The Well of Life

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

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

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

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

Lost Wells and Watercourses of Priest Town

A display created for the Precarious Landscapes Exhibition


The Old English name of Preston, Preosta Tūn, ‘Priest Town’, suggests it was once considered an especially sacred place. I believe this was because of its numerous watercourses and natural springs. The surrounding area has been inhabited since the Mesolithic period (10,000 years ago). The Ribble was venerated by the ancient Britons as Belisama, ‘Most Shining One’, a mighty goddess. The spirits of each spring and well, offering nourishment and healing, would have been worshipped for thousands of years.

When Christianity was introduced the rivers were adopted for baptisms and the wells were rededicated to saints. Priest Town was founded in 670 when lands iuxta Rippel were granted to St Wilfrid’s Abbey at Ripon. Wilfrid was Preston’s patron saint. In the 12th century priories formed around the wells at Tulketh and Penwortham and a friary around Lady Well in Preston. After the dissolution of the monasteries the wells continued to be venerated and visited by pilgrims seeking cleansing and healing. For those of a less religious nature their medicinal qualities were valued.

It was not until the industrial period, when all that was sacred was profaned, the waters lost their sanctity. The brooks were culverted and the Ribble moved from its original course during the building of Riversway Docklands. The introduction of piped water and extensive engineering works to build the canal and docks caused Preston’s wells to run dry. In two hundred years the complex network of watercourses that nourished local people physically and spiritually since the last Ice Age was displaced and destroyed.

As climate change brings the threat of floods we are left in a precarious position with only the technology that engineered our crisis to rely on. And our prayers to Belisama and her daughters. ‘Precarious’ and ‘prayer’ share their root in the Latin precarius, ‘obtained by treaty’. If we wish to survive these precarious times our treaty with our sacred watercourses must be renewed.


Lady Well

Lady Well was close to Preston Franciscan Friary. Its location off Marsh Lane, in the Maudlands area, and proximity to the leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalen, suggest its Lady was the Magdalen. The Grey Friars (who gave their name to Friargate and the Grey Friar’s pub) lived by begging, saying masses, and praying for the souls of the wealthy. After the friary was dissolved in 1539 the devout continued to venerate the well. In 1794 the digging of the Lancaster Canal altered the water table and it dried up. Excavations for the Legacy Hotel in 2007 revealed the location of the friary and well. It gives its name to Lady Well Street and lies beneath the car park of Brunel Court.

Site of Lady Well sm

Spa Well

Spa Well was located on Spring Row in the Spa Brow valley where crystal springs were abundant. Nearby was Spa Bath, an open-air cold-water bath constructed in 1708, which survived for 150 years (Cold Bath Street led to it). Spa Well possessed strengthening qualities and children were taken to it. Preston Waterworks Company formed in 1832 and built the Grimsargh reservoirs in 1835. When piped water was introduced, Preston’s wells and springs were drained and covered. Spa Well was the last. Its site lies east of Spa Street on the bank behind the gardens of Wellington Terrace.

Site of Spa Well sm

Ashton Quays Well

Ashton Quays Well was situated on the north bank of the Ribble at Marsh End and possessed medicinal qualities. Like Spa Well it was probably drained and covered when piped water was introduced. Another factor in its demise was the movement of the Ribble from Watery Lane to its current position near to Castle Hill. Its site is on the north of Watery Lane to the left of Key Line Civils and Drainage.

Site of Ashton Quays Well II

The Dolphin Fountain

The Dolphin Fountain, set in a stone alcove built in the 1860s on Avenham Park in Preston, was served by pipes from a nearby spring that never ran dry and was reputed to cure eye ailments. It was used until the mid-20th century when the tap and two cups on chains were removed. The alcove remained empty until re-instated in 2011. Oddly, the feature, remodelled from the 19th century, looks more like a sea-serpent than a dolphin. I wonder if it represents a serpentine water spirit? No water flows from the fountain, but it runs from a rock on the left down a channel to a drain.

The Dolphin Fountain II

Main Sprit Weind Well

Near the bottom of Main Sprit Weind was a well frequented by young petticoated ladies who carried water along with milk and butter to the town centre. For this reason this narrow passageway was also called Petticoat Alley. The well had disappeared by 1840, indubitably replaced by piped water.

Site of Main Sprit Weind Well II


The Syke

The Syke (from Old English sīc, ‘small stream, rill), originated as a spring of water at the junction of present-day Queen Street and Grimshaw Street. It flowed from Syke Hill, along what is now Syke Street, supplying the water troughs in Avenham and feeding Avenham Mill. Its course can be traced under Winckley Square, the Fishergate Centre, and the railway station, running parallel to Fishergate before emerging into the Ribble from its culvert south of Fishergate Bridge. It’s said that if you put your ear to the drain at the bottom of Main Sprit Weind it can be heard rushing beneath at times of heavy rain.

Course of the Syke Syke Street II

Swill Brook

Swill Brook’s source lay in present-day Waverley Park in Ribbleton. It entered Preston north of Salmon Street then flowed across London Road, through Larkhill Grounds, down the steep bank which forms part of Frenchwood Knoll Nature Reserve into the Ribble at the Tram Bridge. At the confluence was a washing stead where local women used the fast-flowing water to swill their clothes. This is how Swill Brook got its name. Swill Brook Lane marks the route the washer-women used.

Course of Swill Brook Frenchwood Knoll II

Moor Brook

The Moor Brook began east of present-day Deepdale Road then ran across Preston Moor, feeding Brunswick Place Mill and Brookfield Mill, giving its name to Brook Field Street and the Moor Brook pub. From the car park behind the pub you can see the steepness of its valley. Its course can be traced from Moor Brook Street to Brook House Street (where it fed Brook House Mill) and Greenbank Street. It finally became Swansea Gutter (near Swansea Terraces) at Ashton Quays and entered the Ribble at Watery Lane.

Painting of the Moor Brook on Moor Brook Pub Sign sm

Unnamed Streams

There are two unnamed streams between the Moor Brook and the Syke on the 1774 map of Preston. Keith Johnson mentions that one of them has its source near Bow Lane in a field called Springfield, thus providing the names for Springfield Place and Spring Bank. On a local walk Aidan Turner-Bishop mentioned that the second stream was culverted beneath the Lamb and Packet, but I have not been able to find any further information.

Spring Bank II

The Last Bend in the Ribble

Prior to 1884, when the Ribble was moved south to make way for Riversway Docklands, swinging sharply and artificially left between its concrete training walls, it followed a different course. Curving slowly it passed Victoria Quays (Neptune House is the last reminder) and Ashton Quays at Watery Lane, following present-day Chain Caul Way before joining its natural course at the end of Nelson Way. The remains of the caul – a man-made jetty with a scouring effect – can be seen to this day. Its movement had a detrimental effect on other water sources. The removal of sandstone bedrock shattered the aquifer beneath Castle Hill, causing St Mary’s Well, which was renowned for its healing properties to dry up. The dock silted up by 1981. Its benefits were short lived and came at great cost.

Neptune House Last Bend of the Ribble II


David Hunt, A History of Preston, (Carnegie Publishing Ltd, 2009)
Keith Johnson, Secret Preston, (Amberley Publishing, 2015)
Norman Darwen, ‘Some Holy Wells in and Around Preston
Margaret Burscough, ‘The Development of Frenchwood’, Tales of Frenchwood, (Preston City Council, 2009)
Peter Smith, Preston History
Information board beside the Dolphin Fountain on Avenham Park

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)

Winter Kingdom

As I make my circuit stars hold vigil in an icy breath.
Roses of Annwn bring beauty from death.
Wintering starlings spotted with snow
sleep in a tree that nobody knows.
There is a courtship of stability in this kingdom of cold
where we reknit the bonds as dream unfolds
in shadows of farmhouses down the pilgrim’s path
through old stony gates in footsteps of the past
to the healing well where a serpent’s eye
sees through the layers of time’s disguise.
A procession sways down the old corpse road
where the lych gate swings open and closes alone.
From the empty church bells resound.
Reasserting its place on the abandoned mound
a castle extends to the brink of the sky.
Within its dark memory a fire comes to life.
As warriors gather to warm their cold hands
I know I am a stranger in a strange land.

Fungi, Greencroft Valley


*Roses of Annwn is a kenning for mushrooms I came across in The Faery Teachings by Orion Foxwood

Spirit of the Aquifer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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