Letters from Lancaster 06

The source of the Lune

IMG_5387“She just jumped in, disappeared – it’s deep, no one knows how deep, dangerous, that’s why we’ve fenced it off now. Then popped up, her head and face covered in bright green weed, and set off swimming – well, paddling actually – towards Glasson Dock.”

He’s squatting outside his greenhouse, cutting a circle of green plastic an inch bigger than the metal disc lying on it. I’m intrigued, want to see what he’s making. But he’s happy to stop while he talks, resume when I’ve gone. He’s talking about the woman who swam the length of the Lune. “For charity, I suppose. She got a good send-off.”

The Lune’s source (source is French for spring) is a resurgence (another word from the French), a stream that disappears into the limestone rock and emerges elsewhere as a spring. I think of the résurgence at the foot of the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur, where the priestess hid the sacred head from the besieging French army. And of the fathomless Fontaine de Vaucluse, where Petrarch wrote his sonnets to Laura. Springs have mystical and spiritual significance. (In France I used to confuse sourcier, water diviner, with sorcier, magician. Why all this French? I am still finding my bearings, having connected Lune with lune.)

Among pagans, springs were access-points to the other-world – gifts, inscriptions, broken weapons were dropped in as dedications, falling to who knows what depth. For Christians they were places of transformation, healing, purification – each church has a font, which means spring.

This spring became St Helen’s Well, with a chapel, long gone, dedicated to the mother of Constantine, who brought Christianity to the Empire, discovered the True Cross under a temple to Venus she’d demolished, and built there the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The source of the Lune is a source named for the source of Christianity in the West.

There is a stream flowing from the spring, small but well incised. But the heroic woman must have walked a long way before the river was deep enough to swim in.

Far more water feeds the Lune from the streams flowing from the Howgill Fells to the south. And if the longest was included, it would lengthen the river. But this is the true source of the Lune. I make my dedication, and set off, towards Glasson Dock.