Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saints, Norsemen and Upturned Boats

I’m seriously hoping that we haven’t covered this subject before somewhere, but I’m not about to plough my way through two years worth of articles to find out. I’m sure that if it all sounds vaguely familiar, somebody out there will be in touch to complain quicker than a chav at a ‘Back to Work’ seminar.
Anyhow, by the middle of the third century (as evidenced by the fact that worried Romans had buried their life savings in such far flung places as South Shore, Rossall and Preesall Hill and then never returned to retrieve them) the Roman Empire was becoming increasingly fractious, with troops leaving Britain’s shores in droves to defend other, more volatile, frontiers.
This withdrawal after a century or two, as you might expect, left our own defences severely weakened, and it was only a matter of time before the Saxons, the Jutes, the Angles and various other northern European nations attacked Britain from all quarters.

Or, at least, that’s how most southern-centric historians record our history. (Not to mention rather a lot of our own, slightly misguided local ‘researchers’.) Regardless of what the textbooks say, true to the nature of the Fylde coast our own population appears to have acted somewhat differently. In fact evidence suggests that, unlike the Celts (or more strictly speaking the Romano-British) who in the southeast were valiantly fending off the Saxons, our local post-Roman residents were establishing trade links with the Irish and the Norse by encouraging pioneering settlers to join their ranks. (There’s one thing I’ll say for the residents of Fylde and Wyre: They’re never racist if said interlopers have brought plenty of money with them.)

Amongst these new settlers, or so legend has it, was a certain Saint Patrick. Despite being recognised nowadays as the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick more than likely hailed from Carlisle, and, having converted the Irish, he returned to the northwest of England to set about Christianising his own people.

The tale goes that Patrick crossed the Irish sea on a millstone, perhaps not the most intelligent method of travel on reflection, landed at Heysham and built the chapel illustrated below, on the cliff’s edge.

After his death in 490 A.D. (ahem…apparently) he was buried in the first of Heysham’s rock-hewn graves.

The fact that the chapel appears to date from about 750 A.D. hasn’t quenched this local myth, but Patrick’s almost unique philosophy (well, it’s certainly unique by modern standards) of blending Paganism with Christianity leads us, inevitably, back to those keeills that we’ve mentioned on several occasions in the past.

Perhaps now would be a good time to elaborate.

Within fifty years of Patrick’s death, keeills had started to spring up all over the Fylde and Wyre. These small, incredibly simple churches were scattered as far as Scotland to the north, North Wales to the south and the Isle of Man to the west. Missionaries constructed many of them by simply upturning their boats and using them for roofs. Some historians even believe that this is where the word ‘keeill’ originates, a boat’s keel, of course, being its underside. ‘Manks Antiquities’, written by P. M. C. Kermode and W. A. Herdman, has a different opinion: “The Manx word keeill derived from the Latin Cella, or, as has been supposed, from an older Celtic word meaning a grave.”

The connection between keeills and graves isn’t as obscure as it might at first sound. Let’s return to ‘Manks Antiquities’: “A remarkable thing is that many keeills prove to have been erected on older heathen burial sites which, so far, appear to all have been of Bronze Age – not only worked flints and charcoal and burnt bones being found, but fragments of pottery of that period.”

Ancestral burial grounds were extremely sacred places...especially for those lying in them. The idea that culdees (the keeill equivalent of ministers) were given permission to erect their churches on such sites suggests that some of them were either related (or, at least, in some manner linked) to the Celtic chieftains who acted as guardians to such property.

Exactly how many druidical practices were married into this new Christian doctrine it’s difficult to say.
So I won’t.
However, as late as the nineteenth century in some of the more isolated Scottish locations, Pagan charms were still being combined with Christian hymns during church services. If you can pin down a copy of the ‘Carmina Gadelica’ published in 1900, which contains a collection of such hymns and incantations, you’ll see what we mean.

(I don’t use the word ‘IF’ in that context, of course, to imply that anybody who now takes up the challenge to search out that particular work is in any way a geek who seriously needs to get out more. I’d never suggest a thing like that. Michelle’d kill me if I did.)

All of which leads us to All Hallows church in Bispham, which, all matters considered, might well have originally been the site of a keeill. What drives us to this conclusion? Well, let’s start some distance away at the gates Carleton crematorium and Robins Lane, illustrated below.

As you can probably see from the drawing, Robin’s Lane was originally a sunken track, hollow in the centre with banks on either side. Further along the lane the track becomes so deep-set and the trees on its banks so over-hanging that, as kids, we would refer to it as ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’. (We might have been a bit on the morbid side as kids now that I come to look back. I blame the school chaplain myself, and the way he always insisted on burying the school pets with such pomp and ceremony. Sometimes he wouldn’t even wait until they were dead.)

Nowadays a bridle path has been added and the lane itself raised, but it’s still sunken enough to recognise it as a hollow way, or in other words, a Celtic road.

Like most Celtic roads connected to keeills it also has a number of boggarts along its route, ranging from a green-faced ghost that apparently haunted the gates of the crematorium, (though some have speculated that this was just one of the local farmhands on his way home from the pub one night having consumed too many vodkas) to formless white apparitions and headless men in long, shaggy coats.

An article written by Melanie Warren, published in Poulton Life magazine in 1996, recalled that: “A young friend of mine, hearing that I had taken the dogs down Robins Lane one summer evening, quite innocently told me that nothing would induce her to take the same route - as a child, she and all her friends had believed that in one of the many ponds which lie along the path there lurked a malevolent 'red hand'...”

Yes…it’s an odd one that. ‘Thing’ from the Addams Family, suffering from sunburn, springs to mind.

Melanie Warren went on to explain that Maisie Allen, a local expert on folklore: “…informed me that many farms had a 'hand' insignia over their doorways, carved in red stone. Quite possibly one of these artefacts had found it's way into a local pond.”

(I was thinking of having a similar sculpture over my front door with the middle digit extended as a warning to Jehovah’s Witnesses.)

If that sounds familiar then it’s hardly surprising because we mentioned in a much earlier article that Reverend Bulpit recorded an ‘open hand sculpture’ at Leys Farm on Warbreck Hill, connecting it to holy relics concealed inside ancient churches. And, of course, as also mentioned in the same article, Leys Farm itself appears to have been built on top of a keeill.
In the summer of 2007, accompanied by Fiona, we took a stroll down Robins Lane ourselves, in search of one of these carvings.
We didn’t find one.

We didn’t encounter any boggarts either come to that matter.

We saw a rabbit, but that’s not quite the same thing.

However, Robins Lane was almost certainly a keeill road and originally ran to All Hallows church. Nowadays, the lane has been amputated at its junction with Kincraig Road, but, according to old maps, originally it continued around the pond (where as children we used to hunt frogs, until Andrew Grimshaw ate one too many and threw up on his mum’s new carpet) before heading off down what is nowadays All Saints Road.

We’ve drawn up the map below to help our reader make sense of all this.

(Yeah…right…that should do it. Especially seeing as most of the readers of this board haven’t got a clue where Bispham is.)

Now, where there are keeill roads there are, or rather were, keeill crosses; tall wayside monoliths set in stone bases, designed to draw the attention of early Celtic/Norse travellers to the keeill’s existence…we assume.

Such monoliths were the forerunners of the more elaborately carved Norse crosses, their own carvings generally restricted to simple crosses chiselled into their roughly hewn shafts.

In Bispham’s case the cross shaft most likely stood on what is now the gala field (very possibly soon to be a supermarket, but that’s another story), in an area marked on old tithe maps as ‘Cross House’. The house itself, even by the 1840s, had long since vanished, but a quick rummage around in the hedge soon revealed the gatepost illustrated below, standing sentry on an isolated bank and acting as the most likely candidate for the keeill cross from which the house undoubtedly took its name.

Admittedly there are, to the best of my knowledge, no carvings on this monolith (I mean, there might be, but I wasn’t about to get torn to shreds by the hawthorn bush surrounding it whilst I was trying to find out) but over the years the Fylde’s inclement weather has considerably defaced the post, so it’s hardly surprising.

As well as standing on the summit of a hill (if you could somehow remove the housing estates to the west of the graveyard, you’d see what a remarkable view it once afforded), as was more often than not the case with both keeills and prehistoric burial grounds, All Hallows church also once had its own ‘holy well’. This, of course, is a good indication of its prehistoric roots.
Although rebuilt in the seventeenth century, All Hallows church maintains evidences of an earlier structure dating back to the Norman times, firstly in the shape of a carved archway just within the porch, and secondly in the form of two circular Saxon steps constituting the base of a later cross-shaft in the churchyard. Almost certainly the grounds constituted a significant religious site, predating both of these ancient artefacts.
Have you noticed how these articles are getting longer and longer as the winter draws on? On which note it might be best if I stopped right about now.


Anonymous said...

As you can probably see from the drawing, Robin’s Lane was originally a sunken track, hollow in the centre with banks on either side.

It looks like a quaint little place. Mind you, when I went to Bristol, there were many quaint little lanes dotted around the surrounding countryside; shame that cars go so fast along 'em...with all them hedges obstructing the view.

Have you noticed how these articles are getting longer and longer as the winter draws on?

That's northern-hemisphere chauvinism right there Brian! Us southerners have rights!

Brian Hughes said...


"...shame that cars go so fast along 'em..."

No cars down Robin's Lane...too narrow and sunken. Just horses and the occasional sheep that's nibbled its way through the hedge. Oh...and the odd boggart, of course.

"That's northern-hemisphere chauvinism right there Brian!"

No...that's Fylde and Wyre Antiquarian Parochialism in action, Reuben.

Anonymous said...

Ooh a name change! I like.

Brian Hughes said...


I'm as changeable as the wind, which after last night's egg and chips, is very unpredictable this morning.

Anonymous said...

Egg and Chips? That would send the Wyre's meteorological institute to the grave.

Andrew said...

Nonsense Reuben. English cars only go fast on motorways. Never anywhere else.

So Brian, this old post within the hedge, nothing like Scott luvs Charlene carved in it then? (someone will get it) I recall one reason why I liked Hexham. There were lanes to narrow for cars.

Brian Hughes said...


Judging from the complete lack of accuracy in our weather forecasts recently I reckon it's way too late for that already.


In my experience of motorways (and the fact that they're always undergoing repairs) the cars don't exactly tear along them either.

As for the 'gatepost', now that you come to mention it, I think I did see the words 'Harold Bishop loves Mrs Mangle' on one side, which proves that it must be ancient.

John said...

You should be careful with words like " Robins Lane was almost certainly a keeill road". Then again, the name Cross House, and the gatepost, mixed with the Celtic road and other stuff, do seem to back your claims. Good supposition.

As for the Red Hand, I do recall you mentioned the Reverend and the Open Hand, but can't recall the details. The children's story of the "red hand" in the bog seams to be certainly linked with the red hand carvings on nearby farms. Do you have anby idea what teh Red Hand signified? Perhaps if it were a symbol of a secret society or gang or something, then local folk would have warned to 'beware the red hand' which, over time, could easily have turned into a boggart story.

That's all supposition, of course, relying on the original meaning of the red hand carvings, of course.

Still, interesting stuff!

Thanks, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


I have a vague (extremely vague I must admit) recollection of the red hand insignia being connection to foot and mouth disease or the plague or something. Can't remember properly now.

Then again, there was a carved hand at Leys Farm in Warbreck, as well, another probable keeill site, and some historian or other (possibly Fishwick) claimed that these carvings often had holy relics behind them.

I think.

It's way too early on a cold winter's morning for my brain to get going properly at the moment. I'll have to recheck all of that lot for you, I reckon.

John said...

that would be much appreciated!

Interesting, that, the Red Hand being linked to plague or disease, and the boggart being a red hand in a pond. Perhaps the pond once had a link to the disease, and so, unable to carve a hand upon a pond, a boggart tale was told to warn people away?

Supposition, of course, but good enough for a theory to be looked into, eh?

Verrrry interesting!

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


There might also be an Irish connection here (as there so often is with places and people round the Fylde):

"The Red Hand of Ulster is the official seal of the O'Neill family. It is believed to originate from a mythical tale wherein two chieftains were racing across a stretch of water in a bid to be the first to reach the land and claim it as his own. Realising his foe would touch the land first, one chieftain cut off his hand and threw it onto the shore, thereby claiming the land before his adversary reached it. The Red Hand is one of the only emblems in Northern Ireland used by both communities in Northern Ireland although it is more associated with the Protestant community. Catholics see it as representing the nine counties of Ulster while Protestants see it as representing the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Red Hand of Ulster appears on many murals and flags."

Possibly...perhaps...who knows? (Not me, unfortunately.)

bignick47 said...

Nice little ramble - the story not the lane. It'll keep me thinking.

I bet you get some flack for the Jehovah's Witness quip (but it is funny though!!!)

Brian Hughes said...


I've been told (although I've never double-checked so my information might be wrong) that Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in modern medicine and that the best way to get rid of 'em off your doorstep is to pretend that you're full of the flu whilst sneezing in their general direction.

Actually, I don't mind Jehovah's Witnesses that much. I like to go round to the Kingdom Hall once a fortnight, usually when they're halfway through a service, and ask them if they've ever read any my books.