Clare Viner

It’s been a busy week exploring the Culm in search of stories.

In my head I’ve been wandering around ancient lost cities. There are rumours that there was a lost city on the Blackdowns. So far I haven’t found any evidence from archaeology, but very little field archaeology has been done in this area – so there may well be mirrors, swords and pieces of jewellery that just haven’t been found. There have been some bowls found at Hembury. If there was a city, it seems likely that it wouldn’t have been a ‘City’ in the way that modern people think of a city. More likely a gathering, a community or tribe of people that were lost – but for some reason, something extraordinary about them, or their way of life, meant that they were never quite lost, whispers, tales of them continued to be told, mouth to ear down the generations.

At the beginning of the week Antony Firth, the archeologist sent me some more information about the Holy Wells along the river. Apparently they aren’t all documented as Eye Wells, only three of them at Kentisbeare, Siverton (this is a Holy Eye Stream) and Cullompton. There are three other wells found at Sampford Peverell, Bagmore Hill, Broad Cyst.

bowl found at Hemyock
A narrow River leat with walled banks

Later in the week I spent a very enjoyable morning talking with residents in Cullompton at their craft fair (I’d really recommend this, held in The Walronds gardens every two weeks) Iain Emmett told me that there are Springs all around Cullompton and Wells recorded in many of the old houses. So it seems likely that there are many more than the six wells found in the archaeological records. The one found that Antony knew of in Cullompton was called St George’s Well and found with Roman coins nearby and a bronze figure of Bacchus. Bacchus is the Roman God of wine. He’s associated with dancing, wild trance states and was said to have many women followers – I always think he’s rather exciting.

Bacchus takes me to the tale of the Minotaur – do you know it? The terrifying creature, half man, half bull who must have 14 human sacrifices every year. It was the king’s daughter, Ariadne, who helped the hero Theseus to escape. In modern historical tellings Ariadne is betrayed by Theseus and abandoned with Bacchus and his followers. But it always struck me – maybe it would be more fun to be with Bacchus, singing, dancing, being wild, than being a meek Greek wife. So the Bacchus figure found in Cullompton makes me think, was there once some wildness here? Crazy trance dancing, drum beating, voice freeing, arms waving, letting in the spirit of land and waters, letting them flow through….and what of Ariadne?

Talking to other residents in Cullompton at the craft fair, I started to build up a stronger and stronger picture of just how important water is in this town. In the past water was a friend, supporting many industries, farming, leather making, the wool trade, paper making and more. But in recent times it seems that this friend has become like an old unwanted wife. She’s pushed around the back of the town, barely visible, she’s silting up leats, causing problems in the Weirs, new houses build on her meadows, she floods, uncontainable, uncontrollable again and again. But there are clearly some who are aware of her beauty. Some who do want to listen to her and find out what it is that she is trying to say. People are frustrated that her leats are silted up with rubbish, they know she is an asset to this ancient town but how to make this real?

The more I explore this landscape the more I fall in love with it. It seems to be longing to run, gush and sing with water but at the moment, so much of it unseen.

On Friday I was lucky enough to walk with friend and Geomorphologist, Julian Payne. We started on the A30 driving up from Exeter together. There was a horrible accident on the road, emergency vehicles, numerous cars and distressed people scattered the road. Julian and I both shuddered. It was a shockingly close reminder of mortality. For a while we stopped talking, taking in the reality of tragedy that can always be a whisper away. I remembered the hearse that drove past me the week before as I arrived at the Holman Clavel. It made me wonder about tragedy, the many people who have lived and died on this landscape, some at appropriate times and others not. Julian and I drove to Clayhidon. I wanted to visit the pub, ‘The Half Moon Inn’ as it is the setting for a tale in my book, The Emerald Dragon. The story is about a man called Abraham Stocker who upsets the local pixies by saying that he doesn’t believe in them. In the tale the pixies decide to get their revenge by ‘pixie leading’ Abraham right into the bog at Springline Mire. In case you don’t know, there is only one remedy to being pixie led – you have to turn something inside out. If you don’t, the pixies will lead you a merry dance to the place of their choosing. I found this story is an out of print book called, ‘Tales of the Blackdown Borderlands’ by F W Mathews (1923). Visiting the bog made me wonder, who were the pixies? What ancient memory are they part of?

After our drive, it was tempting to head straight into the pub but we decided to visit the church first. Like Cullompton church, the church here is dedicated to St Andrew – the one who was a fisherman with his brother Simon, when he first met Jesus. I’m always interested in church dedications – I see them as clues to the landscape. It seems to me that either consciously or subconsciously the people who dedicated the churches were linking with something very ancient in the earth of the building. Could this suggest that a lot of local people once fished in the river Culm? And so, that there were once many fish here? The church itself was very interesting (from the outside – sadly locked). There was evidence of lots of different periods of architecture including a Saxon arch. There were some dishcloths hanging out to dry in a yard that backed onto the graveyard. As I looked at them out of the corner of my eye, I was reminded of the ‘Washer at the Ford’ a Celtic fairy woman or Goddess. She sits at the ford, washing the clothes of those about to be killed in battle. There is a legend of a battle in Clayhidon; the last battle fought between the hill tribe people ( the Celts?) And the Saxon invaders. The tribes people were led by their king, Geraint, later to be Sir Geraint in King Arthurs court. Geraint and two of his men were the only local survivors of the battle. They fled to Exmoor according to legend. More on him later…
In the pub, we looked at the OS map together. Julian pointed out the lay of the land, how the valley that the Culm flows through is relatively narrow. He said it looked possible that the ancient glacial melt waters may have carved out a different pathway, maybe where the river Madford now flows, with Culm bridge going across it. This was the first indication that the bed of the Culm may have moved around over time – that the river we now call Culm, is in no way fixed, either historically or in it’s current state. Once we got down to the river, dropping down in the valley from Clayhidon, the first thing I noticed was the sound. To my ear it was merry and tinkling as water splashed and danced over the stones. We stopped to look. Julian said this was a good sign; the river was shallow, there were stones with water weeds attached on the river bed, showing that the flow was relatively slow.

reflection in river
trees over river

A very short distance, walking along the river, this changed. The water became significantly wider and deeper, we noticed farm crops growing right up to the relatively high river bank. In a more natural state the river banks wouldn’t be so steep and the river would have the chance to flood onto surrounding land. But as this couldn’t happen here, all the water was pushed into the flow. It meant that the river was becoming bigger very quickly, carrying more water than it naturally should. There was still some waterweed, which was good, Julian told me, suggesting the water wasn’t going too fast. But still the river was carrying a lot of water. We thought about a paddle, took off our shoes but the stones under our feet were very sharp. We’d noticed the Chert stone earlier on our walk – maybe these stones were used to make tools and weapons both by very early man but also later into the 17th century ( for scything). The stones lined the river bed. They were too sharp for paddling very far but as I looked at the water weed, it suddenly looked to me like the hair of a mermaid. Then I saw lots of them, mermaids with long green hair under the water.

I wondered what they’d like to tell us about the river, what their stories might be. As we continued to walk down the river, the green weed disappeared and the water was clearly flowing faster. Julian questioned me, ‘What is a river?’ Slightly self consciously, I tried to answer. I mumbled something about water flowing through a channel. Then he asked, so if water was flowing through a pipe, is that a river? No, I said. This led to a discussion about the water in the river and the river bed – that the river bed and the land all around the river could all be defined as river. It was interesting – a bit technical for me – but interesting and I had a feeling I understood what he was describing. That it’s not just the water that is the river, that the land that holds the river is just as, if not more, important. It took me to a story.

Clare Viner

Click below to hear Clare telling some of the Fisher King story

Read Clare’s blogs from other weeks here.

It’s the story of the ‘Fisher King’ – there he is, St Andrew, the fisherman, again -and the Sacred Grail or Bowl. The Fisher King is terribly wounded, nothing will heal him and the land is a wasteland. The land can’t heal until the King heals. The only thing that sustains the King is a Sacred Bowl or Grail. The King has a son who fishes day and night, seeking nourishment and healing for his father. One day a knight comes, one of King Arthurs knights. He finally asks a question that brings about the healing of King and Land. So the asking of questions. And what is the question? Who does the Grail/Bowl Serve? On our walk we considered this question and the question, Who does the River Bed serve? Who does the River serve? Who do the questions serve? It makes me wonder about the wisdom of these ancient tales. The asking of questions for healing – people and lands. And this particular question about the containment of liquid – who does this serve? And who could it serve?

I’m starting to feel thick with stories and information, maybe time for a swim in the river next week. Can anyone tell me good places to swim in the Culm? Can anyone share personal stories or anecdotes about the river? I feel a bit like the holder of the Holy Bowl in the Fisher King story. I’m wanting the bowl to serve everyone connected with the Culm. So if you have something to throw into the mix, please let me know, every ingredient adds a little to the flavour! Now I’m imagining the lost city – alive and vibrant again, people gathering to share stories, songs, magic. There’s a fine meal heating in the earthen ware bowl hanging over the fire! You are invited.

frogs in grass