Saturday, 15 June 2013

St Anne in the Wood



"What do you know about the old ways about these parts?"

Sophie has been reading Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways - as indeed have I.

I got thinking. There are perilous river crossings available on the Severn, just as there have always been, but the water holds no footprint. And there are destinations for pilgrims, like Glastonbury and St Davids (with its two-for-one offer), and even Santiago de Compostella (Bristol once did a good trade in shipping pilgrims there). And there are holy wells. Lots of them, here in the soggy and superstitious West Country.

 Wells can be both waypoints for the thirsty pilgrim, and destinations in their own right. Some of my local faves are St Mary's Well at Penrhys, overlooking the Rhondda valley; St Cybi's Well, at Llangybi, which sneaked into a TS Eliot poem; and my firm fave, Issui's Well at Partrishow. And waymarked trails are all very well, but it's good to step off into the unknown. Sometimes, as Machado said, 'no hay camino, se hace camino al andar' - there is no path, the path is made by walking.

"Let's go to St Anne's Well in Brislington," I said.

So we did.


We ventured along the Feeder, past scrapyards and car showrooms, under great industrial conveyor belts, and up the hill by Netham Weir, to park by the rows of villas that overlooked the steep wooded valley of the Brislington Brook. Down below the trees the valley broadened out into a narrow floodplain awash with buttercups. And ahead of us, the fluttering rags on the railings and the trees around St Anne's Well, where a man in white overalls was just blowing away the freshly-strimmed grass.


"I'm leaving the buttercups," said Julian. "Shame to cut them down. People can sit on them if they like."

  "Henry VII came here once," he continued, when he saw that we were interested, "To give thanks after he won a battle. And the queen came too; and after she'd been here she gave birth to Prince Arthur. Then again, he died, so that didn't turn out too well.



"They had candles 80 feet high, paid for by the cordwainers. And twenty silver ships, to take the offerings. Sailors used to come here, up the Avon, because St Anne is patron saint of sailors."


We paddled along the brook. Minnows darted ahead of us, and a host of tadpoles wriggled out of the way. Flag irises and Himalayan balsam overhung the stream. Blackcaps sang in the sycamores, and a jay bobbed across the valley.



When I'd asked Julian his name, and told me mine, he said, "Dru Marland? -thought it was; wasn't going to say. I've got one of your pictures!"

"Ha! The Bright Field?"

"That's the one."

I'd been thinking of RS Thomas as we set off that morning; here's his poem Ffynnon Fair (St Mary's Well)
They did not divine it, but
they bequeathed it to us:
clear water, brackish at times,
complicated by the white frosts
of the sea, but thawing quickly.

Ignoring my image, I peer down
to the quiet roots of it, where
the coins lie, the tarnished offerings
of the people to the pure spirit
that lives there, that has lived there
always, giving itself up
to the thirsty, withholding
itself from the superstition
of others, who ask for more.