The Mother Fountains of Stape and Keldy

I shot this short video of the Roman well in the wood at Cawthorne last weekend.  I will never be a cinematographer, but at least you can hear it! The sound of its vibrant flow was what struck me most about it.

I am in the unconquerable North, where the invaders have marked this place most vividly with ruins and linguistic remains, but perhaps what outlives the Roman Occupation and the Viking Age is the Wyrd, the soul of the land full of stories which now only come to us as fragments. Perhaps they must be re-imagined. Rob Wildwood is doing some of this, and this blog post is worth a visit.

A clear path meanders through an ancient, intimate woodland and a gigantic choir of rhododendrons marks the spot of the Roman Well. The well itself is a dark hole in an earthen bank which flows into a brick trough beneath the rhododendrons. According to Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor in Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, this spring was used for drinking water until recently (perhaps the 1980s?)

The Roman Well in the Keldy Wood
The Roman Well in the Keldy Wood

Perhaps it is the forest seclusion or the clear flowing cool water that suggests both sacredness and the practical. At one time these were one in the same. What sustained life was also divine.

The clear water in the brick trough. Water Shrine at Keldy Wood
The clear water in the brick trough. Water Shrine at Keldy Wood

No doubt this well was used by the Romans and the people who were here before that invasion.  The well is named after the Roman camp which is not far away. But the wood– Keldy– is named after the spring.  Kelda is Old Norse for a spring or well.  Keld is a frequent place name in the North of England.

Mike walking on the old Roman camp near Keldy, North Yorkshire
Mike walking on the old Roman camp near Cropton, North Yorkshire

The Roman camp is well marked with many signs that correspond to a guide which can be had at the New Inn (which has pretty killer beer, it must be said). Though I haven’t had a look at the guide and prefer its current manifestation as a mysterious, fey landscape which suggests many sleeping giants or fairy portals that one could perhaps see the entrance to at twilight. The views from the camp are spectacular– you can see to the moors in the distance with their big skies above.  No doubt this was a strategic placement, but it is more interesting to think on the Roman ruins and their fantastical Dark Age meanings– I highly recommend The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates which discusses this.

We also visited the roadside shrine of the Old Wives’ Well at Stape. The well-used road disguises this place– you must look out for a little clearing of a path amidst the wild thistle and nettle jungle that surrounds it. Though of all the wells we have visited in North Yorkshire, this seemed the most visited and loved.

The Old Wive's Well at Stape.
The Old Wives’ Well at Stape.

It is a Rag or “Clootie” well– meaning traditionally people leave bits of clothing belonging to the sick in need of healing.  Ribbons and a little angel trinket had been tied to the nearby tree, and a candle, long since exstinguished, lay submerged in the water.  A wooden rail marks the area, but seems out of place.  Still, it is a marker that the Forestry Commission have acknowledged this place.   The Yorkshire Holy Well site says this well was once  on open moorland before tree planting began– and it does have a feeling of seclusion and salvage amidst a big working forest.  According to Whelan and Taylor, there is historical evidence that Wade’s Causeway, the old Roman road on the moors, ran by this spring.  Wade’s Causeway is one of my favourite places on the moor, and perhaps the earth. Some say this road is not Roman at all but prehistoric, or perhaps Medieval, and that it has also been called the Old Wife’s Way. The giant Wade had a wife named Bell, and he built the road for her so she could go milk her giant cow in Pickering, or so the legend goes.  So maybe she is the old wife and this is her well. And maybe she is many other things, as the old wife is always the ancient Pagan Earth mother, but I digress.

"Fons Natalis" the mysterious inscription on this water shrine.
“NATTIE FONTEN” the mysterious inscription on this water shrine.

The mysterious inscription- I’ll admit I couldn’t read it and am going by Whelan and Taylor’s account– “NATTIE FONTEN” could mean many things.  By their account, it could be a corruption of “Fons Natalis” a Celtic water nymph.  The Yorkshire Holy Wells site proposes the inscription could read “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”, and this conjecture continues there as well as at the Modern Antiquarian site.  Words! Here is one such fragment of meaning left to us, and what to make of it? Part of me wonders if its the name, surviving even in its uncertain form, which has invited visitors, the offerings and even the wooden fence marking the spot as somehow important, something the other wells we’ve visited do not enjoy.

For jewellery inspired by water spirits and pagan places, like these Mermaid Lanterns, visit my  Etsy shop.
For jewellery inspired by water spirits and pagan places, like these Mermaid Lanterns, visit my Etsy shop.

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 Molecatcher

Mole, from Wind in the Willows

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, but can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty in it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties.
― Kenneth GrahameThe Wind in the Willows

York is a city only in name, it gets this honor from its grand Minster. Beyond it there is the countryside. Farms, moorland, with all their mysteries and cruelties, fresh to this city girl. How like Mole I am in my reveries of this landscape, which is a hard-working one as well as a place of beauty. And this work, it’s harsh and full of penalty.

I was leaving Bolton Castle when I saw a peculiar thing just outside, tied to the fence– they had the look of cloth scraps. On closer inspection these things were tiny corpses, in various degrees of decomposition.  Full of pathos, these bodies were no longer recognisable creatures– penal indeed was the display, like some ancient ritual meant to warn off trespass, ye olde heads on the stakes at the city gates.  It wasn’t until I had a good look at the last one, bloated, distended, but the pink-nosed blindness and cunning little hands were a giveaway. These were moles– a whole labour of them.

Some Googling later, I found that this is how the mole catcher gets paid, per mole. The display is an economic transaction. Writing in the 19th century, John Clare “Northamptonshire’s Peasant Poet” describes it as an ad for the molecatcher’s services or, more strangely, as a warning to other moles.

And as a triumph to his matchless skill,
On some grey willow where a road runs by,
That passers may behold his power to kill,
On the bough’s twigs he’ll many a felon tie;
On every common dozens may be met,
Dangling on bent twigs bleaching to the sun,
Whose melancholy faces meet no regret,
Though dreamless of the snare they could not shun.

A couple hundred years ago, a mole was a mouldywarp or “dirt tosser”. These chthonic beings are suspect, or so says Leviticus. They are counted among the  unclean “creeping things that creep on the earth.” Apollodorus of Athens tells us that the ancients believed eating the heart of a mole would give one the gift of divination– the ability to metaphorically see into darkness, and Pliny the Elder claims moles can hear you talking about them.  Moles are of the dark company, the sort that make pacts with witches. Isaiah tells us enlightened men will toss their idols of gold and silver to the moles and bats.

In Germany they are a protected species but in the UK they are considered a pest, molehills supposedly ruining the lawns of golfcourses and gardens and disrupting fields. They are one of the demonised of the countryside, along with the badger and fox, our sins projected onto such creatures with “science” in tow, justifying culls and exterminations.

The Molecatcher is an old profession in Britain. There is a “British Traditional Molecatcher Register”. There’s also the Association of Professional Molecatchers and The Guild of British Molecatchers.  It’s like something from a Pratchett novel.

Ancient superstitions are knitted into folk ways, come to us in bawdy songs like The Molecatcher.  I’m quite taken by this ghostly, melancholy version of the tune by Harp and a Monkey, its lament a fitting soundtrack to my recent discovery.

Moles tied to a fence outside of Bolton Castle.

The Blackest of Fridays

It’s Black Friday. Don’t go down to the maul. Spend it with me instead, supporting small businesses and handmades.

I never liked Black Friday very much–the crush at the till, the mania for some consumer item I’d never heard of. Initially it was with a pang of guilt that I indulged in this, the blackest of promotions. But then I realized that I actually enjoyed shopping on Etsy and on other small business owned websites for gifts and treats for myself, and I actually started to look for coupons or sales on this day, allowing myself the luxury of a bit of a spree– something I almost never do.  This would not have been possible without the internet, and despite some recent issues on Etsy with resellers, Etsy’s business manuals and the nitty-gritty update emails have been invaluable to me during this very busy time.

It’s black, it’s Friday, and there’s a sale on in my shop— what’s not to love?

Pick up Every Stitch

This Samhain passed quietly, without a single trick or treater, despite our expertly carved pumpkin in the window. People don’t really celebrate Halloween here– it is seen as a crass commercialisation of an ancient Celtic holiday, a “Yank” import.

It remains my favourite holiday, and really, I celebrate it all year round. Last night we had to decide what horror movie to watch. I don’t like to watch anything too scary at night. I love horror films but I have to watch them during the day.  So that ruled out most things, leaving us with our Hammer boxed set, Ginger Snaps, and Season of the Witch from 1972.

George Romero’s little known masterpiece of Suburban witchcraft is a nod to the pyschological horror of Hardy’s The Turn of the Screw while still being a feminist meditation on the mainstreaming of non-conformity happening in the early 1970s.  It is also proof of the power of a title– marketed as “Hungry Wives” in the US and “Jack’s Wife” in the UK, both distort for me the heart of the film. The thrill of watching this is similar to seeing the seductive and colourful British folk customs through a cinematic distortion in original The Wicker Man.Here we get to glimpse of the pagan rituals of a solitary witch who later joins a coven, all glamorised for the big screen.  Of course, this might seem cliche– we have had many witches on mainstream telly in recent years. But Jan White’s sincere performance of a woman coming to power strikes me as very real in a film genre that is full of histrionics and dazed women victims.  As she discovers who she is, you feel as if you are seeing this moment of transformation for the first time as well.  Romero says it is the only one of his films he would like to remake, and I would be curious to see that happen.

Miniature witch ball, inspired by old Yorkshire custom, available in different colours in my Etsy shop.

The White Rose of York

The minster illuminated with white roses. Photo by Kippa Matthews

Every place has its symbol that defines it, captures its genius loci.

In London I worked in the City for a spell– one of the darker times in my life. I would often look to the guardian of that place– the pizzled dragon with its heraldic erection, and wonder.   To survive the alienation and everyday struggle I would often call on dark things to help me.  They were always there, waiting.

The York Rose

What a contrast now to find the sigil of this city, York, to be a white, five petaled mandala.  I fell in love with it when I first saw it.  Though the history dates back to the House of York in the 14th century and the War of the Roses in the 15th century, it was really the Victorians who popularized the symbol.  Great urban planners they were (though they tried to take down the city walls!) But they were also sentimentalists, and the white rose as a municipal symbol seems uniquely Victorian.

Of course the rose is the Christian symbol representing Mary– and where Mary is, we are sure to find also a much older goddess that predates Christianity. The rose is a pagan symbol– with its five petals like the five arms of the pentagram. Their cyclical, spiraled structure suggests the unfurled labyrinth of faith.

White Rose of York earrings by Feral Strumpet on Etsy