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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