The Dragon of Marton Mere

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Two miles east of Blackpool lies a lake called Marton Mere which was born when the Ice Age reshaped the land leaving a glacial boulder, a huge ball of ice thousands of years old. This melted a kettle hole and in the melt water a dragon formed serpentine, curious, luxuriating in her freedom to swim and lap at the thawing earth after enduring her icy bonds.

When the first people came and paddled out on animal skin coracles they were aware of the stillness of that depth. As they fished with bone hooks within a panorama of reeds and bulrushes amidst piping calls of wetland birds they often thought they glimpsed an eye beneath, a flash of shimmery skin, wondered if it was a giant pike, something more reptilian.

The dragon knew if she appeared in their reality she’d undo their minds and landscape. So she entered the dreams of one of the young fishermen as a beautiful woman, taught him how to charm the fish and gift back to their spirits who swam thick where the real ones roved.

In turn he taught his people what she taught him and he became well-respected within his tribe. She often asked for personal gifts: shells, bone ornaments, joints of meat, to maintain that he acknowledged the source of his wisdom. Before he died he told his people about the lady of the mere and asked for his body to be deposited in its midst.

A tradition arose that when the person who served the lady died she entered the dreams of the next. So she did until a time of change. Her current fisherwoman was awkward and unpopular and had a tough message to deliver. An era of heavy rain approached when the lady would take her true form and devour their village.

The fisherwoman stammered but spoke the truth bravely. Her people did not believe her. It was their village, their mere, they’d lived beside it for generations. A group who secretly wanted rid of the lady’s influence so they could take control knocked the fisherwoman out in her sleep, took her out on a coracle to the middle of the mere, slit her throat and threw her into the dark water. An angry wind of dragon’s breath blew them back across the mere. A tidal wave overturned their coracle. Beneath it they drowned. Rain poured from dark clouds.

The next morning a young man leapt from his sleeping pallet, half-naked, clutching his dishevelled hair “they killed her! I saw them kill her! Behind them a dragon rose up. A dragon. A huge beautiful monstrous dragon with caves for eyes and the skin of a pike and a parade of winds leaping from her nostrils. She’s going to kill us.”

He ran from his dwelling and threw himself to his knees at the end of the jetty uttering a stream of incoherent words. Following through torrential rain his tribe saw the coracle floating in the distance like an empty tortoiseshell. Floodwaters rushed toward their village.

They could get no more sense from the young man. Recalling the tradition of retaining the lady’s favour with gifts, they collected together their finest bronze spears and axes, took them to the end of the jetty and cast them into the mere with prayers of placation.

Still the waters rose. As waves washed over the young man’s knees he suddenly shouted “leave! Go to the ridge: one day it will be Marton. Your offerings have saved everyone but he who saw the dragon.”

All the warriors could not drag him from where he stuck to the platform. With deep regret they left him and departed to the ridge where Great Marton now stands, stood arm in arm, hand in hand, and watched the mere devour their village.

Afterward it became an ill omen to dream of the lady or worse the dragon. Those who saw her, daring not to admit it to their people, either served her privately, left, or lost their minds.

When the Romans arrived they left the inhabitants of Marton and the mere well alone. Contrastingly the Culdee monks (who settled at the site later known as Kilgrimol) were astonished by the stupidity of their refusal to fish in the abundant mere, farm the surrounding landscape or allow anyone else to. So they decided to create a story stupid enough to fool them.

Drawing on the rumours of people making offerings of meat to the dragon they came up with the idea a monk hid a spring in a side of bacon disguised as a gift and threw it into her maw. Its rushing waters forced her jaws open and drowned her. She sunk to the bottom of the mere and was never seen again.

In spite of the logical inconsistency of the drowning of a water dragon some of Marton’s people were fooled. They wanted desperately to live in a world that was safe and governed by one God who gifted his monks with power over dragons.

Fishing on the mere gained in popularity and rights were highly contested. Farmers began to work the land but, in spite of God’s omnipotence, it was frequently inundated by flood water and plagued by disappearances of cows, sheep and pigs. Whispers of a dragon continued.

In the 18th century a decision was made by the majority of Marton’s people to drain the mere. Main Dyke was deepened and widened sluicing all but a fragment of those ominous waters which gave birth to the dragon away into the river Wyre.

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During the digging two coracles and bronze axes and spearheads were unearthed: an uneasy reminder of the legend. The people consoled themselves that with the dyke draining the mere like a severed vein pulse by pulse the dragon would be too weak to return.

Although Marton Mere has been drained its kettle hole remains and the dragon lives on. In spring and summer water lilies do not grow above her lair. After the M55 was built a driver swore he saw a crocodile heading across the lanes to the mere.

A new village of holiday homes lies perilously close to the water’s edge. It is said the dragon haunts the dreams of those who sleep there and waits for the one who will share her message.

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*This story is based on the archaeology, history and folklore of Marton Mere, much of which is covered in Nick Breeze’s extensive on-going project on the history of Blackpool and the Fylde: http://www.blackpoolhistory.co.uk/#!pdf/c1e71

Birkacre Rioters

‘They went in about 2 o’clock and before 4 destroy’d all the machinery, the Great Wheel, and set fire to the broken frames’
Home Office Papers, October 1799

They had the loudest drums. The boldest banners. The brightest beating hearts. They approached the mill multicoloured; axes, hatchets, guns raised high.

Afternoon sun who has seen many histories made and forgotten gazed on and off the mish-mash of blades as they smashed in the doors.

Unafraid of battle powder and swan shot they fought black-faced against veterans who were no match for their shouting thousands.

Then they took on the frames. Monsters who guillotined their craft. Spinning engines, carding engines, roving engines, twisting wheels, cotton wheels, cotton reels they axed and trampled.

Then they took on the Great Wheel. Tore it off its axis. Brought it down in splinters. Struck the matches. A giant flaming wheel blazed where workers toiled.

And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And the fire blazed. And lit the heart of General Ludd and his wives and daughters. All the Luddite sons.

And the fire of Birkacre lit the hearts of the Chartists. Non-conformists. Suffragettes. Forgotten rebels.

And we remember their fire in times of trouble. Hold it close to our hearts.

***

Birkacre was a cotton mill in the Yarrow Valley in Chorley, which Richard Arkwright leased from 1777. It was one of the first mills to make use of his water frame (the first was in Cromford). In 1779 following riots by stocking workers in Nottingham and a slump in the cotton industry, cotton workers turned against the new machines. On Sunday 4th October a mob descended on Birkacre, smashed all the machinery and used it to set fire to the the mill, which they burnt to the ground. Arkwright withdrew his lease shortly afterward. It was rebuilt two years later and used for calico printing, dying and bleaching. The works in the Birkacre area were closed down in 1939. In the 1980’s the derelict land was reclaimed as Yarrow Valley Park. More about the park and its history can be found in this leaflet. It’s a beautiful area and a visit is highly recommended.

Site of Birkacre Mill

Site of Birkacre Mill

Big Lodge

Big Lodge

Mill Leat?

Mill Leat?

Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate

Arkwright HouseWhen Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.

You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.

Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth. The new need-fires of burnt-out mills. Staggerings of Chorley.

How he rubbed gristly chubby jaws and did not see the unfairness of profit or tightly curled hair when hair-pin thin people laboured in his thrall. How he played the devil’s bagpipes over breached bones of the dead then one day toppled pot-bellied splay-legged from his cushy stool.

In bugle layers of this town decided long ago I long to rush through industrial rain, knock and knock on his front door and beg him to stop. But know he will not listen. Only play on and on laughing his demonic laugh. So we dance the hurly-burly on the ruins of Horrocks’ back yard in a splash of flowers and cement as if it is our last.

Site of Horrocks' Yardworks

Dudey Hound Grffiti, Horrocks' Yardworks

Teyrnllwg: A Bright Kingdom Slips Away Like Dust

A couple of weeks ago something immensely exciting happened: I received a response to queries on my blog regarding the black hole in the post-Roman history of Lancashire. A Penwortham resident called Ozrico told me the area between the Ribble and the Dee was known as Theyrnllwg. It belonged to the Britons until the Battle of Chester in 613 where its king, Brocmail, took on the Saxon king, Aethelfrith (and lost).

Therynllwg! I thought I had finally found the lost name of the kingdom to which south Lancashire belonged. Not only that, I had the name of its king!

Searching the internet, I found two sources for Theyrnllwg. The first was Charles Onam’s England Before the Norman Conquest (1921). Onam said ‘the lands between the Ribble and the Dee’ were ‘originally known as Therynllwg, of which the later Powys was the surviving remnant. It then extended from the Ribble to the Upper Wye, and from the Clwyd to Cannock Chase, and had been for a century a connecting link between the Britons of the North and those of the West.’

Onam’s words extended the territory of Theyrnllwg into Wales and were doubly exciting because for the first time I had found scholarship stating the area we now know as Lancashire formed a link between Wales and the Old North. This would have meant people had a connecting route (or routes) by which to trade and on their travels would have shared myths and stories. In relation to my on-going quest to uncover Gwyn ap Nudd’s forgotten connections with the Old North, if he was known in Wales and by the Strathclyde Britons this would have made it likely he was known in Lancashire too.

Through a reference in the footnotes, I traced Onam’s words back to William Stubbs’ Origines Celticae (1883) where I found within a list of Welsh names of districts ‘Theyrnllwg from Aerfen to Argoed Derwenydd’ (the river Arfon in Gwynedd and the woodland of the river Derwent in Cumbria?). This extended Theyrnllwg further and led to more sources. Stubbs said the list originated from the ‘Iolo MSS’ and this was ‘taken from a MS belonging to Mr Cobb of Cardiff, and is a mere fragment, a page of the MS having been torn out.’

Having obtained as much information as I could on the internet, I contacted Heron (who lives in Wales and is knowledgeable on such matters) and asked if he knew anything about Theyrnllwg. When I received his answer I was greatly disappointed.

Heron replied saying the name Theyrnllwg derives from Teyrnllwg and sent me an extract from Peter Bartrum’s A Welsh Classical Dictionary (1994). Bartrum stated Teyrnllwg was an ‘imaginary territory’ derived from the name of Cadell Ddyrnllug, a prince of Powys mistakenly taken to be its ruler.

I found out Cadell Ddyrnllug first appeared in Nennius’ History of the Britons (830) as Catel Durnluc, a servant of the tyrannical king of Powys, Benlli. When St Germanus arrived to remonstrate Benlli, Castel offered him hospitality. After Benlli, his city and his subjects had been burned by fire from heaven, Germanus rewarded Castel for his hospitality by making him king. This fulfilled ‘the prophecy of the Psalmist: “He raiseth up the poor from dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill”.’

Bartrum said in modern Welsh Durnluc would take ‘the form Ddyrnlluch or Ddyrnllug, meaning ‘gleaming hilt’, from dwrn, ‘hilt’ and lluch, ‘gleaming’ or llug, ‘bright’. The meaning evidently became obscure very early, and was perhaps interpreted as derived from teyrn, ‘prince’ and llwch, ‘dust’. This may have been the basis of the legend which derived Cadell from a humble origin, the author actually quoting Psalm 113 vv.7.8.’

The name Teyrnllwg was later and erroneously identified as Teyrnllwg’s kingdom. When I looked it up on the internet, I found a pamphlet titled The Fictitious Kingdom of Teyrnllwg (1960) by Melville Richards reprinted for Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society which provided further explanation.

The Fictitious Kingdom of TeyrnllwgIn its two pages Richards criticises an earlier article by Dr. J . D. Bu’Lock which ‘recreates the history of ‘The lost kingdom of Teyrnllwg’’ saying he has been misled by ‘the comparative validity and authenticity of the Welsh material’ (ie. the Iolo MS). ‘Dyrnllug is an epithet which can be readily analysed as dwrn (‘fist’) and llug (‘bright’), referring to some (?) physical characteristic of Cadell… By the fifteenth century Dyrnllug had become Deyrnllug in the genealogical lists.’

Teyrnllwg became accepted as a ‘territorial designation’ firstly because teyrn means ‘king, ruler’ and secondly because -wg was a common territorial suffix (ie. Morgannwg ‘country of Morgan’). Whilst Richards accepted the possible existence of a kingdom in the area of Cheshire and Lancashire he stated adamantly ‘its name was not Teyrnllwg’.

The existence of Teyrnllwg, kingdom of a prince with a bright and gleaming hilt or fist who rose from dust was well and truly refuted. (Although it continues to exist in the gleaming brightness of the name. The glamoury of a bright kingdom slipping away like dust…)

***

However a loose end remained to be tied up. If Teyrnllwg was fictitious what about Brocmail, its king? Oman said Brocmail is the son of Cincen, a descendant of Cadell. I discovered this was backed up by the Harleian MS 3859: The Genealogies, where he appears in the lineage of the rulers of Powys ‘[S]elim map Cinan map Brocmayl map Cincen map Maucanu map Pascent map Cattegirn map Catel dunlurc.’

It was also likely Brocmail was present in the Battle of Chester. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (8th C) Brocmail was the guard of 1200 monks from Bangor who had come to pray for the Welsh army. When the Saxon ruler Aethelfrith commanded his army to slaughter them, Brocmail fled, escaping with fifty.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (9th C) stated Scromail (a mis-spelling of Brocmail?) was the leader of the Welsh. After Aethelfrith slew ‘countless Welsh’ and ‘200 priests’ ‘he escaped as one of fifty.’ In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (1136) Brocmail was Earl of Leicester and the battle took place in Leicester. Brocmail made a stand against Aethelfrith, in spite of having less soldiers, and only fled after he had ‘inflicted exceeding great slaughter upon the enemy.’ This version also mentioned ‘one thousand two hundred monks’ were killed.

As Brocmail is listed as a king of Powys, it seems more likely he was a leader in the battle than a guard. Nick Higham notes Bede is unreliable because he is more concerned about writing ‘providential history’ than military reality and is dubious about the slaughter of the monks. This makes it possible Brocmail’s deposition from a British king who faced the Saxons to a cowardly guard reflects his bias. (However it is equally possible Monmouth’s glorification of him as a British king is biased too…).

Archaeological evidence from Heronbridge, near Chester (a group of skeletons with clear signs of violent injury buried in a pit, believed to be the dead of the Saxon victors) demonstrates the battle took place in Chester and not Leicester. From this we can derive that the Battle of Chester really took place, Brocmail took part in it, and at this pivotal point Cheshire, and perhaps south Lancashire, first became subject to Saxon rule.

Brocmail’s involvement in the Battle of Chester also demonstrates these areas had real political links with Powys. This is supported by the fact when the Mercian Saxons took rule, they formed an alliance with the rulers of Gwynedd and Powys to take on Oswald and the Saxons of Northumbria at Maserfelth (Makerfield in Lancashire). It seems likely they were drawing on a pre-existing alliance.

Whilst the kingdom of Terynllwg may be dismissed as fictitious, the name provides important clues to links between rulers of Powys and the Britons of Cheshire and Lancashire.

***

A more realistic picture of these post-Roman British territories is drawn by Denise Kenyon in The Origins of Lancashire (1991). Kenyon notes attempts to locate Teyrnllwg in north-west England are not widely accepted. She goes on to suggest that concentrations of British place-names may be used to identify areas of lordship.

She posits three main territories. The first centres around Makerfield and Wigan and extends into the Leyland and Newton hundreds down to the Mersey (I assume its northern limit is the Ribble). The second includes the Fylde and centres on ‘Preese and Preesall, Greater and Little Eccleston and Inskip.’ There are two groups in Greater Manchester; around Manchester itself and ‘on the edge of the Rossendale forest’.

A further possibility is that ‘iuxta Rippel was in origin a small British kingdom or lordship encompassing the west Lancashire lowlands on either side of the Ribble, as far south as Makerfield, and extending into the Pennine foothills above Whalley’. These British lordships would have formed the basis for later Anglo-Saxon territorial units.

Kenyon identifies my home town of Penwortham as a ‘central place’ occupying a nodal position in the communication network on a crossing of the Ribble. She says its name is of interest as a hybrid of British and English: ‘Pen’ is British and means ‘hill’ whilst ‘ham’ is English and means ‘safe place’.

‘Ham’ names are indicative of ‘central places’ connected with ‘Roman military and industrial settlements’ (in Penwortham’s case Walton-le-dale) and are often seats of ancient parishes. The construction of the name reflects the acculturation of an important British ‘central place’ by the English.

Thus we have a picture of post-Roman Penwortham lying either on the northern edge of a British lordship centring around Makerfield or in the midst of iuxta Rippel. Differences between the dialects north and south of the Ribble (ie. ‘chester’ to the south and ‘caster’ to the north) make the former seem more probable. This lordship would have been taken over by the Saxons some time after the Battle of Chester. The ‘wahl’ element of Walton-le-dale suggests a strong British presence remained in this town, adjacent to Penwortham.

Kenyon’s identification of Penwortham as a central place on the communication network re-opens the possibility of it linking Wales and the North. Whilst most historians are dubious about connection by road due to boggy ground, the river Ribble was no doubt used for transport and communication with Penwortham as a look-out point and possible port.

Is there any way of making a case that the Britons of the lordship centring on Makerfield once shared a pagan mythology and told similar stories to those further north and in Wales?

The only evidence of native British pagan worship in the vicinity comes from Romano-British altars, statues and inscriptions to deities such as Deae Matronae (the mother goddesses), Apollo-Maponus (Maponos was a Brythonic god of youth) and Mars-Nodontis (Nodens was a Brythonic god of hunting and healing and is cognate with Nudd, Gwyn’s father). These are not in our Makerfield lordship but north of the Ribble in the Fylde.

That Kenyon believes the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical divisions are likely to have been founded on earlier British ones (drawing on the etymology of Eccles from eglys ‘church’) and monks from Bangor were praying for the Welsh army suggests the Britons had been Christian before the English arrived in 613.

How and when they were converted (or chose to convert) remains a matter for further investigation. Insights in this direction may throw light on how the ancient British gods and goddesses slipped from the consciousness of the people of my locality like the bright dust of Terynllwg.

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book Launch

Enchanting the Shadowlands Book CoverOn Wednesday 22nd April I held an evening of poetry, song and story to celebrate the launch of Enchanting the Shadowlands at Korova Arts Cafe in Preston. The night was very special for me because it marked the publication of my first book, the completion of a spiritual journey and brought together friends who have supported me since I took to writing poetry seriously in 2012.

Storyteller Peter Dillon was MC for the night. We opened with a joint performance of ‘The Bull of Conflict’ a glosa recording the moment when my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, gave me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands’.

Vincent Smith’s ‘Woodland Eulogy’ and reflections on early memories of a close friend made a poignant start to the first half. Mike Cracknell brought the house down with his hilarious poem about lovers with nothing in common except filthy habits. Martin Domleo performed poems tying in with my nature themed work including ‘Thor’s Cave’ and the experience of deceleration linking to his passion for motorbikes. Nina GeorgeSinger Nina George was the first headline act. She started with a haunting piece written by a friend. Her second song, she told us, demanded to be sung at the launch! She got everybody joining in with the chorus:

‘She said this is my church here where I stand
With my hands in the earth and my feet on the ground
She said this is my church here where I stand
With my heart in my mouth and my soul in the land.’

Nina finished with a song by Jodi Mitchell. At the end of the first half I performed poems exploring local history written in voices of the ancestors and spirits of the land. These included a reluctant resident of Penwortham Lake Village, a spinner in her cellar, the spirit of the aquifer beneath Castle Hill and Belisama, goddess of the Ribble. During the break we looked out at a pink-purple sunset against fairy-lit trees and the silhouette of St Walburge’s spire. Preston Sunset from KorovaI opened the second half with  ‘Slugless’ which was written when I had a spate of people confessing to me about their slug problems. All but one…. As we often bump into each other walking beside the Ribble, Terry Quinn performed poems about the river, one set at a crucial time when a campaign run successfully by Jane Brunning saved the area that is now Central Park from a huge development scheme. Dorothy mentioned she also had a slug scene in her novel ‘Shouting Back’. Her poems included the memorable ‘City Rats’.

Nina returned to perform a song about reclaiming Druidry and a controversial tongue-in-cheek ditty called ‘The Day the Nazi Died’ by Chumbawamba. Novelist Katharine Ann Angel read excerpts from ‘Being Forgotten’ and ‘The Froggitt Chain’ and spoke of her inspiration from people, particularly working with difficult teenagers.

Nicolas Guy WilliamsThe second headliner was poet Nicolas Guy Williams. He opened with ‘Ancient by thy Winters’ saying he thought it would be suit my launch as it contains howling: ‘Hear them HOWL! HEAR THEM HOWL! Once no forest was defenceless.’ He also performed ‘Woman of the Sap’ and ‘Oh ratchet walk and seek that scent’ one of my personal favourites based on the local legend of the Gabriel Ratchets.

I ended the second half with a piece dedicated to Gwyn on Nos Galan Gaeaf called ‘When You Hunt for Souls in the Winter Rain’ and poems Lorna Enchanting the Shadowlandsrecording a journey to Annwn (the Brythonic Otherworld) with horse and hound to an audience in his hall. As a finale I performed ‘No Rules’ which summarises my philosophy of life:

‘Break every boundary.
There are no rules.
Only truth and promises
Bind us in the boundless infinite.’

Afterward there was an open-mic where it was great to have Flora Martyr, who is missed as a host of Korova Poetry, back to perform. Following Nina’s protest songs John Dreaming the Hound Winstanley, who is involved with the Wigan Digger’s Festival, sung an old diggers song. I also opened some presents from the generous members of my grove. Nina gave me a bottle of wine (knows me too well!). Phil and Lynda Ryder gave me a book about Boudica, a warrior queen and ruler of the Iceni (horse) tribe, called ‘Dreaming the Hound’ with a wonderful bronze image of a howling hound on the cover.

When we left Korova the crescent moon was high in the sky with a bright and beautiful Venus above the fairy-lit trees. I felt the shadowlands had been enchanted. There is power in a promise… and in the support of friends without whom I wouldn’t have been able to see it through. I’d like end on a note of thanks to Peter as MC, everybody who performed and came to watch and to Sam for providing the venue. Moon, Venus and Fairy Trees

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.

The Black Dog of Preston

The Black Dog of PrestonI have recently been researching the legend of the black dog of Preston. The process has led me on a journey through the places it is associated with and their history. It has also brought me to consider the meaning and origin of its roles as a harbinger of death and guardian of the town’s gates.

I first came across this tale earlier in the year on a walk with local folklorist Aidan Turner-Bishop, which was organised by UCLan Pagan Society. Aidan told us that a headless black dog haunts the area between Maudlands and Marsh Lane.

St Walburge's

St Walburge’s

These locations seem significant due to their history. Maudlands receives its name from a 12th century leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, which was dissolved in 1548 and later replaced by St Walburge’s.

Preston International Hotel

Preston International Hotel

Marsh Lane was the location of a Friary belonging to the Franciscan Order, which was founded in 1260 and dissolved in 1539 and occupied the position of Preston International Hotel. The Friary gave its name to Friargate and the The Grey Friar Pub.

The Grey FriarNext to it was Ladywell, which was venerated up until the nineteenth century and is now remembered only by the street name (1). Water was piped from Ladywell to the Friary.

Ladywell - CopyThe earliest written records of the black dog I have come across are in Charles Hardwick’s Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore (1872). Firstly, ‘I remember in my youth hearing a story of a headless boggart that haunted Preston’s streets and neighbouring lanes. Its presence was often accompanied by the rattling of chains. I forget now what was its special mission. It frequently changed its form, however, but whether it appeared as a woman or a black dog, it was always headless’ (2).

And secondly, ‘This spectre hound or dog is a very common sprite in Lancashire. I remember well being terrified in my youth in Preston, by Christmas recitals of strange stories of its appearance, and the misfortune which its howling was said to forebode. The Preston black dog was without a head, which rendered the said howling still more mysterious to my youthful imagination’ (3).

A story called ‘The Black Dog of Preston’ is serialised by James Borlase in The Preston Guardian in December 1878. This story is set in 1715 during the period of the Jacobite rebellion, which led to the Battle of Preston.

Once again, it appears as a portent of death ‘several people who had been abroad late at night and alone, had caught sight of the THE BLACK DOG OF PRESTON, a headless boggart, who could howl nevertheless, and whose howl meant death, as also did its lying down upon a doorstep to someone who dwelt within that special house’ (4).

A connection between the black dog and Gallows Hill is mentioned twice. The first instance is a mock sighting of ‘the huge and hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston, a weird boggart that for centuries was famous in our town, pawing the air, swaying from side to side, and howling most lugubriously’. Here it turns out to be one of the protagonists’ servants clad in a sheepskin (5).

In the second it appears as a guardian of the dead; ‘sixteen of the lesser rebels were hanged upon Gallows Hill in chains, and there suffered to remain for many months, guarded, it is said, of a night time, by the Headless Black Dog of Preston’ (6).

English Martyrs' Church

English Martyrs’ Church

English Martyrs' Church, Gallows Hill

English Martyrs’ Church, Gallows Hill

The English Martyrs’ Church, which now stands on the summit of Gallows Hill, derives its name from these executions. The nearby street names Derwentwater Place and Lovat Road refer to Jacobites captured and killed in the rebellion. That people were hung and decapitated there is evidenced by two headless bodies found during the building of North Road, which cuts through the hill. The area is described as a ‘provincial Tyburn’ (7).

Derwentwater PlaceThe black dog is also connected to the strange phenomenon of the parting of the Ribble’s waters, which occurred in the years 1715 and 1774 and is recounted by Peter Whittle. ‘The river Ribble, in Lancashire, stood still; and for the length of three miles, there was no water, except in deep places; in about five hours it came down with a strong current, and continues to flow as usual’ (8).

As the protagonists in Borlase’s story ride double into the Ribble, down river from Walton Bridge, their horse shies, ‘it was not the water that was terrifying the horse, but a great black something, like a weed-covered rock, that seemed to be lying half in and half out of it… the thing became suddenly instinct with life, and rolling rather than moving toward them exhibited the hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston…The black dog uttered a most lugubrious howl, not withstanding its headlessness, and then waddled off; whereupon, and immediately, a most extraordinary circumstance occurred, for with a roar the river parted in twain from the Preston shore’ (9).

The river Ribble from Walton Bridge

Whilst this story is fictitious it is possible some of its elements are founded on earlier beliefs.

During the 19th century the superstition that a howling dog was a portent of death was popular. James Bowker says ‘few superstitions have a wider circle of believers in Lancashire than that which attributes to dogs the power of foretelling death and disaster’ (10). Hardwick attributes this to the dog’s delicate sense of smell, saying the capacity to scent putrid flesh ‘may have influenced the original personification of the dog as an attendant on the dead’ (11).

Contemporary writer Alby Stone suggests this superstition may relate to earlier beliefs about dogs being able to see spirits and thus forewarn of death. She adds ‘in many traditions… such creatures are not merely harbingers of death. They are both guides to and guardians of the land of the dead’ (12). In Borlase’s tale the black dog appears as a guardian of the dead on Gallows Hill and guides the protagonists across the Ribble.

It is possible to link this liminal role to the term ‘boggart,’ which Hardwick and Borlase use interchangeably with ‘black dog’. According to Brand ‘boggart’ may derive from the Northern pronunciation of ‘bar’ meaning ‘gate’ and ‘guest’ meaning ‘ghost.’ A boggart or ‘bar-guest’ is hence a ‘gate-ghost’ (13). To complicate things further ‘gate’ actually meant ‘street,’ hence Friargate. Brand says ‘Many streets are haunted by a guest, who assumes many strange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima.”’ (14).

Friargate IIThis is interesting as older maps of Preston show the town’s ‘bars.’ The bar of Friargate is located in the present day position of The Sun Hotel, not far from Marsh Lane (15).

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

This may go some way to explain the Friargate connection. The black dog may be seen as both a guardian of the physical gates of the town and the gateways between the lands of the living and dead. The former is supported by a reference on the Paranormal Database, which says ‘It is said that the town was once haunted by a headless black hound, appearing when danger threatened the town’ (16).

This idea may date back to pre-Christian beliefs. Alby Stone argues that evidence of ritual burials dating back to Bronze Age Britain suggests that dogs may have been killed and interred to serve as spirit guardians. She lists a pair of dogs buried at Flag Fen in Peterborough and another at Caldicot in Gwent (17). A recent example suggesting such practices may have continued into the medieval period and beyond is the discovery of the seven foot skeleton of Black Shuck outside Leiston Abbey (18).

At the time Bowker was writing it appears the belief in ‘foundation burials’ was current in Lancashire. He cites Rev. S. Baring Gould, ‘It was the custom to bury a dog or a boar alive under the corner-stone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the neighbourhood, and drive off any who would profane it—i.e. witches or warlocks’ (19). However, as far as I know, there is no archaeological evidence of this kind of practice in Preston.

There are other idiosyncrasies bound up with the legend that are less easy to interpret. For example how did the black dog lose its head; was it a dog beheaded as part of a ritual burial, or is it the ghost of a decapitated human?

There is also the paradox that although the boggart was supposedly laid it continues to haunt the streets of Preston. Hardwick says ‘The story went that this boggart or ghost was at length “laid” by some magical or religious ceremony in Walton Church yard. I have often thought that the story told by Weaver, a Preston antiquary, in his “Funerall Monuments,” printed in 1631, and which I have transcribed at page 149 of the “History of Preston and its Environs,” may have had some remote connection with this tradition’ (20). If the black dog was laid in 1560 as part of Dee and Kelly’s misdemeanours in Walton Churchyard,  which are referred to in Weaver’s story, how come it figures so largely in tales set in 18th to 19th C Preston?

I’ve visited Walton Churchyard and seen no obvious signs of a boggart having been laid, such as the Written Stone in Longridge (21). However, like in this legend and a tale from Clayton Hall ‘Whilst ivy climbs and holly is green, / Clayton Hall boggart shall no more be seen’ (22) there is a holly tree in the centre of the graveyard and plenty of ivy about. Holly is renown for its apotropaic function (23).

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

One possibility is that it wasn’t laid. Another is that the laying was ineffective. The Gristlehurst Boggart was reputedly laid in a hollow and assuaged with milk but still seemed to be out and about causing trouble at the time Edwin Waugh was writing (24).

Old Dog Inn

The Old Dog Inn

Aside from these stories, and the pub name The Old Dog Inn (which is tenuous as it pictures a grey coloured hound with a head) I haven’t come across any more evidence of its existence. More current accounts of paranormal activity in Lancashire refer to big cats.

Old Dog - Copy

The Old Dog

Could this be because the black dog of Preston has abandoned the city? Or could it be because nobody who has seen it or heard it howling has lived to hear the tale?..

(1) David Hunt, A History of Preston, (2009), p31-33
(2) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(3) Ibid. p172
(4) The Preston Guardian, 17th December 1887
(5) Ibid.
(6) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(7)http://www.englishmartyrspreston.org.uk/history1.htm#Gallows%20Hill%20History%20of%20the%20Church%E2%80%99s%20Location
(8) Peter Whittle, aka Marmaduke Tulket, A topographical, statistical, & historical account of the borough of Preston, (1821), p15
(9) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(10) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire,(1878), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41148/41148-h/41148-h.htm
(11) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p174-5
(12) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p36
(13) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(14) Ibid.
(15) David Hunt, Preston Centuries of Change, (2003), p39
(16)http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/shuckdata.php?pageNum_paradata=9&totalRows_paradata=258
(17) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p41
(18) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2629353/Is-skeleton-legendary-devil-dog-Black-Shuck-terrorised-16th-century-East-Anglia.html
(19) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41148/41148-h/41148-h.htm
(20) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(21) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p105 and 107
(22) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(23) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p106
(24) Edwin Waugh, ‘Gristlehurst Boggart,’ Lancashire Sketches Vol. 2, http://gerald-massey.org.uk/waugh/c_sketches_2a.htm

The River Syke

Syke StreetOn a rainy day in the not so-distant future, Tom, a tour-guide in training, decided to visit the city of Preston.

Great intrigue surrounded the town of priests, which had once been the Catholic capital of Lancashire. Every spire and street name told a story, from the cathedral of St Walburge to Friargate, to the catacombs beneath St Peter’s. Each had its relics and dealt in a great number of copies to tempt the less discerning tourist.

However, Tom was not interested in the rise and decline of Christianity. Neither did he care for the oral tales passed on by the city’s people such as the headless black dog that haunted Maudlands, the wicked fairy on the market with his tricksy ointment, or the Bannister Doll.

Tom had been led to Preston by a new myth about the underground river Syke.

This watercourse had run from present day Syke Street, through Winckley Square, parallel with Fishergate then into the Ribble at the New Bridge. At one point there had been fish garths across the Ribble and a boatyard where the two rivers met. In 1812, as industrialisation progressed, the Syke was culverted beneath the town. It had not seen daylight since.

250 years later, as part of a desperate money-making bid, the tourist board decided to open its underground passageway to the public. Above the grate covering the Syke’s mouth they erected a ticket booth, then a flight of stairs leading down to a platform. Over the entrance was placed a flashing neon sign- Enter the mouth of Annwn- the Ancient British Otherworld.

Caroline, Tom’s girlfriend, had been obsessed by stories about Annwn. “It is a beautiful, terrible world,” she had used to tell him, “peopled with fairies and monsters. There are thin places where you can slip over. It is possible to find your ancestors, and the lost ones you once loved. It’s possible to escape again, if you do not fall prey to its seductions.”

Several days ago, Caroline had left on a trip to Preston and had not returned. She was not the only one. Another three people had been reported missing, mysteriously disappearing on the boat ride back to the entrance. These stories were connected with rumours of people hearing strange songs and experiencing visions of ships and fishermen, huge fish, and women with fishtails.

If it hadn’t been for Caroline’s absence, Tom would have thought this was all propaganda. However, his strongest suspicion was these tall tales were a cover for poor management. A fact left untold was that the Ribble is tidal. Should the attraction remain open as the tides washed in, the entrance to the Syke would be blocked and its passageway flooded. Tom suspected these poor souls had drowned, and he was terrified Caroline might have met the same fate.

After paying his admission, Tom entered a sheltered area where he joined two families, three couples and a group of teenage girls who were talking and laughing.

“We need to look out for ghostly fishermen.”

“Mermaids.”

“Mermen, more like.”

“It’s some kind of creature with slimy tentacles that will drag you down through the water and into the Otherworld.”

Once the preceding group had exited they were ushered down to the platform. Standing beside the Ribble’s churning grey, Tom recalled Caroline telling him how every river had its goddess and each stream its nymph. The name of the Ribble’s goddess was Belisama and it was believed she claimed a life every seven years.

“Is everybody ready to enter the mouth of Annwn?” asked the tour guide, an aging man dressed in a wax jacket and waders. His long greying hair hung damp from beneath a fisherman’s hat.

To cries of affirmation he pressed a button, which rolled back the grate. The passageway was illumined by intermittent white lights, which cast an occasional silver sheen on the dark water. One by one they entered the tunnel, walking in a single line, on the river’s left. Enthralled by its impenetrable flow, Tom could not help himself imagining Caroline trapped beneath those waters drowning amongst terrible aquatic creatures who had not seen sunlight for 250 years.

The girls in front of Tom jostled and giggled. “I can see a fish!” “I think it was a mermaid!” As their conjectures became wilder their voices grew more high pitched.

The weight of the walls pressed in and the river’s roaring voice and echo rose to an unsteadying crescendo. By the time they reached the boat, Tom was trembling and disoriented. As he crossed the gangplank onto Syke’s Trawler, it took all his effort to hold his balance. Looking beneath he glimpsed something silver, dark and serpentine, then in a flash of dread saw Caroline’s sunken face staring up at him. The tunnel spun around him.

The next thing he knew, Tom was assailed by the scent of wax and brine. The tour guide was lowering him onto a wooden bench, fastening his seat belt and placing his hands firmly on the rail. “Hold on tight. Keep your eyes well shut and be careful not to listen. You do not want to fall prey to the lures of Annwn.” There was a mocking, knowing look in his grey eyes

He cast off and took the wheel with such exuberance and expertise Tom realised he must have been a true fisherman in his time.

The boat pitched down river. The teenagers screamed.

“Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Tom was almost deafened by the river repeating its name. “Sy-ke!” “Sy-ke!” Or could it be the voice of its goddess?

The limitations of the tunnel shattered to reveal bright sky and a flashing landscape, the grey shapes of yachts and fishermen.

“There are places where you can slip over,” Caroline’s words filled Tom’s mind.

He held tightly to the rail, imagining himself as Odysseus lashed to the mast.

“It is possible to find your loved ones.”

Tom realised Caroline’s voice was not in his mind. She stood on the adjacent vessel beside an older fisherman who shared her dark features. Tom guessed he was her grandfather.

“Caroline!” Tom cried.

“Tom, how I’ve missed you, I knew you would come to find me!” Caroline rushed to the edge of her boat.

“I’ve been worried sick about you,” said Tom. “What happened?”

“Come and join us,” said Caroline. As her boat drifted closer she held out her hand.

Unable to stop himself, Tom let go of the rail and unfastened his seatbelt. Leaning between the swaying boats he took Caroline’s hand and scrambled over. After all those long months they were together again, embracing and kissing. In her arms the rocking deck, perilous river and distinction between the worlds no longer mattered.

A horn blared from Syke’s Trawler.

Caroline pushed Tom away. “The tides are coming in.” The colour left her face and her skin became cold to his touch. With the sweep of a long black and silver fishtail she dove into the water. Tom noticed her grandfather had already disappeared. The boat shuddered beneath his feet then, with a dismal groan, plank by plank began to break apart.

With a thunk something round and orange struck his chest. It was a rubber ring, attached to a rope, attached to the trawler.

“Get in and keep hold,” the tour guide’s voice bellowed, “if you want to return to Preston, that is.”

Struggling against panic, Tom managed to pull the rubber ring on as the deck gave way beneath him and a wave crashed over his head. The cold water stunned him. He struggled and gasped for breath, thrown this way and that between the incoming tide and the river’s force. Hauled back onto the trawler by the tour guide he coughed up salt water before descending into uncontrollable sobs.

By the time his tears had ended, the boat was safely moored on the Ribble’s bank and the rest of the group had gone.

“You love her, but you don’t want to die for her?” the tour guide’s voice was soft in Tom’s ear. His nostrils filled with his briny scent. “I know how you feel, and I may be able to help.”

Tom looked up hopefully, “how?” he rasped.

“It is possible to walk, or sail, between the worlds,” said the old fisherman. “Why don’t you join me, as my trainee, at the helm of Syke’s Trawler? You can learn to serve our goddess. We’re desperately short of tour guides.”

Mouth of the River Syke

Fish House Brook

Fish House BrookFish House Brook is a stream in Penwortham, which runs from behind my street, Bank Parade, through Greencroft Valley to the river Ribble. Since I started litter picking in the valley three years ago I have been clearing the brook, walking it regularly and researching its history. This article traces its course from source to mouth and provides snap shots of the ways people have related to it over the last few centuries.

~

The source of Fish House Brook and its earliest stretch have been culverted underground. Its course is indicated by the street names Bank Parade and an adjacent cul-de-sac called Burnside Way. It runs underneath the gardens on the eastern side of Bank Parade.

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

A few months ago Gordon at number 14 kindly invited me into his garden to see the site of its steep banking, which is now occupied by a pond.

FHB tributary's old valley BP no. 14 - CopyHe also lifted the grille to let me take a peek at the swiftly flowing underground stream.

FHB culverted tributary - CopyThe brook now emerges from a concrete pipeline behind Malt Kiln Cottage.

Fish House Brook, sourceThe following maps show Fish House Brook running from behind Malt Kiln Cottage into Greencroft Valley in the 1840’s and today.

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kilm Cottage and Greencroft Valley 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

Malt Kiln Cottage and Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage originally housed a water mill used to mill grain for beer. A picture of the pool behind the mill leat can be found on the Tithe Map (1838). Elizabeth Basquill provides a detailed account of how the malsters in residence used water from the stream and adjacent well to soak barley in a malster’s trough before it was dried and delivered by horse and cart round the corner to the Black Bull pub (2).

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

During this period Fish House Brook must have been much larger and more powerful to turn a water wheel. Its diminishment shows the effect of building 300 houses and their accompanying pipelines for clean water, drainage and sewage during the Central New Towns Project in the 1980’s.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley is the largest surviving green space between the new estates. The old field lines remain intact, indicated by rows of trees. The wooded areas provide living space and nesting places for hedgehogs, squirrels and birds including magpies, wrens, a variety of tits, nut hatches and a woodpecker.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley playing field

The brook has had its share of pollution problems, mainly from grey water out of faulty washing machines. Since reporting this, it has been less frequent. Frog spawn and frogs have been seen, and a few smaller insects. However, there is no sign of any fish. This is disappointing as the 1840’s map shows a fish pond, which according to the Tithe Map was in Fish Pan Field, suggesting local people used to pan in the brook for fish.

Fish Pan Field

Fish Pond and Greencroft Valley 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish Pan Field

Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The brook is culverted from Greencroft Valley beneath Hill Road South.

Fish House Brook, Culvert under Hill Rd SouthIt emerges close to Rosefold house and cottages.

Rose Fold Cottages

Rose Fold Cottages

According to Elizabeth Basquill the cottages and yard were part of a tannery. During the late 19th century Fish House Brook was used to wash hides. ‘The hides were soaked in slaked lime first, then washed, and the hair and flesh scraped off.’ This process would have caused considerable pollution to the stream. Two adjacent fish ponds, which Elizabeth believes may have existed from the medieval period were ‘later used as tan pits for washing the skins’ (3).

Rosefold

Rose Fold 1840, Courtesy of Mario Maps

Rosefold

Rose Fold now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The first stretch of the brook, heading northeast, cannot be followed behind the houses. Where it makes a rightangle and heads northwest, a footpath runs alongside it. This follows the line of a much older route that led from Middleforth Green to St Mary’s Well (4).

Fish House BrookIt then bends right and passes through Campbell’s Park Homes following its old course round the back of the mobile houses.

Fish House Brook, Campbell's Park Homes

Fish House Brook, Campbell’s Park Homes

Campbells Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Campbell's Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook, the Meadows and Campbells Park Homes now, courtesy of Mario Maps

The residential park nestles within the triangle of Penwortham Junction. The train lines pictured closed in 1965 and are now covered by beech, birch, sycamore, bramble and an array of wildflowers, forming important wildlife corridors.

Campbell's Park Homes

Campbell’s Park Homes

Another tributary enters Fish House Brook, running from the back of Far Field across the meadows. The pathway to St Mary’s Well crosses it, and there is a newer footbridge further south. At this time of year the meadows are thriving with mayflowers, buttercups, plantain, wild carrot, orange tipped and cabbage white butterflies and an abundance of bees.

The Meadows

The Meadows

The brook runs through Penwortham Allotments (unfortunately out of bounds) then is finally culverted beneath Leyland Road under Fish House Bridge.

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Brook culverted under Fish House Bridge

The 1840’s map shows a lodge beside Fish House Bridge. Alan Crosby says the bridge took its name from a timber building which ‘served as the quarters of the manorial river bailiff.’ This dwelling was adjacent to the fish garths, which were mainly used for catching salmon between December and August. It was the bailiff’s task to make sure the fishermen from different townships abided by the rules of the fisheries (5).

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge now, courtesy of Mario Maps

It is clear Fish House Brook derives its name from the Fish House, and as far as I know, no trace of an earlier name remains.

~

Each of these locations holds a story and discloses a relationship between the brook and the people who have depended on it. Since water started being piped in the 19th century, we’ve had no need to fetch it from wells or streams for drinking or bathing. Due to modern farming and production methods few of us rely on local waterways for fish, mill our own grain or tan our own skins.

This has a distancing effect. Due to continuing building work, I cannot imagine a time when the water from Fish House Brook will be safe to drink. It is uncertain whether fish will return, although some small fish were sighted by mum in nearby Penwortham Brook.

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Small fish photographed by my mum in Penwortham Brook. Can you identify them?

Whilst it’s impossible to turn back the clocks, I think there is time to get to know and understand our watercourses, and the lives and motivations of the people who have worked with and changed them. This article is an early marker stone on the journey through this process for me.

(1) Courtesy of Mario Maps
(2) Elizabeth Basquill, More Hidden Histories of Penwortham Houses (2011), p6-11, 42-44
(3) Ibid, p34-36
(4) St Mary’s Well was famous for being the cleanest source of water in the area and was attributed healing properties. Local people used to walk a mile to access their favoured water source, and it was also a site of pilgrimage.
(5) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, (1988), p48

Black Dog

He lies beneath my bed
and skrikes through the night,
plummeting the suburb into blackness.

Dampening floodlit windows,
putting out the streetlights,
he licks my hand when I am lonely.

When I fear I cannot live he takes me
to the otherside where we enter
the secret commonwealth of Middleforth

padding along the causey past the windmill’s
constant throb, cows with swaying udders
and hens clucking in the tithe barn.

Yet on communal ground
we are still invisible outcasts
with insatiable hunger and baleful breath.

Bound here by an obscure debt we pace the causey,
sniffing for dog-bones buried by the wayside
in a ritual that once had meaning on a lightless night.

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green