Whitby Weekend: St Hilda’s Well

I dropped my companions at the next stop, the tiny, hidden hamlet of Part Mulgrave. They were to walk along the clifftops for a couple of miles… a walk I would have loved under normal circumstances… but once again, I was obliged to take the sensible option and the car. At least it wouldn’t hurt to have a vehicle poised at the other end of the trek.

Which left me with about an hour to kill, I thought, before meeting them all at the Cod and Lobster in Staithes. So, when I noticed the little church on my way back to the main road, it seemed a good idea to stop, especially as the nominal said it was dedicated to St Hilda, the erstwhile Abbess of Whitby.

The first recorded church in Hinderwell, a village named for the Saint, dates back to the twelfth century. The church that now stands on the site is a mere baby, dating from 1773. It was also locked, which was a disappointment… until I caught sight of an information board and followed its lead to an unexpected gift.

The story goes that, fourteen hundred years ago, the area was suffering the effects of drought, so the villagers petitioned St Hilda and asked her to intercede through prayer. Or else, that she was passing through the village and called forth the water. Either way, the spring was born in answer to her intercession and has flowed ever since, rising through the churchyard to become the main water source for the village for many years. It became a place of pilgrimage and its waters were credited with healing properties, especially for those with complaints of the eyes.

On Ascension Day every year, local children would bring a stoppered bottle with a stick of liquorice root inside, filling the bottle from the spring and shaking it to make a sweet drink. I remember chewing liquorice sticks as a child too, so smiled at the old custom. The event was called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ and is still remembered with an alfresco service every year.

Much of the old well housing remains, though the facings were repaired and replaced by a local benefactor who shared the saint’s name, a weathered sandstone bowl still remains as part of the structure that seems older somehow.

It was a peaceful spot to while away a little time, with a beautiful old yew sheltering the church. I wondered, as I watched the water, just how old this ancient well might be, and whether it had always been the object of Christian veneration? When Hilda founded her Abbey in 657, Christianity was already the nominal religion in the area, but old beliefs die hard, especially in rural areas and close to the sea, where offending the Old Ones and the faery folk would have been seen as taking a needless risk.

Celtic Christianity had grown around the customs of the various tribal systems. It was, perhaps, closer to the earth and nature than the Roman canon. For many in the early faith, the Christ may have been seen as just another god to add to their pantheon… one whose story echoed those they already knew. The debates between the various religious and political hierarchies would barely have touched their lives. Faith was just something you lived. Whether you left an offering for the spirit of the spring or its saint, both the gift and the reverence would have been the same.

So it was with a sense of standing at the centre of a web of light that brought together many threads of faith and belief, across all of human history, that I poured the drops for the gods.

Hunting the Unicorn: “…and under the earth…”

Sharp tang of woodsmoke, tall shadows climb stone walls, reflected flames dance in a black pool. Deep in the belly of earth, the symbols of the rite painted on pale skin, I wait as the torches come…

I could not say where or when the scene unfolded, nor what was the rite, only that to find yourself unexpectedly standing in a landscape familiar from an old, recurring dream is very strange. The soft echoes of the chamber brought back one missing detail.

“We need to chant…”

***

We had arrived in Burghead knowing that we would take a look at an ancient fort and a holy well. For once, that was about the limit of my knowledge. We had been given a detailed itinerary, but I had deliberately not researched any of the places on the list. As I was not one of those responsible for guiding the weekend, I would be able to come at each site fresh and free from preconceptions.

Burghead has all the solidity and cleanliness typical of the area, but although most of the town has stood for just a couple of centuries, its history goes back into the earliest of times. At low tide, you can still see the peat beds and remains of trees that stood where the sea now flows some seven thousand years ago. The earthworks of the Pictish fort were unmistakeable as soon as we had parked… and incredibly well sited on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by the sea. But, when the Picts first came to the area and began work on the earliest phase of the ‘promontory fort’, the promontory had become an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of sea.

Was the site of the new fort first chosen simply for defensive reasons, which is entirely possible, or was there some deeper significance for the choice? So many times we have seen the lands of the living and the lands of the dead… the landscape of ritual… divided by water. There is even the old magical tradition that flowing water contains or prevents the passage of otherworldly beings and forces to back up the idea. Maybe there was more than just tactical planning by the founders?

Most of the fort was buried beneath the new town in the nineteenth century, but radiocarbon dating has shown the site was already occupied as far back as the third century. At the height of its strength, the fort had walls up to twenty feet high and twenty-six feet thick, dotted with around thirty Bull carvings, only six of which have as yet been located.

Was the Bull the symbol of the tribe, its spirit animal… or both? Is it an earth-bull, association with strength and fertility, or one of the mythical water-bulls of Scottish folklore, who were shapeshifters and could not be killed by drowning?

The information boards at the holy well spoke of executions by drowning, such as that of Talorgen, son of the king of Atholl in 739,  could not resist the idea of possible beheadings and mentioned the Celtic carved head found there as being a ritual object such as we see at so many ancient wells. Bearing in mind that the well would once have stood within the walls of a fort surrounded by sea, I would not have thought that contaminating a source of drinking water with messy executions would have been the norm. Not with the sea below the walls.

On the other hand, having a shrine to water deities within the fort, to whom appeals and offerings might be made and where rituals might take place, that does make sense. The idea that the Picts saw ritual significance in both caves and water is reinforced at a site not far away.

In a nearby cliff, the walls of the Sculptor’s Cave are decorated, curiously enough, with pentagrams and other Pictish symbols. Deep within the cave, many human bones were found. Some were cut through the neck as if deliberately decapitated. Others show clear evidence of having been deliberately defleshed. Some heads, mainly those of adolescents, appear to have been placed around the entrance to the cavern.

The majority of reports focus on the apparent brutality, sensationalising ghastly rituals and barbaric sacrifices. One, rather more considered report is that of ScARF, the Scottish Archaeological Framework, who suggest that the caves would have been a liminal place, between land and sea, where “rites of passage – transforming children to adults or the living to the dead – may have taken place” and where it was thought that you could reach out to “the gods or spirits of the underworld”. We know that bones held meaning for our ancestors and that the cleaning of the bones for burial was seen as a respectful funerary rite. We also know that initiatory rites of passage, such as that marking the transition from child to warrior, priest or shaman, often held an element of real risk. What we do not know is the story behind the bones in the cave and it seems unfair to paint their people as barbaric, by our standards, without that knowledge.

That the ritual significance of water persisted into the Christian era we also know, with baptism forming the central rite of all who embraced that religion. There is another well in Burghead, dedicated to St Aidan… a name we have come across many times before on our travels… where the water is still clear and vessels are still provided for travellers… and their dogs. This is not something we have come across before in this health-and-safety dominated age… but oddly, it was not the last time we would see a holy and healing well still in service on this trip.

But the rock-cut well before us was unlike anything we had ever seen outside of dream. It felt forlorn, forgotten… but the spirit of place was not without power. Had it been a baptismal chamber? Quite possibly, with its steps leading down into the clear water and its ledge, either seat or walkway, running around the outside. Had it been used for Christian baptisms, like many another holy well that predates Christianity? Probably… but only later in its history.

The well reminded me of a painting I made many years ago, trying to catch the essence of a fleeting dream, with the shaft of light illuminating a priestess who stands within a well, her robe floating around her on the water. It was not a good painting, but I saved it and called it Chalice… for when I inverted the colours and the image, the priestess made the stem of a grail-like cup.

And it was dream that brought me to ask for the chant. We gathered once again at the entrance to the chamber. With a health issue, my own voice was meagre, so I was able to listen and feel the growing resonance as we filled the chamber with sound, cleansing, illuminating, reverberating… and, at the last, lifted to the sublime by the voice of a tawny-haired priestess whose favourite robe is red.

It was a quieter company that walked along the earthworks to stand looking out across the sea, the mood only lightening when we found a complete ‘fairy ring’ of toadstools on the way back to the car. There was once more visit before lunch… down to the shore in ritual mode, to once more walk our pentagrams.  The tide had come in, as if sea had come close to watch and, after the well, there was a rightness in that.

The land of the ‘stone father’

At the heart of an ancient landscape is the Dorset village of Cerne Abbas. The village grew up around a Benedictine Abbey founded there over a thousand years ago and it is still a place where folklore, myth and legend come together…and few of them agree.

The holy spring rose from where St Augustine struck the ground… or where St Edwold saw a vision, depending on which story you prefer, just as the giant on the hillside dates from the Iron Age… or is a seventeenth century political statement. The mysteries here are real… but underpinning them all is the fact that the place was undeniably seen as sacred.

The name is interesting in itself in that respect; ‘Cerne’ is believed to come from a Celtic word for ‘stone’ and ‘Abbas’ is the Medieval Latin ‘abbot’, which means ‘father’. Does the name refer to the Abbey, or did the abbey take its name from the chalk-cut Giant? If so, would that make him the ‘Stone Father’? Some have likened the image to that of Hercules, and there are traces of what could have been a lion skin draped over his arm. In Arabic, ‘abbas’ means not only ‘father’ but can be used to speak of the lion, while in French, ‘cerne’ means circle… and the imagery of the golden-maned lion as the sun is present in many cultures.

Add to the mix that Cernunnos is the name of a Celtic god of fertility, and even the name of the village itself becomes an intriguing mystery. But…if all the tales point to the ‘father’ in the landscape… where do we look to find the Mother? Perhaps we must first look for the Maiden? And what other secrets does this landscape hold?

It is at the heart of this land of wildflowers, myth and mystery that the Silent Eye will be holding its June workshop weekend. Join us this summer on our pre-solstice event for an interactive excursion into the Living Land of Dorset…

The Giant and the Sun
Cerne Abbas, Dorset
Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June 2018

The weekend is informal and open to all, no previous knowledge or experience is required. We ask only that you bring your own presence and thoughts to the moment.

Workshop costs £50 per person. Accommodation and meals are not included and bed and breakfast/hotel in Cerne Abbas should be booked separately by all attendees. Lunch and dinner are usually shared meals.

Click below to
Download our Events Booking Form – pdf

For further details or to reserve your place: rivingtide@gmail.com

Going west – where ancient sites collide

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Wreathed in mist and roses, the Mother greets those who visit the sacred spring of St Non. The little shrine to the Virgin was erected in 1951 when the Passionist Fathers restored and rededicated the spring, as if to leave those who walk the cliff-top path in no doubt of the deity from whom the healing waters flow. Me, I was having grave doubts about such a claim of allegiance.

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The legend tells that St Non gave birth to her son, St David, in the field beside the spring. St Non was the daughter of a noble house who had been ravaged and left with child. The healing waters of the spring began to flow when the babe was born, bathed in light, while a thunderstorm of biblical proportions raged around the mother and child, protecting them from harm. I have to wonder what a pregnant noble lady was doing alone, in a storm on a cliff top, when her time came upon her. As pious as she was, eating only bread and water throughout her pregnancy, surely she would have headed for church or convent to seek aid and sanctuary? Especially as, in Welsh, her name means ‘nun’. If that was the whole story, somehow, it didn’t add up.

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Many of the holy wells are connected with female saints. The symbolism is fairly obvious… the waters of life are a feminine preserve. They were places of veneration long before Christianity came to these isles and stories are remembered in the folk record of goddess and fae alike at such places. Perhaps St Non was heading for the healing waters as the pains of childbirth came upon her? Perhaps the well was already there and was ‘born anew’ in the Christian faith at that point. It was a thought.

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The waters of the spring  are reputed to bring healing and were considered miraculous. They have been visited by pilgrims and those with faith in their powers since time out of mind and the clear spring is one of the most sacred places in Wales. A cloutie hanging limp in the mist showed that the well still draws those who seek healing.. as did the small, unobtrusive offerings that were left there. Given the sanctity accorded to the place by the faith of its visitors, I felt bad about questioning the veracity of the story… yet there was no lack of respect for the faith of those who see its truth. Truth may wear many faces… not all of them factual…and all of them equally valid.

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We each paid our respects in our own way. I will pay my respects to the outward form of any religion. My own faith sees no distinction between the faces worn by the essence of divinity that lies behind all the Names and stories. I recognise, however, the human need to grasp and sequester all that seems best and most sacred and call it our own. There are many instances throughout history where the sacred places of one stream of belief have been adopted by another. In our own history, the directive from Rome to the evangelising fathers was quite clear in that respect. Just beyond the shrine and the well, lies a small, fenced enclosure and the ruins of Capel Non, the chapel that was built on the spot where the saintly lady gave birth to her son. Legend says that it was built upon the site of St Non’s house… which might explain why she was up on  the cliffs alone at that time…except the ruined chapel stands right in the middle of what appears to be a Bronze Age stone circle…

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Maybe that was why St Non was wandering the cliff top in a storm… seeking the shelter of a sacred place older than the Christian faith by a thousand years or more. Or maybe the story has absorbed an older tale and the Christian saint has evolved from a Celtic goddess whose ‘house’ was the stone circle. That too is not unknown and the parallels between goddesses and saints, such as Brigid for example, have been well documented and argued. For me, there is a beauty in that… a simple continuity of faith that defies the political machinations of sacerdotal statesmen. Those in power may have sequestered and renamed the stories at the heart of the old ways, they may have laid the veneer of their own religion over the deities of the Old Ones and built in riven stone within the ancient sacred places… yet their essence remains unchanged and draws those who seek, however their belief is framed.

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A small step within the ruined chapel marks the spot where the altar once stood. Like the ancient alignment from Pentre Ifan to Bardsey that, according to Robin Heath marks north as a sacred direction, the chapel is unusually oriented north-south, rather than the traditional east-west, with the altar in the north. Little else remains of the chapel built where the patron saint of Wales was born some fifteen hundred years ago.  In one corner propped against a wall, is a stone slab, carved with a symbol that has become known as St David’s Cross. The stone, thought to be perhaps twelve hundred years old, was found at the site. It may have been either grave marker or altar stone and bears the symbol of the Cross within a Circle… which seems very appropriate here.

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The Cross immediately explained the simplicity of the identical Stations of the Cross in the more modern chapel of Our Lady and St Non… they were replicas of the stone, carved in wood… ‘the living and the dead’ brought into the worship within a holy house…another link with an ancestral faith.

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The ruined chapel and holy well were once sought by the feet of many pilgrims. The chapel is one of the oldest Christian sites in Wales and perhaps the most sacred. Here, where the stones of an ancient faith encircle those of the new, there is neither ‘living’ nor ‘dead’, only a peaceful recognition of the endless round of humanity’s quest for understanding.

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