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)

Spirit of the Aquifer

In eighteen eighty four
a monolithic feat of engineering
shifts the Ribble’s course:
no water to the springs.

From the hill’s abyssal deep
a rumbling of the bowels,
a vexed aquatic shriek:
no water to the wells.

Breached within the chasm
a dragon lies gasping
with a pain she cannot fathom:
no water to the springs.

Water table reft
her giving womb unswells,
surging through the clefts:
no water to the wells.

Unravelling inside
her serpent magic streams
to join the angry tides:
no water to the springs.

Culverted and banked
her serpent powers fail,
leaking dry and cracked:
no water to the wells.

The spinning dragon-girl
tumbles from her swing
and slips to the underworld:
no water to the springs.

Her spirit will not rise
through the dead and empty tunnels,
disconsolate we cry:
no water to the wells.

The hill, no longer healing
stands broken of its spell,
no water to the springs,
no water to the wells.

Peneverdant, A Lunar Cycle

I. Dark Moon

On a dark moon
the lady in the ivy
winds down the dark hill
and the falling graves.

All memory
is sliding into darkness,
the river’s tides
her open mouth.

She is waiting
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

The moon is dark
over the river-
an eye, a maelstrom
between the worlds.

The fleet are ready,
the church is empty,
graves as hollow
as the old green hill.

She will be waiting
in the ivy
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

II. New Moon

All is darkness
but the splash of the tide,
the wing of an owl.

Lady Ivy
recounts her losses
on the hill
and the bank
where the hangman
wore his cowl.

They are waiting
in the maelstrom eye
of the new moon-
the river’s entryway
to living day
and deep Annwn.

They are waiting,
her hidden tribe
on their oaken boats
in a slit of light,
an opening moonbeam
to row through
the night
to the old green hill.

III. Moon First Quarter

There is wisdom
in the eyes of an owl-
a demand,
a categorical imperative.

Behind cumulonimbus clouds
secretly moon’s orb
is swelling.

They row.
History is written
in their woad-
gods and goddesses,
an oak king,
the lakes and water courses
of their oaken fleet,
the moon’s eye
in the shining river
and all the laws of the deep.

IV. Full Moon

The moon is full
behind the clouds.
She casts no light
on the empty boats,
the processional route
around the old green hill,
the moving river of woad.

Lantern bearers
pass the old iron rails,
the gloomy gathering of graves
to assemble on the mound,
igniting the beacon fire.

By the wing of an owl
the clouds are moved.
The moon looks down,

They salute her orb
in the shining river,
the gods of the hill
and the deep.

On this night
of opened graves
anything is possible
in the light of the beacon fire
before the lambent eye of the moon.

V. Moon Last Quarter

Night has fallen
from the moon’s closing eye.

The owl has flown
to the hunt.

The fire gone cold
with the lanterns’ glow
is eclipsed by street lamps
and brake lights.

The by-pass roars
by the old green hill.
The river is concreted
back in her new course.

Lady Ivy
winds down
the hill and the graves.
She waits
for the tribe to row
to the river-moon
on their oaken boats,
to her maelstrom-eye
between the worlds.

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft ValleyGreencroft Valley is located in Penwortham, and is split down its centre between Kingsfold Ward on the east and Middleforth Green to the west. From (at least) medieval times up until 1984 the valley was farmland. The 1839 Tithe map shows the fields at the south end of the valley (between Pope Lane and the old Oak) as belonging to the Mayor family, who owned Malt Kiln Farm and Cottage. The cottage was originally a water powered mill, where barley from the local fields was made into grain. Following this, grain was soaked in a stone trough, ‘chitted’, germinated, dried in a kiln and ‘riddled’ before being placed in sacks to be taken by horse and cart to the Black Bull Inn. The land was bought by the church in 1860[1].

The fields north of the Oak belonged to the Baker family, who lived in a house called Alderfield, and later became Miss Whittam’s riding school (the site is now covered by Greencroft). The old hedge line can still be seen between the old Oak, the adjacent trees and another oak tree of a similar age near the Malthouse Way entrance. Another visible hedge line divides the green from the woods close to the Maltings. This divided the fields belonging to Alderfield from Fish Pan Pasture.

The presence of the mill combined with the two fishing ponds on the Tithe Map and the large culvert adjacent to Hill Road South, all form evidence that Fish House Brook was several times larger and more forceful than it is now, showing the drastic shifts that have been brought about in the water table over the past 150 years. Another point of note is that there was a well in the valley close to the edge of the brook, to whose steps a path ran from Alderfield; this disappeared with the building of the new estates.

The large and irregular field patterns suggests they date back at least to medieval times. A 1590 map refers to the land that stretches from Pope Lane to Castle Hill as ‘all these ancient and several lands of the manor of Penwortham as well as the Queen’s as of freeholders and copyholders[2]’. The first entry for Penwortham in the Domesday book cites the existence of ‘two ploughs,’ in reference to Penwortham End and Middleforth Green. Evidence from the Dock Finds shows the area adjacent to the Ribble near Castle Hill was occupied from the Neolithic period onward. If this was the case in higher Penwortham, then judging by the population figures (the population of Britain was higher in the Iron Age than it was during the Norman period[3]) it is possible Middleforth Green and the valley have been occupied and farmed just as long.

The occupation and land use changed dramatically between 1979 and 1984 as a result of the Central Lancashire New Towns project. This was set up in 1973 and aimed to draw together Penwortham, Preston, Walton, Leyland and Chorley in a vast urban sprawl with a population of half a million, covering 55 square miles with houses[4]. During this period the estates of Greencroft, Malthouse Way, Alderfield and the Maltings were built- over 300 houses, bringing an approximate number of 600 people[5] into the area, in stark contrast to the small number who occupied Malt House Farm and Cottage and Alderfield. It was during this period that Middleforth School, which was founded in 1861 and was formerly a Chapel-School situated where Church Brook House now stands at the bottom of Marshall’s Brow, was moved to its present site[6]. It seems needless to say that the impact on the nature and wildlife of the area must have been huge.

This open green space and woodland now forms an important habitat for wildlife, a roosting place for birds, a possible swimming place for stream life and a pleasant vista for dog walkers and play area for children, and is the only place amidst the new estates where the traces of so many centuries of our rural past is preserved. Home to a plethora of living things, from those with roots and leaves, to those with legs, tails or wings, it is an eco-system that deserves care and respect, and this is the purpose of the Friends of Greencroft Valley.

[1] Elizabeth Basquill, More Hidden Histories of Penwortham Houses, (The Friends of Hurst Grange Park, 2011), p6-11, 42-44.
[2] Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, (Carnegie Press, 1988), p67
[3] There were 3 million people in 700 BC compared to 2.5 million in 1086
[4] Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, (Carnegie Press, 1988), p145
[5] Going by the average figure of 2.32 people per household
[6] Penwortham Magazine, Issue 3.