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Lost Watercourses and Resacredization

The watercourses of my local landscape were once considered very sacred. The river Ribble was venerated by the Romano-British people as Belisama ‘Most Shining One’ ‘Most Mighty One’. The boundaries of the settlements of Penwortham and Preston were defined by freely flowing streams whose deities would have been regarded as powerful guardian spirits.

Life depended on clean, pure water drawn from wells rising from underground sources. Rows of women queued on Petticoat Alley to collect their morning’s fill. Many wells possessed miraculous and healing properties. Ladywell and St Mary’s Well were important sites of pilgrimage. Mineral springs on New Hall Lane were renowned for curing eye ailments.

The brooks that form the perimeters of Penwortham can still be walked. However not a single glimpse of fresh free flowing water can be seen in Preston anymore. Every water course has been culverted. They can be traced by following signs: Syke Hill, Syke Street, Moor Brook and walking dips and shallows in roads and parks. Put your ear to the drain on Main Sprit Weind after a night of heavy rain and the river Syke can be heard. They’re still there; vegetationless, fishless in gloomy grey tunnels that may never again see the light of day. Their deities forgotten. Unrevered.

All the wells have vanished. Ladywell lies under the car park of the Brunel student halls. I doubt a single student knows of the well for which their flats were named. The springs on New Hall Lane are built over by houses. St Mary’s Well in Penwortham possesses the most tragic story of all. During the creation of Riversway Dockland the Ribble was moved from her natural course to beside Castle Hill. During this process a breach in the sandstone bedrock shattered the hill’s aquifer. St Mary’s Well and the nearby St Anne’s Well both dried up.

This must have been a cataclysmic event for the local people, some of whom walked a mile from Middleforth every day to collect water from St Mary’s Well. Their sacred site was lost forever. If there was outcry and talk of omens not a single record remains. What we do know is piped water arrived soon afterward at a hefty fee. St Mary’s Well was buried when the A59 was widened and its site is only recognised on old maps.

The stories of the disappearance of these rivers, streams and wells form a damning reflection on the way we treat our sacred landscapes. Whilst in the south of England a good number of ‘heritage sites’ have been preserved, in the heavily industrialised north there are few places of sacred or even historic interest undestroyed. A prime example is a Roman industrial site in Walton-le-dale equivalent to a major tourist attraction on the Rhine. Our local developers decided this would make a good location for a bowling alley.

The destruction of sacred places results from capitalism’s commodification of the whole of nature. Nothing is holy. Nothing lies outside its discourse. This puts it at loggerheads with paganism, which is based on the assumption all of nature is sacred. This raises the question: what can be done to win back the sanctity of nature from capitalism’s commodifying grasp?

It is my belief each time we affirm our relationship with the sacred we also defy capitalism. We give value to what cannot be commodified. For me the choice to learn the stories of my local landscape, my gods and ancestors and share them in my communities instead of following a ‘proper’ career path is a political choice.

The stories of what we have lost illustrate the value of what we have. And how much we will lose if fracking is allowed across the UK along with the continuous development of roads and properties.

Are stories enough to bring about material change? To bring down the system? It is my belief each realisation and action it inspires helps. Each recognition of the sacred. Each turn away from consumerism.

It has taken capitalism centuries to develop (the term ‘capitale’ was first used in the 12th C). It may take centuries to bring it down. Yet as the lost watercourses slowly eat their way through concrete, groping their way to a land of sunlight of vegetation we must retain our focus. Ensure that by future generations their emergence is welcomed back with reverence into a world resacredized.

23 Comments »

  1. Thank you for this lovely, if sad, exploration of rivers, wells and springs lost. I think you are right, exploring and honoring the sacred is itself an act of rebellion. And remembering what is lost, and mourning it, in a world which claims all things are improved and nothing of value lost is a powerful political and spiritual act.

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  2. I like the word Resacradization. Here in the mountains where i live the streams are pretty much free flowing. The gun club up stream temporarily dams Board Run that flows past me to stock with trout for kids to fish, which i disagree with, but the trout escape and come down here to my deeper pools and i have it posted No Trespassing so they can’t come down to get them back so the rainbow trout live free here and reproduce LOL. The Nagas/Naginis of the water are sacred to me as you know. I have a low wood bridge that is attached to a chain which i call my Zen bridge as when the water rises it just breaks free and floats to the right then i can winch it back into place, having had three bridges wash away the last 12 years. Live and learn. Nothing can resist the flow of water as you know. In the small town near me the culverts are open for the mountain waters to flow into the half million year old rivers that were from the glacial melts and here before the old old old Appalachian mountains. Live and learn. Blessings on your efforts as a Druid bard Pagani to break the dams politically. I am a little more eco-radical here but cannot write about that……

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  3. Reblogged this on Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge and commented:
    I like the word Resacradization. Here in the mountains where i live the streams are pretty much free flowing. The gun club up stream temporarily dams Board Run that flows past me to stock with trout for kids to fish, which i disagree with, but the trout escape and come down here to my deeper pools and i have it posted No Trespassing so they can’t come down to get them back so the rainbow trout live free here and reproduce LOL. The Nagas/Naginis of the water are sacred to me as you know. I have a low wood bridge that is attached to a chain which i call my Zen bridge as when the water rises it just breaks free and floats to the right then i can winch it back into place, having had three bridges wash away the last 12 years. Live and learn. Nothing can resist the flow of water as you know. In the small town near me the culverts are open for the mountain waters to flow into the half million year old rivers that were from the glacial melts and here before the old old old Appalachian mountains. Live and learn. Blessings on your efforts as a Druid bard Pagani to break the dams politically. I am a little more eco-radical here but cannot write about that……

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  4. I am just in the middle of writing a short book about the watershed and creek that our Grove sits on and we are deep into planning a pilgramage and ritual next month to the spot where it comes out of the giant concrete pipe before it joins our city’s river, so I was very moved and excited to read your piece.

    Although in Canada it’s not about human history so much as the in-dwelling Spirit, still we need to talk to and remember our places.

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    • Yes, talking to places and the spirits is a part of my practice too. My local brook Fish House Brook (although of course this is a recent name not her true one) emerges from a concrete pipe-line which I must acknowledge as the closest I can get to her ‘source’ … I hope your ritual goes well 🙂

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  5. Our relationship with water is exemplary for the relationship with the rest of the natural world. Only, because it’s water, we see it more clearly. Streams are bound, canalised, forced underground but sooner or later they resurface and reclaim what has been denied.
    My own country has an extraordinary relationship with water. It is encouraging to see that at least here, the awareness is growing that we need to work, to barter with the water in order to live on this land. Part of that work is recognising the function of its original trajectory.

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  6. The parts of your book that referred to some of these events were especially evocative for me…I enjoyed the entire book a great deal, and will recommend it to others!

    It’s amazing how little many of us realize how the presence, absence, and presence-in-absence of sacred water sources has impacted our everyday landscapes. I certainly remember how much more attuned to this I became when I was in Oxford in ’96-’97. My college was on Halliwell Street, and there used to be a holy well on it which had long ago been bricked over. There were still active holy wells in other places in Oxford, though, including Binsey, which I walked to one sunny Spring afternoon; I believe Lewis Carroll wrote of that “treacle well” in one of his Alice books.

    The island where I live in the U.S. has a few natural springs; one of them is toward the bottom of the street where I live, and kind of makes the road wet on a pretty regular basis, but they’ve recently “done something” to it so that it doesn’t happen as much any more, and I think it has been culverted into a storm drain. The island where I work (where I’m writing this from now) has no natural springs on the surface, so some places have dug wells; but the majority of the water (at least in the most populous area on the north end) gets piped in from the mainland/the Skagit River, I think. As this is a huge island, and a variety of indigenous peoples lived here up to the 19th century, I wonder how they obtained water? That’s not something that ever gets discussed in anything I’ve read or seen on the history of our area.

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    • It sounds strange your island has no natural springs (although I don’t know much about the geography and water levels etc. of islands). Certainly worth looking into.

      Ahhh… treacle wells… my friend told me when he was young nearly everyone claimed to have one in their back garden in Lancashire!

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  7. I really liked this part: “It is my belief each time we affirm our relationship with the sacred we also defy capitalism. We give value to what cannot be commodified.” That is so important.

    I live in a neighborhood in my city that is called “Brooklyn,” previously called “Brookland” for the presence of a number of streams here when white settlers started turning this into a town. Of course none of those streams can be seen any more – they were probably buried or stuffed into culverts decades ago, along with so many others in the urban area. It’s so sad. I know occasionally some urban streams get daylighted and restored, but there are so many more that don’t.

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  8. I have often pondered my attitude to the artificial shaping of my own local River Eleri which runs for about 25 miles from the mountains to the sea. Once the source spring fed a stream that fell through a steep gorge to the valley below before running on as a wider river. Now the gorge has been dammed and the spring is under a lake used for the local drinking water supply, though some still falls through the gorge and she winds her way down through fields and woodlands quite naturally until the final couple of miles over flatter lands to the coast.

    For the last mile or so she was diverted in the nineteenth century into a straight channel into the the estuary of another larger river. Before that she wound sinuously directly into the sea. This was done to drain the corner of a large bog to make agricultural fields. It was unsuccessful and the fields, though they are lost to the bog, are now managed as wet meadows with pools as part of the larger Borth Bog nature reserve. The straight channel looks like a canal rather than a natural river but sand martens nest in the embankment and there are reed beds all along the other side.

    I have used an old map to track the previous course of the river and followed it by trespassing on the golf course which now occupies part of the land. It seems that some of the old river channels are being used as wet bunkers on the golf course. Although I regret the changes they are small compared to the culverting and other indignities detailed in your piece. Does she mind that some of her source water comes to our taps? I think she does not mind this too much. That her beautiful curves have been straightened in her last stretch to the sea? I’m sure she likes this less, so I will continue to honour her chosen route to the sea in spite of disapproval from golfers.

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  9. When I first moved to Phoenix and drove over the Salt River, I asked “where is the river?” because there was no water. I found out it only has water when it rains. Years later I went to Pueblo Grande Museum and saw a painting of the Salt *filled* with water – and with beavers! It blew my mind.

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