Light Nights and Holy Wells
In Britain, all pre Reformation churches are built on pre Christian sites, and it's estimated that at least half of the churches built after the Reformation are also built on pre Christian locations. The churches replace earlier monuments, wells, springs, mounds and earthworks. This is the reason why churches line up, align to the sun and link along ancient roads and trackways.
Two features of ancient Scarborough that have always interested me are Our Lady’s Well on the Castle Headland and the spring head of the Damyot stream (also recorded as 'Dam Geth') on Albemarle Crescent. There are few documents about either, and I think this contradicts their importance. Just for their geographical attributes alone, they warrant closer scrutiny.
Both springs are high up on solitary hill tops. Castle Hill and Albemarle Hill are both in close proximity to each other. Both hills are mentioned in ancient records and both hills have gained enough notoriety that they have been ‘Christianised’.
Thomas Hinderwell wrote that, “under an arched vault in the Castle yard, near the ruins of the ancient chapel, there is a reservoir of water called the Lady Well, supposed to be the spring mentioned by old historians and consecrated in the days of superstition to the Virgin Mary.”
Wells and springs in this area of Yorkshire were originally dedicated to ‘Brigantia’ (Bride Wells) the old earth goddess of the Brigantes and many were renamed after the British-Palestinian Princess ‘St Helen’, the mother of Emperor Constantine and daughter of the old British King, Cole of Colchester. When Constantine was made Emperor in York in 306AD he converted to Christianity and the old pagan wells in Yorkshire were renamed in honour of St Helen. Did Our Lady’s Well command such notoriety in the days of superstition that only the venerable status of the Virgin Mary would suit it?
Development of the Castle area and the name of Albemarle Hill are attributed to the Norman Prince, the great grandson of William the Conquer, ‘William the Fat’ (Le Gros) Earl of Albemarle. As was the way of the Normans, prominent and culturally important features in the landscape were destroyed and redeveloped in the Norman style or given new Norman names, giving the signal to all who lived in the area, of just who was in control. Does this helps illustrate the importance of Castle Hill and Albemarle Hill, as they both have Norman influence?
Scarborough Town, outside of the Castle, developed around the Damyot (Dam Geth), a stream that ran through the Old Town. There is very little evidence of it above ground anymore because as Scarborough developed the Damyot stream fell out of use as a sufficient water source, and the stream was capped, piped underground and built over. It is still evident in the street names and the lumps and bumps of the old town.(1)
The Damyot starts as a spring on Albemarle Hill. The spring head source is under Albemarle Baptist Church on Albemarle Crescent and may have been the reason why the church was built on this location. The church opened in 1867, the spire originally 110ft high was a prominent Scarborough landmark, perhaps an echo of the Damyot spring? It is said that fishermen took their bearings from the spire. The actual location of the spring is in the centre of the nave . ‘Nave’ from the Latin ‘navis’ meaning ‘ship’.
Water was venerated by the pagans and the Celts. Wells and springs were dressed at midsummer. The Brigantes, Parisi and Romans planted Vervain and St Johns Wort at wells and springs. These plants were used to keep off the plague in the Middle Ages. These plants flower at the time of the Christian feast of St John which is on the same date as Midsummer which falls on the 24th of June.
Albemarle Church is a Baptist Church, dedicated to John The Baptist, and it has St Johns Wort incorporated into its beautiful stained glass windows.
According to the ancient myths and folklore of Europe many revered springs and wells contained an ancient severed head. “At certain times of the year when the vail between this world and the next is at its thinnest, and drinking from a cup made from the head, the seat of the soul, one can communicate with the dead or the spirit of the well for reverence or for knowledge” - J.G Frazer, The Golden Bough
Lord Byron with his skull cup found in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, wrote the drinking poem,
'Lines Inscribed Upon A Cup Formed From A Skull.'
Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
An old saying tells us, 'where a Saints head falls, a beautiful spring will rise.'
The plant St. Johns Wort used to decorate ancient springs is named after John The Baptist who was beheaded by Herod. Baptisms involve water and the head. Mussorgsky's symphony ' Night on 'Bald' Mountain' was originally called St Johns Eve on ‘Bald’ Mountain, written on Mid-Summers Eve and depicts the communications between light and darkness.
The term well ‘Head' and spring ‘Head' is used to describe the source of spring water. When a spring is controlled it becomes 'capped'.
So does the Damyot spring still run at its source under the nave of the church, it's waters redirected by Victorian plumbing? Stories of a World War 2 shelter beneath Albemarle Crescent tell how it was always half full of water! (3)
And is there still a running spring feeding an underground reservoir beneath the ancient headland chapel? As Hinderwell says, “holds forty tons of water that is very transparent and has been found to weigh lighter by one ounce in the Winchester gallon, than any other in the vicinity.”
(1) The Damyot stream crossed North Street over the old town moat. It passed the YMCA into the old town towards ‘Spring'-field’ then bearing right following the curve of Cooks Row towards Princess Sq, (named after St Helen). It then flows down into the sea past the Lifeboat House. The course of the Damyot stream passed three of the old town crosses. The Corn Cross at the corner of Longwestgate and Auborough St, The Reed Cross at the corner of Longwestgate and Springfield and The Butter Cross at Princess Sq and West Sandgate. West Sandgate, the street named after the gate to the town that accessed the shore. This gate was probably originally built in this location due to the Damyot stream as it flowed out of the old town and out to where is now the Lifeboat Station. Historian Dr M Andrews mentions, “an old stone bearing Lombardic lettering ‘Dam Geth’ was discovered when the Quaker Meeting House was built.” as well as an old bridge across the stream.
(2) On St Johns Eve in 1665 The Bubonic Plague (The Black Death) entered Britain.
(3) In Celtic folklore there is a link between Swans and the Greek God of roads Hermes and this is why so many strategically sited pubs are called The Swan or The Angel. In Celtic folklore Swans do the job of Hermes conducting the souls of the dead to the otherworld. Hermes in his Christian guise wears swans feathers as armour (much like St Michael) . The Damyot stream drops down Albermarle Hill and flows past Swan Hill near to the pub on North Street called The Angel. The Mercury and Evening News building is on the other side of Swan Hill and Mercury is the Roman name for Hermes.