Monday, September 4, 2023

In the Summer of '83 . . .

It was in the Summer of 1983, forty years ago, that I started writing short stories.

They were inspired in part by my interest in ‘earth mysteries’ magazines. These were devoted to ancient sacred sites, alternative archaeology, folklore, myths and legends. There were quite a variety of them that I chanced upon at the Gothic Image new age shop in Glastonbury and I found them enthralling. It was as if the world of amateur antiquarians and occult investigators that I enjoyed in the fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson, Dion Fortune and M R James still existed.

I was already a frequent contributor of other sorts of writing to various poetry, new wave and art-house zines, and so it seemed natural to me, once I had got to know this different scene, to send in contributions. One of the journals was called Wood & Water (W&W) and was devoted to holy wells and sacred trees. It was edited from Swindon by Hilary Llewellyn-Williams, a poet, and her partner Tony Padfield, and was a duplicated, A4, side-stapled zine. 

The only holy wells I knew about before I found W&W were the Chalice Well at the foot of the Tor in Glastonbury, which had a gentle quiet garden, and St Anne’s Well, Malvern, which had a gilt dolphin spout and an octagonal well-house, at that time a kite shop. I had no idea there were hundreds of other holy wells. But after reading W&W, I set about trying to find any in Northamptonshire, where I lived, and by following up clues in old history and folklore books I soon had a list. I then set out on my bicycle to look for them. Most were hard to find. They often had curious names – Old Mother Redcap’s; Puck’s; the Drumming Well (which foretold danger to the nation) – and they were mostly fairly neglected.

I was then taking holidays in the far west of Cornwall, and visiting its ancient monuments, and so I compiled notes on ‘Five Wells of West Penwith’, included in a 1982 issue of W&W. I reported on the famous Madron Well, with its roofless chapel, and the well at Sancreed, a place which I found had a strange atmosphere. I had walked there from the coast, 6 or 7 miles perhaps, on a very hot day. When I got there— and I wasn’t giddy or anything— I at once had a strong feeling of separateness, remoteness, that this was a charged place. There was something in the atmosphere. Nor was I alone in thinking so, though I did not know that then.

Mary Butts, when she lived in this part of Cornwall, noted it too: ‘I believe the Grail is stirring at Sancreed,’ she said, 'I know my own life to be a series of initiations' (Journal, 7 January 1933). The artist and esotericist Ithell Colquhoun said: ‘It is difficult to describe the subdued weirdness of Brane’, a hamlet at Sancreed, (The Living Stones of Land’s End, pgs 56-8). And Rev A. Lane-Davies in his book Holy Wells of Cornwall wrote: ‘The spot always seems to me to possess a greater air of mystery and sanctity than any other in Cornwall’.

The church at Sancreed has a medieval carved rood screen of distinctly interesting mythic figures, which I used in my much later story, ‘The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things’.

Another journal at that time was called The Templar and this was one of several periodicals started by Nigel Pennick, a Cambridge scientist, geomancer and folklorist. This one was devoted to round churches, admittedly a rather niche interest, but it so happened that my home town of Northampton had one of the few in the country, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This, because of later additions, doesn’t actually look round now, and at the time was also rather bleak and grimy. I wrote an account of it, which also appeared in 1982, in no 3 of the journal.

These two appear to be the earliest earth mysteries essays I contributed. The following year, 1983, saw more appear. I had carried on looking into holy wells, which appealed to me because they were very much neglected and often in lonely spots, and I contributed notes on those in Northamptonshire to Wood & Water, to another journal, Inner Keltia, and to Country Bazaar, a nicely-produced rural life and old customs magazine.

I had also got from Glastonbury an early issue of Caerdroia, a journal devoted to turf mazes, edited by Jeff Saward (and still going), and sent him a note on a lost Northants example, the Shepherd’s Race at Boughton Green. This had been on a triangle of open land in front of the ruined church of St John, which also had a holy well: and a popular Midsummer Fair was once held there.

When I started to write short stories the same year, therefore, it was not surprising that they drew on these youthful antiquarian interests. The first, ‘The Grave of Anir’ (written in July 1983), was inspired by an Arthurian riddle, and was kindly published by my friends Jeffrey Dempsey and David Cowperthwaite in the first issue of their magazine Dark Dreams the following year.

The second, ‘William Sorrell Requests . . .’ (August), was set in a lonely hamlet, Nobottle, that I often passed through on my bike rides. The third, ‘Tree Worship’ (October), must have drawn on the interest in sacred trees and groves prompted by W&W, though the immediate cause was a new housing estate being built nearby, and my concern at whether the old trees there would be preserved.

The fourth story, ‘St Michael & All Angels’ (November onwards), was inspired in part by that church of the Holy Sepulchre, known locally as St Sep’s, though I moved the scene out into the country. A report in the local paper had said vandals had been throwing tiles off its roof. I thought this was unlikely. It was a pretty steep and hazardous climb and moreover it was, literally, a stone’s throw from the police station. 

Clearly there must be some other explanation for the falling slates and, after considering crows or jackdaws as the culprits, I naturally decided they were being thrown down by an irate winged demon. Fortunately, my first occult detective, Ralph Tyler, was on hand to investigate.

(Mark Valentine)

Image: St Sep’s, Northampton (National Churches Trust)



  1. Wonderful column Mark. My wife and I love the Treacle Well at Binsey, Oxfordshire. It's a very atmospheric spot.

    1. Thank you, Darren. I recall a picnic at the Treacle Well in those days, organised by a local 'earth mysteries' group.

  2. A very charming piece. Somehow just reading it engendered a cozy mood of antiquarian gentility.

  3. This is full of intriguing and fascinating antiquarianism, Mark, and why I enjoy your stories so much; especially the haunting, atmospheric ones set in old places in England (well, most of your stories are haunting and atmospheric!). I look forward to each new collection of your stories.

  4. Thank you, Jim, and Lori, for your kind comments.

  5. You can read Mark's article on holy wells in Cornwall from "Wood & Water" here (pages 12-13):

  6. Thanks, James - I didn't know about that! Also, Vol 2 No 6 (1983) has my article on Northamptonshire wells. Mark

  7. Back in the middle-late 1990s I went to visit my brother (who at that time lived in a caretaker's cottage overseeing the abandoned "surf village" called "Skewjack" near Sennen) and we went on a cycling tour of the region. I was given a clapped-out old bicycle and we tried to make our way to Sancreed. I can't say the going was easy, but as the way became more arduous (I was flagging), he suggested turning back.

    "We ride, sir," I said (in Johnsonian mode). "We ride onwards! We ride to Sancreed!"

    "You are wild, sir!" he cried.

    But rode onwards we duly did. And, after a wander around the mystical old churchyard, we, too, found the Holy Well at Sancreed.

    I really should put this into my memoir.

    (Mark Samuels)

    1. What a delightful memory/comment, Mr. Samuels!