Aidan began the talk with the Prince of Peace, who is the Coat of Arms of Preston. He did so to draw our attention to the way a figure appearing throughout the city is an ancient Abrahamic symbol- a sacrificial lamb, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). He pointed out Preston has always had a strong Catholic presence and the Jesuits still own much of the land in the city.
Holy Wells and Springs
Aidan told us Preston has so many holy wells and springs because of its location on a ridge of sandstone with clay beneath; water rises where they meet. Their locations can still be traced by street signs. Cold Bath Street leads to Spa Road. The baths were located behind what is now Lidl supermarket.
The walk made clear that Preston is a place where numerous peoples and faiths have met and clashed. In our visit to the Harris Museum we saw the skulls of ancient Britons dating back to 4000BC and funerary urns containing cremations and oak posts from Bleasdale Bronze Age Timber Circle.
Nearby Walton-le-dale was home to a Roman industrial site which was the third biggest in the Empire (the two in the Rhineland are national heritage sites whereas the Prestonians built the Capital Centre complex over theirs). Aidan mentioned it was likely the Romans worshipped Mithras.
Saxon presence is evidenced by Preston’s name and by field lines curved to accommodate turning oxen, which some of the buildings still follow today. Aidan said the Ribble served as a ‘motorway’ for the Danish. The Cuerdale Hoard of Viking treasure, which contained over seven thousand silver coins and other artefacts, is one of the largest of its kind.
Preston as an Edgeland
Aidan pointed out that Preston is an ‘edgeland’. The Ribble formed the boundary between Mercia and Northumbria, England and Scotland. The later hundreds of Amounderness, Leyland and Blackburn meet on Avenham Park. The church dioceses continue to map onto these old boundaries. I found this interesting in relation to my intuition that Preston is an unsettled and unsettling place, which even now it is a city, has no fixed identity like Manchester or Liverpool.
On the market square Aidan told the tale of the fairy ointment. A woman went to a well in Blackpool and was given ointment by a fairy, which cured her ailing eye. Seeing him again on Preston market she decided to thank him. On receiving her thanks he asked her which eye had been cured. She pointed to the eye and he blinded it. Aidan told us the tale showed Lancashire fairies are more like malevolent goblins than the fluffy whimsical creatures they are often seen as today, and that it is unwise to show signs of seeing them in public.
In the Harris Museum we were shown Richard Dadd’s ‘Puck,’ which was painted whilst he was in Bedlam Asylum in London in 1841. The painting was bought at this time by a Preston based solicitor called Thomas Birchall. Following years of absence it was returned to the city and became part of the Harris collection in 2011. In relation to the ‘Victorian Fairy Cult’ Aidan said he does not know whether it rose from pagan beliefs, a reaction against industrialisation or from nostalgia.
Other topics covered were sightings of a headless black dog in the Maudlands area, the Mile Tunnel, the line of the canal, the iconography of the War Memorial, Lee Wood’s hands, Friargate Spiritualist church and an image of Sappho in stained glass in the Museum. And that isn’t everything!
What Aidan’s walk showed is that every piece of land, building, sign and monument contains a story through which we can connect with the past and a place’s sacred undercurrents. Throughout it was clear Aidan has spent many years and put a great deal of effort into his research, for which I think we were all very grateful. I hope they will be remembered and passed on, and that perhaps this talk will inspire further research into Preston’s folkloric memories.