Tomorrow, May 3rd is the 6th annual Labyrinth Day. Organizers of the day are encouraging people to walk as one at 1– walk a labyrinth at 1pm together.
There are several labyrinths around Yorkshire, some temporary, others maintained for hundreds of years. All are sacred to me, offering a wonderful multi faith symbol of faith and the complexities of life.
Celebrating the spiral journey– these beautifully detailed earrings depict the Chartres cathedral maze Crowned by amethyst toned Swarovski crystals, these earrings are a beautiful reminder that there are no wrong turns in life, and though the path may twist and double back, we walk it in love and trust.
The Chartres labyrinth dates from the 13th century and is the best preserved example of a medieval labyrinth, but it is no doubt an echo of an earlier pagan symbol. Many years ago I had the luck of being in Chartres when the labyrinth was open to pilgrims. Walking it like so many had for hundreds of years before me (some on their knees!) I was filled with wonder. I hope a tiny fraction of that is captured in this necklace.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Grahame, The 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.
This weekend I peddled my wares at EightSquared Con, this year’s British Science Fiction Association Convention, held in Bradford. I had been a member of the BFSA since writing my cyberpunk novel, The Desperate Ones. I hadn’t thought of selling there until a friend an fellow writer, David Gullen, suggested I give it a try. Last year the con was in London, and was much larger than the recent Bradford one. My booth was a success last year, but despite the con being smaller this year, it was an even bigger success for me, not just in terms of sales but in many other aspects.
This was the first year I was able to appreciate Eastercon as a real community event. Last year almost everyone who stopped by the booth was friendly and receptive, but this year people came back to chat and were very welcoming. I never had to explain that I was the artist behind the handmade objects– everyone seemed to get that, and there was a real respect for the labor involved. Many said, “Oh I hoped you’d be here again!” and they brought their friends to the table. Others came by to show me the jewellery they were wearing that I’d made– some said they wore their pieces almost every day. It is rewarding to see thing things one makes having a life of their own. Maybe that is when they are really finished? When a pair of earrings or a necklace finds its true owner and suits them beyond what I could have imagined when the item was just a pretty object, before it was theirs.
Another highlight of the con– I actually got to go to a panel. (Sometimes it was slow enough that I could have gone to more, but as soon as I decided to go it would pick up at the booth.) Perhaps I will blog a bit about it on The Desperate Ones.
So much of the process of selling online is done alone. I imagine things, make them real and then document them in hopes someone will like them enough to buy them. Translating the process to go “live” has been a challenge. Little by little I have tried to furnish the stall, make it more like a wonder cabinet, somewhere people can linger and explore. Perhaps the most satisfying thing from this weekend was just being a part of the whole thing, this community of gentle readers with a common sense of humor and wonder.
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 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.
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.