Remembering Penwortham Marsh

In the Doomsday Book my home town of Penwortham is referred to as Peneverdant. It has been translated by Rev. Thornber as ‘the green hill on the water.’* The name refers to Castle Hill, which stood on Penwortham Marsh, a tidal freshwater marsh frequently flooded by the river Ribble.

The marshland developed after the Ice Age and its water levels changed with the tides and the rise and fall of sea levels. During the Bronze Age there was a wooden lake dwelling evidenced by the remains of a ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’.

It seems likely people inhabited this milder lowland location in winter and, in the summer, when there were lots of midges, moved to the uplands, following the aurochs. (There are echoes of this tradition in the people of Penwortham pasturing their cattle in Brindle, in the foothills of the Pennines, up until the 14th century, when Brindle separated from Penwortham parish).

During the marine transgressions of the second millennium BC, when the weather got colder and wetter, Castle Hill would have been part of the Ribble estuary and quite literally ‘on the water’. In the Romano-British period the sea levels fell again and have remained relatively stable until now.

The vegetation of Penwortham Marsh was likely to have consisted mainly of common saltmarsh grass (pucinellia maritima), with saltmarsh rush (juncus gerardii) and red fescue (festuca rubra), areas of reed (phragmites communis) and reedmace (typha latifolia), and perhaps water crowfoot (ranunculis aquatis), lesser spearwort (rannunculus flamula), and yellow flag iris (pseudacorus).

Breeding birds would have included redshanks, dunlins, oyster catchers, grebes, curlews, shelducks, mallards, lapwings, egrets, herons, and cranes. Over-wintering birds such as pink-footed geese, Bewick’s swans, whooper swans, widgeon, teal, knot, pintails, bar-tailed godwits, black-tailed godwits, sanderlings, and golden plover would also have been seen and their calls heard across the marshland.

This remarkable species-rich habitat remained untouched until the 16th century. Its draining began with land on the south of the marsh at Blashaw close to the medieval boundary ditch. Land north of Castle Hill was also reclaimed at this time. A survey of the Farington estates from 1570 refers to the Corn Marsh of 28 ½ acres and Little Burgess Marsh, which was fenced off with posts and rails. In the 16th century, from Howick to the foot of Castle Hill, a band of marsh was enclosed as ‘large square fields’. Finally, in the 17th century the marsh at Howick closest to the river Ribble was drained.

The newly reclaimed land was used for arable agriculture from the 16th until the 18th century. In 1725 the Corn Marsh was renamed Pasture Marsh showing it was used for grazing instead. The name Cow Gate Marsh is also suggestive of use for pasturage. Other field names include Innes Marsh, Little Marsh, Middle Marsh, New Marsh, and Long Marsh. The small strips that remained as intertidal marshland beside the Ribble were called Out Marsh and Great Marsh.**

The greatest change, in the 1880s, was the movement of the Ribble 500 yards south from its original meander at present-day Watery Lane to bend sharp west then flow in a concrete channel straight out to the estuary. This had the effect of cutting Penwortham Marsh off from Castle Hill, and from Penwortham, making it part of Preston. The marsh was then dug out to form Riversway Dockland.

There is now no sign Penwortham Marsh ever existed. Not even a street name. People who visit the docks are largely unaware they are walking on a former marshland where early Britons dwelled amongst reed, rush, waterfowl, mighty aurochs, and their gods, spirits, and ancestors.

Unlike with other intertidal marshlands beside the Ribble which, following, their draining have been rewetted, such as Hesketh Out Marsh, there is no way that Penwortham Marsh can ever be restored. Its separation from Castle Hill by the river and the digging of the docks has irreversibly destroyed it. Ironically the dock only functioned for 100 years before the Ribble silted up (Belisama’s revenge?***).

Along with climate change, the destruction of Penwortham Marsh and the channelling of the river are now causing flooding upriver at Broadgate. If the Ribble had been left to her old course and the marshland had remained as a buffer zone we would not need to be building higher flood defences.

Drained and dismembered, Penwortham Marsh cannot be put back together again. Yet it can be remembered. Its memories continue to speak from beneath the dock. When we look on those concrete walls, the restless waters brimming with green-blue algae, we can recall the marshland stretching away to Castle Hill, whistling with the calls of birds, and hear the voices of our ancestors.

They speak their warnings of a time when the green hill will once more be on the water again…

*Thornber claims ‘Peneverdant’ is of Brythonic origin from ‘pen, werd, or werid and want, as Caer Werid, the green city (Lancaster) and Derwent, the water’.
**The draining of Penwortham Marsh is recorded with a map in Alan Crosby’s Penwortham in the Past.
***Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble.

The Water Country’s Severed Heads

the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire
David Barrowclough

Until recently it was believed that the 23 human skulls found on Penwortham Marsh during the excavations for Riversway Docklands provided evidence for human sacrifice or a mass murder. This was based on the premise that they were all contemporary with the Bronze Age spearhead, the remants of a wooden lake dwelling, and two dug-out canoes, which they were found with.

Since then a sample of the skulls have been radio-carbon dated to between 4000BC and 800AD. Four are from the Neolithic period, one the Romano-British, and one the Anglo-Saxon. The range shows these people died at very different times. This has led professor Mick Wysocki to put forward the theory that the skulls belonged to people who died upriver, their corpses floating down to a tidal pool at Penwortham Marsh where their heavy skulls sank whilst their bodies washed out to sea. Wysocki’s theory is widely accepted among historians and archaeologists.

I believe that, for many cases, Wysocki might be right. However, considering the surrounding evidence, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of the skulls were purposefully deposited in Penwortham Marsh. Lancashire (the historic county) has many examples of ritual depositions of severed heads.

On Pilling Moss was discovered ‘the head of a woman with long plaited auburn hair… wrapped in a piece of coarse woollen cloth and with it were two strings of cylindrical jet beads, with one string having a large amber bead at its centre.’ The jet beads date it to the Early Bronze Age. Another female head with plaited hair, from Red Moss, Bolton, remains undated.

From Briarfield, on the Fylde coast, we have the head of a man aged less than 50 years ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ and dated to the Late Bronze Age. Another male skull, of a similar age and date, was found on Ashton Moss, Tameside. A skull from Worsley was dated to between the Bronze Age and Romano-British periods. Found near the famous Lindow Man, the head of Lindow Woman has been dated to 250AD. Heads, as yet undated, were also found at Birkdale, near Southport.

The purposeful deposition of the heads, without their bodies, suggests they were deposited for ritual purposes. The plaited hair of the females seems significant. The jet and amber beads with the woman on Pilling Moss implicates she was an important figure among her people. These burials appear to have been made with great reverence. I wonder whether they are suggestive of the belief that the head is the seat of the soul and if it is treated in a certain way the soul might remain present so that a group of people can commune with the deceased until the time of its burial.

The existence of this belief within Brythonic culture is supported by ‘The Second Branch’ of the medieval Welsh text, The Mabinogion, in which Brân the Blessed’s head continued to speak for eighty years before its burial beneath White Hill in London to protect the Island of Britain from attack (until it was dug up by King Arthur who couldn’t stand anyone defending the country but him). It seems possible these heads also had a apotropaic function, demarking territory, repelling enemies.

Whilst the two female heads appear to have been buried reverently, the head of the man from Briarfield was badly mutilated – defleshed and and the mandible removed. David Barrowclough suggests the ‘separation of the mandible’ might show it was a ‘battle trophy’. That the removal of the flesh and the mandible might have been representative of one group or person over this person. One can imagine this gory spectacle as a symbol of glory over a defeated foe and a warning to an enemy.

Again this tradition is hinted at in medieval Welsh mythology. In Culhhwch and Olwen, prior to his beheading and the placement of his head on a stake the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, had his ears cut off and his flesh was pared down to the bone. In Geraint there is an enchanted game where heads on stakes stand in a hedge of mist and it is implied that any who lose the game end up losing their heads.

In The Red Book of Hergest exists a poem attributed to Llywarch Hen in which the sixth century northern British ruler carries his cousin Urien’s head back to the kingdom of Rheged after his assassination:

A head I bear by my side,
The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army–
And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched…

A head I bear from the Riw,
With his lips foaming with blood–
Woe to Rheged from this day!

It has been suggested that Llywarch Hen ruled Ribchester in Lancashire (amongst many other places!)

Ritualised beheadings, burials (and unburials) of heads continued in Britain until 1747 when the Jacobite leader and Scottish clan chief, Simon Fraser, was publically beheaded at Tower Hill.

I therefore believe it is possible that some of the heads from Penwortham Marsh were ritual depositions. It seems to be of no coincidence that, of the six examined, three died violent deaths. A Neolithic man was killed by a stone axe and a Neolithic woman by ‘trauma to the right and back of her skull’. A Romano-British person (the sex cannot be determined) met his or her death through ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’

These people could have been killed and their corpses deposited in the Ribble upriver. Or they might be the heads of people in the group of lake dwellers who at one point built a wooden structure on Penwortham Marsh. Perhaps they were locals killed in battle or enemies whose heads they had taken.

A further possibility is that they were human sacrifices. The Lindow Man famously died a ‘three-fold death’. He was struck on the head (with a blow that fractured his skull), garrotted, then drowned. Lindow Man was buried whole, but only Lindow Woman’s head was buried. The reasons why, in one instance, a whole body was deposited and in another only the head remain unknown.

Perhaps examinations of the other 17 skulls from the Riversway Dock Finds would provide further clues?

Another tradition that has lived on here is the deposition of stone heads (perhaps modelled on an ancestor?) rather than the heads of the dead in the Ribble as evidenced by this specimen in the Harris Museum.

*With thanks to the Harris Museum for permission to use the photograph.

SOURCES

David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)William Skene (transl.), ‘Red Book of Hergest XII, Four Ancient Books of Wales, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab060.htm (accessed 12/01/2020)
Display in the Discover Preston gallery in the Harris Museum

Penwortham Lake Dwelling

Stand on the mound on Castle Hill, look northwest, and you will see a very different scene to 150 years ago. The flats and retail outlets visible through the gaps in the trees were built after the closure of Riversway Dockland in 1981. The dock closed after only 100 years of use, having been constructed during the 1880s. During its construction the Ribble was moved several hundred yards south.

Today – courtesy of Mario Maps

OS First Edition 1:10,000 1840s courtesy of Mario Maps

Beforehand you would have been looking out across the fields of Marsh Farm and Marsh Grange toward Penwortham Marsh, the distant Ribble, and across it Preston Marsh and the settlement at Marsh End. This landscape, in turn, would have been different to 400 years ago before the marsh was drained.

Since the melting of the glaciers after the Ice Age the tidal stretches beside the Ribble would always have been marsh. Archaeological evidence suggests people have inhabited this area since, at least, 3800BC.

The excavations for Riversway Dockland uncovered evidence of a wooden lake dwelling. A ‘platform some 17m by 7m in extent… formed of brushwood set amidst piles’, a bronze spear head, two dug-out canoes, 23 human skulls, 21 aurochs skulls with horns, 25 red deer skulls with antlers, and bones of wild horse which showed evidence of ‘chop marks’ and gnawing ‘by a large, dog-sized predator’.

John Lamb lists the Preston Docks Findspot as SD12296, meaning it would have been in the northwest of the present dock area, adjacent to the roundabout. Turner et al note that ‘remains were found at various points in the total area excavated’ including ‘two human crania found close to Castle Hill on the south side of the river’.

Riversway Dockfind Spot

For many years it was the consensus that the human skulls provided evidence of human sacrifice – perhaps a mass murder. In 2002 eight skulls were selected for radio-carbon dating. It turned out that five were Stone Age, one Bronze Age, one from the Romano-British period and one from Anglo-Saxon times.

The latest theory, put forward by Dr Michael Wysocki, is that these people were not sacrificed on Penwortham Marsh. Instead they entered the river system miles away. Their heads settled at a slow-flowing point in the Ribble, a tidal lake, and their bodies floated out to sea. Likewise with the animals. Yet the large number of Stone Age skulls suggests that Neolithic people used the river to dispose of their dead. Even accepting this theory I believe it possible some of the human and animal skulls may have belonged to the lake-dwellers and been deposited in the Ribble in ritual acts.

The carbon dated skulls provide a sample of people who dwelled by the Ribble from between 4000BC – 800AD. The oldest skull, of a ‘mature woman’, is dated to 3820 – 3640 BC. ‘Pitting in the orbit of her left eye’ suggests she ‘suffered from anaemia’. Another, dated to around 3,500 BC, belonged to a man of around 40.

Two of the Stone Age skulls show evidence of violent deaths. An ‘older man’ was killed with a stone axe. The skull of a young woman, dated 3710 – 3510 BC, shows ‘clear evidence of trauma to the right and back of her skull’. This surprised me as I’d thought of Stone Age hunter-gatherers as peaceful people.

Yet it would accord with Roman depictions of the people of Briton and Gaul as savage head-hunters and with poems recording the internecine warfare and raiding that took place in post-Roman Britain. (Notably the northern British bard, Taliesin, describes warriors playing football with the heads of their enemies!). Andrew Breeze has suggested that the root of Setantii set- derives from met- ‘reaping’. In medieval Welsh literature we find a tradition of warriors favouring lethal blows to the head*.

The Romano-British skull is small with ‘distinctive male eyebrow ridges’. It is unclear whether its owner was male or female, Roman or British. However, he or she was killed by ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’ I wonder if she was killed in the Roman invasion. A Roman ballista ball was found on Castle Hill, suggesting there was a battle there.

The owner of the skull from the Anglo-Saxon period, a female aged between 16 and 25, also died violently. There is evidence of a cut across her face, damaging her right eye, and a lethal blow to the head. Again it seems possible this woman was killed during the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The dock finds show our local lake-dwellers were fearsome warriors and hunters who travelled the Ribble in dug-out canoes and preyed on aurochs, red deer, and and wild horse. After eating them they probably skinned them and used their skins for clothing. Oddly ‘the carbon 13 readings show that their diet consisted of meat and vegetables – but no fish, despite being found near a river’. This fits with the 3rd century Roman writer Dion Cassius’ report: ‘They never cultivate the land, but live on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees; for they never touch fish, of which they have such prodigious plenty’.

It seems very strange that these people did not eat fish when they were plentiful in the Ribble. I wonder whether this is because it was used to dispose of the dead and to eat from it was seen as taboo. We know from the Roman geographer Ptolemy’s writings in the 2nd century that the Ribble was known as Belisama ‘Most Mighty One’ or ‘Most Shining One’ and was seen as a powerful goddess. Maybe fish were held as sacred to her and ‘totemic’ to the lake-dwellers and were not to be eaten.

Setanta, an Irish hero who may have been of Setantii origins, was later renamed Cu Chulainn (meaning Chullain’s hound). The dog was sacred to him and he was banned from eating dog meat. Breaking this geis led to his death. Perhaps the the lake-dwellers saw fish in a similar manner.

Upriver, between the docks and Castle Hill, on the former site of the Ribble Generating Station stands a ring of wooden carvings – a common darter dragonfly, a brown trout, an otter, a smooth newt (which has been stolen!), and a tawny owl. These creatures have likely inhabited the area since the Stone Age and would have been held as special beings to the lake-dwellers too. I wonder if they recall their stories?

*‘he (Geraint)… raised his sword and struck the knight on the top of the head his head so that all the armour on his head shatters and all the flesh splits, and the skin, and it pierces the bone and the knight falls to his knees.’ (Geraint son of Erbin)

‘Peredur drew his sword and struck the witch on top of her helmet, so that the helmet and all the armour and the head were split in two.’ (Peredur son of Efrog)

SOURCES

Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
Alan Turner, Silvia Gonzalez and James C. Ohman, Journal of Archaeological Science, ‘Prehistoric Human and Ungulate Remains from Preston Docks, Lancashire, UK: Problems of River Finds’ (2002)
John Lamb, ‘Lancashire’s Prehistoric Past’, Linda Sever (ed), Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, (2010, History Press)
Meirion Pennar, Taliesin Poems, (Llanerch Enterprises, 1988)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Discover Preston display in the Harris Museum, Preston (with thanks to the Harris for the information and permission to use the photographs of the Riversaway Dockfinds in this blog posts).

The Lady of the Marsh

I. Heather Awen and the Lady of the Marsh

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

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

Lady of the Marsh - Copy

Lady of the Marsh by Heather Awen

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

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

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

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

II. The Lady of Peneverdant

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

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

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

Lady on the Mound - Copy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Hopeful Coincidences

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

Well Field  - Lady's Field - Copy

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

Centenary Well - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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