Holy wells and spirited conversation

I said I’d come back to York, and I’ll do so now, from a very strange hotel in Hartlepool (more on that below)

So, York. Arriving, we took a bus from our hotel just up Tadcaster Road, into the walled center of town. A last gasp of warm weather and sunshine had called the entire county to the shopping district, and the added attraction of an international food fair compounded the problem. We caught a bite to eat and tried to wander a bit and get our bearings, but the crowds were tiring, and I am never good at crowds. Having to dodge baby buggies and gaggles of squawking, brightly festooned girls and boys, all waving cigarettes about, forced us into one church after another – sanctuaries indeed. The thick, cool stone walls, the dusty, damp air full of floating dust motes and the scent of candle wax, and the placid expression of the saints both painted and sculpted, all created a soothing atmosphere and soon we were ready to tackle the snickleways, as the tiny meandering lanes are named. They are more tourist traps now than the undoubtedly malodorous, unhygienic, poverty-stricken and dangerous passageways they once were. Still, they are almost ridiculously atmospheric, and one can, if one squints slightly, imagine how the town might have looked in medieval times.

The next day we met with Katherine Bearcock, curator at the Yorkshire Museum. Katherine was a wonderful source of knowledge and very kindly took us down into the basement of the museum and allowed me to handle a number of Anglo-Saxon artifacts, including a magnificent cruxiform brooch. We had a long chat about money during the 7th century, when in fact there really wasn’t any. I am still struggling with exactly how, if you were a noble person, you might purchase something at the market.that caught your eye – a young servant girl, for example. I mean, a seithkona (seeress) attached to a royal family is hardly likely to be dragging a pig around behind her for barter, is she? Well, maybe she has someone dragging about the livestock for her. We’ll see.

Katherine Bearcock, Curator, York Museum, and Lauren with some Anglo-Saxon artifacts

Next, it was off to the great Minster, where there were, thank heaven, considerably smaller crowds than the day before. York is a city built on a city built on a city built on a city, as most cities are, of course, but because this one seems to have been built as much on sacred foundations as secular, I do find it quite fascinating. I won’t go through all the various levels of kings and archbishops who made York their home (mostly because I can’t quite keep them all straight, frankly) but I do want to talk about the idea of historical, symbolic layers.

The more I travel about the countryside talking to historians and archeologists, the clearer this idea becomes. I think of it as a sort of plumb line through time, in spots where perceptions of the sacred reside.

At the York Minster (where My Best Beloved and I were treated to a phenomenal tour with John Rushton), we had a special treat. York Minster, seat of the Archbishop of York, was built in stages from 1220 to around 1472. One of the most famous stained glass art works is a painted pane depicting a wren attacking a spider in its nest. It dates back to the 15th or 16th century. In a 1988 New York Times article, Peter Gibson, the superintendent of the glaziers’ trust, who started as an altar boy when he was 12 and has been working on conservation of the windows since 1945, explained that he discovered this particular piece during his apprenticeship “in a completely misplaced position” and so he moved it to the Zouche Chapel (named for Archbishop William La Zouche, 1342-52). Here, he placed it in an outside window, eventually to be surrounded by other depictions of birds and animals. I’d come across the story of this window as part of my research and when I asked if it might be possible to be admitted to the chapel, a guide kindly ushered us in and then left us to discover the glass on our own. A great gift.

The wren and the spider

Lauren and guide John Rushton in York Minster

The Zouche Chapel seems a world away from the rest of the Minster, with the flocks of tourists, and great stadium-sized stained glass windows – all terribly beautiful. Inside the chapel’s heavy wooden door, one walks down a few steps, and the world is suddenly very far away indeed. The windows are all panes of individually painted glass, and there are a dozen or so rows of wooden pews facing a simple altar. After saying a prayer at the rail, I was drawn to a corner at the rear of the chapel wherein stood a stone shelf and a bucket on the floor. Approaching, I saw it was a well, with a bucket on the floor nearby. I was drawn toward it and stood for a few moments with my hands splayed out on the top of the wooden well cover. I had a great desire to curl up in this spot, rather like a window seat, and take a nap – most interested as to what my dreams might be. In short, it seemed one of those “unusual” spots, and I asked Ron to take a photo of it. Later, we popped into a little bookshop that had an intriguing litho by Arthur Rackham (from “Undine”) in the window. (Soon to hang in our bedroom.) As I flipped through other lithos, I came across a rendition of the very corner of the chapel that had drawn me. It was called “St. Peter’s Well,” and further research informed me it is the well where by tradition King Edwin was baptized by Paulinus on Easter Eve, 627. ‘In York Minster there is a well of sweet spring water called St Peter’s Well ye saint of ye Church, so it is called St Peter’s Cathedral’ — Celia Fiennes, “Diary in Old Yorkshire”.

St. Peter’s Well, York Minster

It seems this was a long-established holy well, and in fact such holy wells abound in the area. The next day we came across another one in the village of Lastingham, where the 7th century church established by St. Cedd (with its astounding crypt!) stands next to a holy well inscribed with his name.

St. Cedd’s well, near St. Mary’s church in Lastingham

And sure enough, today in Hartlepool, where we spent the day with the Reverend Jonathan Goode and archeologist Robin Daniel, we found there is yet another well, that of St. Helen (mother of Augustine) just at the parish line from the community established by St. Hilda. Here, Robin told me, there was probably a bit of resistance to Hild’s community, which set up on a typically Saxon hill, a beacon to all (much as the original Roman signal out on the tip of the headland) and ignored the un
doubtedly already locally revered holy well.

There’s much to consider here. Again, I am struck by how seemingly organically sacred places are recognized by all such inclined people, regardless of what label they wish to apply to it, or what new rituals they may desire to perform there.

It appears that while the arguments of religion will never end, we continue to miss the point, which is, as far as I can see, very close to what T.S. Eliot said in Little Gidding (which was placed at a prayer bench in the crypt at St. Mary’s church in Lastingham):

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosityOr carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Eternal moments. We’re always struggling, it seems, either with them or toward them.

There were other fabulous moments in both York and Hartlepool. Christopher Norton, an archeologist who specializes in medieval York, joined us for a chat and one of the very best cream teas I’ve had since being here. We talked at some length about what York looked like in the time of King Edwin, where the original chapel might have been built, how the rivers were used, what might have been left of the Roman fortress and living quarters on the other side of the river, and what might have happened to the deacon James, after Paulinus went back to Kent… A wonderful conversation with a lovely man, and I was charmed to meet his wife, Sue, an Anglican priest, as well.

York’s perfect cream tea.

In Hartlepool we were met by Johnathan Goode, rector of St. Hilda’s and Robin Daniels, the archeologist who has done so much work on the site. Jon, as the good rector prefers to be called, isn’t quite what I expected in a northern vicar – longish brown hair he often flips back off his high forehead, a pea jacket in need of some repair, jaunty scarf, tee-shirt, jeans and big black boots, he looked more like a 1960’s Newcastle musician than a stuffy old vicar – and indeed it turns out he’s a great fan of old Stax Records R & B. He couldn’t have been more fun, and is one of the most passionate people I’ve met in a long time – with a true dedication to the people he serves. He began as a social worker, working with the homeless and the addicted, and became a Christian, he says, became he realized he wasn’t relating to his clients as real human beings. Christ, he says, taught him what it meant to truly care for others. He’ll be leaving St. Hilda’s in a week or so and Hartlepool will miss him. Newcastle, however, will be lucky to have such an energetic, committed priest.

Rev. Jon toured us round the church, pointing out a beautiful Anglo-Saxon gravestone, one of a very few from the period. Robin told us they were actually mass produced, probably at Lindisfarne, with the engraving of the cross, and the symbols for alpha and omega coming with the stone, while the name of the deceased, carved in Anglo-Saxon runic letters beneath, was clearly done, in rather bad lettering, by someone local.

Robin Daniels, archeologist, Lauren and Rev. Jonathan Goode in St. Hilda’s with a 7th c. grave marker.

We had lunch and talked about faith and authority (particularly how difficult it is to deal with sometimes) and class injustice and how hard it is to do the right thing. Just the sort of chat to help fire up a writer’s imagination.

Then Jon left us as there was still much packing to be done before his move, and Robin took us out onto the headland proper for a tour of the site where the original monastery and later Hild’s monastery would have been. He also had some fascinating facts about that well, St. Helens, just at the parish border line, and we wondered whether this might have been an older, local sacred site, which perhaps caused some friction with Hild when she popped up with all her new-fangled Saxon ideas about great churches on hilltops, rather than humble wells devoted to gods old and new. Robin also talked about how lovely the timber houses of the Anglo-Saxons were – of whitewashed wattle and dab, possibly decoratively painted inside, hung woven panels and quite snug. . . not the mud and shit-covered wretches so many people think lived in the era. Again, more stuff for the writer’s imagination!

Lauren and Robin Daniels at the sea landing in Hartlepool, the site of Hilda’s first monastery.

And then, frozen to the bone, it was off to the “Grand Hotel.” It’s not terribly old, by English standards, just over one hundred years, and recently refurbished, which I think means some really bad modern furniture’s been moved in. The plumbing seems unchanged. Its halls were alarmingly dark, as is the lighting in the room, and the stone-colored walls and grey carpet didn’t help much. However, I feared it wasn’t the sound of our neighbors having a good old “knees-up” next door, or the garbage bins down below slamming shut, the fairly frequent sirens, or the bass thumping up from the party in the sparkly Victorian ballroom. No, earplugs would probably handle that. But what do you do about, well, certain… how do I put this without sounding like even more of a nut that you might already think I am? Energies? Okay. Let’s call the chain-dragging, walking-through-wall, moaning in the dark things energies, shall we? And no, I didn’t actually see any of those things, but the last time I felt this way was in a hotel in Florence where I kept waking up all night long and finding strange people in the room who disappeared every time I moved to turn the light on. Okay, just an undigested bit of beef, you say? Possibly. But I took a sleeping pill just in case.

There is a sort of sadness about Hartlepool, the same sort of sadness I’ve seen in many rust-belt towns, when the industry has moved out, or the mill shut down, or the fish have been fished out. A lethargy, and a sort of shambling ill humor. There are shades of its once impressive glory in the old facades, but the people don’t seem terribly cheery and I must say there were a rather disproportionate number of hangovers among the hotel staff on Saturday morning. In fact, it seemed a good number of the staff didn’t bother to turn up and called in ‘sick’, although the one waitress who was frantically trying to manage alone, said she’d heard they “were out on the town” last night.

A Hartlepool house decorated in beer cans.

I’m sorry, in thinking about this, that Rev. Jon has been forced to move on, while the parish is downgrading to half-time priest. This is a very special church, with a very special history, and although I know medieval churches are thick upon the ground in this part of the world, and probably the people here don’t have the money necessary to keep it up, still isn’t that all the more reason to keep a full-time presence there? The people who greeted me at the church before Rev. Jon and Robin arrived, who made Ron and me tea, and made us feel welcome, were a real community, kind as milk, and they obviously care deeply about this place. That sort of thing can spread out into a community if it’s allowed to, and isn’t that the job of the church, after all?

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com


  1. Louise on June 24, 2009 at 2:14 am

    Hi, stumbled upon this post, what a lovely piece took me right out of myself for a brief period. I live in Hartlepool and we have, amongst most of us, a strong sense of community, though on the suface of it the soul does appear to have been 'sucked' out of our town.
    Nice read though.

  2. Lauren B. Davis on June 24, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Louise — thanks for popping in. I am glad to hear Hartlepool has a strong community spirit. There is so much beauty in that place! I do hope to return and do more research, as I find the history of the early monastery quite fascinating. Gorgeous church! Best, Lauren

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