From Celtic Gods to Smugglers’ Rum – Paul Dewer Source New series No3 Spring 1995

Originally published in Source New series No3 Spring 1995

I have been fascinated by springs and wells since I was very small, and in recent years I wangled myself an allotment garden with a holy well in an adjoining wood! I live with my wife and children in the centre of Bristol and the allotment is a beautiful escape from the exhaust fumes. Our patch is a few miles out of town near the spot where the River Avon joins the Severn, so the animals my children get to see include not only horses, goats and domestic birds on nearby smallholdings, but estuary birds like heron and curlew. Larger animals like badgers and foxes have their homes in the woods at the bottom of the allotment. The foxes live in the ancient den at the back of the boat cave which contains the Bucklewell or Shirehampton’s Holy well (ST 539766) Britain’s own wild dogs guarding an entrance to the underworld! Last summer the fox cubs were spotted playing ball with the pumpkins growing in our garden. I’ve always dreamed of owning or living near a holy well but never thought it possible I count myself very lucky indeed, 

Shirehampton is now a suburb of Bristol but until century it was a small though very busy village. It lies just north of a severe bend in the river Avon called Horseshoe point. This bend, and limited periods of access for large vessels due to the ridiculous tidal range of nearly 40’ eventually led to the decline of Bristol as an international port. 

But ironically it was this huge rise and fall of the water in the Severn estuary and her tributaries, especially the spectacular spring tides, that must have partly attracted such a cluster of religious sites associated with the curative powers of the water. From the famous Romano-British temples and cult sites like those of Brean Down and Glastonbury, the area has a rich heritage of healing centres associated with water. 

The immediate locality around Bucklewell has been inhabited since the lower Palaeolithic, some 2-300000 years. The people of that warm interglacial period left us their flint tools alongside teeth and bones of the elephants they hunted. These were among the first known people to settle in Europe and the arguments continue as whether they were Homo sapiens or, as seems more likely, Homo eretus, a different species of man and wom -kind.

Two ancient roads lead down to Shirehampton’s old Village Green to either end of a stretch of the River Avon called Hung Road, where the sailing ships were moored and hung by ropes from their masts to the river bank, to avoid topping over at low tide. The two roads that run there are Station (formerly lamplighters) Road and Woodwell Lane. Station road ran to the ferry, until recently the only river crossing for miles, and apparently of considerable antiquity. Woodwell Lane originally led to a small wooded cliff above Horseshoe Point. In this wood is Boat Cave in which lies a spring-fed pool called Bucklewell or Shirehampton Holy well.

The name Bucklewell or ‘Well of the Bowing down’ describes the attitude that every visitor to the spring adopts. Even in these irreligious times we are forced to bow before the holy well. A natural outcrop of conglomerate stone, locally quite rare, forms this roof. In some parts of the country this natural concrete is known as ‘pudding stone’ or ‘breeding stone’ because of the varying coloured pebbles that fall out or are ‘given birth to’ by the ‘mother’ outcrop. 

Overlooking the Horseshoe Bend, lying close to an ancient river crossing, and the cave itself being the shape of a horse’s roof or crescent moon, make Bucklewell reminiscent of more famous entrances of the underworld. In Greek mythology the Well of the Muses on Mount Helicon was created by Pegasus stamping his hoof. Also nearer to home, the well of St Milburga at Stoke St Milburga in Shropshire was made when the saint fell out riding and told her horse to stamp the ground. Whereupon a spring of fresh water gushed up, enabling St Milburga to clean the blood from her eyes. Bucklewell shares with St. Milburga’s Well the reputation of waters beneficial for eye complaints.

It has been pointed out many times that folklore of holy wells and springs all over the world contains elements that hint at some recollection of oracular powers used in the service of a female deity; and Bucklewell is no exception. The central theme of its legend is as follows:

“Inside there is a crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.” (Sally Watson Underground Bristol Bristol 1991 p.47)

This is of course, displays a fertility theme: the inauguration and marriage ceremony of a Sun God/King go the female spirit of the land. Thus ceremony was preceded by the sacrifice and later rebirth of the God/King. This is beautifully described in the story of Lleu Skilful Hand in the Mabinogion. The name Bucklewell could incidentally be read as the ‘marriage well’ ‘to talk buckle’ is an old phrase meaning to ‘talk marriage’.

While we are looking at the mythology of damp places it might be worthwhile mentioning that at some time the area around the Bucklewell was planted with hazel trees in such a way that nuts would drop into the pool of the cave. A similar association of hazel nuts and a holy well can be found in the story of Connla’s Well from Ireland., where the hazel tree was poetic inspiration that could be found bearing fruit and flowers simultaneously; the fruit symbolising concentrated knowledge (as in’ in a nutshell’) and the flowers symbolising poetic eloquence. Indeed the most famous pool of poetic inspiration – that of Persephone herself – is described as a ‘hazel shaded’. 

The legend of the Bucklewell mentions the ‘crumbling masonry’ that can be seen at the back of the cave. I can find no mention anywhere of the well having ever been dedicated to a Christian saint (although John the Baptist would be my guest, the principle action around Bucklewell occurring at the Midsummer’s Day) so I was doubtful of the interpretations of this ‘masonry’ being the remains of a hermitage. After months spent ruminating on theories of shrines, light boxes, sound boxes or foundations for Romano-british statues. I decided to crawl to the back of the cave and check out the crumbling masonry. Several unfortunate encounters with fox-droppings later, Ii found the remains for a small semi-circular structure, the masonry extends into a large crack in the stone roof. Then feeling a little sacrilegious I rolled my back and shone a torch up this crevice. There it was. No not s silver chalice, or even the remains of a chimney from the goddesses’ eternal flame. No, what the torchlight fell upon was a half brick! Along with this were numerous sandstone blocks held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces. The ‘crumbling masonry’ is of post-16th century date, and (of half brick being reused) is probably of, at most, and 18th century date. It looks to me like some sort of hiding place. 

The prospects of a time jump from the poetic myth of prehistory to the activities surrounding a busy 18th century port seemed at first like a bit of a let-down. But it turned out to be an exciting period of the place. The port of Bristol was different from other ports in that not only did it lie miles from the ocean, but right in the city centre. Ships were moored a few feet from a labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and houses where illegal imports could disappear quickly – a nightmare for the Customs and Excise.

By the 1750s the port was seriously overcrowded and various plans for redevelopment were put forward. Merchants must have been sweating under their wigs. There was the ever present fear of valuable cargo, having sailed halfway round the world, only to be wrecked on the mud banks of the River Avon. But there was also the terrifying risk of fire sweeping through the ships, laden with gunpowder, moored cheek by jowl right in the heart of the town. The Bristol Merchant Venturers decided to build a magazine, away from the city, at which all incoming vessels could unload their gunpowder before reaching the port. The Powder House , as it was called, was built just on the seaward side of Horseshoe Point. The course of Woodwell Lane was altered to accommodate the magazine and the wall was bullet enclosing the whole plot of land, The Powder House and stretches of the wall survive to this day. Recently part of it, now incorporated in the garden wall, was rebuilt. Having a good poke about, I found the wall was made from sandstone blocks with occasional reused brick, held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces- identical to the masonry in the cave.

I must have occasionally worried the local neighbourhood watch, picking at garden walls with my biro, but so far I’ve not found mortar with the same make-up anywhere in the old village. It seems that the builders employed by the Bristol Merchant Venturers to construct the Powder House used some materials to make a small structure at the back of the cave. Two further stories appear to solve the mystery of the ‘crumbling masonry ‘Sowing the crop’ was the phrase given to a method of smuggling, and involved letting a rope tied with half a dozen ‘ankers’ over the side of the incoming ship. This was done at a prearranged location on the river. The middlemen or smugglers, came along under the cover of darkness in a small boat and retrieved the ankers with a  grappling hook. Then he rowed ashore and usually hid the rum along the river bank where it could be collected later. 

In 1798 the local Customs and Excise carried out ‘creeping’ exercise along the Hung road stretch of the river. Customs officers dragged the river from boats while their colleagues searched the riverside for their concealed contraband. On this particular ‘creep’ the officers searching the ‘holes and the gullies found 20 ankers of rum. That is I estimate 150 gallons! There is no record of anyone being persecuted as a result of this haul but it could well have put a small smuggling enterprise out of business. 

Several years later – so the story goes – a party of local gentry  decided to beat the bounds of Westbury Parish. Bucklewell was one of the boundary markers of the Shirehampton tything of Westbury. These people used to send out a couple of farm workers, or ‘pioneers’ as they were called, ahead of the main party to clear a path and find the boundary markers. On the occasion when the pioneers came to Bucklewell, they found an ‘old boat’ in the cave. This was and still is quite astonishing if one considers that the cave is in a heavily wooded cliff, some 40’ above the river at high tide, and 20’ from the cliff top! Astonishingly enough for Bucklewell to become known as the ‘Boat cave’ throughout the 19th century

Now for fear of the story getting around and upsetting the Bristol Merchant Venturer, I leave the reader to draw his or her conclusions about the crumbling masonry at the back of the Bucklewell or Boat Cave. Maybe the smuggling activities in the area led to another legend about the cave, which says that there was hidden treasure buried in the Bucklewell. Or maybe the treasure is the vision of the future, found in the depths of the pool on Midsummer’s Day. For me, the treasure is the glimpses into the past I have had researching the possible history of the Bucklewell.

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on March 19, 2022, in Bristol, Folklore, Gloucestershire and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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