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Confluences

Penny Drayton

Think of some of the most dramatic sacred sites - Lindisfarne, Iona, St Michael's Mount - and one is thinking of islands, especially tidal ones which are not-quite-islands, not-quite-mainland. But not all sacred sites could be on the coast so the next best thing was sought. Ely and Glastonbury are both examples of major monastic sites on islands in fenland; others such as Peterborough were founded right on the edge of the fens as they were then. In these days of improved drainage and drastic civil engineering works, it is difficult to imagine another quite similar category of site. Up until recent centuries river valleys tended to be marshy and prone to flooding. Sites where two rivers met were especially prone to flooding. And it is when we look at such confluences we see that many of them have, or at least had, churches or more major ecclesiastical sites. Most of these are of Anglo-Saxon date but a few seem to have earlier origins.

Looking first at the Trent, we see that the confluence with the Soar (129:495508) is overlooked by Redhill - the site of a Roman settlement with a probable shrine. I am immediately put in mind of the Roman temple at Lydney in Gloucestershire, which also overlooks a major river. No one needs reminding of the deep sense of respect with which the river deities were regarded - votive offerings of great value from bronze age, iron age and later periods are all numerous. Folklore from around the country also tells of the river spirit needing to be propritiated with an annual life - sometimes more than one.

Not far from Redhill the Derwent feeds into the Trent (459508). Gravel workings have disturbed an earlier river channel where the remains of several Anglo-Saxon crosses have been buried. Were these part of a 'shrine' by this confluence?

Moving upstream to where the Trent is fed by the river Dove we find the church of Newton Solney right by the riverside (128:279258). Further upstream the double-confluence of the Trent with the Tame and Mease (195148) is associated with an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the north bank.

Staying with the Trent, the original confluence with the Leen was a very marshy area and, on the nearest available high ground, the Anglo-Saxon town of Nottingham developed. However, this is difficult to appreciate now as the river Leen has been culverted to make way for the city's streets.

Near the downstream end of the Trent - where it would have met the river Don in Anglo- Saxon times - is the major Anglo-Saxon settlement near to present-day Flixborough but apparently a precursor of the Domesday village of Konigsburie (or 'king's town'). This is currently being excavated in advance of gravel workings and finds so far suggest an important monastic site or bishop's palace, plus large- scale iron working.

The actual mouth of the Trent - where is meets the Ouse to form the Humber estuary - is overlooked by Alkborough's turf maze, which gives an example of an entirely different class of ritual site.

Turning now to the Thames, we find an Anglo-Saxon monastery at the confluence with the Cherwell which was predated by a major bronze age barrow cemetery; this was followed by an Anglo-Saxon monastery which developed to become the city of Oxford. Another early monastery was founded where the Ock joins the Thames at Abingdon. Not-so-far-away at Dorchester, the meeting of the Tame and the Thames, we have a sequence of major neolithic sacred sites in the form of a cursus and henge followed by yet another important early church. Dorchester, too, was an important early christian minster.

Other examples of major early monastic sites on confluences can be found at Jarrow (on the Don/Tyne meeting), at Ripon (close to the Ure and Skell confluence), and at Leominster where the Kenwater and Lugg meet. A related type of site must be where churches or monasteries are all-but enclosed by loops of river such as at Melrose, Sockburn, Lancaut, Kirkham, Little Ousebury and Emstrey [1].

One short river - the Anker - has two hermitages and a nunnery along its twenty-mile stretch. It should be no surprise that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon ancra which means an anchorite. Most interestingly, where it meets the Tame at Tamworth to the south-west is the Lady Meadow which was owned by the monks from nearby Canwell, although no explicit evidence of sacred activities there.

There is also an Anglo-Saxon word muthtun - which means 'junction of streams or roads' - which crops up in place-names, usually in a highly corrupted form. In Warwickshire alone there are three examples: Marton on the Leam/Itchen confluence; Mitton where the Leam meets the Avon, and Mythe (earlier spellings betray the muthtun derivation) where the Avon and Severn meet. Another Mitton on the confluence of the Stour and Severn later changed its name to Stourport [2]. However, other than the presence of the village church, there is no overt reason to suppose any special religious nature to these muthtan sites.

Further into Shropshire, the church at Melverley (126:333166) stands above the confluence of the Vyrnwy with the Severn. Now an attractive fifteenth century black-and-white timbered building, evidence of its greater antiquity can be seen in the form of a Anglo-Saxon font.

One other aspect of early place-names provides an indirect confirmation of the fondness for early christian communities to settle on marshy inland areas. The Old English eg (pronounced 'ey') has become our word 'isle'. An analysis of the earliest Anglo-Saxon records - those from before 730CE - reveals that the element eg is very common in the place-names. Bearing in mind that all these writings are by early monks, the context makes it clear that they are most commonly writing about other monastic or minster settlements, even though the exact places refered to cannot all now be identified.

I am grateful to Jill Bourne for this last idea and to Chris Fletcher for sharing with me his observation of the significance of confluences on the Trent, which prompted my wider- ranging investigations. Nevertheless, these lists are, I am sure, very incomplete and I would be pleased if readers could inform me of any other examples of confluences or such like which were, or are, significant sacred sites.

References

1: Derived from Churches in the landscape R. Morris (J.M. Dent, 1989).
2: See Warwickshire place-names, W.H. Duigan (Henry Frowde, 1912).

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.15 May 1993.


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