Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

The last couple of days’ walks have furnished material for the last few posts here. I still seem to find it hard to settle down to any serious reading.

The last couple of posts have mentioned St Keyne’s church. I took this picture the other day of a well just by the main entrance porch to the church. It’s covered over with a grill, but through this it’s possible to see a set of stone steps leading down into the dank darkness below. I don’t know if there’s any water there.

This is not the same as St Keyne’s holy well in the countryside near Liskeard. There’s some information about it at this site, which quotes its legend from Richard Carew, antiquarian and High Sheriff of Cornwall, presumably from his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602:

‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gains.’

I haven’t visited it myself. I do own a book given me as a wedding present the day Mrs TD and I got married, 25 years ago this summer: Secret Shrines: In search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, by Paul Broadhurst. According to his account of this well, St Keyne lived towards the end of the fifth century, so about a century before St Augustine is said to have brought Christianity to England.

She was one of ‘the fifteen sainted children of the illustrious King of the Brecon Beacons’, and blessed with ‘bewitching loveliness’. Nevertheless she wandered about Wales and then Cornwall, ‘safe from insult or wrong-doing’ by ‘the strength of her purity’, performing thaumaturgical marvels wherever she went.

One such miracle was performed in Somerset, commemorated in the place-name of Keynsham (near Bath). There she turned all the serpents that were infesting the place into stone. A footnote suggests this could be an allegory of the erection of monoliths or crosses to neutralise ‘unbalanced energies’. We could do with some of that power during the current crisis.

Image from Broadhurst's account of St Keyne's Well

Image from Broadhurst’s account of St Keyne’s Well, about 100 years ago

When she retired to Cornwall she made her home near the well that now bears her name. She planted several different types of tree by it, and endowed its water with ‘peculiar virtue’ by her blessing. Robert Southey has a poem about it (full text HERE), telling the tale of a traveller who’s stopped to take a refreshing drink from it, and is told by a local householder that the saint often drank from and blessed this well, and ‘laid on the water a spell’:

‘If the husband of this gifted well/shall drink before his wife,/A happy man thenceforth is he,/for he shall be master for life.’

But St Keyne’s wish had been for equality for women. The man’s tale therefore continues:

‘But if the wife should drink of it first,/God help the husband then!’

Asked if he was drinking this water before his wife, the traveller says he left her by the church porch as soon as they were wed: ‘but i’faith, she had been wiser than me/for she took a bottle to church.’

Serves him right.

Broadhurst goes on to say that the local custom of drinking this well water for luck persisted into early modern times. The well was then rebuilt in granite, as it had begun to deteriorate.

Gate post

Here’s another picturesque gate post

I’ll end with some more images from the last couple of days’ walks.

Today I saw a great spotted woodpecker, furtively shielding himself behind a tree trunk high up when he saw me. Then a jay, standing by the side of the lane; it took off into the trees at my approach. The same trees where the other day a man told me he was engaged in a stand-off with a squirrel.

White bluebellsThese white bluebells (whitebells?) grow profusely in the wood above our house (soon it will be a violet-blue haze of proper bluebells).

As I went to cross a stile to access a footpath that crosses a field, I noticed this delightful little message. Our health service has been under unprecedented pressure during this virus outbreak, and the people have started posting images of rainbows in their windows, not just to thank NHS workers and other carers and services, but as a message of hope. How nice that someone thought to put this little rainbow on a stone in such a remote (but fairly well-trodden) spot.

 

NHS stile

Here’s a shot of the stile with the painted stone just in front and to the left, on a step

NHS message

Isabel Allende and a country walk

I’d intended writing today about Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. Mrs TD enjoyed it and passed it on to me. I was less enthusiastic.

The early section that’s set in the brutality of the Spanish Civil War is graphically done, but I’ve read similar stuff before, much of it better. Then we follow the central couple, who’ve survived defeat of the Republican side for which they were fighting, and entered on a marriage of convenience to facilitate their exile to Chile in an emigrant ship, the Winnipeg, a sort of socialist Windrush organised by the Chilean diplomat-poet, Pablo Neruda.

The novel goes on too long for my taste – five or six more decades of the couple’s lives. They have affairs, grow closer. I found the research that Allende had obviously done too obtrusive. All that socio-political history gives the narrative a stilted feel, and the tone is occasionally preachy.

***

So instead I’ll write about what else is going on. As we enter the first week of more-or-less isolation, (the British govt can always be relied on to be decisive and clear) the reality of being confined to the house is kicking in. We are allowed out once a day to exercise, or to shop for essentials, provided we maintain a social distance of at least two metres. It’s amazing how many people seem still not to realise how crucial this is.

Fortunately we have a PM with the resolute, dependable character to steer a frightened nation through this crisis. Yeah, that’s irony again. As the numbers of cases and deaths start to rise exponentially here in the UK, scarily like the curves seen in Italy and Spain a couple of weeks ago, it looks certain that the situation will get much worse.

Land rover reclaimed by natureStill, the spring sunshine has finally arrived after what seems six months of rain. I went on a solo walk this morning in the remote country lanes by my house. Saw just a handful of people, so no problems maintaining that distance.

About half a mile up the road is this strange sight: an ancient Land Rover that’s slowly been reclaimed by nature.

River fordA little further along, the river Kenwyn at the valley bottom flows over the road in a ford. The light dappling through the trees, where the buds are just starting to burst, was lovely.

Along the way I passed the church where my sister-in-law was married. It has a fine lych-gate – that rather macabre structure where, years ago, a funeral cortege would pause. The church is dedicated to St Keyne.

Kenwyn church

She was a fifth-century holy woman, daughter of a Welsh king, who was said to have travelled extensively through South Wales before crossing into Cornwall, where she became a hermit. The only surviving account of her life is in John of Tynemouth’s 14C Sanctilogium, and it’s far from reliable. Like much hagiography. It’s designed to edify, not provide accurate history. The village of St Keyne, in the east of Cornwall near Liskeard, is named after her.

A mile or so down the road the valley opens up – it’s hilly everywhere in this county – and the Rural landscape landscape seemed to be basking in the rare warmth and sunshine. I tried to record a bullfinch that was singing its heart out in a tree beside the road, but by the time I’d got my phone out and found the voice recorder, he’d developed stage fright and fallen silent.

Further along the road  I came upon a man standing staring into the trees. I greeted him. ‘He’s keeping the social distance of two metres,’ he said. ‘A squirrel. We’re having a stand-off.’

I told him they’re not my favourite rodent: a family that lives in a  tree by my house ate every one of the crocuses we only planted in the early autumn. They waited until they flowered, for some reason; maybe then they taste better.

PrimrosesThere were spring flowers everywhere, including some delicate violets, and this lovely cluster of primroses.

So the times might be rough, but nature has a way of lifting the spirits. If anything good can come out of this CV-19 crisis, it might be the ways that nature is re-asserting itself as pollution and human plunder almost ceases. Cormorants and fish swimming in the limpid canals of Venice; animals not being run over on formerly busy roads that are now like rivers of tarmac.