The River Did Not Burst Her Banks

You did not burst your banks today…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gwythyr ap Greidol: An Ancient British God of Fire, Sun, Summer, and Seed

Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ appears in the medieval Welsh story Culhwch and Olwen as the rival of Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ for the love of Creiddylad ‘Heart’s Desire’. That he is a fitting opponent for Gwyn and consort for Creiddylad, who are the son and daughter of the ancient British god Lludd/Nudd/Nodens, suggests he is also an important British deity.

Strip away the Christian veneer from Culhwch and Olwen and we have a story in which Gwyn (Winter’s King) and Gwythyr (Summer’s King) battle for Creiddylad (a fertility goddess). On Nos Galan Gaeaf, Winter’s Eve, Gwyn abducts Creiddylad to Annwn* and Gwythyr rides to Annwn and attempts to rescue her and is imprisoned. The abduction of Creiddylad and imprisonment of Gwythyr explain the coming of winter. On Calan Mai, the First Day of Summer, Gwythyr battles Gwyn for Creiddylad, wins, and she returns with him to Thisworld and together they bring fertility to the land. This explains the coming of summer. Gwyn and Gwythyr may earlier have been seen to slay one another on Nos Galan Gaeaf and Calan Mai and take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad, who acted as a powerful sovereignty figure rather than just a maiden to be fought over.

It is clear from this tale that Gwythyr is our ancient British god of summer. In another episode in Culhwch and Olwen we catch a glimpse of Gwythyr’s associations with fire and sunshine. As he is walking over a mountain he hears ‘weeping and wailing’ and sees its source is a burning anthill. He cuts the anthill off at ground level and rescues the ants from the blaze. We do not know what caused the fire. Did their nest, which ants orientate toward the sun, a little like solar panels, in a summer day, absorb too much heat? Or was the fire caused by Gwythyr’s scorching feet? We have seen that one translation of his father’s name, Greidol, is Scorcher, and we know wildfires break out in the summer. Here we see the dangers of fire and the sun and Gwythyr’s attempt at remediation.

The ants go on to help Gwythyr to gather nine hestors of flax seed which was sown in ‘tilled red soil’, in a field that has remained barren, so it can be ploughed into a new field, to provide the linen for Olwen’s veil in preparation for her marriage to Culhwch. It is possible to read Gwythyr’s association with seed being linked to the ‘male’ side of fertility and with doing the groundwork for the arrival of summer for his bride, Creiddylad, might also require a linen veil for her wedding dress.

The ancient Britons used fire to clear the forest to plant hazel trees and wildfires bring about new growth – in Gwythyr’s associations with fire and seed we find these processes.

These stories show that Gwythyr is a god of summer, fire, and generation in Thisworld who is opposed to Gwyn, a god of winter, ice, and the destructive forces of Annwn, the Otherworld. On the surface one is a bringer of life and the other a bringer of death yet their relationship is one of interdependence. It is necessary they take it in turns to enter a sacred marriage with Creiddylad as an eternal summer or an endless winter would have equally deadly consequences for both worlds.

As Gwythyr’s story was passed on through the oral tradition he and his father were depicted as allying with Arthur against Gwyn and the ‘demons’ of Annwn and playing a role in their demise. Thus Gwythyr is associated with other culture gods like Amaethon, the Divine Ploughman, and Gofannon, the Divine Smith, who help the Christian king to civilise the wild and shut out the Annuvian.

This process may be traced back to the Neolithic revolution when farming began to replace the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the cultivation of seed hunting and foraging, the grain god (Gwythyr) the hunter (Gwyn). Christians did their best to eliminate the veneration of Gwyn by depicting him and his spirits as demons yet they continued to be loved in folk culture as the fairies and their king.

The stories of Gwythyr, by name, did not survive in the folk tradition, but it possible to find a likeness between him and other grain gods** who die a ritual death at the end of the harvest – when Gwyn, the harvester of souls, reaps down his rival and Gwythyr and the seed return to Annwn.

From the Neolithic period our society as a whole has favoured Gwythyr over Gwyn. We have created an eternal summer with the fire of Gwythyr in the engines of industry creating a society in which the cold and darkness of winter has been eliminated by electric lighting and central heating. Crops grow all year round under artificial lights. This has unsurprisingly led to global heating, to the climate crisis, to the scorching fires on Winter Hill where I perceive Gwythyr battling his rival. Ironically, and tellingly, these two great gods and the great goddess they battle for have been forgotten.

Yet, slowly, the worship of Gwyn and Creiddylad is reviving amongst modern polytheists. I know few who venerate Gwythyr and believe this is because his stories have been subsumed by those of other grain gods. This is a shame, for Gwythyr’s stories contain deep wisdom relating how fire, sun, summer and seed have played a role in the climate crisis from a polytheist perspective.

As a devotee of Gwyn, committed to the otherside, to the Annuvian, to redressing the balance, Gwythyr is a god whose powers I acknowledge through the summer and during the harvest period although I do not worship him. I would be interested to hear how and whether other polytheists relate to Gwythyr at this time.

*Annwn has been translated as ‘the Deep’ and the ‘Not-World’ and is the medieval Welsh Otherworld or Underworld.
**Such as Lleu Llaw Gyffes/Lugus and John Barleycorn.

Marsh Roads

I.

Walking

down Marsh Way past Marsh Way Pond,

down Marsh Lane I think of other marshless Marsh Roads
in Preston, Thornton-Cleveleys, Bolton, but also

of Marsh Road near Banks and Marshside
where hundreds of widgeon and teal
jester the waters pintail arrow
and lapwings

peal

like spaceships
on computer games.

II.

There are no alders
on Alderfield

where I lived
without trees or water,

on Alder Close, Alder Grove, Alder Lane,
around the pond in Carr Wood where they cut them down.

On Carr Head Lane, Carr Moss Lane, Carr End Lane,

Carr Hill High School where I first sparred
at Taekwondo ignorant of Gwern
and Brân’s alder shield.

III.

There are no reeds
on Reeds Brow, Reedmace Road,
Reedfield Place, Reed Acre Place, Reeds Lane.
On Rushwood Close, Rushwood View, Rushy Hey
there are no rushes.

There are no willows
on Willow Crescent or Willow Coppice
to weave into a willow tunnel to grant safe passage,
but Willow Cottage Bed and Breakfast
was a haven for two friends –
one of them a heron.

V.

There is no sedge in Sedgefield

but the pendulous sedge is rioting here
on the banks of the brook in Greencroft Valley
and the green is soggy and my wellies are getting stuck
and slipping in and out of the land like a jelly.

It’s coming back it’s coming back –
the marshland of the Setantii.

We have been sinking by an inch each year.

There are things that are born to suck up the roads.

The Dwellers in the Water Country

In his History of the Fylde (1876) John Porter speaks of the ancient British tribe who inhabited the wetlands between the Mersey and the Wyre as ‘the Setantii or Segantii’ ‘the dwellers in the country of water’*. He then provides a colourful description of the way they lived based on Roman records:

The hardihood of the native Britons of these parts is attested by Dion Cassius, who informs us that they lived on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees, and were accustomed to brave hunger, cold, and all kinds of toil, for they would “continue several days up to their chins in water, and bear hunger many days.” In the woods their habitations were wicker shelters, formed of the branches of trees interwoven together, and, in the open grounds, clay or mud huts. They were indebted to the skins of animals slain in the chase for such scanty covering as they cared to wear, and according to Caesar and other writers, dyed their bodies with woad, which produced a blue colour, and had long flowing hair, being cleanly shaved except the head and upper lip.

He then goes on to express his doubts that the Setantii, or their neighbours, the Brigantes, who Cassius refers to, could be ‘reduced or exalted to such a amphibious condition’. Yet he notes that during their hunting expeditions across ‘wooded and marshy tracts’ ‘there is no question the followers of the chase would be more or less in a state of immersion during the whole time they were so engaged’.

Although exaggerated, Porter’s imaginings of the lifestyle of the Setantii contains elements of truth. Before its draining this landscape was marshland, lowland raised peat bog, alder carr, and damp oak woodland. Archaeological evidence dating from the end of the Ice Age to the time of Roman occupation shows that they hunted animals such as elk, aurochs, and red deer, travelled the rivers in dug-out canoes, and lived in wooden huts around the many lakes (the area was later referred to as ‘The Region Linuis’ ‘The Lake Region’ by the 9th century historian Nennius).

They traversed not only the rivers but the seas. The name of the Setantii tribe is derived from Ptolemy’s Geography (2CE) in which he notes the co-ordinates for Portus Setantiorum ‘The Port of the Setantii’ (which is now lost but may have been located near the mouth of the Wyre).

The dwellers in the water country feel important to me as someone living in the former lands of the Setantii because, during this time of climate crisis, water levels are rising, marshlands and lakes returning, and we are finally beginning to recognise the value of the watery places we drained off.

Over the past few decades organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust, and the RSPB have been working to restore drained off wetlands. Recently the Carbon Landscapes project started up with the aim of restoring an interconnected wilderness from the Wigan Flashes through the mosslands of Salford to the Mersey Wetlands Corridor.

It was of great interest for me to find out that the water country is being restored. I will soon be volunteering on this project and am hoping it will give me insights into the plants and wildlife of the landscapes of the Setantii and the tasks they did such as scrub clearance and building wooden walkways.

Over the next few months I am going to be sharing my research on the dwellers in the water country – the wetlands they inhabited, the way they lived, how they related to the land and its deities, in the hope it will provide clues as to how we might live in better relationship with our surroundings. I’m also going to be producing some creative work. Whether this is poems, stories, or perhaps even a novel, remains to be seen. I hope you will enjoy accompanying me on this journey.

~

*It is important to note that Porter’s description of the Setantii as ‘the dwellers in the country of water’ is based on their lifestyle and is not etymological. The root set- is also found in Seteia, the old name for the Mersey, but has no meaning in the Brittonic language. Andrew Breeze suggests it has been ‘corrupted’ from met– ‘to reap’ and may refer to the Setantii being fierce in battle as reapers of men rather than of crops. Another possibility is the root should be seg– from sego- ‘strong’.

The name of the Irish hero, Setanta, who later became the charioteering warrior Cu Chulainn, also derives from this root. Cassius speaks of the northern Britons driving chariots and Cu Chulainn’s fearsome battle rage, known as the ‘warp spasm’, would fit with being one of the reaping people.

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (History Press, 2008)
Edward Baines, The History of the County  Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster’, (J. Heywood, 1888). Available at https://archive.org/details/cu31924024699260/page/n8 (accessed 19/10/2019)
J. A. Giles (transl), Nennius, History of the Britons, (Project Gutenberg, 2006) Available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1972/1972-h/1972-h.htm (accessed 19/10/2019)
John Porter, History of the Fylde (W. Porter, 1876). Available at https://archive.org/details/historyoffyldeof00portiala/page/n4 (accessed 19/10/2019)