statuette of a mother goddess, thirty inches in height, ‘her left leg crossed over her right’, ‘a corncupia in the crook of her left arm’, her head unfortunately missing. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. It seems likely she is Nodens’ consort and Gwyn’s mother.

There is also evidence for the worship of Nodens here in Lancashire. Two statuettes dedicated to him were found on Cockersand Moss very close the remains of Cockersand Abbey. This was dedicated to Mary of the Marsh – my marshland goddess Christianised. I realised it was likely she and Nodens were worshipped together both there and here on Castle Hill with their son, Gwyn.

The final thread was finding out the goddess’s name. When guesswork failed I asked her directly and she set me searching for it through the reeds as if for a bird’s egg scaring up whistling ducks, digging down into the peat through layers of history to the age of dug-out canoes and bronze spears, hearing it whispered in my ear as if on the breath of a bog body – “Anrhuna” (tentatively ‘Very Great’).

The tapestry of land and deity at Castle Hill – Anrhuna, Nodens, Gwyn, alongside Belisama, is complete.

Castle Hill Mound Autumn 2018

Penwortham Priory and the Rule of Saint Benedict

You wouldn’t know it had ever been there if wasn’t for the street names Priory Lane, Priory Close, Priory Crescent, Monk’s Walk, and the names of Priory Park Care Home and Penwortham Priory High School (where I was educated between 11 and 16 and from where I tried to escape as often as possible!).

Castle Hill, the pen, the prominent headland, which puts the ‘Pen’ in Penwortham has been the town’s central religious and defensive site for thousands of years. The castle mound remains along with St Mary’s Church and graveyard, but Penwortham Priory and its black-robed monks are long gone.

St Mary's Church

Penwortham Priory was founded in the 1140s when Warin (de) Bussel, a Norman Lord who was the first Baron of Penwortham, transferred St Mary’s Church to the Benedictine abbey of Evesham in Worcestershire. The abbot funded the building of the priory and sent a prior and three monks to serve.

The priory was an ‘obedience’ of Evesham Abbey and had no independence of its own. Because it was replaced with a mansion after the dissolution we do not know what it looked like. Alan Crosby suggests it is was a ‘monastic grange with a chapel… built around a quadrangle in some form of cloister.’

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Penwortham Priory rebuilt as a mansion

The priors and monks were often sent from the larger and richer abbey (where there were sixty-seven monks, five nuns, three clerks, and sixty-five servants) as a punishment. This bleak north-western headland, overlooking Penwortham Marsh and the tidal Ribble, must have been cold and wet and probably felt like the end of the world in contrast to Evesham.

We know little about Penwortham’s monks and priors. The priors’ names are listed from Henry in 1159 to Richard Hawkesbury, who withdrew before the dissolution of the priory in 1539. Those whose lives have warranted comment are a ‘good-hearted’ Prior Wilcote who fed his monks up after periodical blood-letting (this disturbingly suggests he was the exception) and a notorious prior called Roger Norris.

Norris was described as ‘a glutton, wine-bibber, and loose-liver’ who could nevertheless through eloquence and courtly manners put on a show of learning. After betraying his brethren at Christ Church, Canterbury, and being imprisoned, he escaped through a sewer. Richard I made him abbot of Evesham and he ‘dissipated its revenues until the monks were reduced to a diet of bread and water… for lack of decent clothing many of them could not appear in the choir or chapter house.’

Norris was eventually removed from his position and instead made prior of Penwortham where he continued in his excesses, being deposed then reinstated until 1223, when he died refusing to be reconciled to the abbot of Evesham and withholding certain revenues that belonged to the abbey.

Although there are no records of the everyday lives of the monks of Penwortham Priory we can gain insights into their routine and religious values by examining the life and rule of St Benedict and the Benedictine movement.

***

Benedict was born in Nursia, in Italy, in 480. He was sent to Rome to study but, disappointed by the immoral lives of his companions, he decided to leave and become a hermit. He departed for Enfide and, on his way through a narrow valley, met with Romanus of Subiaco, who lived in a monastery on the cliff. Subiaco gave Benedict his monk’s habit and counselled him to live in the cave beneath the cliff.

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Between the summit and the clear blue lake beneath Benedict lived alone for three years with Romanus bringing him food. Afterwards, when the monks of another nearby monastery asked him to become their abbot, he reluctantly agreed, but because of their ‘diverse manners’ they did not get on and attempted to poison him. Benedict prayed a blessing over the poisoned cup and it shattered.

When he returned to his cave a jealous priest called Florentius tried poisoning him with poisoned bread, but he prayed another blessing and a raven flew down and took the loaf away. When Benedict attracted his own followers Florentius tried to seduce them with prostitutes and failed.

To avoid further persecution Benedict left Subiaco and established 12 monasteries nearby. In 530 he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino where he died of a fever on the 21st of March in 543 or 547.

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Benedict originally wrote his Rule for autonomous self-governing communities. Its 56 chapters form guidelines regulating the daily offices of prayer, work, sleep, meals, clothing, possessions, and behaviour.

After his death Benedictine monasticism grew rapidly in popularity throughout Europe and was brought to England by Saint Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I to Christianise the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He founded the first Benedictine monastery in Canterbury and became its abbot in 597.

Saint Wilfrid, the first English Christian to visit Rome in 658, enforced the Roman method for calculating Easter and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict in his monasteries at Ripon and Hexham. Wilfrid was granted lands ‘iuxta Rippel’ ‘by the Ribble’ at Preston (Preosta Tun ‘Priest Town’) across from Penwortham. The parish church was dedicated him and he became the town’s patron saint. However, there is no evidence that Wilfrid set up any Benedictine monasteries in the local area.

Evesham Abbey was built by St Egwin between 700 and 710 after a swineherd called Eog experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Thus its link to St Mary’s in Penwortham is of interest.

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The Order of Saint Benedict was founded in 910 by the abbot of Cluny and this is when it became centralised.

152 Benedictine monasteries and 52 nunneries were established across England. They became important seats of learning and literature and sanctuaries for holy relics and works of art. It was partly because of their wealth and power that King Henry VIII dissolved them between 1536 and 1541.

***

From the Rule of St Benedict we can guess the monks of Penwortham performed eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime). They would have performed no less than five hours of manual labour. Eating the flesh of four-legged animals was banned. The usual fare was a pound of bread and quarter litre of wine (which I imagine was supplemented with seasonal fruit and vegetables and fish from the fisheries and panneries). They lived by strict vows of obedience, stability, and chastity, and the renunciation of all worldly possessions.

I have often wondered what led them to becoming monks. The call of God? The promise of a life rich in religion and art? The guarantee of safety and stability in a harsh and war-torn world? Did they find God, Jesus, Mary, here on this lonely hill as the rain poured and fires burnt low in the grates?

Did any of them sense the presence of the ancient goddess of the hill, the marsh, the healing well, or the otherworldly god and his spirits who would later be seen marching in a fairy funeral procession?

As an awenydd I can understand the appeal of leading a life of prayer in community in devotion to one’s god(s). However, I cannot imagine wanting to be part of an Order founded on the elimination of a multitude of local variants of Christianity, which in turn eliminated a multitude of local variants of paganism.

When I visit the sites of priories and abbeys I often feel a combination of yearning and sorrow. The yearning to be a part of something big, to participate in shared devotion, to find and wonder in the same god. Yet I also feel saddened by the weight of destruction that has brought this hegemonic religion about. All the gods and spirits and the diverse sets of beliefs that have been crushed, wiped out.

Whilst I long for a devotional community I could never join a Christian monastery or a pagan, polytheistic or druidic order that is based on or even inspired by Christian monastic ideals and principles as it these very things that have cast out and demonised the gods and spirits within the landscape.

Thus I remain a solitary devotee of those deities within the land, beneath the church, beneath the roads and street names that mark where the feet of monks once trod and where they tread no longer.

Monks Walk


SOURCES

Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, (1988)
Saint Benedict, Rev. Verheyen Boniface (transl), The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1923)
William Farrer and J Brownbill (ed.), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Penwortham’, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, (London, 1908)
Benedict of Nursia, Wikipedia

The Lady of the Marsh

I. Heather Awen and the Lady of the Marsh

Over the past few weeks I have been in conversation with Heather Awen, an animist and devotional polytheist based in Vermont in America, about an unknown Welsh marsh goddess. Tracing her mother’s ancestral line to northern Wales enabled Heather to perform a ritual where she raised a toast of pure clean water to each of her ancestors she knew by name.

Heather told me that the next day during her devotions to the Germanic goddess, Freyja, ‘a woman emerged out of nowhere, dripping with water as if she had leapt out of a lake like a fish. ” She’s my child!” she screeched “leave her alone!” She was very connected to a marsh… small and compact but curvy, darker skin with long wavy almost curly dark hair. And the fact that she knew me as her child felt very right and the closest thing I’ve ever felt to having a mother.’

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Lady of the Marsh by Heather Awen

Since then Heather has worked to gain an understanding of the Lady of the Marsh and her ancestors. She has witnessed torch-lit processions up a winding hill and offerings of weapons of fallen enemies thrown into the marsh with jewellery and gifts of butter. Sometimes these were made from a wooden platform.

On dark nights women went to pray for a ‘baby to fill their womb’ and the dark moon was a special time of communion between ‘a woman and her goddess’. She also saw a woman ‘wrapped in what looked like burlap tied with ropes’ thrown into the marsh whilst people looked on frightened. Heather remains unsure whether this was a ritual burial or sacrifice.

Heather said: ‘The main focus of all of the ceremonies was the understanding that every member of our family lived at the bottom of the marsh. Women would pray there to have one enter their own uterus while the dead, literally at least sometimes, were returned – and this had been happening for a very, very long time, even if language and culture changed.

As things decomposed and layers of soil and water shifted, the lines between those not yet born and those who had lived also decomposed and shifted, bringing a sense of at least partial reincarnation. Once you are a member of the tribe that came from this lady of the marsh, your descendants also would be born from her, no matter how far away in time or space. I was her child even though her worship was an indivisible combination of blood and bioregion.’

II. The Lady of Peneverdant

When I read Heather’s first e-mail introducing some of her visions, I shivered. Although I live in Lancashire what she had seen felt familiar. My hometown of Penwortham was known as Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ in the Domesday Book. Its Bronze Age inhabitants occupied a Lake Village on Penwortham Marsh. This is evidenced by the Riversway Dockfinds: two dug-out canoes, part of a timber platform, animal bones and 30 human skulls dating from 4000BC to 800AD.

It is indubitable these people used Castle Hill as a defensive position and sacred site. On the hill’s summit is a church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. St Mary’s Well, which was renowned for its healing qualities, lay at its foot. I believe veneration of Mary here is rooted in the worship of an older pre-Christian ‘mother’ goddess.

My relationship with this female deity of the hill and marsh, who I am beginning to know as the Lady of Peneverdant, has developed slowly and tentatively. I feel her presence most strongly in the wet mosses and ferns in Penwortham Wood (on the hill’s east bank and side) and sometimes see her face or outline in the dripping ivy.

Lady on the Mound - Copy

 

During a sequence of lunar meditations I saw members of the Setantii tribe ‘the Dwellers in the Water Country’ leaving the hill in oaken boats paddling down-river on the dark moon and returning on the full moon for a torch-lit procession. As they lit a beacon fire and toasted the moon above and reflected in the waters I felt the building potency of their rite but the rest was cut off.

I often wonder whether the human skulls found near the Lake Village were from marsh burials or even sacrifices. The perfectly preserved head of a woman with long auburn hair wearing a necklace of jet with an amber bead wrapped in coarse woollen cloth (found in Pilling) along with the more famous Lindow Man ‘Pete Marsh’ show ritual burials were not unknown in Lancashire. The current scholarly theory is people who died up-river were carried down and washed up in a tidal pool.

It’s my intuition the Lady of Peneverdant was venerated by local tribespeople as a mother of nurturing and healing waters closely associated with women, childbirth and death, potentially for 4000 years. This changed when the Romans arrived around 70AD and put an end to women playing an equal role in religion to men.

Whereas the Romans venerated The Mothers across Britain, scattered rumours of a Mithraeum near to Castle Hill or within the hill itself suggest a different transformation took place here. The focus shifted from the mother goddess to a divine son: Mithras, who was miraculously birthed from a rock on December the 25th.

This ‘virgin birth’ could go some way to explain the later dedications to St Mary the Virgin. References to an Anglo-Saxon stone cross and inscription of the Magnificat suggest the well was Christianised when the Anglo-Saxons settled in Penwortham (630BC onward?) if not before.

Under Christianity a sacred complex developed centring on Castle Hill and St Mary. Penwortham Priory was built in the 12th C. A pilgrim’s path led to St Mary’s Well where people cleansed their hands and bathed in the healing water. The path led to a stone cross further up the hill where further prayers were said before visits to St Mary’s Church and Priory (which was dissolved in 1535).

The earliest evidence for ancestral burial on the hill is the tombstone of a 12th C ‘crusader’. The oldest gravestones date to 1682 and 1686. The graveyard has been extended several times since 1853 and is now used only for select burials and cremations with the majority of Penwortham’s people being buried at Hill Road Graveyard and Cemetery and in its new woodland burial ground.

The shift of worship and perhaps ancestral burial from the marsh to the hill and from a marshland goddess to St Mary led to the marsh losing its sense of sanctity. Local folklore featuring boggarts, dobbies, fairies, phantoms, and Jen o’ Lanterns show under Christianity marshes became viewed as sinister places associated with old ‘pagan’ beliefs. Even these cautionary superstitions faded.

By the time of the Tithe Map (1837) most of Penwortham Marsh had been drained and reclaimed as farmland. Far worse followed during the industrial revolution. When the dockland was built in 1884 the Ribble was moved south. Penwortham Marsh was cut in two by the river with its larger northern remnant not only becoming Riversway Dockland but part of Preston.

More tragically the Ribble’s movement shattered the sandstone bedrock and breached the aquifer beneath Castle Hill. Afterward St Mary’s Well dried up. Two years ago I had a vision of a water dragon gasping and shrinking then sliding into the underworld. I feel on some level this was the Lady’s womb.

Industrialisation has not ended. In the 1960’s the expansion of the A59 led to the covering over of the site of St Mary’s Well. Penwortham By-pass, built in the 1980’s, now obscures the hill and church, drowning its peace with the roar of traffic. It is my intuition vibrations from the by-pass combined with the shattered aquifer have led to the subsidence of the hill and falling gravestones. This has caused the closure of a large part of the graveyard.

For these reasons my relationship with the Lady of Peneverdant has been slow and difficult. Her marsh has been drained and severed and her holy waters have dried up. Often I feel she and the local spirits don’t want any more contact with humans. At one point I wished to revive their worship and introduce other pagans to the place but I’ve received clear signals this isn’t wanted.

III. Hopeful Coincidences

A couple of days after receiving Heather’s first e-mail I set off down the remainder of the pilgrim’s path toward Castle Hill. In Well Field I asked the Lady of Peneverdant whether she had ever been known as the Lady of the Marsh and if so could she show me a sign. As I walked across the field awash with rain from days of downpour so deep it nearly came over the top of my boots I received the gnosis ‘this is the Lady’s Field’.

Well Field  - Lady's Field - Copy

Passing the site of St Mary’s Well, ascending the steps, then crossing the A59 to Penwortham War Memorial I caught a glimpse of running water. Looking again I could not believe my eyes. I had found a new ‘spring’ flowing into a stony basin! Drawing closer I saw it was called Centenary Well and dated 1914 to 2014. It must have been built to mark the commemoration of the First World War.

Centenary Well - Copy

How could I not have noticed it before? Could this mean the aquifer wasn’t completely broken? I contacted local historian Heather Crook who told me Centenary Well was built last year by a local joiner called Peter Gildert to commemorate WWI. It was designed to channel run-off water from the hill. I hadn’t noticed it before as I hadn’t been past in a period of such heavy rain. Although I was disappointed to learn the water was run-off, finding the well on the day I posed the question seemed like a sure sign I was on the right track identifying her as the Lady of the Marsh.

The notion people in Lancashire and northern Wales once worshipped similar deities is backed up by Stephen Yeates’ theory that Gwynedd, Powys, Cheshire and Lancashire to Morecambe Bay were included together in Roman Valentia. Evidence from place-names, field patterns and customs based on the Venodotian Laws suggest northern Wales and Lancashire once shared a Brythonic culture. Until the 13th C a Brythonic language called Cumbric, which is similar to Cymric (Welsh), was spoken in Lancashire. My experiences suggest the Lady of the Marsh may be ‘the same’ deity with localised variants rather than the genius loci of a single site, which was my original belief.

One of the questions Heather asked was how to say ‘Lady of the Marsh’ in Welsh. To find out I got in touch with Heron who replied:

“Lady of the Marsh’ is best translated as ‘Arglwyddes y Gors’, although much wet ground in Wales apart perhaps from the marshy areas along the Gwent Levels, is upland boggy moorland, usually known as ‘Migneint’. So ‘Arglwyddes y Figneint’ or ‘Dynes y Figneint’ would also be possible. One other possibility also occurs to me and that is ‘Marian’, not a personal name but a term used to denote marginal (liminal?) land, usually between fields and beach. As a name it probably derives from Mar- or Môr (sea) but it might be fortuitous in this respect?’

In relation to the cluster of Marian sites on or near Penwortham and Preston Marshes: St Mary’s on Castle Hill, Lady Well on Marsh Lane, the site of St Mary’s Church on Friargate and a chapel and hospital dedicated to St Mary in Maudlands, the term ‘Marian’ seemed extremely fortuitous. In relation to its derivation from ‘Mar- or Môr (sea)’ I recalled that in Penwortham St Mary was worshipped as Stella Maris ‘Star of the Sea’ which fits with the long usage of the area by sea-faring people.

Of the Marian sites I mentioned only St Mary’s on Castle Hill remains. Lady Well was connected with a Fransiscan Friary (which gave the names of Friargate and Greyfriar’s Pub). The Friary was dissolved in 1539 but the well remained open until the 19th C. It now lies beneath the carpark of student halls on Lady Well Street. St Mary’s Church on Friargate was founded in 1605 and closed in 1992 and has been replaced by St Mary’s Car Park. It is memorialised by a statue of St Mary with a one-handed Jesus.

Close to the towering spire of present-day St Walburge’s was a leper hospital and chapel run by the Franciscan Friars. This was an important place of pilgrimage in the 14th C. The chapel and hospital began to fall into disrepair in 1520 and were dissolved in 1548. According to local legend, on Christmas Eve bells can be heard ringing in the sunken chapel.

The story of the Lady of the Marsh in Penwortham and Preston is one of loss and sadness. Her very being has sunk down and dried up in a land that is no longer a marsh and been covered over by industrial developments. However Heather’s visions and the fact she is able to access this old, unknown Brythonic goddess through her bloodline from America provide hope.

More positively Heather said: ‘When you told me about that church and other churches like it, I understood that those are the people she still loves and provides for even though the water has been drained and her name has changed again. She’s been there for so long under so many different names being called Mary doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she is still helping; especially women with issues around motherhood and death.’

As the church bells ring out on Christmas Eve from thisworld and the underworld; Catholics prepare for Midnight Mass, Heathens celebrate Mother’s Night and Roman pagans prepare for the birth of Mithras I will honour the Lady of the Marsh.

The Old North from Peneverdant

SnowdropsIn the land where I live, spring awakes. Snowdrops in their prime unfold the voluminous skirts of their lanterns. Lords and ladies push their courtship through the soil alongside first signs and scents of ransoms. Swollen mosses take on a bright green living vibrancy.

As I walk the path centuries of ancestors walked to St Mary’s Well, I hear the loudness of a thrush. Could it be the one who calls me from sleep each morning, speckled chest blanched and white as birch amongst ash and sycamore? The trees hold back for now, but I know the sap will start rising soon.

I pass the site of the healing well and cross the road to the War Memorial. Splashes of pink, purple and yellow primroses are planted in beds before the Celtic cross. Etched on blue-grey slabs are the names of seventy-three men who lost their lives in the First World War and forty-six who died in the second. They are honoured and remembered here. I also think of the dead who have no memorial or whose memories have been erased or forgotten.

I follow the footpath uphill onto Church Avenue. Leading to St Mary’s Church, it once went to a Benedictine Priory, dissolved and more recently demolished. A strange road this; trodden by pilgrims in search of miraculous cures and by funeral processions. By soldiers too, maybe armies, defending this crucial position from what we now see as the castle motte.

Passing the church on the hill’s summit I stand in the graveyard amongst tilted and fallen headstones, beneath sentinel beech trees whose shells and bronzed and curling leaves still litter the greening earth.

There’s no access to the motte’s vantage point, but through leafless trees I can make out the city of Preston with its clock tower, steeples, tower blocks and huge manufacturies along Strand Road. I recall images of its panoply of smoking chimneys, flaming windows, imagine the pounding Dickensian melancholy-mad elephants.

Preston’s sleeker now. Cleaner. Less red and black. Concrete grey. Not so smoky. But sometimes the industrial pall still holds. Somewhere behind its walls lies a medieval town and behind that…

The Pennines form a sweeping backdrop, rising higher than Priest Town’s spires ever could; Parlick, Wolf Fell, Longridge Fell, Billinge Hill, Great Hill, Winter Hill. An easterly green and purple barricade. To the west, the river Ribble, Belisama, strapped into her new course, stretches long arms to her shining estuary. A sea gull cries over the horizon and disappears.

I’ve spent several years researching the history of Penwortham. The Riversway Dockfinds mark the existence of a Bronze Age Lake Village. Ballista balls on Castle Hill and a huge industrial site at Walton-le-dale ascertain a Roman presence. Following the breakdown of Roman rule, history grinds to a halt.

There is a black hole in Penwortham’s past the size of the Dark Ages; during the time of the Old North.

Historians have conjectured about this. David Hunt and Alan Crosby agree that place names (where we find a mixture of Brythonic and Old English, like Penwortham* often conjoined) suggest a gradual settlement of the local area by Anglo-Saxons during the seventh century. They say Penwortham’s remoteness on the edges of Northumbria and Mercia meant it was not a major concern. However, this conflicts with the significance of its location as a defensive position for the early Britons and Romans and later probably for the Saxons of Mercia and the key role it played for the Normans during the harrying of the North.

History starts up again with the Saxon hundreds, invasions from Scandinavia and the Norman Conquest. But what happened in between?

Unfortunately, likewise, there is a black hole in the history of the Old North the size of Penwortham. And it isn’t the only one.

The very concept of ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘the Old North’ is problematic. It is a term used post datum by scholars to identify an area of land covering the majority of northern England and southern Scotland from the time of the breakdown of Roman rule in the fifth century until the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria came to dominate in the eighth century.

During this period, it was simply known as ‘Y Gogledd’ ‘the North’. Its people spoke a Brythonic language known as Cumbric, which was similar to the Cymric language of the Welsh. Its rulers ‘Gwŷr y Gogledd’ ‘the Men of the North’ claimed common descent from either Coel Hen (Old King Coel) or Dyfnawl Hen. Again, the genealogies are problematic because they were created by kings to certify their reign by tracing their lineage back to legendary ancestral figures.

The main kingdoms of the Old North are usually identified as Alt Clud, in the south-west of Scotland, which centred on Dumbarton and later became Strathclyde; Gododdin, in the south-east of Scotland, which had a base at Edinburgh; Elmet, in western Yorkshire and Rheged in north-west England.

The location of Rheged is a matter of ongoing debate. For Ifor Williams it centres on Carlisle and the Eden Valley and covers Cumbria, the Solway Firth and Dumfries and Galloway. John Morris posits the existence of a northern Rheged in Cumbria and a southern Rheged that extended into Lancashire and Cheshire. On the basis of landscape and resources, Mike McCarthy suggests a smaller kingdom or set of sub-kingdoms existed either north or south of the Solway. If McCarthy is correct, we do not have a name for present day Lancashire at all but a black hole the size of a county or larger!

Another problem is that textual sources about the Old North are extremely limited. We have some historical records such as the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Much of the history of this period is derived from the heroic poetry of the Dark Age bards Taliesin and Aneirin. Later saga poetry construes dramatic dialogues between characters associated with earlier events.

Research leads to where history and myth converge but can take us no further. It becomes necessary to step beyond study across the threshold to otherworlds where the past, our ancestors and deities still live.

So I speak my intentions to the spirits of place; the Lady in the Ivy with her glance of green, wood pigeons gathered in the trees, the people buried here in marked and unmarked graves.

I speak with my god, Gwyn ap Nudd, who abides beyond this land but sometimes seems closer than the land itself. The god who initiated and guides this quest.

His suggestion: what is a black hole but a portal?

Our agreement stirs a ghost wind from behind the graves, rustling bronze beech leaves and tree whispers from above.

The hill seems greener. A single white sea gull barks. Then long-tailed tits come chittering and twirling to the brambles.

Beech trees and castle motte*Penwortham first appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as ‘Peneverdant.’ Writing in 1857 Rev. W. Thornber claims this name is of British origin and ‘formed of three words- pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water’. This describes exactly how I imagine Castle Hill would have looked during the eleventh century near the Ribble on the marsh. However, ‘verdant’ has always sounded more like French for ‘green’ to me.

Alan Crosby says ‘Peneverdant’ results from a Norman scribe trying to write an unfamiliar word (which was likely to have been in use for up to 500 years) phonetically. He tells us the ‘Pen’ element in Penwortham is British and means ‘prominent headland’ whilst ‘wortham’ is Old English and means ‘settlement on the bend in the river’.

If Penwortham had an older British name prior to Saxon settlement, it is unknown. I can’t help wondering if it would have been something like ‘y pen gwyrdd ar y dŵr,’ which is modern Welsh for ‘the green hill on the water’. It’s not that far from Peneverdant.

Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

Ribble Illusions

Yesterday I had a most uncanny experience. Approaching the river Ribble from Castle Hill, I found myself facing a long stretch of tide marked wall that gave the appearance it had dropped away into nowhere. I was struck by a sudden sense of vertigo. The Ribble couldn’t have disappeared, as if had fallen into a void, surely?

River RibbleOn closer inspection, seeing the reflections of the grilles and staircases, and catching subtle fluctuations in the surface of the water, I realised this was an illusion created by a combination of its stillness with the markings on the stone.

River Ribble, reflection of a grilleRiver Ribble, stairsTo my relief at either end of the concrete barriers, the ‘true’ water level was clear.

River Ribble, water level

River Ribble, water levelDrawn  to stay a while in meditation on the strange appearance and disappearance of the river, which occurred as I shifted my eye-line, I was gifted with the sight of several birds. Common and black headed gulls and terns circled, their darker shadows mirrored in the water. Another bird, which I think may have been a grebe or even a black throated diver flew in. Diving with quick flips of its tail it emerged, for the most part, triumphant with white-silver fish, which after a brief kerfuffle vanished down its throat. Finally, a heron arrived to land majestically on a piece of flotsam.

Heron, river RibbleFor me this goes to show that even where it is channelled, the Ribble is a magical and mind altering place. I give thanks to the river, all its visitors and inhabitants, and its goddess Belisama.

Penwortham Fairy Funeral

Penwortham Fairy Funeral is a legend based around Castle Hill, a site of religious and formerly military importance in my home town. The first part of this article presents the original version and its later developments in the context of their placement in the landscape. The second will discuss its origin and meaning within the context of British foklore.

The Fairy Funeral receives its first known mention in James Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878). A cow-doctor and younger man called Robin are walking home by moonlight from a farmhouse at the foot of Castle Hill to Longton. They climb the hill and pass through St Mary’s graveyard. As they make their exit the clock tolls midnight. They walk down a track to the Lodge, where they hear a passing bell. The gate of the Lodge swings open and a little figure wearing dark clothing and a red cap steps into the avenue chanting. He is followed by a cavalcade of similar figures carrying a coffin and singing a requiem.

The coffin is open. Robin looks inside and sees his miniature corpse, dewy and pale. The procession continues into the graveyard followed by the men. Driven by dread, Robin reaches out and touches the leading fairy. The cavalcade vanishes and a storm sweeps in. Driven mad by the scene, a month later Robin falls to his death from a haystack and is buried in the graveyard where he had seen the funeral of his double take place (1).

Fairy Funeral 1

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

A later version appears to have been passed down by word of mouth. Eli Robinson and Giley Leatherbarrow are walking home from the Black Horse pub in Preston. Having consumed too many Thwaites bitters they decide to take a short cut through Penwortham Wood, which lies on the east slope of Castle Hill. Following the mud track, which is known in the locality as Fairy Lane, they catch sight of the procession. Eli sees the face in the coffin is his own. When he gets home, Eli’s missus refuses to believe he saw a fairy funeral, thinking instead that Thwaites’s ale will be death of him. A month later he is dead. In this version it is uncertain whether he falls from a haystack or takes his own life (2).

Fairy Funeral 2

Current map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

Whilst the characters, background and location change, the core myth- a young man sees the double of his corpse borne by a fairy funeral procession and dies within a month- remains the same.

St Mary's Church, PenworthamThe legend can be seen as rooted in the funeral traditions of the township. The earliest known burial at St Mary’s Church is a 12th century crusader. Although there are no more gravestones until 1682, recent excavations uncovered a Rawstorne family crypt and large number of unnamed bodies whose graves had been built over during an extension of the church. Local historian David Hunt believes everybody who lived in Penwortham would have been buried at St Mary’s and suspects many of the uncovered bodies were victims of the 1631 plague (3). The graveyard was expanded greatly during the 18th century and as plaques for cremations exist well into the 21st century, I assume it is still in use.

Stone Cross, Church AvenueThe name Church Avenue is suggestive of a processional route. Half way along is a stone cross, replacing a more ancient pedestal (on the map below), which may have been a marker. South of Church Avenue is the site of St Mary’s Well, which was attributed healing powers but dried up at the end of the 19th century before being built over by the A59. Leading to the well from Middleforth was a pilgrim’s path which may also have been part of the route.

Processional Route

1850’s map, from Mario Maps, route marked in red

The position of the current War Memorial suggests the route has continuing connections with ancestral remembrance.

Penwortham War Memorial

I suspect the reason the location of the legend changed was due to houses being built along Church Avenue in the early part of the 20th century. A secular perspective might assume people stopped associating the well lit avenue and its modern housing with the spectral procession, which in the original version travelled along a dark, tree lined mud road. Contrastingly, those who believe in fairies might argue that when the road and houses were built the fairies were either forced to move or made a decision to hold their funerals elsewhere.

Church Avenue

Anybody who has visited Fairy Lane will know it is an enchanted place. Ash and sycamore are decked with ivy and the ground is thick with moss and rich with fern and hart’s tongue. Every spring the woodland is carpeted with wild garlic and bluebells. The trees lining the lane are gnarled and fay and it’s easy to see why it might be associated with fairies, or why the fairies might have chosen it is an alternative location for their processions.

Faery Lane, Spring

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The origin of Penwortham Fairy Funeral can be partially derived from the landscape and local funeral traditions. However this does not explain why the men saw fairies, as opposed to ghosts or other spectres, or the portentous aspect of the legend. Locating it within the context of British folklore has helped me gain a better understanding.

Prior to Saxon settlement, the inhabitants were part of a culture who spoke Cumbric, a British language close to the Welsh Cymric (4). This is shown in the etymology of ‘Penwortham’. According to Alan Crosby the ‘Pen’ element is a British word meaning ‘prominent headland.’ ‘Worth’ is Old English and means ‘enclosed settlement’. ‘Ham’ is Old English for ‘land within the bend of a river’ (5). An older spelling of Penwortham found in the Domesday Book is ‘Peneverdant.’ Rev. Thornber says ‘the old name of Penwortham is of British origin, thus – Peneverdant is formed of three words – pen, werd or werid and want, as Caer werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water, that is the green hill on the water.’ (6) East of Penwortham is Walton-le-dale. Walton is Old English for ‘the settlement of the Welsh’ (ie. native Britons).

Paul Devereux says that associations between fairies and funeral processions are common in Welsh mythology. He cites Edmund Jones ‘It was said of Welsh fairies “very often they appeared in the form of Funeral before the death of many persons, with a Bier, and a Black Cloth, in the midst of a company, about it, on every side, before and after it”… it was “past all dispute that they infallibly foreknew the time of Men’s death.”’ (7)

The term ‘fairy’ derives from the Latin ‘fatum,’ which means fate. Their Welsh name is ‘the Tylwyth Teg,’ the fair tribe or family (8). Implicit are physical qualities and a capacity to deal in ‘fairness.’ Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire and other collections of British folklore which depict people’s interactions with fairies, be they helpful sprites or malevolent boggarts, show the survival of a belief they play an active role in the determination of human fate.

In Burnley in Lancashire there is a similar legend. Captain Robert Parker of Extwistle Hall is walking home from a Jacobite meeting. He hides and by moonlight sees his name etched in brass on the coffin. He takes this as a warning not to support the Jacobites and backs out of the 1715 uprising (9) thus escaping imprisonment. However in 1717 he and two of his daughters are seriously injured in an accident in the hall involving gun powder. Parker dies from his injuries a month later (10).

Other fairy funeral legends include the following: In Gwent a man witnesses a fairy funeral procession approaching down a mountain toward ‘Abergeeg, or Lanithel church.’ He hides behind a wall and as the funeral passes steals a black veil from the bier, which he finds to be made of an ‘exceeding fine Stuff… very light’ (11). In Cornwall a man witnesses the funeral of a fairy queen. As the fairies bury her their shriek of lament is so alarming he joins in. Hearing his voice the fairies depart in panic, piercing him with sharp instruments as they fly away (12). The London based poet William Blake also claims to have witnessed a fairy funeral (13).

Although the consequences of witnessing these funerals are not as dire or fortuitous as the Lancashire cases it is clear the fairies are seen as real and that interacting with them has a real effect on human lives. The man from Gwent steals an actual cloth. The Cornish man is physically injured. Whilst Blake is not harmed he claims to have died several times during his lifetime and his poetry certainly displays the visionary quality of Faery.

Whilst our secular worldview attempts to eliminate beliefs unproved by reason or science they continue to be evidenced by arts and folklore and in personal experiences with the fairy races themselves. Penwortham Fairy Funeral is only one example of relations between humanity and Faery. I wonder whether there as many stories as there are incidences of contact with fairies?

Fairy Lane, Spring 2014

(1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL
(2) http://everything2.com/title/The+Fairy+Funeral
(3) http://www.srtt.co.uk/2012/12/the-archaeology-of-penwortham-a-talk-by-david-hunt-2/
(4) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p96
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past (1988), p14
(6) Rev. W. Thornber, ‘The Castle Hill of Penwortham,’ Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire 1856/7, p66
(7) Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2003), p135
(8) T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore (1930), p51
(9)http://www.lancashiretelegraph.co.uk/lookingback/8452575.Bag_a_boggart__but_don___t_give_it_gifts_/?ref=rss
(10) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire,’ ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape (2010), p97
(11) http://www.blaenau-gwent.gov.uk/8037.asp
(12) http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/efft/efft22.htm
(13) Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (2002), p197

Castle Hill

Castle Hill, motteSegregated by the howling by-pass and enclosed within a shroud of trees Castle Hill is a well kept secret unknown to most of Penwortham’s residents. Yet this hidden headland puts the ‘pen’ in Penwortham, or Peneverdant- ‘the green hill on the water’. It is the place where the history of the township began.

Occupation of the area dates to the Neolithic Period. The construction of Preston Docks in the late nineteenth century unearthed a collection of human skulls dating from 4000BC to 800BC, the bones of auroch and red deer, a bronze age spearhead, remnants of a brushwood platform and pair of dug out canoes indicating the existence of a dwelling akin to Glastonbury Lake Village inhabited by the Setantii tribe. Following from the notion that churches are built on pagan sacred sites it is possible St Mary’s church (which is on the summit) replaced a burial mound and / or stone circle.

The sacred nature of the hill is shown by three recorded holy wells. The best known is St Mary’s Well, which was located at the hill’s foot. It was attributed healing properties and was an important sight of pilgrimage. Since drying up its has sadly been covered over by the by-pass. This well was of such importance local people walked a mile to fetch water from it, following the pilgrim’s path. St Anne’s well was located to the west of the church. A well within the church was recently discovered to contain a body inhumed with three skulls which might serve an apotraic function.

A ballista ball and nearby industrial site supplemented by the tale of a ghostly troupe of centurions suggest Roman occupation. The castle mound and its twin at Tulketh were built by Saxons to hold off the Vikings who buried the infamous Cuerdale Horde. When the Normans invaded they rebuilt the castle and Peneverdant served as administrative centre to the Barony of Bussel. The hill was also the site of Penwortham Priory and residence of some scurrilous monks.

Since then St Mary’s church has governed the parish. Whilst the earliest known grave is of a 12th C crusader, the graveyard has served as a burial place for Penwortham’s people since the sixteenth century. The war memorial on the south bank resonates deeply with its association with ancestral remembrance.

One of its darkest legends concerns a fairy funeral. Two men returning home come upon a procession of little men clad in black, wearing red caps and bearing a coffin. One of them dares to look within and sees his miniature doppelganger dead and cold. When the fairies begin the burial he tries to stop it by grasping their leader and the party vanishes. Driven mad by the experience he topples from a haystack to his untimely end.

The path running through Church Wood beside the hill is known as Fairy Lane. In spring it is covered by bluebells and ransoms. In summer the blackbird song never ends. In autumn winds crash, leaves fall and the by-pass roars. Through winter’s depth ivy keeps the wood alive, the leaning yew holds vigil and for a blessed moment there is silence.

Every visit to this magical place, standing between humanity and nature, the dead and the living reminds me of those unseen bonds which might otherwise remain unacknowledged as the old green hill.

* First published in The Druid Network Newsletter (Samhain 2013)