Julian’s Bower, Imbolc, 2014

Julien's Bower, Lincolnshire
Julien’s Bower, Lincolnshire

This weekend I celebrated Imbolc (Some say this word has derived from Old Irish, meaning “in the belly”) referring to gestating pregnancies of ewes, but I like to think of it as a special holiday for belly dancers.  Having just begun to teach an American Tribal Style Belly Dance class in York, this “In the Belly” felt most auspicious.

Imbolc corresponds with the Christian candlemas– I left a candle lit all day during this festival of light which has always brought aspects of my creative life together.

Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, available in my online shop.
Chartres Labyrinth Necklace, available in my online shop.

For those of us who may be following a Heathen path, this is also the “Charming of the Plough” where the tools of our livlihoods are put on our altar to be blessed so that we may be creative and fruitful in the new year.  All my tools were laid out– the mandrels, cutters, pliers and bail makers, the files and hammers.

Brigid has been my patron goddess for many years– I went from earning my (extremely small) crust as a poet to working in metals. Brigid is the goddess of the poet and the blacksmith– the two workings are alike in many ways. Poetry is made from words formed in the heat of the will, and the cold forged designs I make have their own rhythms, rhymes and meters.

This Charming of the Plough is a Dísablót, a celebrating of the dísir, or female ancestors. I cooked a meal for my female ancestors and poured them some good beer, and the day was done.

julians_bower3The next day, M and I drove to Lincolnshire to visit Julian’s Bower, a turf labyrinth that is most likely medieval, though the first written record of it dating from the 17th century claims it’s Roman. Someone had left three fresh pink roses in the centre– three pale norns– covered there by the muddy edges of the turf so that they were only visible once you had walked the full circuit. On a clear day you can see the York Minster from this place. These Northern turf mazes share much in common in naming and structure to Scandinavian turf mazes, and one would like to think these may date from the Viking Age, or perhaps they are a remnant of ancestral memory from that time.

Mike and Me, Julian's Bower, Lincolnshire, Imbolc, 2014
Mike and Me, Julian’s Bower, Lincolnshire, Imbolc, 2014

Slavering Sal of East Witton

Slaverin' Sal, the gargoyle head on Diana's Well, East Witton.
Slaverin’ Sal, the gargoyle head on Diana’s Well, East Witton.
Me at Diana's Well
Me at Diana’s Well

Diana’s Well in East Witton is a long ramble up from the village, into a forest ride called “Castaway Ride” which is actually gated with a “Private: Do Not Enter” sign. The well is about a half mile deep into the woods, but easy to find because it’s enclosed in a 19th century well house. According to Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor in my much-referred-to copy of Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, the well house was built by the Earl of Aylesbury, and the inscription on the entrance marks the date as 1821. They propose the stonework came from the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey, not far away.  Before the dissolution, the monks there were famous for horse breeding and they introduced cheese making to the region, now famous for its Wensleydale.

Another fragment from the abbey is the distinctive face  on the outside of the well house. Water is piped in from the basin inside, out to this stone countenance, dripping through the mouth which is now covered with a thick beard of moss– so that its face resembles a green man or woman.  No doubt it’s this face that earned the well’s local name “Slaverin’ Sal” which Whelan and Taylor argue is a “folk echo of Sul or Sulis, the Celtic Water Goddess.”  Sul was worshipped in Bath by the Romans as Sulis-Minerva. Linguistically, sul may stem from the word for “eye or gap” in Old Irish.  Michael Graves has argued for a symbolic parallel in neolithic earthworks where the shape of the eye rhymes with the shape of the vulva.  You see it up close in the winking eye of Sal here at the well, and the gap at the mouth, now upholstered in luxuriant moss, is unmistakably a font of fertility. Though the growth of moss and lichen has obscured the eye carving, it’s clear that in previous illustrations of the font, Sal has two eyes.  It seems that perhaps the other has been chipped away, blinded by vandals.

Diana's Well, Well House, East Witton
Diana’s Well, Well House, East Witton

Named after the Roman Goddess of the moon, childbirth and the hunt, I wonder when it began to be called Diana’s Well. Is this a 19th century folly of a name? A pastoral whimsy? Regardless, it was never Christianized, though it was the original water supply for the village of East Witton.

The Well House, Diana's Well
The Well House, Diana’s Well

According to Gary R. Varner in Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning and Mythology of Holy Wells and Waters, many holy wells sprang up where the head of a decapitated saint had fallen. The beautiful St. Winifred’s Well in Wales is one such place. (Her head was actually reattached and she lived, so the story goes.) St. Winifred’s well in Shropshire has the same legend attached to it. In fact, Varner summarizes many 6-7th century legends which begin the same way– an attempted rape– and end with a decapitation and creation of a sacred spring. For some wells the healing was said to be amplified if the water could be drunk from a skull– the skull of a suicide in particular.  Varner argues these are remnants of the Celtic “head cult” surviving through ancestral memory and folk fragments. Edna Whelan goes into some depth on the Celtic head cult and wells in Yorkshire here.

The basin of Diana's Well-- cold clear water flowing
The basin of Diana’s Well– cold clear water flowing

This well has a history of a wishing well, where pins were thrown as an offering to the genus locii. Another name for this well is the “Castaway Well” and according to OutofOblivion.org, the name derives from this practice of throwing an offering into the water.  This well has been taken care of– there’s even a new roof on the well house. Watching the rivulets catch the sun as they trickled down the moss-laden sides of the dark house, the light glimmered and flickered, like a fairy fireworks display– it was mesmerising– staring at it I felt that I was indeed in a sacred place– away with the fairies.

The Wishing Well at Osmotherly

The Saint John's Well, Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire
The Saint John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

Last weekend Mike and I went looking for one of the “lost” water shrines in North Yorkshire. There are many of these places, though they are fast disappearing– blocked up, trashed and forgotten.  Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor, now out of print, is a wonderful resource.  Though the information in this gem of a book is now over twenty years old, it is still and invauluable aid to finding these magical places.

Mike in the bluebell glade
Mike in the bluebell glade

To reach Saint John’s Well, also called “The Wishing Well” one must traverse a forested hill misted with bluebells–a marker of ancient woodland. The equally ancient path, no doubt trod by countless well-wishers, is now blocked by many felled trees. The hike is not easy but also not impossible.

The photo above shows the well house secreted away in its gully now densely upholstered with decades of leaf mould. The water inside was clean and clear, though leaves blocked the entrance. It resembles a little house with a fairy door. It is not hard to imagine that this was built to house a genius loci.  One is tempted to return and clean this place– it wouldn’t be hard to return it to its former order.

The water here formerly supplied Mount Grace Priory–itself a sacred site. The restored Lady Chapel behind the Priory is said to be a site of miraculous healings. (See Yorkshire Holy Wells site).  The well predates the priory as a water shrine.  Though there is no written record of this, the landscape and folk customs make their own argument.

William Grainge in his 19th century writings on the Vale of Mobray explains that this well was the depository of wishes: “Even yet to this font come young men and maidens to breathe or whisper or wordless sigh the secret but ardent wishes of their heart…” This ritual included an ivy leaf with a bent pin stuck through it, tossed into the water.

Me at the well house, St. John's Well, Mount Grace Priory
Me at the well house, St. John’s Well, Mount Grace Priory

Many wells are called “pin wells” because of this practice. Why bent pins? Altering an ordinary object, destroying its original use, marks it as a talisman. In the Middle Age coins intended as offerings were bent in order to mark them as such– this practice continued for hundreds of years. It appears in the nursery rhyme–

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.

He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile.

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Throughout my journeys to various sacred sites I have often found little poems, flowers or coins left on stiles or near the sites themselves. Could the crooked sixpence be an offering left? And the crooked man and his odd cat and house be a cunning one (Ok, some say this rhyme is about Scotland and England in the 17th century, but could it be about something else as well.)

Some say the bent pins were offered to the fairies as elfshot. We found no such offerings in the dark water that day but the generations of longings and hopes left here for safekeeping were unmistakably present.

Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop
Bluebell earrings, inspired by fairy landscapes, available in my Etsy Shop

The Druid’s Well

Beltane fires were burned upon the crags here in bygone centuries.

The Northern Antiquarian.

Last weekend M hiked to the Druid’s Well in Bingley and took many wonderful photos of this holy well.  The photos reveal a lush Seelie Court. It is a place of historic fairy sightings and where the destroying angel mushroom grows.

The Druid’s Spring, Bingley, West Yorkshire

The companion well, The Altar Well, seems now buried but the Druid’s Well still swells from the earth in a sandy bed, fern-draped and lush with lichen. Also called the Druid’s Spring or Hollin (Holy) Well.  M washed his face there.

Perhaps I can visit one day– though the way is quite steep and my dodgy foot often will not allow me such daring.

Beltane Bride Set, inspired by the lichen of the Druid’s Temple in Ilton, West Yorkshire. For more jewellery inspired by fairy landscapes, please visit my Etsy shop.

 

Northumberlandia

Northumberlandia, or the Lady of the North.

A Goddess from a disused coal mine, Northumberlandia is a massive public sculpture in Cramlington, Northumbria. She is 100 feet high and over a quarter of a mile long. Like ancient earth works before her, she can only be seen all at once from an arial view. But you can walk around the spiralling, twisting paths that traverse her body.

We went the week after the sculpture had opened to the public in September. Two helpful volunteers greeted us, and there were a few walkers with their dogs and one family on the many footpaths that wind over the sculpture. They pushed a relative in a wheelchair around the ramping paths; almost all of the sculpture is accessible, and the grades of the paths marked at the outset. The site builders worked with Disability North to make sure the site could be used by visitors of differing abilities.

Image of Northumberlandia taken from Pro Landscaper Magazine

The first time I saw a photograph, sent to us by my father in law, I was profoundly moved but the idea of her. M and I decided immediately to go and check it out when it opened. Walking the sculpture, one catches glimpses of the working mines surrounding her, giant yellow machines toiling away in their Mordor. The information in the press release claims that coal mining has made this sculpture possible– ah, paradoxes, big money moving around. The permission to build this was granted along with permission to open the largest surface mine in England, and the sculpture itself was made from the by products of this mine.

Despite my mixed emotions about this, there is something visionary about bringing life and beauty to the blighted landscape. No one seems to know about it, and the press features mostly a shrugging public.  The Daily Mail and even the BBC snickeringly called it a “naked lady” and locals call her “Slag Alice”.  She is the green giant in the land of the “Page Three Girl” and she is sublime, subversive, even.

Comparisons to Gormley’s Angel of the North have been made– she has been referred to as the Lady of the North.  While Gormley’s rusted messenger has always seemed too hard, forlorn and defensive, this piece luxuriates in the history and landscape of the North.

She is the giant goddess in the sky, brought down to earth. The American landscape sculptor Charles Jenks clearly designed her to reference many neolithic sites like the Thornborough henge and Silbury Hill, among others. Many neolithic structures were positioned to give a vantage point to the heavens or to a body-like silhouette in a distant landscape. This sculpture is a wonderful mediation on the ancient temple building which honoured the connection between the earth, sky and our own bodies. A statement from Jenks,

To see the world in a Grain of Sand, the poetic insight of William Blake, is to find relationships between the big and small, science and spirituality, the universe and the landscape. This cosmic setting provides the narrative for my content-driven work, the writing and design. I explore metaphors that underlie both growing nature and the laws of nature, parallels that root us personally in the cosmos as firmly as a plant, even while our mind escapes this home.

You can walk into her forehead. She even has a third eye, marked the “eye of the universe”. One hand points to the two spirals in her earth-sky, the other points to her feet– in the pagan blessing– as above, so below.

Plaque at the forehead of the Lady of the North.
For jewellery inspired by pagan landscapes, please visit my Etsy shop.

 

What did you dream last night?

The Ghost of Eastry Church, Kent.

Last night was Saint Mark’s Eve.  There is an old tradition in the North of England which required parishioners of certain churches to hold a vigil through the night, watching for apparitions of themselves. Those who saw themselves enter– as rotting corpses or marching coffins– were sure to die in the coming year. Fair warning; time to prepare.

Though I now live in a city that makes a good deal of its living off the undead, and the myriad ghosts of this little walled town outnumber us, I am not jaded.  It is easy to see how death walks with us, here, despite the garish morbidity of all the ghost tours on offer, with their own inoculation to this mystery.  With that said, I have never seen on heard a ghost in York.  (What will usually send a shiver are recordings I find, actively look for trolling about on the internet– either supposedly photographic or EVP or Electronic Voice Phenomenon. Perhaps what is more disturbing is the medium, and the necessity of contact rather than the contact itself.  But that is a topic for another post.)

Perhaps the vigil of Saint Mark’s Eve is a version of an older custom on Walpurgisnacht, or the Eve of the Feast of the English Saint Walpurgis, who is a Christian manifestation of an older harvest Goddess. Walpurgisnacht was held on the night of the witch’s sabbath, May 30th, when the doors between worlds were open for spirits to pass between.  Probably the best time to hold such a vigil!

Older still at this time, were rituals involving cakes and dreams of love in the night. Bake a bannock in silence. Put it under your pillow. In the night you will see his face.  Come morning, eat the bannock; sweep the crumbs from the bed.

Grey Mary Visits

Who is that at the door?  A horse skull for a face, with green bottle-glass eyes, covered in a sheet, draped with motley ribbons.  Is there a man beneath? You almost recognize the shoes, the only human thing about him, as your neighbor’s, but not really.  And now, singing.  The spring hinged jaw opens and shuts.  The company he keeps is familiar, you know them from the village, they carry his jingling reins.  They had started out at dusk, you heard them farther out by the church, singing through the night, door-to-door. asking permission. And now it is midnight, and they are here.

In many UK folk traditions, the festival of Christmas carried on for 12 days after, and in Welsh tradition this is when Mari Lwyd, Grey Mary, Grey Mare or simply the Mare went wassailing.  Though today it may be seen as some kind of artifactual party-bringer, it is not hard to see in this strange being a skeletal, ghostly remnant of the “Great Mare” Epona, the ancient Roman-Celtic horse goddess once widely worshiped on this island.