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.