Saturday, 21 January 2012

St Helen's Well - Thorp Arch.

I went to my love's window last night
 Just as the moon was shining bright 
And such a light came from her clothes
 Like the Morning Star when it first arose

 I went to my love's bedroom door 
Where I had been oft times before
 But I could not speak nor yet get in
 To the pleasant bed where my love lay in

 I turned down her milk-white sheet 
To view her body so fair and neat 
And underneath I did espy 
Two pillars of the finest ivory 

 Beneath those pillars a fountain lay 
Which my poor wandering eye betrayed
 But of all the fountains e'er to be found
 I could have wished myself there drowned

Thorpe Arch trading estate never really struck me as a very interesting place, although I'd had the pleasure of visiting the British Library a few times and knew it to be in a very beautiful part of the Yorkshire countryside. I didn't know of the estates history as a WWII ordnance filing factory, the size of a small village with a circumnavigating railway system, underground storage bunkers and test range. That alone would have pricked up my ears, being fond of all things railway and bunker related.

However it was the old well that drew me there, having noted the close proximity to many items of antiquarian interest nearby whilst browsing my OS maps one winter eve. I tend to be less drawn to wells in general, perhaps fallaciously seeing them as something domestic and commonplace in comparison to the esoteric mysteries of standing stone, ring or earthen mound.

 The Goddess of the well is as yet unnameable. She has a sense of humour and humility, her pseudonym St Helen, mother of Constantine - the first christian roman emperor, found the true cross. Perhaps she does not want to be known to someone who neglected the watery aspects of nature so readily, instead throwing up coy clues as to her identity - a mermaid hidden in St Helen's church (which also has a sheela-na-gig) nearby, closely resembling Verbeia, idol of the Wharfe, which St Helen's well flows into.

The well lies within Chapel Wood, next to the Rudgate ancient road. This road followed north leads to Boroughbridge, a town where n'er a library window is safe as the Devil's arrows there lead the youth astray despite the preventative mandrake-like turnip charms planted nearby.

There are a few old photos of the well complete with clootie rags but there are marked differences in the locations depicted. The well is now dry but the stream bed is deep and easily located next to the beautiful hawthorn lined path of the Rudgate, overlooked by a sewage works on the western side. It is an unlikely place to have any deeper kind of experience of natural forces but the isolation and strangeness persists despite the near destruction of it's beauty, a small triangle of land next to the Wharfe demarcated by the empty steam bed but still distinctly another world.

A cross shaft was discovered on the hill next to the woods, supposedly still standing in Victorian times and marking the spot where John Leland recorded in the 14thC that a small chapel stood there and was dedicated to St Helen. The cross was moved to a local antiquarian's garden around the turn of the century, times changed fortunately and so the cross was moved to the more public location of All Saint's church slightly NW of the site.

The custom was to go to the well at night unnoticed. Then tear a strip of clothing (usually garter or ribbon trim) and tie the rag to the tree that grew over the well head. Then you would see your true love. 

Rags are recorded at the site as late as 2007, we could not locate any at our last visit but intend to visit again and hopefully revive some part of the magic of the well. 

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