What Ails You, Father? The Rain of Nodens

Relentless Rain

We recently experienced the wettest December on record in Lancashire. Across the north of England, Scotland and Wales rivers burst their banks and many areas suffered devastating floods.

On the night of the highest tides, December 26th, I went to speak with the goddess of the Ribble, Belisama. Realising she didn’t want a physical offering thrown into her swollen waters I spoke a poem and apologies we’d changed her course and concreted her in and prayed she wouldn’t flood the houses of local people.

During this process, I realised whilst Belisama has some control over the Ribble, a factor I had not addressed was the rain: the relentless rain which has not stopped pouring down the north-west’s hillsides sweeping down valleys soaking field and marsh dripping constantly down drains. Who to address and what to say?

Nodens: A Romano-British Rain God

It is my belief Nodens is a Romano-British god of rain. The name Nodens has been interpreted to mean ‘to catch, entrap… thus he is the catcher’ (Tolkien) ‘acquire, utilise, go fishing’ (Porkny) ‘moisture’ (Porkny) ‘mist, clouds’ (Matasovic) and ‘the Cloud-maker’ (O’Rahilly). Nodens is associated with hunting and clouds and hence rain.

At Vindolanda, Nodens is equated with Neptune. Neptune has been interpreted to mean ‘moist substance’ (Kretschmer) and ‘he who is moist’ (Bloch). Petersmann claims Neptune presides over ‘clouds and fogs’ and sees him as father of all living beings through a hieros gamos with the earth via fertilising rainwater. He quotes lines from Virgil ‘Whow, why so many clouds surrounded the sky? What are you preparing, father Neptune?’ These parallels provide clues to Nodens’ role as a rain god in sacred unison with an earth goddess.

The Temple of Nodens

The best attested centre of worship for Nodens is his temple at Lydney. This consisted of a central cella (inner chamber) with three chambers in its north-western end. It is surrounded by an ambulatory with another seven ‘projecting’ chambers. It seems likely the chambers housed statues of Nodens.

A mosaic from the floor depicts dolphins, horses and sea-monsters. On a bronze relief and headdress we find images of Nodens as a sea-god, in one case driving a chariot pulled by four horses, tritons with serpent’s tails carrying anchors and conches and winged wind spirits. These represent Nodens as a deity who, like Neptune, presides over weather and the sea.

Nodens’ temple is believed to have been a place of healing where pilgrims made offerings, evidenced by bronze hound statuettes and coins, then slept in the long dormitory building. Parallels with the temple of Asclepios and the presence of an interpretus (interpreter of dreams) suggest Nodens appeared in dream-visions with solutions to ailments.

A votive hound at the bottom of a funnel entering a pit shows Nodens was viewed as a god of Annwn ‘the not-world’ ‘the deep’. ‘The Awen I sing’ says Taliesin ‘from the deep I bring it’. Awen (‘inspiration’) and dream were believed to flow from this watery underworld. Nodens’ associations with the dream-world are with us today in the phrase ‘the Land of Nod’.

It is significant Nodens was not the only deity worshipped in the temple. A stone statuette of a goddess holding a cornucopia was also found with offerings of pins from women for aid with child-birth. It may be suggested she was Nodens’ consort and the efficaciousness of their healing was rooted in their hieros gamos as earth goddess and rain god.

Lludd of the Silver Hand

Scholars agree Nodens is cognate with the medieval Welsh god Nudd (‘mist’) ‘the superior wolf-lord’ who is best known as Lludd Llaw Eraint ‘Lludd of the Silver Hand’. Lydney means ‘Lludd’s Island’. A bronze arm found at Lydney demonstrates these equivalences hold.

In Lludd and Llefelys, Lludd is the oldest son of the great ancestral god, Beli Mawr, from whom he inherits the kingdom of Britain. ‘He was a good warrior and benevolent and bountiful in giving food and drink to all who sought it.’ With the help of his brother, Llefelys, Lludd freed Britain from three plagues. Unfortunately his Queen is never named.

How Lludd lost his hand remains unknown. In Culhwch and Olwen, where his son Gwyn ap Nudd and daughter Creiddylad play more prominent roles, he is referred to as Lludd Llaw Eraint for the first time.

In Lludd of the Silver Hand: the Catcher who can no longer catch, the King who cannot defend his kingdom, we find a figure of great pathos. Lludd slides incapacitated into a background of cloud and dream whilst his descendants act.

The Fisher King

Lludd bears similarities to the Fisher King who appears in the stories of Peredur, Perceval and Parzival. The Fisher King suffers from a debilitating wound, most often in his groin, which deprives him of the ability to do anything but fish. His debilitation is reflected in the state of kingdom.

In each story the hero enters the Castle of Wonders where the King lies recumbent. A procession passes featuring a bleeding lance and a representation of ‘the grail’. The protagonist fails to question the scene. After a long exodus through a kingdom plagued by monsters he returns.

In some variants he asks the question ‘who does the grail serve?’ in others ‘what ails you, father?’ The words are not important. The act of asking results in the healing of the King and his kingdom.

Conspicuous by its absence is the King’s reunion with his Queen. It remains implicit this follows his return to virility and is the source of the kingdom’s recovery.

Asking the Question

In The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, Robert Johnson notes we fail to ask the question because we do not know the answer. The current rate of climate change throws environmentalists into despair as capitalists ravage the land for the last oil and gas. The relentless rain is bound up with global warming and there appears to be no solution at hand.

It is indubitable Britain’s weather has been irreversibly affected by three centuries of industrial smog. At the same time it seems to be no coincidence as factories have risen and people have been oppressed, Ned Lud (a name that echoes Nudd and Lludd) and General Ludd and his wives and daughters have stepped forth as answers from the realm of dream as figures of revolt. In the 21st C Gwyn ap Nudd and Creiddylad return to new devotees.

In Nodens Britain’s weather and dreaming are one. In pouring rain beside decaying factories and mill-ponds the time arrives to ask the question beneath grey grey skies. To retreat to dormitories and await the dream-god’s answer beneath sober pillows. To dream and enact the re-birth of a land where the hieros gamos of rain god and earth goddess is restored.

P1130621 - Copy
Penwortham Mill

SOURCES

Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Bernard Maier, Dictionary of Celtic Religion and Culture, (The Boydell Press, 1997)
James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Martin Shaw, Snowy Tower, (White Cloud Press, 2014)
Miranda Green, The Gods of the Celts, (Sutton Publishing, 2011)
Robert Johnson, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, (Harper San Francisco, 1995)
Stephen Yeates, A Dreaming for the Witches, (Ox Bow Books, 2009)
Forest of Dean History: The Romans and Celts
‘Nodens’, Wikipedia
‘Neptune’, Wikipedia


Lorna Smithers

lorna imageLorna Smithers lives in Penwortham, Lancashire. She writes poems for unsung landscapes and myths for unacknowledged gods. She can be found performing in cafes and libraries, enchanted woodlands and on mist-wrapped hills and blogging at Signposts In the Mist.

Lorna’s piece, The Devil’s Bagpipes on Stoneygate appeared in A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are and she is the Editor of the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance, due out May 1st.

Litany of the Meadows

Champ_de_colza_Côte-d'Or_Bourgogne_avril_2014 Wikipedia Commons
Oil-seed Rape, Wikipedia Commons

The 7th of July formed a tide mark in the UK’s environmental policy. A request to use bee-killing neonicotinoids on 5% of oil-seed rape crops put forward by the National Farmers’ Union was approved by the Expert Committee for Pesticides.

This was controversial not only because it could lead to the loss of two-thirds of wild bumblebee queens in the neighbouring areas but because the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture prevented publication of minutes from a meeting in May, where the ECP argued against lifting the ban, until the decision was pushed through. This was to prevent environmental campaigners from lobbying ministers.

It was later revealed the pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Synerga, whose produce will be used on the oil-seed rape, were the only external representatives present at the meeting on July the 7th. This decision was clearly made with capital at the forefront and demonstrates our Tory government’s acquiescence with major companies at the expense of truth and democratic processes as well as their refusal to acknowledge scientific evidence.

The tides have turned. The hard work of scientists investigating the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder and of environmental campaigners has been reversed. This decision will lead to the deaths of innumerable wild bees and will have a harmful impact on flowering crops and wild flowers in the vicinity of the pesticide treated oil-seed rape. It also opens the door to similar treatment of crops across the UK.

As a Friends group leader who has been working hard to cultivate a wildflower meadow in my local valley to provide a food source for bees I was furious when I found out. I have signed petitions from 38 Degrees but know this is not enough to turn the tides back upon this cataclysmic decision.

For now as a poet and awenydd I share these poems which give voice to the intrinsic value of meadows and bees, their worth to the gods, and to the threat of their extinction. I imagine a time when those responsible ‘hear the litany of the meadows with wonderment and fear’.

~

Unsung Meadow

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
wild carrot, buttercup and nettle
time is slowing down.

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
plantain, clover and yellow rattle
world is slowing down.

In my summer eiderdown
time and world are slowing down
sleep easy, sleep easy, sleep easy
unsung meadow sings.

~

Litany of the Meadows

The meadows have been shorn
in a rain of grass heads and sedges
tinted with sorrel, brown-white plantain
and shredded folds of yellow rattle
that never had the chance to seed,
now cut in twain, discarded.

I want to repeat a litany
for every spider, ant and beetle
that lost its home, or legs,
for the dead and empty carapaces,
for the orange tip, cabbage white, and fritillary,
for all the bees returning to dried and empty flowers.

Now I know why we no longer
hear the voice of grasshopper or cricket.
There is no place for the froghopper
to leave a gauze of cuckoo spit.
All her nymphs have been
trampled to froth.

I wonder how long
this thoughtlessness can go on
before they rise in strands and stalks,
marching through dream with the hum and buzz of insects
and we finally hear the litany of the meadows
with wonderment and fear.

~

Take Wing My Queen

We are the bees of the invisible.
We wildly collect the honey of the visible,
to store in the great golden hive of the invisible.’
-Rilke

Let us depart my queen,
sisters kiss farewell to the flowers.
Sink your long tongues
into the obituaries of stamens,
one last taste, forsake the namelessness
of this world ruled by drones.

She who builds creatively
finds no nourishment in nectar grown
on the ramparts of technology,
in the cracks of mechanical arms
snatching endlessly
at the noctilucent hive of the unknown.

Hives empty, baskets heavy,
bearing honey on furred bodies
to a sanctuary of wax and comb,
invisible wisdom to hum
until meadow flowers
recall sweet songs again,
take wing my queen, let us be gone.

~

I was not dead when you took me

from a wild uncultivated land
where I swayed in leaves,
walked naked amongst meadow flowers.

Now they are spraying the fields with poison,
green-fly drop like itching stars
on my searing skin.
Writhing worms haunt pink bodies into my dreams.

When cabbage stem flea beetles depart in a fleeing sheet
and worker bees deadened of appetite
lament their dying queen,

when I collect their poor parched bodies
from the dusty ground like rain
will you take them in?

When I wither and faint wilted unable to seed,
skirts ripped from me like precious petals,
when I lie empty and barren
at the end of the earth,
when I am dead will you return for me?

*Words spoken by Creiddylad (a Brythonic goddess of flowers and fertility) to Gwyn ap Nudd (a Brythonic god of the underworld).

Spirit of the Aquifer

The pictures above are of Castle Hill; the ‘pen’ or ‘prominent headland’ by which my hometown of Penwortham is named. Although its holy wells have now dried up, Castle Hill remains an important Christian and pagan sacred site. St Mary’s Church and graveyard and the castle motte share its summit. It is also the location of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral.

The wells dried up during the creation of Riversway Dockland in 1884 when the removal of a sandstone substrate to make a new bed for the river Ribble breached the aquifer beneath Castle Hill. Two years ago, whilst researching this (along with Peter Dillon, who has written a more detailed article here), in the state between waking and sleeping whilst nodding off at an unrelated book I experienced a vision.

I found myself standing on a precipice within Castle Hill. In its midst was a water-dragon, struggling, gasping, clearly in agony, losing character, shape and form as her womb imploded. Slipping painfully down a plug-hole, sinking helplessly into an abyss. The last I saw of her was a dragon-girl spinning round and round on a swing, tumbling off and vanishing. Her after-image remained imprinted in my mind for a long time afterward.

I first recorded this harrowing communication in a poem called ‘Spirit of the Aquifer’ (below). (The italicised lines are to be read as a chorus that captures the lament of the people of Penwortham, which I felt needed to be expressed). Following meditation and journey-work at the site of St Mary’s Well, wherein I was gifted scenes of its past, I expanded the original vision into a short story: ‘The Water-Dragon and her Daughters’ (also below).

Castle Hill from Fairy Lane
Castle Hill from Fairy Lane

My visits to Castle Hill and the relationships I have formed with its spirits have been a source of immense beauty, wonder and enchantment but, because of this catastrophe, also a deep sense of sadness and loss. On several occasions I have had my company rejected altogether.

Having visited Glastonbury Tor where the aquifer and springs remain intact and revered (albeit considerably changed) and numerous natural springs I can only imagine the constant out-pourings of crystal-clear water, lushness of damp vegetation and shared sense of sanctity amongst the local community that have been destroyed.

As it stands the sites of the wells are all but forgotten. Now obscured by Penwortham By-pass (which may not have been built so dangerously close if the wells had not dried up) Castle Hill is suffering increasingly from land-slippage. Trees leaning precariously on its east bank in Penwortham Wood fall frequently. Gravestones topple. Because last year at the summer solstice a gravestone fell on somebody’s foot the majority of the graveyard is out-of-bounds.

The fay are still rightly angry and hurt. Magic-workers speak of broken leys and leys gone awry. The damage caused by the breached aquifer beneath Castle Hill on both physical and spiritual levels is inestimable. The water-dragon can never be won back. The hill will never be whole. It will never be healed and it will never again heal.

The loss of Castle Hill’s aquifer and wells has illustrated to me the value of our existing underground water-sources and the severity of the potential consequences of fracking. This has led me both to sharing my poem in public as a cautionary tale and to participating in the recent against fracking protests outside the County Hall across the Ribble in Preston.

It is my intuition the spirits of the land and watercourses and our chthonic deities played a subliminal role in the success of the protests (the potential fracking sites at Roseacre and Little Plumpton are only thirteen miles from Penwortham and Preston). The water-dragon’s ghost can sleep peacefully, for a while…

Spirit of the Aquifer

In eighteen eighty four
a monolithic feat of engineering
shifts the Ribble’s course:
no water to the springs.

From the hill’s abyssal deep
a rumbling of the bowels,
a vexed aquatic shriek:
no water to the wells.

Breached within the chasm
a dragon lies gasping
with a pain she cannot fathom:
no water to the springs.

Water table reft
her giving womb unswells,
surging through the clefts:
no water to the wells.

Unravelling inside
her serpent magic streams
to join the angry tides:
no water to the springs.

Culverted and banked
her serpent powers fail,
leaking dry and cracked:
no water to the wells.

The spinning dragon-girl
tumbles from her swing
and slips to the underworld:
no water to the springs.

Her spirit will not rise
through the dead and empty tunnels,
disconsolate we cry:
no water to the wells.

The hill, no longer healing
stands broken of its spell,
no water to the springs,
no water to the wells.

The Water Dragon and her Daughters

At the heart of the green hill lay a water dragon. She awoke at the end of the Ice Age when the land began to thaw. From her giving womb burst a myriad springs, carving gullies where mosses and ferns sprung.

At the hill’s foot a thirsty auroch was the first creature to drink from the purest, most powerful spring, which flowed into a natural pool. The rest of the herd followed, then red deer, wild horses and the first hunter gatherers who built their nearby Lake Village beside the river of shining water.

These early people venerated the spring. Listening to its ever-pouring stream, behind it many heard the song of the dragon’s daughter. It was rumoured she could be seen by moonlight. She first appeared as a pale woman, but look again and you would see her scales and glimmering tail. To this strange spirit the people attributed the spring’s healing powers.

A line of Brythonic women presided over the spring, serving its spirit, meting its cures until their last representative was slaughtered by the Romans. This tradition remained in the memory of the local people. Therefore when the missionaries arrived they moved quickly in re-dedicating the spring to St Mary. A stone basin was built and a stone cross erected over the new well, inscribed with the Magnificat.

Over the years it became a site of pilgrimage. Strangers travelled from across the country to marvel at its picturesque glade at the hill’s foot, overlooked by a canopy of beech, surrounded by ivy and primroses. Although forbidden, the healing rituals continued, evidenced by multicoloured floating ribbons. People immersed themselves in its waters, took their horses in with them. It was finally decided these activities must stop and the well was capped.

Throughout this time the dragon’s daughter was ignored, yet she still gave, even though her spring was forced irreverently into a trickling metal pipe. Then something catastrophic happened.

The river was moved southward to make way for the docklands. The sandstone beneath the hill sealing the aquifer was breached. Down below the water dragon experienced an inexplicable pain. Writhing, gasping within the chasm, her womb imploded. Her features shrunk and fell inward, becoming sheer water sucked away through the shattered bedrock. The being of her daughters unravelled with her, shrieking backward into disappearance.

St Mary’s well ran dry. Local people were deprived of their cleanest source of water. Prevalent whispers spoke of the bad omen, yet the fault of the developers was not revealed. There was nothing to worry about; piped water would be coming soon, for a hefty fee. The well was buried, out of sight and out of mind.

Yet it remains on old maps and in the memory of the land, which does not forget; in a cold, empty cavern and tunnels where streams ran but are no more. At the spring’s old site or wandering the hill at certain liminal times, you might sense a dragon’s heartbeat or hear her final gasp. You may glimpse the ghosts of her daughters, hear their last screams.


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Lancashire Says FRACK OFF!

Mr Frackhead
“I’m going to frack here! I’m going to frack there! I’m going to frack every-fracking-where!” – Mr Frackhead

It has been a fraught five days in Lancashire. On Tuesday 23rd of June decisions amongst fifteen members of Lancashire County Council’s Development Control Committee began on Cuadrilla’s applications to drill and hydraulically fracture (frack) four wells at Roseacre and Little Plumpton on Preston New Road. Beforehand Mr Perigo (the Senior Planning Officer for LCC) had suggested Roseacre be refused and Little Plumpton should go ahead.

On the Tuesday I was part of a crowd of protestors who gathered outside Preston’s County Hall. Preston New Road Action Group, Roseacre Awareness Group, Frack Free Lancashire and Friends of the Earth came together with numerous other anti-fracking and environmental groups and local individuals to stand against Cuadrilla’s application.

I had to leave on Tuesday afternoon because I had taken temporary admin work that demanded I stay away at an international conference in Liverpool. Throughout my time there, feeling torn and far from home, the fate of the sites and the efforts of the protestors were in my prayers.

Tuesday and Wednesday were allocated to the decision on Little Plumpton. On Wednesday legal advice was given to the councillors by Mr. Manley (a QC) suggesting they had no legal reasons for rejecting the proposal. The councillors voted 7-7. Councillor Green abstained. Councillor Dad (the Chair) made the casting vote in favour.

In response to this, Councillor Hayhurst said that as the public would be dismayed by the result he wanted the legal advice which had forced the vote and tied their hands made known. He also asked for extra time so that local residents could receive their own legal advice. The council agreed to reconvene on this decision on Monday.

On Thursday the councillors voted against fracking at Roseacre 15-0.

After returning on Friday evening, I caught up with this news (which I’d heard by text message) and read the document containing the legal advice. This said rejecting the proposal on grounds of ‘landscape / visual and amenity impact’ was ‘unreasonable’ but not ‘unlawful’. ‘It is highly likely the applicant will appeal’ and ‘there is a high risk that a costs penalty will be imposed upon the council.’ This gave me some insight into how the vote had been forced and the pressure the councillors were under.

I attended the rally yesterday, which was extremely tense. After speeches from Friends of the Earth, Lancaster Council, Trade Unions and other groups we waited around loud speakers as the proceedings were broadcast outside.

I heard Councillor Green explain why he abstained. He said that on Wednesday the legal advice given vocally was that it was ‘illegal’ to reject the proposal rather than ‘unreasonable’. He argued that although Cuadrilla had agreed to reduce the visual impact from high to moderate this was still sufficient ground to turn the proposal down. Green said after considering the evidence and additional legal advice he had decided to vote against it.

Other councillors (I didn’t catch their names) spoke for and against during the debate. One pro-fracking councillor warned that those who rejected the proposal would have to give evidence at a future appeal. Another countered by saying that after they had been threatened on Wednesday they would not be threatened again. He also questioned who would provide the pubic liability insurance after Cuadrilla had left and the site started leaking, suggesting the people of Lancashire would end up paying for the damage.

Following this a vote was made on Little Plumpton. 9 voted against fracking, 4 for, and 2 abstained. Following the horrendous and unfair pressure the councillors had been put under this was a huge victory for democracy. The majority of LCC refused to be bullied and stood by their land and their people.

That fracking has been stopped in Lancashire (for now) brings hope it can be stopped in other counties, throughout the UK and across the world.

Hail democracy!
Hail dissent!
Hail the nine courageous members of LCC!

Industrialisation and Radicalism in Preston

Preston: Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution

The city of Preston in Lancashire holds claim to being the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In 1769 Richard Arkwright invented the water frame in his three storey house on Stoneygate. According to a local rumour his neighbours mistook the noise of the machine for the devil’s bagpipes and imagined Arkwright and his accomplice, Kay, dancing a jig. This formed an eerie prelude to the rise of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that came to dominate Preston and its people and made England ‘the workshop of the world’.

Arkwright House
Arkwright House

Industrialisation led to a massive increase in Preston’s populace. Between 1801 and 1851 it grew from 11,887 to 69,361. The mechanisation of spinning and hand-loom weaving forced people from their rural cottages where they practiced their trades into towns to seek employment in the mills.

Over forty mills were built with terraces to house the workers, which were hopelessly over-crowded. Slums grew up in backyards. Huge pools of waste accumulated due to the inadequacy of foul ditches, the most notorious being known as ‘Brown Friargate’. Cholera and smallpox were rife. Between 1880 and 1900, the town had the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Class Conflict: Luddites and Chartists

Due to squalid living conditions, unreasonable hours and poor pay Lancashire became renowned for its social divides and class conflicts. In 1779 a mob marched from Blackrod gathering people from Chorley (3-4,000 in total!) to attack one of Arkwright’s earliest mills at Birkacre. After smashing the spinning frames, carding and roving engines and wheels they burnt them and razed the building to the ground.

In 1811 the Luddite movement emerged in opposition to the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Invoking the legendary General Ludd its proponents burnt factories and smashed machines. Luddite revolts swept across Lancashire in 1813. Whilst I have found references to a Luddite presence and unrest in Preston I haven’t come across any examples of attacks on mills here yet.

Preston’s first major rebellion was the Spinners’ Strike of 1836. Shortly afterward it became a centre of the Chartist movement. This aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. One of the main Chartist leaders in Preston was Richard Marsden, a hand-loom weaver from Bamber Bridge.

In 1838 Marsden arranged a massive demonstration of several thousand people including trade unions with four bands and forty banners sporting slogans such as ‘Better to die by the sword than perish with hunger’, ‘Britons strike home. We know our rights and will maintain them’, ‘Who would be free, must himself strike the first blow’.

Marsden affirmed the people’s right to use not only moral but physical force. Fergus O’Connor, who he invited to speak at the demonstration, also stated though he wished moral force would ‘effect every change’ in its failure ‘physical force would come to its aid like an electric shock.’ When the Charter was rejected by the House of Commons in 1839, the following strike (ironically named the ‘Sacred Month’) only lasted three days. The Chartists’ hope and lightning-like enthusiasm fizzled out.

The movement revived in 1842 in the wake of the economic depression. The next rejection of the Charter resulted in the notorious Plug Plot Riots. Mobs stormed across Lancashire pulling the plugs from steam engines and turning workers out of the mills. On Black Saturday (13th August 1842) an angry crowd gathered in Lune Street. As cotton lord Samuel Horrocks read the Riot Act, they pelted him with stones and an order was given to the police to open fire.

'Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot', Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842
‘Preston attack on the Military: two rioters shot’, Illustrated London News, 13th August, 1842

Twenty shots were fired. Four rioters were killed and three badly wounded. The mills re-opened on Monday. North Lancashire Chartism perished in 1848. But this did not end the strikes.

The Great Lock-Out

Because Preston’s cotton lords paid the lowest wages in the country, the town became the fulcrum of the struggle for better rates of pay. This led to the Great Lock-Out of 1853-54. Masters decided to close their factories over a cold and bitter winter rather than give in to the workers’ demands.

To staff the factories ‘knobstick’ workers; emaciated inhabitants of the workhouses of Ireland were shipped to Lancashire. Many were intercepted by the strikers, fed and sent back before they reached their destination. Getting them past the picket lines also proved to be an onerous task.

At this point Karl Marx famously proclaimed ‘The eyes of the working classes are now opened: they begin to cry “Our St Petersburg is at Preston”.’ However, Preston failed to become Britain’s revolutionary capital. When union funds ran out, on May Day 1854 the workers agreed to return.

Whilst these radical movements were initially unsuccessful they paved the way to fairer working hours and acceptance of the vote for working men under the Reform Act of 1867. Drawing on their legacy, the Preston-born suffragette, Edith Rigby, played a leading role in the establishment of equal voting rights for women in 1928.

In 1992 ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’: a brutalist sculpture by George Young was finally built to commemorate the death of the rioters on Lune Street. Its plaque reads: Never without sacrifice have gains been made towards justice and democracy.

Preston Matryrs' Memorial
The Preston Matryrs’ Memorial

The City Deal and Protest

Although the mills are gone, industrialisation has not gone away. The implementation of the Preston, South Ribble and Lancashire City Deal involves the expansion of ‘Enterprise Zones’ belonging to BAE at Warton and Samlesbury, establishing ‘Development Centres’ for more businesses and building more houses and roads to create more jobs to grow the economy.

The growth of the economy is based upon fuel. Caudrilla are pushing to open a number of new fracking sites across Lancashire. The fates of Preston New Road and Roseacre will be decided between the 23rd and 26th of June. This decision will be crucial for whether fracking will be allowed to go ahead in other places in the county and across the UK. Protests have been planned outside the County Hall by Lancashire Frack Off and supporting groups.

Preston will again become a centre of conflict between those who wish to exploit the land and its people for the benefit of a few rich investors and shareholders and those willing to stand against them.

The Frack Stops Here 2 Poster

SOURCES

J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837-1848 (1981)
Jim Heyes A History of Chorley (1994)
David Hunt A History of Preston (1992)
Yarrow Valley History Trail Leaflet


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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.


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Proud of Preston

Belisama:

Proud of Preston heed my entry
Hear the voice of ancient memories
Hearts purloined by Roman sentries
Like a river shining bright.

Proud of Preston born free traders
Made by commerce and hard labour
Merchants gilded artists favored
Like the Brigantes warred in tribes.

Mechanics shift the scene of battle
Raise the red brick smog industrial
Cording hearts like twisted material
On the wheels of the cotton lords.

Step the Chartists to the engines
Pull the plugs release the tension
The rioters face the sentries
Dye the river dark with blood.

Grey arise the business faceless
Fake fulfillment for the faithless
Mass the market for the tasteless
Selling life for capital.

High in the stone fortress
The sentries hold their rule
Beyond the mall and office
Do you hear a river call?

Proud of Preston I have carved you
In my sweeping spirit formed you
Through your veins floods dazzling water
My Setantii shining bright.

Will you hearken to my entry
Drown false dreams in ancient memories
Will the proud of Preston
Like a shining river rise?

*Belisama is the goddess of the river Ribble, which forms the southern boundary of the city of Preston, Lancashire in northern England. Her name is Gallo-Brythonic and means ‘Most Shining One’ or ‘Most Mighty One’.

**Chartism was a movement that aimed to bring about social reform by winning the vote for working men. After the House of Commons rejected the People’s Charter for the second time in 1842 protestors stormed across Lancashire pulling plugs from steam engines and turning out workers from the factories. On ‘Black Saturday’ policemen opened fire on rioters in Lune Street. Four men were killed and three badly wounded. ‘The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial’ (1992) commemorates their deaths.

***In 2012 this poem won the first Preston Guild Poetry Competition. Preston Guild is celebrated every twenty years. It was an amazing achievement to have been gifted these words by my local river goddess and to have them recognised for longevity. I would like to hope Belisama’s call to the city’s people will be remembered for many centuries to come.