Here’s a picture of the Pigeon Hole which I took a chance to go find when in Ireland earlier this month. The hole, which is a deep and almost vertical cavern in the limestone bed-rock between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib, leads down to the edge of an underground river which I had first read about whilst researching a chapter on sacred springs in my new book Silt Road.
There’s a Holy Well swimming pool on the riverside playing fields near High Wycombe. The pool is built on the site of a Roman villa and that villa was built beside a spring which held sacred associations since long before the Romans came and for long after they left. St Wulstan healed a blind girl with hallowed water there in spite of the best efforts of the church to ban the pagan practice of worship at sacred springs.
But you’d be hard pressed to worship at Wycombe’s holy well nowadays. It is long since buried. The pool which might have done for a surrogate basin of revered water is closed too and dry and its blue paint is peeling, and by the look of things when last I was there the place is being slowly demolished. Holy wells exist almost in name only across the bulk of England, driven off the landscape by civic visionaries who have succeeded where clucky mediaeval bishops failed. But on our western fringes and particularly in Ireland, the entity of sacred springs, if not the actual worship of them, is still vibrant.
Many, I was delighted to discover, are inhabited by sacred fish, invariably salmon or trout. More than once I read about vagabonds or soldiers or dreamy farmers, who had dared or been dim enough catch one of those fish only to be startled back to the magic surface of things by its metamorphosis into a glittering, beautiful girl. The girl sometimes rebukes the villain, lays a curse on his head lest he not put her back. Or the dreamy farmer is so startled he throws her back anyway. Yeats’ girl – Maude Gonne I guess – fades and shimmers through the brightening air and he, or rather the immortal Aengus, follows after for the rest of his days. Yeats wrote that poem in 1899, a good sixty odd years after Samuel Lover had set out … and here an excerpt from I have already written can take over … ‘one day from Cong across fields broken with vast slabs of limestone, a landscape that put him more in mind of an ancient burial ground than a work of nature, where he discovered the cave. Rough steps in the rock led him through the narrow opening to the base of the chasm and there he met a woman who had just filled her pitcher with water from the underground river that ran through it. It took no stretch of the imagination to suppose her, he wrote, with her ample cloak of dark drapery, and straggling tresses of grey hair, some sybil about to commence an awful rite, to call some water-demon from the river, which rushed unseen along, telling its wild course by the turbulent dash of its waters. She cast her blazing torch onto the surface of the stream and as it floated away lighting the cavernous walls of the river’s underground course, she told Samuel the story of the white trout. It was a fairy trout, she told him, and he must see it before he goes, because it is unlucky to come to the cave and not get a peep at it: if he was a bachelor, why then he’d never be married. And then pointing at the river she exclaimed ‘there she is!’. The fish, according to Lover, was perfectly trout-shaped but a creamy white in colour. ‘There she is,’ said the lady again. ‘In that very spot evermore and never anywhere else.’ Lover asked where the fish had come from. ‘There was once,’ said the old lady, ‘a very long time ago, a beautiful young girl who lived in the castle by the lough. She was betrothed to a king’s son, but the story goes that the prince was murdered and thrown into the lough and that she went out of her mind, the poor, tender-hearted girl, and pined for him until at last, so it was thought, the fairies took her away. But then, this white trout appeared in the stream, though it had never been seen before, and there it has remained for years and years, longer than I can express,’ said the lady ‘and beyond the memory of even the oldest hereabouts, until at last the people came to believe that the white trout was a fairy, and so it was treasured and no harm was ever done to it. None that is,’ she said ‘until a band of wicked soldiers came to these parts and laughed and gibed the people for thinking like this and one of the soldiers said he would catch the trout and eat it for his supper. Well he caught it and took it home and the trout cried out when he pitched it into the frying pan, though it would not cook no matter which way he turned the fish or how hot he made the fire, until in exasperation the soldier had at the trout with a fork and there came a murdering screech such as you never heard before and the trout jumped out of the pan and onto the floor and out of the spot where it fell rose up the most beautiful lady you’ve ever seen, all dressed in white with a band of gold in her hair and a stream of blood running down her arm. ‘Look where you cut me you villain,’ said the girl. ‘Why did you not leave me watching out for my true love? For he is coming for me by the river, and if he comes while I am away and I miss him I’ll hunt you down for evermore, so long as grass grows and water runs.’ And no sooner had she spoken than the girl vanished and there on the kitchen floor was the white trout and the soldier picked up the bleeding fish and rushed with it to the river. He ran and ran for fear her lover would come while she was away, and descending into this cavern he threw her back into the river and there she has stayed evermore and to this day the trout is marked with red spots where the fork pierced its side.’
It was thrilling enough to find the cave and the underground river. I didn’t dare hope or even believe I’d find a trout. But it was there alright, where the river emerged from darkness, shimmying in the fast current. It slid from sight as I descended the steps – concrete now sadly, and with a handrail to further spoil the magic of the place – but soon resumed its place, so close I could have touched it.
As for the sacred spring at High Wycombe, I have tried to find it … ‘the last time I was in the library (in High Wycombe) looking for remnants … I went to the map cupboard and found a series of large-sheet prints from the earliest ordnance survey printed in 1875. And on sheet XLVII.6 I found it. The holy spring was much larger than I had ever expected, so much that I was amazed the council had so successfully buried it without trace. The map showed an almost circular pool in the centre of the fields south of what was then Rye Mill, but what is now a Volkswagen dealership. The stream then drained away from the pool in a gently meandering channel skirting the north side of the swimming pool, the site of the Roman villa, turning sharply south and east again under what is now the car park and the tennis court and finally in a slow curve it had joined the stream which drains the dyke and flows on past the remnants of Marshgreen Mill. Armed with a knowledge of where it ran I looked again at the satellite photo and wondered if I couldn’t after all see the faintest trace of the channel, a patchy darkening of the green. And today before I crossed the playing field I had wondered if I might find a wet furrow in the turf, a trace of my hope that of all things a spring cannot ever be buried. It was soggy I suppose. But only soggy.’