Swallowhead springs…an ancient sacred site reborn
The Swallowhead spring is a bit of an enigma. Is it a holy well? Folklore (1915) notes:
“A sacred spring – It was formerly the custom to make merry with cakes, figs and sugar mixed with water from the Swallowhead, the sacred spring of the district, and the principal source of the river Kennet.”
And that is it really! No saint is claimed. No healing claim. Although it telling perhaps that the words sacred spring is used. The custom of drinking the water with sugar etc is a widespread one and interestingly often the wells are not Christianised, which may or may not be significant. The drinking of the Swallowhead water did have a Christianised element it was associated with a Palm Sunday festivities on Silbury Hill of which the author notes:
“Silbury Hill is to this day thronged every Palm Sunday afternoon by hundreds from Avebury, Kennet, Overton, and the adjoining villages.”
Stukeley in his Abury work states:
“It seems no difficult matter to point out the time of year when this great prince died, who is here interr’d, viz. about the beginning of our present April. I gather it from this circumstance. The country people ahve an anniversary meeting on the top of Silbury-hill on every palm-Sunday, when they make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetch’d from the Swallow-head, or spring of the Kennet. This spring was much more remarkable than at present, gushing out of the earth, in a continued stream. They say it was spoil’d by digging for a fox who earth’d above, in some cranny thereabouts; this disturb’d the sacred nymphs, in a poetical way of speaking.”
Of course you could argue that being the purest source in the area it would the only place to get your water and that Silbury being the highest point would be ideal for celebrating. However, that could be seen as over cynical! Stukeley adds:
“… I took notice that apium grows plentifully about the spring-head of the Kennet. Pliny writes defunctorum epulis dicatum apium. To this day the country people have a particular regard for the herbs growing there, and a high opinion of their virtue.”
Interesting is the springs association with the river Kennet, probably a sacred, and certainly significant transport river of prehistoric peoples of the valley. However this view that this is the source is in itself erroneous and appears to have spread by Stukeley (1740) who writes:
“There are two heads of the river Kennet: one from a little north-west of Abury, at Monkton, runs southward to Silbury Hill: this affords little water, except in wet seasons. At Silbury Hill it joins the Swallow Head, or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name Cunnit, and it is not a little famous among them. This is a plentiful spring.”
Despite this reference the spring is not the source of this noted river which actually rises at Broad Hinton some four miles north west. The stream which forms from the Swallowhead is the Winterbourne which joins the Kennet, although the infant Kennet does join this stream.
What’s in a name? Swale, Swill or Sulis?
The name of Winterbourne is of course again significant. Streams which are seasonal or intermittent, commonly found in chalk areas, were often seen as uncanny and collect associated folklore. Although no such folklore concerning this behaviour is recorded here, it seems likely that part of the ‘cult’, if that is what we can call it, would have been connected with this. Similarly, swallow is a common term of rivers found in areas of intermittent streams, often on the chalk, often to explain how a stream disappears into the ground, erupting elsewhere.
The name ‘Swallow Head’ appears to have the same source as Swill also in Wiltshire and the Swale in Kent and Yorkshire, and derives from old German swal, meaning ‘swell’ or ‘whirlpool’. However, there may be an alternative origin which appears to have been not recorded. Does it is derive from Sulis? Therefore a sacred spring to the Romano-Britis, the God combined with Minerva at Bath and so the site retain a pre-Roman god, but one acceptable to them. The Romans were active in the area and in the last five years a Roman town has been excavated only a few yards from this site.
A modern sacred spring?
Fast forward several hundred years and the Swallowhead has indeed become a sacred spring for a whole new community. Visiting the site today, as Leary and Field (2011) in their book The Story of Silbury Hill note:
“One only need wander down to the Swallowhead spring, just south of Silbury, to see how Dames influential book has become tradition. The rags hanging from the willow tree, to say nothing of the other votive offerings around the springhead – crystals, candles, wind chimes to mention but a few – announce that you are entering contemporary sacred ground.”
“The willow has now cracked forming an arch, creating a sort of portal one has to go through, which helps give the impression that you are entering a different realm.”
Jordan in the Haunted Landscape (2001) notes:
In 1998 there were various bits of rag tied to the tree, but also a child’s glove and a postcard with a child’s drawing of fairies and butterflies fastened to the truck with drawing pins
Micheal Dames work on Silbury Hill and the Averbury Circle () perhaps is the source of this devotion. Dames recognises the spring with the Great Goddess.
“When the land was regarded as the body of the Goddess, and fertility as always depended on water it would follow naturally that the twin headwater streams would be equated to a twin lobbed uterus.”
This appears to have lead to a widespread view amongst neo-Pagans that the springs were dedicated the Celtic Goddess Brid or Bridget who accordingly was associated with the return of the flow of water. Certainly, what with the Winterbourne’s intermittent flow this would be convenient; there is not a thread of evidence! But does that matter? Clearly the springs in this valley, Pot, Walden and Silbury Springs, were considered significant to our ancient forefathers for whatever reason and today they have that function for our neo-Pagans, in a rare site, a spiritual one which has never been Christianised but remained significant it is remains a potent site. A Holy well for a modern generation perhaps.