Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

Completion of Penwortham By-Pass: Council Meeting and Rescinded Route

On Monday the 7th of October I attended the meeting of Penwortham Town Council for the purpose of finding out where they stood in relation to the completion of the by-pass. I was relieved to hear the majority were against the new route, which will destroy a large area of the town’s landscape with little benefit to its residents.

Another member of the public made the pertinent points that the plans were lacking in adequate data, it wouldn’t stop traffic travelling through Penwortham and would cause further severance between Penwortham, Longton and Hutton. I raised the issue of the environmental effects.

Penwortham Town Council decided they would a second response to Lancashire County Council that they wanted to reaffirm the ‘blue’ rescinded route rather than the new ‘brown’ proposed one. All of this is recorded in the latest minutes (1).

One of the reasons behind the planning of the new route was that it wouldn’t destroy any homes (the rescinded route destroys five) and it would cause less damage to the landscape. However, the functionality of the new route depends on the building of another stretch of road and bridge over the Ribble that will destroy an area of natural coastline then run through Lea Marsh, a Biological Heritage site.

I’ve walked the rescinded route from Broad Oak Roundabout to where it would join the A59 at a new roundabout between Saunders Lane and Chapel Lane.

Penwortham, Preston, By-pass and city deal 024 - CopyIt cuts across farmland and divides Lindle Lane…

Lindle Lane…splits this public footpath…

Public Footpath…then destroys Moor Cottages and runs through Bamfords Wood…

Moor Cottages….at the end of Park Avenue it will destroy more houses and cause noise pollution for Bramble Rest Home…

Bramble Rest Home, Park Avenue….a mini-roundabout will be built on Chapel Lane

Chapel Lane…here it will join the A59…

A59It is clear that the costs will by far outweigh the benefits. I can’t see any reason why people would use this piece of road rather the A59 at all, even at peak times as they’d only get caught up in the congestion headed for Golden Way.

In my reply to the public consultation I have to objected to the building of both roads on account of them causing unneccessary damage to the environment, separating communities and on account of the fact that sufficient data hasn’t been provide to suggest either will be effective or work better than improvements to footpaths, cycleways and public transport.

(1) Penwortham Town Council Minutes, 7th October 2014, p4402 http://www.penworthamtowncouncil.gov.uk/reports_minutes.html

Penwortham By-Pass and the City Deal

Today I went to a consultation organised by South Ribble Borough Council at Kingsfold Community Centre about changes to the planning of a new section of Penwortham By-pass. When I received an invitation through the post I was surprised as this was the first time I had been made aware of the original plan, let alone the new one.

The rescinded route was to run from Broad Oak Roundabout in Penwortham, across Lindle Lane, several fields, part of Bamford’s Wood, then across Saunders Lane to join a new roundabout on the A59 close to Chapel Lane in Longton.

Penwortham By-pass Original Rescinded Route

Rescinded Route, Courtesy of South Ribble Borough Council

The new route will run from Broad Oak Roundabout, north of Lindle Lane and just north of Mill Brook. After crossing a series of fields it will join the A59 near to Howick Cross.

New Route of Penwortham By-pass

New Route, Courtesy of South Ribble Borough Council

The proposal (1) states an extra section of by-pass is needed to divert traffic away from Penwortham and residential and shopping areas on the A59, to improve conditions for residents, pedestrians and cyclists and reduce road casualties.

Reasons for the change of plan include not demolishing five houses; a smaller environmental impact with less loss of land; half a mile shorter; a more direct route to a new Ribble crossing.

All well and good. But why do we ‘need’ this new stretch of by-pass in the first place? This assumption is based on the premise that we need to prioritise economic development. This is the purpose of the City Deal.

‘The Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal is an ambitious programme of work that builds on the strong economic performance of the area over the last ten years and will help ensure the area continues to grow by addressing major transport issues to deliver new jobs and housing. Over a ten-year period the deal will generate more than 20,000 jobs, over 17,000 homes and more importantly grow the local economy. With the funding certainty it brings, we are able to deliver these transport improvements sooner we would otherwise be able to. This means new homes and jobs can come sooner and we can reduce congestion on existing roads and improve areas for communities and road users.’

Let’s pause to look at the bigger picture. This is a map of the overall plan for the City Deal over the next ten years.

City Deal Map, courtesy of South Ribble Borough Council

City Deal Map, courtesy of South Ribble Borough Council

The piece of by-pass in question is outlined in darker red close to the number 4. Its ultimate aim is to link to a new piece of road from Howick Cross to a new bridge over the River Ribble, across Lea Marsh to join the M55 at Swillbrook.

Lea Marsh is home to numerous birds and an area of environmental importance. I was assured that if it was built on, another nature reserve would be created in its place. Surely there can be no real compensation for an irreplaceable piece of land and its inhabitants?

This new piece of road will improve access to BAE and other businesses at Warton. BAE play a major part in the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (2).

I found it somewhat chilling when I learnt this was the reason there was no junction built on the M55. It seems this was all been planned a long, long time ahead…

I’ve got a form to fill out now. Aside from minor details my only real chance to share my opinion is in a box labelled ‘Please tell us any issues that you think may affect our proposed route for the completion of Penwortham By-pass.’

There is no clear room for objection; to the by-pass or to the premise that economic development is the right or only way forward.

There is no way of arguing for alternative improvements to public transport. ‘Even with a greater investment in public transport, cycling and walking, our current roads will not be able to cope.’

It seems this consultation is a symbolic gesture and the decision that we must have one road or the other has already been made far in advance.

(1) City Deal, Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire, Share your views on the proposals for the completion of Penwortham By-pass (August 2014)
(2) http://www.lancashirelep.co.uk/media/8787/LEP-growth-plan.pdf p10

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

Ribble Illusions

Yesterday I had a most uncanny experience. Approaching the river Ribble from Castle Hill, I found myself facing a long stretch of tide marked wall that gave the appearance it had dropped away into nowhere. I was struck by a sudden sense of vertigo. The Ribble couldn’t have disappeared, as if had fallen into a void, surely?

River RibbleOn closer inspection, seeing the reflections of the grilles and staircases, and catching subtle fluctuations in the surface of the water, I realised this was an illusion created by a combination of its stillness with the markings on the stone.

River Ribble, reflection of a grilleRiver Ribble, stairsTo my relief at either end of the concrete barriers, the ‘true’ water level was clear.

River Ribble, water level

River Ribble, water levelDrawn  to stay a while in meditation on the strange appearance and disappearance of the river, which occurred as I shifted my eye-line, I was gifted with the sight of several birds. Common and black headed gulls and terns circled, their darker shadows mirrored in the water. Another bird, which I think may have been a grebe or even a black throated diver flew in. Diving with quick flips of its tail it emerged, for the most part, triumphant with white-silver fish, which after a brief kerfuffle vanished down its throat. Finally, a heron arrived to land majestically on a piece of flotsam.

Heron, river RibbleFor me this goes to show that even where it is channelled, the Ribble is a magical and mind altering place. I give thanks to the river, all its visitors and inhabitants, and its goddess Belisama.

Fish House Brook

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

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

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

Bank Parade and Burnside Way, courtesy of Mario Maps

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

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

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

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

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

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

Malt Kiln Farm and Greencroft Valley

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

Malt Kiln Cottage

Malt Kiln Cottage

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

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

Malt Kiln Cottage, Tithe Map, 1838

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

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley

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

Greencroft Valley

Greencroft Valley playing field

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

Fish Pan Field

Fish Pond and Greencroft Valley 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish Pan Field

Greencroft Valley now, courtesy of Mario Maps

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

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

Rose Fold Cottages

Rose Fold Cottages

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

Rosefold

Rose Fold 1840, Courtesy of Mario Maps

Rosefold

Rose Fold now, courtesy of Mario Maps

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

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

Fish House Brook, Campbell's Park Homes

Fish House Brook, Campbell’s Park Homes

Campbells Park Homes, Meadows

Fish House Brook 1840, courtesy of Mario Maps

Campbell's Park Homes, Meadows

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

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

Campbell's Park Homes

Campbell’s Park Homes

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

The Meadows

The Meadows

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

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Brook culverted under Fish House Bridge

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

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge 1840’s, courtesy of Mario Maps

Fish House Bridge

Fish House Bridge now, courtesy of Mario Maps

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsung Meadow

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall,
wild carrot, buttercup and nettle,
time is slowing down.

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall,
plantain, clover and yellow rattle,
world is slowing down.

In my summer eiderdown
time and world are slowing down,
sleep easy, sleep easy, sleep easy,
unsung meadow sings.

Unsung Meadow Unsung Meadow

Black Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middleforth BrowMiddleforth Green, Spring Mist 007 - CopyMiddleforth Green

Corpse Road

Birch and Blackthorn, Hurst Grange Park, PenworthamWho’ll walk the corpse road back to me?
– ‘Revenants’ Andrew O’Riordan

Where spring brings hope to downy birch
And blossoms of stars to blackthorn trees
When the hunt is still as the final frosts
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to drunks of the woods
With the pale potential of anemone
When my court dance in dew where a man lay cold
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to primrose hills
But none to vagrants on city streets
When wills clash like I do with impudent rivals
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to prison gardens
For a watchful moment the condemned walk free
When to solitary confinement comes Annwn’s darkness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings hope to those who can see it
Yet Victorian cells of asylums scream
When dreams of my kind are derided as madness
Who will walk the corpse road back to me?

Where spring brings no hope and death is release
And no fusion of flowers can quench the pain
When souls are lost as my absent queen
Will you walk the corpse road back to me?

Lych Gate, St Mary's Church, Penwortham* Poem written in the voice of Gwyn ap Nudd, a British King of the dead and the fairies

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)