Allotment C23

A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook,
tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?

A place to dig, to sow, to watch life grow,
leaving the battlefield and the ravens behind me

like the servicemen returning from the First World War?

Is it time to leave the heroes to be pecked apart
and join, instead, with the labouring poor?

To set aside the books of heroic poetry –
the verses on shattered shields and clashing spears,

the blood and bones to the soil return with spade
and hoe to feed the future generations?

Tell me, my gods, is this my allotted place?
A plot of land in the bend of Fish House Brook

my Bremetennacum Veteranorum as I enter my later years?

As you might have guessed, after a year’s wait, I am finally the proud tenant of an allotment. This has come about after a difficult year during which I’ve felt like I’ve been kicked in the teeth by the universe in many ways, one of them being the landslide on Castle Hill cutting off my access to the yew tree where I dedicated myself to Gwyn on Fairy Lane.

I now feel my gods have gifted me with an alternative. It is happily within a bend of Fish House Brook, which begins near my house and runs through Greencroft Valley, where I run a friends group, before joining the Ribble at Fish House Bridge on the other side of the allotments. In this I see the guiding hand of Belisama, goddess of the Ribble, along with the land spirits and Gwyn and his ‘family’ – the Tylwyth Teg or ‘fairies’.

Whereas I had been considering moving away to find a job in conservation this has led me to decide to remain rooted in Penwortham, even if it means a longish commute. I am beginning a month of cotton grass planting on Little Woolden Moss near Manchester next week, which will be my first paid contract, and a couple of paid traineeships have come up in Bolton, so possibilities are opening up.

Having spent the last decade working with the heroic poetry of the Old North, not least in my latest collection ‘Co(r)vid Moon’ whose main characters are battlefield ravens, I’m sensing a shift away from the medieval courts, where I never belonged with the Taliesins, toward a poetry of the land, to where I belong, alongside other labouring poets.*

Although I’m far from retirement age I see this as a step in maturing and and stepping up to take responsibility for leading a sustainable life as I head toward the big 40 this November.

Since I took this photograph I have been clearing the paths, weeding, digging and putting manure on the beds, and chitting my first early potatoes.

I can now call myself an allotmenteer 🙂

*For example Ted Hughes and Alice Oswald whose work is based on their lived experience of working the land. (Although, of course, I do not claim to be as good!).

Landslip

Fairy Lane, January 2021

Landslip, landslide,
we live in treacherous times,
the very land we hold so dear to us
with the grounds of life as we know it is
being pulled from beneath our feet.

Orange mesh and ‘Do Not Enter’ signs
at the entrances to Fairy Lane do not deter me
slipping by fay-like to bear witness
to another cataclysmic event.

For a long while railings, gravestones,
have been falling away and no-one speaks
of gathering up the bones of the dead.

This has been a place of peace with its
holy well, monastery, church, and chapel,
but has also been a place of penitence.

Black Roger sent to the ends of the earth.

(I sometimes wonder if I am a penitent
and whether I have served my time).

The weather gods have been cruel
this year with their freeze-thaw-rain
dichotomy opening fresh wounds.

The steps leading down to the yew
where I first met Gwyn ap Nudd and to him
made my dedication defying the transcendent gaze

of the Christian God who has never set foot on this earth
(except perhaps in his son whose feet in ancient times
may have walked here in Blake’s poetry)

are now twisted like something out of Labyrinth.

He has thrown my world out of kilter again –
a consequence of being devoted to a wild god…

When I see trees upside-down I think how natural
it is for us to fall whereas trees are born upright
and to go root over crown is certain death.

Yet as we grow older falls hurt more
and we come to wonder which will be the last.

~

I wrote this poem after being called to bear witness to yet another cataclysmic event in my local area. It was three days until the January full moon, on which I made my life-long dedication to my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd, beside the leaning yew tree on Fairy Lane two years ago. (I made my initial dedication to him at the White Spring beneath Glastonbury Tor on the January moon in 2013.)

It’s a place I visit often, so I was surprised, when I got there, to find orange mesh across the entrance from the A59 and to read a notice stating that the footpath was closed due to a landslip. I walked to the second entrance by the Ribble where, again, I found the orange mesh, but it didn’t extend into the woodland.

Following the intuition that the place was safe now and my gods wanted me to see what had happened I slipped past. Usually the council will fence things off at the tiniest reason. This was not small. It was catastrophic. A whole swathe of land had slipped away from the side of Church Avenue, which runs along Castle Hill – a pen ‘prominent headland’ – shaped a bit like Pendle. It had piled up on Fairy Lane with the debris of huge ivy-clad trees in their prime, fallen root over crown.

Furthermore the steps leading down to the leaning yew had been skewed and looked dangerous.

In some ways, that this had happened, was not a surprise. The whole bank, with its leaning trees, has always looked precarious. There have been landslips before, bearing away railings and graves. Due to falling gravestones the castle mound and parts of the graveyard have been closed off for several years.

There are several reasons for the instability of the land. When the river Ribble was moved five hundred yards south from her original course to run beside Castle Hill, the sandstone bedrock was shattered. The aquifer beneath the hill was broken, leading to the holy well at the hill’s foot drying up. The building of the adjacent by-pass and its vibrations are likely causing the damaged land to slip.

The final contributor to this is the recent weather with its dangerous patterns of freezing, thawing, and heavy rain. No doubt all these factors have come together to cause these landslip.

Yet as well as physical reasons there are spiritual reasons too. The conversion of the hill and well from a pre-Christian to Christian sacred site and the severing of the links between the people and the gods of the land have led to the mindset that makes moving a river, shattering an aquifer that feeds a holy well, and building a by-pass beside a sacred place acceptable. Within a culture that saw the river as a divinity and the hill as the body of a goddess and abode of the dead and their god these would have been seen as acts of desecration that would bring about the wrath of the gods. And so their anger is seen in the decline of this once (and still on occasion) beautiful and enchanting place.

My first thought, when I arrived at the scene, was that this was linked somehow to my Gwyn dedication. Had I done something wrong? Was I on the wrong track? Might it be linked to the series of workshops on Gwyn and his family I am planning with other Gwyn devotees for Land Sea Sky Travel?

I received the gnosis that the landslip had nothing to do with me or my actions and would have happened anyway. I was already in two minds about visiting the yew on my dedication day as I am at my conservation internship on that day and don’t really want to go at night without a friend to accompany me (due to lockdown).

What it means to have the place I met Gwyn and made my life-long dedication cut off I haven’t cogitated yet. It seems to fit with two bridges over the Ribble being declared dangerous and closed. The land, the gods, displaying their anger, the council attempting to protect us, connections being severed.

This event has also made me aware the yew, leaning precariously on an ash, won’t be there forever…

The Well of Life

‘From the Well of Life Three Drops Instilled’
John Milton

This image is based on a combination of the lines above from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a sketch of St Mary’s Well in Penwortham by Edwin Beattie (which can be viewed HERE), and the following words written about it by James Flockhart in 1854:

‘On the road which leads from Penwortham Bridge to the Church, at some distance before reaching the avenue leading to the entrance, there is a narrow pathway by which the traveller, after descending a few rude steps, may reach the fields on the left hand. At the bottom of the steps, a little to the right, is a spring of clear water flowing into a sort of natural basin, surrounded by brushwood, near which I have seen primroses and other wild flowers blooming in the greatest luxuriance. This well, like others in the olden time, had its patron saint. It was one of those acts of piety practised by our forefathers to acknowledge the inestimable value of water by dedicating all springs to some saint, but more particularly to the Virgin Mother of our Saviour, as being emblematical of purity. The well at Penwortham, in accordance with this custom, is said to have been dedicated to ” Our Blessed Ladye,” and to have been formerly remarkable for working extraordinary cures; and it is even believed by some to possess this power at the present day; in fact, I have heard many people in the neighbourhood say, that to wash the hands in its water is a certain antidote to evil.’

St Mary’s Well, at the foot of Castle Hill in Penwortham, dried up between 1884 and 1888 when the aquifer was shattered by the moving of the river Ribble during the creation of Riversway Dockland. As a Well of Healing and a Well of Life, which I believe was sacred to an older goddess named Anrhuna before it was re-dedicated to Mary, it continues to exist in Peneverdant, which for me is becoming a mythic reality of Penwortham much as Avalon is to Glastonbury and Blake’s Jerusalem is to London.

It was not the storm

that broke me or the storm
before it or the storm before it.
Ciara, Brendan, Atiyah, even
distant Ophelia or Freya.

It was not the winter storms
of 2013 – 2014 before storms
were given alphabetical names.
It was not the St Jude storm,

the London or Birmingham
tornadoes, Storm Kyrill – killer
of 11 people, the Great Storm
of 1987 or any of the storms

before I was born in 1981.
It was not the cliché of the storm
within although winds have swept
through my branches broken

my fingers swayed me that way
and this like a sapling turned me over
like a hay wheel rattled me like
a bag on a barbed wire fence.

Rain has flooded my landscape,
rising up over my pagodas and bins,
my fountain and its four nymphs,
washed away all my bridges,

receded to leave a mottle of reed,
rainbow puddles to splash wellies in,
birches surprising in their reflections
like Rimbaud illuminated in 1876.

It has cleaned and cleansed me.
My Taekwondo belt is blue and green.
I am learning O Jang I but I do not
call myself Master of the Wind

for I do not know what broke me –
childhood bullying, a neurotic father,
a defective gene or something deeper
within? But it was not the storm.

*Arthur Rimbaud wrote his Illuminations in 1876.
**O Jang means ‘Wind’ and it is the fifth pattern in WTF Taekwondo.
***I wrote this poem in the aftermath of Storm Ciara during which the Ribble broke her banks at Avenham and Miller Parks and further upriver.

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.

Marsh Roads

I.

Walking

down Marsh Way past Marsh Way Pond,

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

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

peal

like spaceships
on computer games.

II.

There are no alders
on Alderfield

where I lived
without trees or water,

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

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

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

III.

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

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

V.

There is no sedge in Sedgefield

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

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

We have been sinking by an inch each year.

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

Discovering Anrhuna

Anrhuna… it’s taken me many years to find out her name… nearly as many years as the many names I’ve known her by: Lady Ivy, Lady Green, Lady of Peneverdant (‘The Green Hill on the Water’), Lady of the Marsh, Mother of the Marsh, Mary of the Marsh, Marian, Mother of Annwn.

At my local sacred site, Castle Hill in Penwortham (Peneverdant in the Domesday Book), the church on the summit is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the well at the hill’s foot. I have known for a long time a goddess replaced by Mary lies beneath. I’ve felt her presence in the water dripping from the ivy, in ferns, hart’s tongue, enchanter’s nightshade, all the plants that love the damp.

Lady on the Mound - Copy

She’s gifted me with visions of how the land appeared to the ancient Britons who worshipped her. The Bronze Age Lake Village, the way across the marsh to the sacred hill marked out by stakes, the moonlit processions spiralling around the hill to light a beacon fire, the burial mound beneath the castle mound, the grove of trees circling the area where the church now stands, beloved of the druids.

Where the river Ribble (known then as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’) runs culverted and shifted from her course and on the other side stand the flats and out of town stores around the redundant docks I have listened to widgeon whistling and curlew calling across the marsh. I have seen tall, handsome cranes grazing beside the river and taller, mightier aurochs drinking deep, raising horned heads.

River Ribble, water level

Stranger still, two people from the US have contacted me to share visions of this place. A while back Heather Awen spoke of witnessing women making offerings from a wooden platform, praying for ‘a baby to fill their womb’, and seeing a woman ‘wrapped in burlap… tied with ropes’ lowered into the marsh. More recently Bryan Hewitt reported being drawn to do healing work in the area and seeing people in wooden boats traversing the river. Afterwards I had my first vision of the goddess as a person – a woman in a wooden boat getting bigger and bigger until she filled the skies, then trying to take the hill and docklands, severed by the moved river, in her arms to make her marshland one again.

Mother of the Marsh I

Bryan spoke to me of his relationship with a goddess he knows as the Mother of Annwn. When I met her on a journey she presented me with watery marshland imagery. A number of threads came together and I realised my local marsh goddess is this goddess of the waters of life flowing from Annwn.

Another thread that helped to complete this mysterious tapestry of place and deity is Bryan’s knowledge that the Mother of Annwn is the mother of Gwyn ap Nudd, my patron god, who I met in the damp woodland on the east bank of Castle Hill, where our local fairy funeral legend is set.

It is well known from his patronymic that Gwyn’s father is Nudd/Nodens, but the identity of his mother has fallen into obscurity. In The Descent of the Saints Gwyn is listed as the son of Tywanwedd, a little-known sixth century saint, who is also the father of Gwallog and Caradog, yet this has never rung true. Neither has the ungrounded claim of Robert Graves that Gwyn’s mother is Arianrhod.

The only real clue I have found is Ann Ross’s mention that at Nodens’ temple at Lydney there was found a stone statuette of a mother goddess, thirty inches in height, ‘her left leg crossed over her right’, ‘a corncupia in the crook of her left arm’, her head unfortunately missing. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. It seems likely she is Nodens’ consort and Gwyn’s mother.

There is also evidence for the worship of Nodens here in Lancashire. Two statuettes dedicated to him were found on Cockersand Moss very close the remains of Cockersand Abbey. This was dedicated to Mary of the Marsh – my marshland goddess Christianised. I realised it was likely she and Nodens were worshipped together both there and here on Castle Hill with their son, Gwyn.

The final thread was finding out the goddess’s name. When guesswork failed I asked her directly and she set me searching for it through the reeds as if for a bird’s egg scaring up whistling ducks, digging down into the peat through layers of history to the age of dug-out canoes and bronze spears, hearing it whispered in my ear as if on the breath of a bog body – “Anrhuna” (tentatively ‘Very Great’).

The tapestry of land and deity at Castle Hill – Anrhuna, Nodens, Gwyn, alongside Belisama, is complete.

Castle Hill Mound Autumn 2018

Penwortham Priory and the Rule of Saint Benedict

You wouldn’t know it had ever been there if wasn’t for the street names Priory Lane, Priory Close, Priory Crescent, Monk’s Walk, and the names of Priory Park Care Home and Penwortham Priory High School (where I was educated between 11 and 16 and from where I tried to escape as often as possible!).

Castle Hill, the pen, the prominent headland, which puts the ‘Pen’ in Penwortham has been the town’s central religious and defensive site for thousands of years. The castle mound remains along with St Mary’s Church and graveyard, but Penwortham Priory and its black-robed monks are long gone.

St Mary's Church

Penwortham Priory was founded in the 1140s when Warin (de) Bussel, a Norman Lord who was the first Baron of Penwortham, transferred St Mary’s Church to the Benedictine abbey of Evesham in Worcestershire. The abbot funded the building of the priory and sent a prior and three monks to serve.

The priory was an ‘obedience’ of Evesham Abbey and had no independence of its own. Because it was replaced with a mansion after the dissolution we do not know what it looked like. Alan Crosby suggests it is was a ‘monastic grange with a chapel… built around a quadrangle in some form of cloister.’

Penworthampriory_authorunknown_wikipedia

Penwortham Priory rebuilt as a mansion

The priors and monks were often sent from the larger and richer abbey (where there were sixty-seven monks, five nuns, three clerks, and sixty-five servants) as a punishment. This bleak north-western headland, overlooking Penwortham Marsh and the tidal Ribble, must have been cold and wet and probably felt like the end of the world in contrast to Evesham.

We know little about Penwortham’s monks and priors. The priors’ names are listed from Henry in 1159 to Richard Hawkesbury, who withdrew before the dissolution of the priory in 1539. Those whose lives have warranted comment are a ‘good-hearted’ Prior Wilcote who fed his monks up after periodical blood-letting (this disturbingly suggests he was the exception) and a notorious prior called Roger Norris.

Norris was described as ‘a glutton, wine-bibber, and loose-liver’ who could nevertheless through eloquence and courtly manners put on a show of learning. After betraying his brethren at Christ Church, Canterbury, and being imprisoned, he escaped through a sewer. Richard I made him abbot of Evesham and he ‘dissipated its revenues until the monks were reduced to a diet of bread and water… for lack of decent clothing many of them could not appear in the choir or chapter house.’

Norris was eventually removed from his position and instead made prior of Penwortham where he continued in his excesses, being deposed then reinstated until 1223, when he died refusing to be reconciled to the abbot of Evesham and withholding certain revenues that belonged to the abbey.

Although there are no records of the everyday lives of the monks of Penwortham Priory we can gain insights into their routine and religious values by examining the life and rule of St Benedict and the Benedictine movement.

***

Benedict was born in Nursia, in Italy, in 480. He was sent to Rome to study but, disappointed by the immoral lives of his companions, he decided to leave and become a hermit. He departed for Enfide and, on his way through a narrow valley, met with Romanus of Subiaco, who lived in a monastery on the cliff. Subiaco gave Benedict his monk’s habit and counselled him to live in the cave beneath the cliff.

423px-Meister_von_Meßkirch_002

Between the summit and the clear blue lake beneath Benedict lived alone for three years with Romanus bringing him food. Afterwards, when the monks of another nearby monastery asked him to become their abbot, he reluctantly agreed, but because of their ‘diverse manners’ they did not get on and attempted to poison him. Benedict prayed a blessing over the poisoned cup and it shattered.

When he returned to his cave a jealous priest called Florentius tried poisoning him with poisoned bread, but he prayed another blessing and a raven flew down and took the loaf away. When Benedict attracted his own followers Florentius tried to seduce them with prostitutes and failed.

To avoid further persecution Benedict left Subiaco and established 12 monasteries nearby. In 530 he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino where he died of a fever on the 21st of March in 543 or 547.

800px-Monte_Cassino_Opactwo_1

Benedict originally wrote his Rule for autonomous self-governing communities. Its 56 chapters form guidelines regulating the daily offices of prayer, work, sleep, meals, clothing, possessions, and behaviour.

After his death Benedictine monasticism grew rapidly in popularity throughout Europe and was brought to England by Saint Augustine, who was sent by Pope Gregory I to Christianise the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He founded the first Benedictine monastery in Canterbury and became its abbot in 597.

Saint Wilfrid, the first English Christian to visit Rome in 658, enforced the Roman method for calculating Easter and introduced the Rule of Saint Benedict in his monasteries at Ripon and Hexham. Wilfrid was granted lands ‘iuxta Rippel’ ‘by the Ribble’ at Preston (Preosta Tun ‘Priest Town’) across from Penwortham. The parish church was dedicated him and he became the town’s patron saint. However, there is no evidence that Wilfrid set up any Benedictine monasteries in the local area.

Evesham Abbey was built by St Egwin between 700 and 710 after a swineherd called Eog experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. Thus its link to St Mary’s in Penwortham is of interest.

320px-Evesham_Abbey_Bell_Tower

The Order of Saint Benedict was founded in 910 by the abbot of Cluny and this is when it became centralised.

152 Benedictine monasteries and 52 nunneries were established across England. They became important seats of learning and literature and sanctuaries for holy relics and works of art. It was partly because of their wealth and power that King Henry VIII dissolved them between 1536 and 1541.

***

From the Rule of St Benedict we can guess the monks of Penwortham performed eight offices of prayer a day: Matins (midnight), Lauds (dawn), Prime (early morning), Terce (mid-morning), Sext (midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (evening), Compline (bedtime). They would have performed no less than five hours of manual labour. Eating the flesh of four-legged animals was banned. The usual fare was a pound of bread and quarter litre of wine (which I imagine was supplemented with seasonal fruit and vegetables and fish from the fisheries and panneries). They lived by strict vows of obedience, stability, and chastity, and the renunciation of all worldly possessions.

I have often wondered what led them to becoming monks. The call of God? The promise of a life rich in religion and art? The guarantee of safety and stability in a harsh and war-torn world? Did they find God, Jesus, Mary, here on this lonely hill as the rain poured and fires burnt low in the grates?

Did any of them sense the presence of the ancient goddess of the hill, the marsh, the healing well, or the otherworldly god and his spirits who would later be seen marching in a fairy funeral procession?

As an awenydd I can understand the appeal of leading a life of prayer in community in devotion to one’s god(s). However, I cannot imagine wanting to be part of an Order founded on the elimination of a multitude of local variants of Christianity, which in turn eliminated a multitude of local variants of paganism.

When I visit the sites of priories and abbeys I often feel a combination of yearning and sorrow. The yearning to be a part of something big, to participate in shared devotion, to find and wonder in the same god. Yet I also feel saddened by the weight of destruction that has brought this hegemonic religion about. All the gods and spirits and the diverse sets of beliefs that have been crushed, wiped out.

Whilst I long for a devotional community I could never join a Christian monastery or a pagan, polytheistic or druidic order that is based on or even inspired by Christian monastic ideals and principles as it these very things that have cast out and demonised the gods and spirits within the landscape.

Thus I remain a solitary devotee of those deities within the land, beneath the church, beneath the roads and street names that mark where the feet of monks once trod and where they tread no longer.

Monks Walk


SOURCES

Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, Carnegie Press, (1988)
Saint Benedict, Rev. Verheyen Boniface (transl), The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1923)
William Farrer and J Brownbill (ed.), ‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The priory of Penwortham’, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 2, (London, 1908)
Benedict of Nursia, Wikipedia

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.

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.