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.

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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

~

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)

Gwyn’s Apprenticeship and the Role of the Awenydd

Moon over Castle HillAfter two years studying Druidry (and many years prior to this of searching) on the morning of the winter solstice I received a name for my spiritual path- Awenydd. It was a gift, bestowed by Gwyn ap Nudd (1) and the spirits of my local landscape.

Over the past year my path has grown to centre on my apprenticeship to Gwyn, which began when I made a vow to him as my patron at Glastonbury’s White Spring last January. This role has involved learning more deeply the life cycles of the trees, plants and wildlife of my local area, journeying to meet their spirits and travelling into the land’s past to learn its history. With Gwyn’s guidance I have journeyed the Otherworld, gaining direct experience of realms such as Annwn and Faery, met their inhabitants and borne witness to mythic events.

In exchange I have strived to share this magic through poetry with the aim of revealing my local landscape as inspirited and communicating my vision of the Otherworld. I believe this serves Gwyn for it his task as a king of the Otherworld and leader of the Wild Hunt to maintain the dynamic between the worlds lest this one be destroyed (2). Being gifted with the role of the Awenydd seems to be a natural development of this relationship.

An early description of the Awenyddion can be found in Giraldus Cambrensis’ 12th century manuscript, Description of Wales.

‘There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenyddion, or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift.’ (3)

When I first read this passage a couple of years back I found little I could relate to. Returning to consider it now I find the ideas more resonant.

A phrase which immediately stands out is that the Awenyddion are people inspired. Within the Bardic Tradition I have found the predominance of structured courses of training and people’s preconceptions about the role of the Bard problematic. Experience has taught me I cannot learn stories or poems by rote. Myths and the deities within them have a life of their own, calling through Bardic, folkloric and contemporary texts, or revealing themselves in the landscapes of either world to impart the gifts of inspiration and transformation when the time is right.

Following a conversation with a visiting speaker at my local pagan society, who when I named my path as “Druid Bard” assumed I was of the ‘Bardic Grade’ and completing a ‘gwers’ within OBOD I began to question (and not for the first time) whether this name was a true fit with my spirituality.

During this period I asked Gwyn how my apprenticeship related to Druidry. He told me my role is bound up with the primal Awen, which flows before thought through all things. This supported my suspicion that true inspiration can only speak when systems, concepts and fear of other people’s opinions are set aside. Only by listening directly to the Awen and my own intuition could I become a person inspired and create works worthy of sharing with others.

Another point of resonance is that inspiration is a gift from the spirits, through possession, dreams, milk or honey or a ‘written schedule.’

I’ve never been possessed in the sense of losing my senses and being unable to recall what happened afterward. However I have channelled the voices of spirits and deities whilst writing poetry. During a writing trance visions have appeared where they have revealed themselves in new ways and I’ve recognised their guiding hand even when making finishing touches, in the gift of a completing image or right feeling of a word.

I’ve also been gifted with inspiration in dreams. One of my most significant dreams was when I learnt the identity of my white totem mare. She appeared to me winged and I joined consciousness with her to fly to the top of Castle Hill, a local sacred site. Another important dream occurred the night before my birthday. After seeing a moon bridge in the river Ribble I dreamt of questioning a series of gnarled fay in a cave in Castle Hill. When I realised the process was futile Gwyn appeared and inquired why I hadn’t asked him. By this time I had forgotten the question. The dream conveyed a powerful message about the ethos of questioning in the realms of Faery and dream.

The mention of milk or honey puts me in mind of mead, which in my experience certainly inspires connection with the spirits, writing processes, performances and rituals. The image of the ‘written schedule’ touching an Awenydd’s lips seems to symbolize direct inspiration through the written word.

In the modern world the role of the Awenydd is not limited to ecstatic prophets. Kristoffer Hughes places ‘becoming Awenydd’ – ‘becoming the inspirer’ at the core of Druidry. He says ‘they were the enlightened ones, those who serve, those who inspire to bring others into the mystery of spirit and the great song… by inspiration.’ (4)

Elen Sentier is an ‘awenydd, a spirit keeper and taleweaver from a long family lineage.’ She describes this path as ‘British native shamanism.’ (5) Alongside her reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways she works with Gwyn as ‘the goddess’ guardian.’ Part of her work involves tracing Elen’s Deer Trods which are also the ‘energy roads’ down which Gwyn leads the Wild Hunt. Many of these are ‘spirit paths’ taking souls to the Otherworld (6) and correspond with corpse roads such as Church Avenue on Castle Hill.

For me the name Awenydd has a magic born of its direct connection with the spiritual source which flows through the land defying all systems and can only be spoken in poetry. My role as an Awenydd is one that I only have intimations of at present- small clues to the potential of learning with the leader of the wild chase and king of the Otherworld to travel the spirit paths and experience the mysteries of the primal Awen in order to return as the inspirer.

(1) Gwyn ap Nudd is a Brythonic deity. His name means White Son of Mist. He is a king of the Otherworld, leader of the wild hunt and guide of souls.
(2) Evidence of this role is found in The Mabinogion, ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found- God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there.’ Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(3) http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1092/pg1092.html
(4) Kristoffer Hughes, Natural Druidry, (2007), p67
(5) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), pvii
(6) Ibid. p26-28

Awenydd

I.
As the longest night looses
darkest claws I walk amongst shadows
at dawn where moonlight floods
through the arms of trees
and a solitary lamppost lights the vale.

Lamppost, Greencroft ValleyII.
River-trees stand stark and tall,
consistent in her mind’s
unravelling of currents and tides,
cormorants and gulls,
a ragged heron.

RibbleIII.
The host’s roar to a lullaby
quells as moon leads dawn
over chiming hills to be swallowed
by cloud as the hunt returns
to graveyard and mound.

Moon over Castle HillIV.
My lord of the fay
makes his presence known.
He speaks to the mist within my bones
like the lych gate unfastening,
awenydd– my magic word.

Lych gate, St Mary's ChurchV.
The spirit paths are mine
to walk for an evanescent pulse
of dawn. Time stands still
from vale to hill and the stream
sings: awenydd, awenydd.

Fish House Brook

The Fairy World

Ivy, Faery Lane, Church Wood, Penwortham

Stumbling blind in my mind’s bitter night
bells tolled as the unbidden hill rose.
I wept at the yew’s unearthly roots
and sang to the forbidden world.

My heart of darkness tore apart
at dread of a funeral procession,
the fear they had locked my cold corpse
grey and stiff within the glass coffin.

Their leader pale and black garbed
stunned me with beauty and terror.
I knew I must look into the glass box
or live forever stumbling through error.

I viewed my face – a floating visage,
not a body but the reflection
of a frightened girl torn in half,
trapped in ghastly predilection.

The Fairy King (for he revealed his name)
promised entrance through a hidden door
to a land and face beyond the glass
if I set aside my churlish thoughts.

I sang again by the yew at twilight.
I exchanged one spell for another
and rode with him into the fairy night,
not knowing if I would be recovered.

Butterflies haunt ivy chandeliers.
A wren sings from the fern rich heart.
The lady in the sycamores looks out
on a woodland bathed in elfin arts.

My return remains a mystery.
I do not know if I am live or dead.
The spell persists with my fateful words-
all around me the Fairy World lives.

Faery Lane, Church Wood, Penwortham