One of my tasks as a conservation intern at Brockholes Nature Reserve over the winter was helping to clear the vegetation from the sandy banks, which are used as nesting sites by mining bees. Brockholes is next to the river Ribble, whose shifts of course since its valley was carved by a glacier during the Ice Age, have laid down sandy deposits (although most of the sand and gravel was quarried over a decade ago some remains).
These sandy banks are the perfect homes for mining bees (Andrena species). It is little known that, in Britain, of over 270 species of bee, there is only one species of honey bee, 24 species of bumblebee and around 250 species of solitary bees. 65 of the latter are mining bees. They make homes for their young in soil, sand, or clay, and can be found on river banks, road and railway embankments, cliff faces, garden lawns, allotments, open woodlands, and moorlands.
During their brief life-span of four to six weeks, in spring and summer, female mining bees gather pollen on their hind legs and take it to where they have excavated their nests. They dig a tunnel to a chamber, add pollen to strengthen the walls, lay an egg, seal it shut, and move on to the next. Once laying is complete they perish. The only function of the males is to mate with the females, after which they die. The larvae over-winter in the chambers and emerge in the spring to restart the cycle.
One of the most common species is the ashy mining bee (Andrena cineraria). TheLatin term cinerarius means‘of ashes’ and refers to the broad ash grey bands on the thorax of the female who is otherwise black. It flies from April to August and is an important pollinator of fruit trees.
Another is the tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva). The female has bright red hairs on her thorax. It flies from March to June and feeds on a variety of nectar-producing and pollen-bearing plants and trees.
The early mining bee (Andrena haemorhhoa) is named for the blood-red tip on its abdomen and red hairs on its thorax and flies from April to July. One of the defining behaviours of the wool carder bee (Anthidium maculatum) is collecting hairs from plants for its nest. The small sallow mining bee (Andrena praecox) is a sallow specialist. There are many more species of these intriguing bees.
Learning about mining bees and their favoured habitat in sandy banks has led me to contemplate how I have long intuited a connection between Belisama, ‘Shining One’, the goddess of the Ribble, and bees. At first I thought this was because she is connected with light and sunshine and the coming of spring and summer, when bees emerge and take flight, but now I see she has a particular connection with mining bees who build their homes on the Ribble’s banks and sandy banks left by the river.
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!).
River goddess your fearsome torrent pouring from here to the sea how many times do I have to stand in you, no, to drown in you, to know you are never the same?
What rites would you have me keep, Riga Belisama, as I walk beside you?
Long have I kept this piece of your humble mudstone close to my heart (which I must give back should I ever leave), renewed your waters, lit your candle, created for you a little temple
and cleared Fish House Brook – just one of your dirty daughters running from one of the estates to the sea.
I have seen your many colours – red, blue, green, grey as concrete bollards.
What is a river without a goddess or a goddess without a river meandering, twisting, to the sea, like our own blue blood to our heart?
Sometimes I see you as a goddess but most often you are being a river, fulfilling your purpose, delivering water, divine water-bearer.
To be one with your flow on days like this is a blessing, to walk so close to the edge knowing I could be carried away
by your rush of waters, by your rush of deadly words, but you did not burst your banks today.
I wrote this poem after my daily walk beside the Ribble yesterday during Storm Christoph. Contrary to the flood warnings the river did not burst her banks but came very close, the water lapping at the edge, at high tide. It’s not often we can walk so close to a force of nature, to a mighty goddess, whose might could destroy us if we take a false step – an experience awe-inspiring and humbling.
We were lucky, here in Penwortham, that the river did not burst her banks. Upriver Brockholes Nature Reserve has been forced to close due to the access road flooding. People from Didsbury and Northenden in Manchester, Maghul in Merseyside, and Ruthin and Bangor-on-Dee in North Wales have been evacuated. This must be a doubly awful experience during a pandemic. The combination of the virus with flooding feels like an ominous portent of decline and I fear worse is to come.
The first time I saw major floods on the Ribble was 2015 and she has flooded almost every winter since. In response, the Environment Agency and Lancashire County Council have implemented the Preston and South Ribble Flood Management Scheme, which will raise the current flood walls from 1.2 metres to up to 2.2 metres, with a glass screen at the top so people can see the river, and build new ones.
Some of the trees on the banks, such as the row of elms near the Continental pub, will be dug up to make way for the defences. Five new trees will be planted for each tree removed, but it will be forty to fifty years until they are the size of the original ones. Local people have asked for the old trees to be made into benches.
More positively, some of the area, which is now Preston Junction Nature Reserve, rather than housing, due to the Save the Ribble campaign, is going to be kept as flood plain. There are plans for the creation of a new wetland habitat with ponds with dipping platforms, species-rich wildflower meadows and grasslands, wet woodlands, and orchard trees.
My local stretch of the Ribble, where I have been walking for nearly forty years, is going to change dramatically. How long the defences will keep people’s homes safe I don’t know. As this past year has shown, our safety from the forces of nature, small and large, is very much illusory. The climate and the world are changing. The river will burst her banks again. Yet, on her banks, we find the very first snowdrops, who have weathered the floods. A small sign of hope in these apocalyptic times.
It happened when I was gearing up. Having given up my placement with Carbon Landscapes in Wigan as it was too office based I had returned to volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust closer to home and got the conservation internship at Brockholes.
One hundred per cent practical outdoor work, and just a 6 mile cycle ride away at a place I know and love, it promised to be my dream job. I’d completed my first 10k race in New Longton and was training for the City of Preston 10 miles. I was also preparing for my Taekwondo grading, on the Spring Equinox weekend, to gain my blue belt.
Then it struck. A series of lightning-like strikes. I’d heard the thunder. The first rumblings from China, the news the storm was getting closer, that it had hit Italy, Spain, France, arrived in the UK. We joked about it at first. Me with my perpetually runny nose, like a toddler, in spring, due to my hay fever. Anyone who coughed or sneezed, “I haven’t got coronavirus.” We’d seen it on the news but it didn’t seem real, like our little island with its green hills and fresh air granted some form of immunity. We’re British, right? We won the war. Then people started getting sick and started dying.
Around a fortnight ago hand washing or using antibacterial gel before eating became mandatory. On Monday the 16th of March when I was out with the Mud Pack at Brockholes the next step was stopping sharing PPE. No more slightly musty gloves from the collective stash. I was given my own hi-vis in preparation for beginning my internship on the Thursday. Still we worked together building a hibernaculum for great crested newts and ate our lunch outside on a day bright as coltsfoot.
On Tuesday the 17th of March we received an email saying we could no longer share lifts in the van or meet together inside. On Wednesday the 18th of March, another glorious spring day, I went out on another work party planting sarroccoca and eleganus amongst the daffodils on the rock garden on Avenham Park. There was little joking, even amongst the guys from Preston City Council, who were helping out. Everything felt ominous. Still, it came as a shock when I got home to find out all LWT volunteer work parties had been cancelled until the end of April along with my voluntary internship.
In some ways it was a relief because I live with parents who are over 70 and in ill health. I’d been torn between the choices, if I was to continue volunteering, of moving out or risking their lives. So I accepted it was for the best I isolated with them, just going out to do our shopping and to exercise.
Still, I was bitterly disappointed. After winning the struggle to give up alcohol and manage my anxiety without it, and feeling I was finally coming home from my exodus with Carbon Landscapes to the place and the job role in my local landscape where I truly belonged… this!
Yet, I also felt, in some ways my gods had been preparing me for it. If I hadn’t given up alcohol there is no way I would have coped with the situation or with the responsibility of looking after my parents. When considering whether to quit my placement I’d heard a clear voice telling me to “come home.”
Another point is that, at the beginning of January, after I had a mild attack of exercise-induced asthma as a consequence of running my fastest time of 25.21 for 5k on the Avenham Park Run, Gwyn told me during this Taekwondo belt (green with a blue tag representing growth toward the skies) I needed to ‘learn to breathe’. Since then I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend time in stillness, focusing on my breath, in my morning and evening meditations, but not always managing it.
(What has struck me and many others is that breath is central to this situation on many levels. Coronavirus attacks the lungs and those who get seriously ill face a battle for their breath which, in some cases, can only be won with the aid of mechanical ventilators, and in others not at all. The places worst hit have been cities where the air is badly polluted. Now flights have stopped and most people have stopped commuting by car, the skies are clear of contrails and air pollution has dropped.)
At first, after all that gearing up, I felt like Wily Coyote poised in mid-air off the edge of a cliff with my legs still running. Over the past few days I have been striving to ground myself, to slow down, to process the changes, to find space to breathe. Not easy when surrounded by panic.
My first response was to hit the news and social media to find out what’s happening and what everyone’s doing, leading only to tight chest, shortness of breath. To rush to formulate my own words, to share poems addressing the situation. Like I have some kind of gods-given responsibility… whilst aware of adding to the din of others doing exactly the same and increasing the massive strain on the internet that we forget is causing air pollution as we don’t see the power stations.
“Slow down,” the message kept coming through, from the stopping of traffic the virus has caused. As I ran more slowly, no longer worried about beating my best times, happy to be in the moment, feet steady alongside the Ribble in time with her flow where the daffodils watch with sad beautiful faces.
“Slow down,” as I began to take my time in my parents’ garden instead of rushing through the tasks. Appreciating the sunlight on the pastel colours of the hyacinths and the scent of the magnolia, the steady chuck of spade in earth and textures of compost from the bottom of the heap rich from years of decay.
“Slow down,” every time I sat before my mantlepiece in my bedroom where I keep altars to my deities, feathers and stones, to which I’ve recently added photos of my family ancestors knowing I’ll need their help.
I had developed a new routine based around prayer, writing, housework, gardening, shopping, and exercise when lockdown struck. It didn’t hit too hard as I was already living under those rules.
I’m anticipating a greater slowing. Right now I feel like I’m in ‘defence mode’ with my main prerogatives being to tend to the needs of and protect my vulnerable parents and to maintain my own health. I have also offered to run deliveries on my bike for family and friends, including the older members of my poetry group, if they end up isolating either due to illness or the government order.
An important point of support has been the Way of the Buzzard Mystery School online journey circles and coaching calls. I have been involved with Jason and Nicola’s drumming circles at Cuerden Valley and the Space to Emerge camp since they began and have appreciated being able to continue getting together to do journeywork and discuss the current situation from a shamanistic perspective.
With my daily routine and a support network in place I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. If the UK follows Italy’s curve it is possible that my friends, family, and myself, may be not only be slowed down but locked away by illness, that we may be halted by the life-or-death battle for our breath. That we may have to face the final stopping – death – as usual a topic few think or talk about.
I’ve long had a plan for my funeral but am aware it will be invalidated by these circumstances. There is a huge lack of information about what will happen to the bodies of those who die of coronavirus in the UK. How they will be dealt with, where they will go, how their passing will be acknowledged.
Yet this great slowing gives us time to pause for thought – about the fears we’d rather not face and the solace we can find in each moment of these spring days so beautifully bright in contrast.
The wetlands of the old counties of Lancashire and Cheshire which were inhabited by the Setantii tribe ‘The Dwellers in the Water Country’ are well known for their bog burials; Lindow Man and Woman, Worsley Man, severed heads from Pilling Moss, Briarfield, Red Moss, Ashton Moss, Birkdale.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Lindow Man and Worsley Man were human sacrifices. Lindow Man (also known as Lindow II) was strangled, hit on the head, and his throat was cut before he was cast into the peat bog. Worsley Man was garotted and his skull fractured before his beheading. These ‘overkill’ injuries are suggestive of ritual killing rather than death in battle or murder.
This is supported by the fact many bog burials from Britain and Europe ate special last meals. The last meal of Lindow Man was a griddle cake baked from finely ground wheat and barley. Lindow III, another man whose remains were found nearby, ate a meal of wheat and rye with hazelnuts. Old Croghan man from Ireland, and Grauballe Man and Tollund Man from Denmark also ate similar meals.
The head from Briarfield was ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ ‘with abundant remains of hazel’. Further north, at Seascale Moss in Cumbria, a body was buried in the bog with a hazel walking stick. Miranda Aldhouse Green notes that bog bodies from Gallagh in Ireland and Windeby in Germany wore hazel collars and another from Undelev in Denmark was buried with three hazel rods.
She connects them with a lead defixio of ‘late Roman date’ ‘from the river Ouse near the Hockwold Roman temple’ in Suffolk: ‘Whoever… whether male or female slave, whether freedman or freedwoman… has committed theft of an iron pan, he is to be sacrificed to the god Neptune with hazel’.
The Romans equated Neptune with our ancient British water-god Nodens at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall where an inscription reads ‘DEO NO/NEPTU’. At his Romano-British temple at Lydney, Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by four water-horses accompanied by winged wind-spirits and centaurs with fish-tails and a fish-tailed fisherman.
Nodens gifted pilgrims with healing dreams but was also called upon to remove health. A curse tablet reads: ‘For the god Nodens. Silvianus has lost a ring and has donated one-half [its worth] to Nodens. Among those named Senicianus permit no good-health until it is returned to the temple of Nodens.’
It thus seems possible the people who ingested hazel prior to their deaths or were buried with it were sacrifices to Nodens who was equated with Neptune due to his watery qualities by the Romans.
The associations between Nodens and hazel have deep mythic roots. In Ireland Nodens was known as Nuada Airgetlám ‘Silver Hand’ and Nechtan (from the Old Irish necht ‘clean, pure, white’). Nechtan was the keeper of the Tobar Segais ‘Well of Wisdom’. Around it stood nine hazel trees which dropped their hazelnuts, containing imbas ‘inspiration’, into the water. They were eaten by salmon and this special poetic wisdom, known as awen in the Welsh myths, was infused into their flesh.
Only Nechtan and his three cup-bearers: Flesc, Lam, and Luam, were allowed to visit the well. Of those who transgressed their eyes would explode (!) – a possible metaphor for the effects of poetic vision.
When Nechtan’s wife, Boann, disobeyed this command the well overflowed and became the river Boyne. One of its kennings is ‘the forearm of the wife of Nuadhu’ and it was known in the early 2nd century CE as Buvinda (from early Irish *Bou-vinda ‘the white lady with bovine attributes’).
When Finn ‘White’, a descendant of Nuadha, cooked the Salmon of Wisdom for his master, Finnegeas, he burnt his thumb, put it in his mouth, and accidentally imbibed his eye-bursting imbas.
I believe it is likely a similar mythos surrounded Nodens here in Britain. On his mural crown a fisherman is catching a large fish and, on a mosaic on his temple floor at Lydney, two sea monsters are surrounded by salmon. Additionally, in medieval Welsh mythology, Arthur and his men ride up the river Severn, past the Temple of Nodens, on the back of the Salmon of Llyn Llyw, to rescue Mabon.
In the dindsenchas the river flowing from Segais has many names. In Ireland it is not only known as the Boyne, but the Trethnach Tond ‘Ocean Wave’ and Sruth Findchoill ‘Stream of White Hazel’. Abroad it becomes Lunnand in Scotland, the Severn in England, then the Tiber, Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris.
At Lydney we also find iconography depicting Nodens’ wife and our British Boann: a stone statuette, thirty inches in height, left leg crossed over right, holding a cornucopia. Pins were offered to her by women seeking aid with childbirth. Unfortunately we do not know her name but the early Irish Bou-Vinda may relate to Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd, the son she bore Nodens/Nudd. Gwyn’s name not only means ‘White’, but he is referred to as a ‘bull of battle’ in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, suggesting he inherited her bovine attributes.
As Vindonnus, at a spring in Gaul, he was offered bronze plaques depicting eyes. It has been suggested they were for aid curing eye ailments but they may also have been connected with poetic vision.
In medieval Welsh mythology, Gwyn, as Pen Annwn ‘Head of the Otherworld’, is the guardian of a cauldron that is warmed by the breath of nine maidens and will not brew the food of a coward, suggesting it is associated with initiation into the mysteries of the awen tasted from its bubbling waters.
It seems Gwyn, who like Finn, has tasted the wisdom of the salmon from the hazelnuts from the nine hazel trees, and received his awen, later adopts his father’s role as a wisdom-keeper.
How, then, does this ancient Celtic mythos appear in and relate to the Water Country? On Cockerham Moss two Romano-British silver statuettes dedicated to Nodens as Mars-Nodontis were found. This suggests that a temple lay nearby. Cockersand Abbey, the closest sacred site, is dedicated to Mary of the Marsh, a Christian overlay on an earlier water-goddess – the wife of Nodens. I know her as Anrhuna which means ‘Very Great’ and is probably only one of her names.
The church on Castle Hill, the pen which gives its name to Penwortham (earlier Peneverdant ‘the Green Hill on the Water’ as it stood on Penwortham Marsh), is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as was the holy well at the hill’s foot. The large number of Marian dedications in the marshy areas of Penwortham and Preston with their sacred springs hint at the underlying presence of this water-goddess.
The legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral, set on Castle Hill, with its fairy leader ringing a passing bell and singing a mournful chant as he leads a procession of little black-clad men in red caps, bearing the fairy-double of an unfortunate young man to his grave suggests the presence of Gwyn.
Past the pen, sacred to Anrhuna, Nodens, and Vindos/Gwyn/Pen Annwn, runs the river Ribble. From Ptolemy’s Geography (2AD)we know Belisama is the goddess of the Ribble. She is the sister and/or consort of Bel, who is later known as Beli Mawr, father of Nudd/Lludd. The Ribble is rich in salmon and Maponos/Mabon and his mother Matrona/Modron were worshipped upriver at Ribchester. Modron is the daughter of Afallach (from afall ‘apple’), King of Annwn, a name of Gwyn.
Here, at the Green Hill on the Water, we find a parallel with Lydney ‘Lludd’s Island’. With salmon swimming upriver past a site associated with Mabon to the source where perhaps once stood nine hazel trees.
These stories run deep through this land as they ran through the land of our ancient British ancestors. Before its draining it was truly a water country of intertidal marshlands, reedbeds, carr, lakes and pools, peat bogs, and a damp oak woodland in which hazel and its nourishing nuts were precious.
It’s no wonder they were associated with Nodens, ‘the Catcher’, the wise fisher-god. Perhaps, by sacrificing their enemies to Nodens with hazel, the water dwellers repaid him for his generosity.
Another possibility is that some of the bog burials were devotees of Nodens sacrificed willingly to their god. Awenyddion who, like his son, had imbibed the hazel-rich awen. Lindow III’s consumption of hazelnuts before his death may have been a last act of communion. The man buried with the hazel staff might have carried it as a symbol of his role as a wisdom-keeper.
Hazel grows on the banks of Fish House Brook, which runs through the area once known as Fish Pan Field in Greencroft Valley into the river Ribble. In autumn its nuts are eaten by grey squirrels before they can drop into the brook where, due to changes in water level and pollution, fish no longer swim.
Still, as I pass, I think of the myth of Nodens and his nine hazel trees, Anrhuna’s transgression, Vindos/Gwyn eating the salmon imbued with awen from the hazelnut and his eye-bursting poetic vision, which he has gifted to me as his awenydd to pass on and share with my communities.
Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974) Anne Ross, Life and Death of a Druid Prince: The Story of Lindow Man, an Archaeological Sensation, (Touchstone, 1991) David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008) Finnchuill, ‘Catching Wisdom: Nuadha, Nechtan, Nodens’, Finnchuill’s Mast, (2016) Jody Joy, Lindow Man, (The British Museum Press, 2009) Kay Muhr, ‘Water Imagery in Early Irish’, Celtica 23, (1999) Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
‘the severed head represents a discrete category of bog deposit, which appears to be particularly well represented in Lancashire’ David Barrowclough
Until recently it was believed that the 23 human skulls found on Penwortham Marsh during the excavations for Riversway Docklands provided evidence for human sacrifice or a mass murder. This was based on the premise that they were all contemporary with the Bronze Age spearhead, the remants of a wooden lake dwelling, and two dug-out canoes, which they were found with.
Since then a sample of the skulls have been radio-carbon dated to between 4000BC and 800AD. Four are from the Neolithic period, one the Romano-British, and one the Anglo-Saxon. The range shows these people died at very different times. This has led professor Mick Wysocki to put forward the theory that the skulls belonged to people who died upriver, their corpses floating down to a tidal pool at Penwortham Marsh where their heavy skulls sank whilst their bodies washed out to sea. Wysocki’s theory is widely accepted among historians and archaeologists.
I believe that, for many cases, Wysocki might be right. However, considering the surrounding evidence, I don’t think we can rule out the possibility that some of the skulls were purposefully deposited in Penwortham Marsh. Lancashire (the historic county) has many examples of ritual depositions of severed heads.
On Pilling Moss was discovered ‘the head of a woman with long plaited auburn hair… wrapped in a piece of coarse woollen cloth and with it were two strings of cylindrical jet beads, with one string having a large amber bead at its centre.’ The jet beads date it to the Early Bronze Age. Another female head with plaited hair, from Red Moss, Bolton, remains undated.
From Briarfield, on the Fylde coast, we have the head of a man aged less than 50 years ‘deposited in a defleshed state without the mandible’ and dated to the Late Bronze Age. Another male skull, of a similar age and date, was found on Ashton Moss, Tameside. A skull from Worsley was dated to between the Bronze Age and Romano-British periods. Found near the famous Lindow Man, the head of Lindow Woman has been dated to 250AD. Heads, as yet undated, were also found at Birkdale, near Southport.
The purposeful deposition of the heads, without their bodies, suggests they were deposited for ritual purposes. The plaited hair of the females seems significant. The jet and amber beads with the woman on Pilling Moss implicates she was an important figure among her people. These burials appear to have been made with great reverence. I wonder whether they are suggestive of the belief that the head is the seat of the soul and if it is treated in a certain way the soul might remain present so that a group of people can commune with the deceased until the time of its burial.
The existence of this belief within Brythonic culture is supported by ‘The Second Branch’ of the medieval Welsh text, The Mabinogion, in which Brân the Blessed’s head continued to speak for eighty years before its burial beneath White Hill in London to protect the Island of Britain from attack (until it was dug up by King Arthur who couldn’t stand anyone defending the country but him). It seems possible these heads also had a apotropaic function, demarking territory, repelling enemies.
Whilst the two female heads appear to have been buried reverently, the head of the man from Briarfield was badly mutilated – defleshed and and the mandible removed. David Barrowclough suggests the ‘separation of the mandible’ might show it was a ‘battle trophy’. That the removal of the flesh and the mandible might have been representative of one group or person over this person. One can imagine this gory spectacle as a symbol of glory over a defeated foe and a warning to an enemy.
Again this tradition is hinted at in medieval Welsh mythology. In Culhhwch and Olwen,prior to his beheading and the placement of his head on a stake the giant, Ysbaddaden Bencawr, had his ears cut off and his flesh was pared down to the bone. In Geraint there is an enchanted game where heads on stakes stand in a hedge of mist and it is implied that any who lose the game end up losing their heads.
In The Red Book of Hergest exists a poem attributed to Llywarch Hen in which the sixth century northern British ruler carries his cousin Urien’s head back to the kingdom of Rheged after his assassination:
A head I bear by my side, The head of Urien, the mild leader of his army– And on his white bosom the sable raven is perched…
A head I bear from the Riw, With his lips foaming with blood– Woe to Rheged from this day!
It has been suggested that Llywarch Hen ruled Ribchester in Lancashire (amongst many other places!)
Ritualised beheadings, burials (and unburials) of heads continued in Britain until 1747 when the Jacobite leader and Scottish clan chief, Simon Fraser, was publically beheaded at Tower Hill.
I therefore believe it is possible that some of the heads from Penwortham Marsh were ritual depositions. It seems to be of no coincidence that, of the six examined, three died violent deaths. A Neolithic man was killed by a stone axe and a Neolithic woman by ‘trauma to the right and back of her skull’. A Romano-British person (the sex cannot be determined) met his or her death through ‘a pointed object such as a spear passing through the open mouth and into the skull.’
These people could have been killed and their corpses deposited in the Ribble upriver. Or they might be the heads of people in the group of lake dwellers who at one point built a wooden structure on Penwortham Marsh. Perhaps they were locals killed in battle or enemies whose heads they had taken.
A further possibility is that they were human sacrifices. The Lindow Man famously died a ‘three-fold death’. He was struck on the head (with a blow that fractured his skull), garrotted, then drowned. Lindow Man was buried whole, but only Lindow Woman’s head was buried. The reasons why, in one instance, a whole body was deposited and in another only the head remain unknown.
Perhaps examinations of the other 17 skulls from the Riversway Dock Finds would provide further clues?
Another tradition that has lived on here is the deposition of stone heads (perhaps modelled on an ancestor?) rather than the heads of the dead in the Ribble as evidenced by this specimen in the Harris Museum.
*With thanks to the Harris Museum for permission to use the photograph.
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (The History Press, 2008)Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)William Skene (transl.), ‘Red Book of Hergest XII, Four Ancient Books of Wales, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab060.htm (accessed 12/01/2020) Display in the Discover Preston gallery in the Harris Museum
The UK is in the throes of a heat wave. Here in Lancashire temperatures have reached a scorching 30 degrees for four consecutive days. It’s been uncharacteristically warm and dry for two months. Preston, dubbed the ‘wettest city in England’, has barely seen an inch of rain since the beginning of May. Our lawn is scorched, our raspberries are shrivelled, the rivers and streams are running low.
In northern British mythology the first of May is the day that Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor son of Scorcher’ beats Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White son of Mist’ in a ritual battle to win the hand of Creiddylad, a fertility goddess whose name may stem from creir/crair ‘treasure… object of admiration or love.’
Gwythyr ap Greidol’s name suggests he is a god of victory in combat, the scorching fire of war and the heat of passion. His is the spark that gives life to the land but also initiates the wildfire. Over the last week wildfires have raged across Saddleworth Moor, Rivington Moor, and Winter Hill. The latter seems symbolic of Gwythyr, Summer’s King, beating Gwyn, Winter’s King, on his home ground. Of course I haven’t been up to Winter Hill whilst it is ablaze (last night it reignited in multiple locations), but I noticed the portent of the full moon over the mast, lit up red like a warning sign.
People have been evacuated from their houses and schools closed. Less has been said about the numerous birds, small mammals and insects who have lost their lives or been driven from their homes.
Just as concerning is the Ribble running the lowest I have ever seen, banks of silt and sandstone bedrock exposed, tributaries becoming drier and drier, pond water getting lower and lower. Water shortages have already hit in the South East and Staffordshire. In the North West United Utilities are recommending that we cut down on water use. On next week’s forecast there is not a drop of rain in sight.
May 2018 was the hottest on record in the UK and June looks set to be a record breaker too. What is causing this uncharacteristic heat, empowering Gwythyr, the Victor, to increasingly destructive victories?
Research suggests this long period of hot weather results from the effects of man-driven global warming on the North Atlantic Polar Front Jet Stream. The Jet Stream is a ‘ribbon’ of winds blowing east to west at up to 200 miles an hour 9 to 16 kilometres above the earth’s surface over the mid-latitudes. It arises due to the contrast between warm tropical air and cold polar air. The differences in the pressure of warm and cold air produce a ‘pressure gradient force’. These winds would blow from high to low pressure, from south to north, if it wasn’t for the Coriolis effect.
The higher the contrast in temperature the stronger the Jet Stream. It is strongest in winter due to the cooling of the poles and weakest in summer due to their warming. Low pressure systems causing wet windy weather occur to the north of the Jet Stream and high pressure systems causing warm settled weather to the south. During the winter, when it’s strong, the Jet Stream lies south of the UK and gives us rain and wind. If it remains to the south we tend to have wet summers too. If the Jet Stream weakens in the summer and shifts north of the UK we are more likely to have hot still weather.
According to Dr. Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus the warming of the Arctic is lessening the temperature gradient between the equator and the North Pole and causing the jet to slow and become ‘wavier’. James Mason explains that when ‘the eastwards progression of these upper waves becomes sluggish or stalls’ this ‘leads to prolonged weather-conditions of one type or another’ like this heat wave, which is dangerous not so much due to its temperature but the length of time without rain leading to wildfires and water shortages and potentially to drought and crop failure.
The root of global warming is humanity’s reckless drive for economic growth at the cost of the environment. Our government are aware of the increasing dangers of drought in the summer and flooding in the winter and are taking steps to deal with the effects but not the cause. Instead they are pushing ahead with plans to create more houses, more roads, more jobs; pumping out more greenhouses gases, removing more green space, causing more warming. Here in South Ribble alone 9000 houses are being built along with new and expanded roads and business parks. Preston, South Ribble, and Chorley are being merged into one urban conglomerate with parks as our only green spots.
Dissenting voices are not listened to by the victors. From their positions of wealth and comfort they refuse to see, acknowledge, care about the effects their victory is having on the land and its creatures.
In British mythology Gwythyr and his father sided with Arthur against Gwyn and his spirits, the ancient animals, the monsters, the giants, the witches, and were victorious. In modern Britain the Arthurian court of war-mongering treasure-hoarding politicians and business leaders reign supreme.
What to do in a world where history is determined and written by the victors, when, as Gwyn knows before going into battle every May Day, as Walter Benjamin says, ‘this enemy has not ceased to be victorious’?
Perhaps we must look beyond battle, beyond victory, which can only makes us the next victors, for other ways to our bit for the scorched land, the drying rivers, the dying creatures, the cast-out gods.
After a month’s heavy rain across northern England, rivers have risen to record levels. Following 100mm of downpour in one night in Lancashire, the river Ribble (from Gallo-Brythonic Riga Belisama ‘Most Shining’ or ‘Most Mighty Queen’) burst her banks at Ribchester and Whalley, forcing people from their homes.
Yesterday the Ribble ran high between Penwortham and Preston swelling under Penwortham Bridge carrying trees, branches, tyres and other debris out to the sea with an urgent roar.
A playground in Middleforth with an overflowing storm drain was underwater.
Several riverside footpaths were submerged.
The Ribble had flooded the bottom of Miller Park completely, almost covering the fountain and pagoda.
The Pavillion Cafe was cut off like a stranded lake dwelling.
As dusk approached, Victorian lamps illuminated the submerged pathway.
Luckily at the most dangerous point: high tide at around 11pm, the Ribble did not break over the flood walls. Avenham and Miller Parks and the flood plains of Central Park managed the rest and no-one was evacuated.
It would have been a very different story if the Riverworks project, which intended to create a barrage on the Ribble and build on its floodplains had gone ahead. We have Jane Brunning and other ‘Save the Ribble‘ campaigners to thank that we have Central Park instead.
This morning, I walked along the old railway track to see Central Park’s flooded fields.
The floods had receded from Avenham and Miller Park and the Ribble sunk back to her normal course.
Last night Belisama heard our apologies, songs and prayers. Today she received gratitude and thanks. This was the highest I have ever seen the Ribble rise. It was really quite terrifying and gave me a fuller understanding of why, before flood-walls, our ancestors revered and feared her as a Mighty Queen.
With temperatures increasing ten times faster than in known history and water levels rising globally I fear this will not be the last time the Ribble bursts her banks. It is a clear message everything possible must be done to slow climate change and adjustments must be made to accomodate rising rivers and returning wetlands.
Having Central Park saved us here. My thoughts are with those not so lucky in Ribchester, Whalley and in York from where 2,200 people have been evacuated.
At the beginning of November, I cycled to the church of St John the Evangelist in Lund, which is about six miles outside Preston. Lund means ‘grove’ in Norse and Germanic thus it seems likely the church was built on a pre-Christian sacred site. This is supported by the presence of an altar to the Mothers within the church now used as a baptismal font.
Matronae ‘Matrons’ and Matres ‘Mothers’ were worshipped across Northern Europe from the 1st to 5th C particularly in Germany and Gaul and other places occupied by the Roman army. They are usually depicted in threes, often with fruit, bread, cornucopias and nursing infants.
Worship of the Mothers was widespread in Britain. Whilst some of the Mother Goddesses were clearly brought from over-seas (shown by inscriptions reading ‘To the Mothers from Overseas’ ‘To the German Mother Goddesses’) there is evidence for a Romano-British tradition centring on Matrona ‘the Mother’ and Maponos ‘the Son’ which seems strongest in north-west England and southern Scotland.
Altars and inscriptions to ‘the Mother Goddesses’ and ‘the Mothers the Fates’ have been found at Burgh-by-Sands, Carlise, Old Penrith, Skinburness and Bowness-on-Solway. The worship of Maponos in this area is evidenced by the place-name Lochmaben, the Clochmaben stone and the Locus Maponi.
Matrona and Maponus re-appear in medieval Welsh literature as Modron ‘Mother’ and Mabon ‘Son’. The story of Mabon being stolen from Modron when he is three nights old and rescued from imprisonment in a ‘house of stone’ forms an important part of Culhwch and Olwen.
In The Triads, Modron daughter of Avallach, bears Urien Rheged’s son and daughter, Owain and Morfudd. Urien’s relations with Modron and Owain’s inheritance of Mabon’s divine qualities show his family’s dependence on ancestral deities for the fertility of their land and lineage and success in battle.
Modron’s father, Avallach, is the son of Beli Mawr: one of the oldest ancestral gods of Britain. He is associated with Ynys Avallach ‘The Island of Apples’ or ‘The Island of Avalon’. This is inhabited by nine maidens: Morgan and her sisters. In Welsh and Breton folklore, Morgens are water spirits.
The Mothers are frequently associated with water: in Gaul, Matrona is goddess of the Marne. A reference from 1AD exists to ‘the Island of Sein’ ‘known because of the oracle of a Gaulish God; the priestesses of that divinity are nine in number.’ One wonders whether the god is Dis Pater, from whom the Gauls claim descent.
Avalon is often identified with Glastonbury. Another of Glastonbury’s deities is Gwyn ap Nudd, a King of Annwn who resides over spirits bearing striking similarities to the Gaulish andedion (underworld gods). Both Morgan and Gwyn become known as ‘fairies’ in later literature.
In Peniarth Manuscript 147. the mother of Urien’s children appears as the Washer at the Ford (‘The Ford of Barking’) and introduces herself as ‘daughter to the King of Annwfn’.
A pattern emerges: one, three or nine female figures connected with an underworld god.
Here in Lancashire there are altars to the Matronae and to Maponos (as Apollo-Maponus) in the Roman museum at Ribchester. This is the site of Bremetenacum ‘place by the roaring river’ and is located on a major ford of the Ribble. Ribchester was also likely to have been a centre of worship for the Ribble’s goddess: Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’.
During the Romano-British period, the Ribble ran much closer to Lund. This is shown by the nearby place-name Clifton ‘Cliff Town’. St John the Evangelist also stands very close to the Roman road running from Ribchester through Preston to Kirkham and across the Fylde. Because the stone of the altar at Lund is similar to those from Ribchester, it seems possible it was made there and brought on the road. This would mean, like the Ribchester altars, it dates from 2BC.
The altar’s appearance as a font is recorded in a leaflet in the church. In ‘the records of the Parish Vestry’ it says ‘Matt Hall, Churchwarden of Kirkham in 1688 set up a scandalous trough for a font in Lund Chapel…. For this poor Matthew was presented, that is brought before, the bishop of the diocese. History does not record the outcome of the interview, nor for that matter, how he came by the ‘scandalous trough’ in the first place.’ In spite of the ‘scandal’, the ‘trough’ is still used as a font today.
When I set out to St John’s it was originally for a recky so I could get the timing right when I booked an appointment to visit. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise to find the church open (it’s open every day from 10am) and to be greeted by Joan Shepcot, a volunteer gardener and co-ordinator of the Children’s Society, who invited me in to see the altar and let me take as many photographs as I needed.
As I approached the altar I could see it was beautifully maintained. Three female figures wearing loose dresses or robes stood in the centre. Their hair looked coiffured or perhaps they were wearing headgear. Were they one Mother Goddess in triple-form? Three individual Mothers or the Mothers the Fates?
On the right and left hand side of the altar female figures were depicted dancing, arms above their heads, feet tapping a beat. They were also clad in loose robes or dresses. Were these the Mother Goddesses dancing? Or perhaps nymphs of the sacred grove? Or devotees? Their swaying stances with arms raised reminded me a little of trees.
Together could they form a sisterhood of nine? Could the ancestral presence of an underworld god be felt in the background?
The back of the altar was blank because it once stood against a wall. Behind the altar was a stained glass window depicting Faith, Hope and Charity with the head of an unnamed male figure in blue and gold above. This is interesting because Alex Garman says these ‘three sisters’ show a strong influence of the Matronae. Considering their presence on a font I found myself imagining ‘the Mothers the Fates’ as ‘fairy godmothers’ at baptisms.
After a chat with Joan about her wildflower patch I cycled to the next point along the Roman road from St John’s: Dowbridge. As I headed back from the bridge over the river Dow, mist descended; cloaking St John’s at Lund, Clifton Cross and Clifton Mill. Rolling over Savick Brook and the Ribble.
In the cold swathes of mist passing over grey waters where time stood still I sensed the passage of underworld spirits. I had, after all, stumbled out on All Soul’s Day.
*Many thanks to Joan Shepcot at St John the Evangelist in Lund for permission to use these photographs on my blog.
Thursday the 9th of July was a strange and crazy day. My disastrous morning began with buying blu-tac to put up signs for a conference at work: signs I realised on arrival I hadn’t printed off. It went downhill from there. After managing to print the signs double-sided and procrastinating whether to leave at the agreed time of 9.45am after doing such a botched job, I fled to the Lancashire Archives.
On arrival I realised I had spent the £5 I put in my purse for a photography pass on blu-tac. Apologising and rushing to the cash machine, my head was in such a spin I entered the wrong pin code thrice and had to go to my bank to get a new one and ask for the money in person.
That done, I had a reasonable amount of success in photographing the 1811 Enclosure Act for Fulwood Forest and accompanying map and acquiring Ronald Cunliffe Shaw’s massive tome The Royal Forest of Lancaster from the basement of the Harris Library. With the huge book under my arm, feeling slightly nervous about dropping or damaging it, I headed home.
The Forest of Lancashire by Ronald Cunliffe Shawe
Walking down Riverside beside the Ribble, crossing a street, I caught the silvery glint of a pair of glasses. Stopping to pick them up and wondering what to do with them, I heard a shout from behind. It was a postman, who told me the glasses were his and he had lost them because he had been trying to catch a duckling and put it back over the river wall.
Assuming said duckling had been caught and put back I walked on, only moments later, to see her; striped tawny and brown running panickedly with a flap of short wings dangerously close to the roadside. With no idea how I was going to catch her or where to put the book I began following her with the aim, at least, of making sure she wasn’t run over.
As the duckling pursuit approached Penwortham Bridge a couple on a tandem bike stopped to help. The woman took my book and her partner and I managed to herd the duckling into a front yard. Four bins stood on the right. When she ran behind we manoeuvred them to form a make-shift duck pen.
When we finally thought we had caught her she slipped through the cyclists’ hands yet he managed to catch her in the next garden whilst I was left explaining to the owner of the house why we had used his bins to make a duck-pen.
The cyclist handed me the duckling and the pair departed. Realising quickly that holding the frightened creature was a job that necessitated constant attention and two hands, and with no sign of the duckling’s mother in sight, I asked the local resident if he would hold her whilst I phoned for advice.
13th C statue of Ganesh, courtesy of Wikipedia
He kindly obliged, inviting me into the porch of his vibrantly decorated house where I borrowed his telephone to ring the RSPCA whilst standing in front of a statue of Ganesh. I first met Ganesh when I performed Puja to him at a Druid and Hindu gathering last year. Beforehand I had been stressed as I’d been told at the last minute I had to drastically cut down a talk I’d spent some time preparing and rehearsing. After the Puja, I felt calm and my contribution went well.
Whilst navigating the phone system of the RSPCA was an absolute nightmare, Ganesh provided a sense of reassurance. Eventually I got put through to a human operator by pressing the line for ‘tangled and trapped animals’. She told me to remain beside the river and look out for the mother for a couple of hours and if I didn’t see her to call them back.
Realising I couldn’t hold the duckling and use my phone I called my friend, Nick, who was luckily in town and said he would meet me. Leaving my book at the Broadgate resident’s house, I walked up river and noticed a small family of ducks. However, the mother showed no sign of having lost one of her flock.
When I met Nick he told me he had phoned his friend, Lee, an animal rescue volunteer. She arrived within minutes in her van with a bird carrier. When I mentioned the family Lee said as it wasn’t certain the duckling belonged to them it was safer for her to take her home. Farewells were made to the duckling who ran swiftly into the carrier then, clearly exhausted, settled down.
After a catch-up with Nick, Lee departed. Reassured the duckling was safe, I picked up the book and thanked the gentleman. Thinking back, I couldn’t help pondering how if I hadn’t been delayed at the archives I would have been home a couple of hours ago reading my book and wouldn’t have seen and rescued the duckling at all.
However this strange chain of events had not reached its end. Close to home I found my local valley filled with smoke. Although I assumed it must be from someone’s bonfire I checked the woodland and was glad I did as someone had built and abandoned a large fire which, with the wind, looked perilously close to the withered cow parsley and other dry vegetation.
I rushed home, dropped off the book and picked up two buckets and a jug to fill them from Fish House Brook. After ten trips the fire was out. I was left exhausted and shaken by the realisation if it hadn’t been for my delay at the archives and the duckling pursuit I might have got home before the fire was lit and it might have caused considerable damage to the valley.
Doused fire, Greencroft Valley
Looking back I can make no clear sense of the events. Yet what stands out is the slow inexorable pull of nature away from the white noise of forms and formalities. From the confines of the university to the archives and enclosed and mapped landscape of 1811 to the living webbed running feet of the duckling to the manual labour of filling buckets from my local stream, with a hiss, fizz and sizzle, dousing the fire in the valley I love.
A clearish lesson is I’m much better at rescuing ducklings and fire-fighting than administration and I feel more myself and grounded in these tasks and the land. And what of Ganesh? Hindu god of removing obstacles, peace and new beginnings? I hope his appearance signals a time when I can clear away my failures, renew my connection with my land and my gods and move on, even if means sacrificing some of the ambitions that led me to the position I’m currently trapped in.