What is the Hidden History channel?

Paul Christian set up Hidden History, in a meaningful sense, at the start of the lockdown as something to do in some very dull times. With the present and future looking a bit bleak he looked to inspiration from the past.

It is a channel dedicated to bringing history to light and to life. The channel covers anything of interest with history news and new discoveries featuring as shorter videos and longer documentary type uploads, often with a particular focus on folklore and comparative mythology.

Away from the channel Paul has written a number of books about subjects that have piqued his interest, including Jack the Ripper, the Dyatlov Pass mystery and a historical travelogue called ‘Dark Secrets of Central Europe: A Tale of Three Cities’.

Social media:

Twitter: @H1ddenH1story

Instagram: @H1ddenH1story

Blog: https://paulchristianauthor.wordpress.com/

Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/hidden-history/id1525564448

SUBSCRIBE TO THE CHANNEL HERE.

DNA shock could rewrite ‘Viking’ history

New DNA evidence could rewrite established Viking history.

The findings highlight that a collection of Norse lands may have been previously settled – or at least reached – by people from Britain or Ireland.

The evidence from the Faroe Islands, where a language derived from Old Norse is spoken, shakes up our understanding of the history of the North Atlantic.

Evidence has emerged that people reached the island by 500 AD, around 350 years before Scandinavians arrived.

This early settlement pre-dates the adoption of long-distance sailing innovations made by the Vikings.

Researchers found fragments of sheep DNA and chemical residues of sheep faeces in lake sediments on the island of Eysturoy.

These were dated using sophisticated scientific techniques.

It was noted that livestock could only have reached the remote archipelago if they were taken there by humans on boats.

Dr William D’Andrea, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) at Columbia University in New York, said: “You see the sheep DNA and the biomarkers start all at once. It’s like an off-on switch.”

Lead author Lorelei Curtin, who worked on the research while she was a graduate student at LDEO, said the evidence was effectively the “nail in the coffin” for the idea that the islands were uninhabited until the 800s.

Researchers said the results provided “unequivocal” evidence of a human presence before the Vikings arrived in the 9th Century AD.

As well as this several indirect lines of evidence suggest an earlier occupation of the Faroes by Celtic-speaking people from the British Isles.

Dr D’Andrea told BBC News: “We still really don’t know who the people were and why they chose to go to the Faroe Islands. But there are lots of pieces of information that lead us to believe it is very likely there was a population of people from the British Isles.”

Other pointers include ancient, but undated, Celtic grave markers across the islands, Celtic place-names, historical accounts and DNA evidence from people living on the islands.

According to Medieval texts, the early Irish navigator St Brendan set out across the Atlantic with comrades from 512 to 530, and supposedly found a land dubbed the Isle of the Blessed.

Later, in 825 AD, the Irish monk Dicuil wrote that some northern islands had been settled by hermits for at least 100 years.

It has been speculated that these accounts refer to the Faroe Islands.

DNA studies have revealed that people who live on the islands today derive most of their paternal ancestry from Scandinavians, but most of their maternal genetic material from Britons or Irish people.

This pattern is repeated in Iceland and has previously been attributed to concubinage, where Norse males abducted Celtic women and transported them to their various strongholds.

But it could also be the case that the islands were inhabited when they arrived.

The researchers pointed out that the proportion of British or Irish ancestry is much higher in the Faroes than in Iceland.

Another team of researchers had previously found cereal grains on Sandoy, which were dated to between 300 and 500 years before the arrival of the Norse.

Kevin Edwards, from the University of Aberdeen, who was a co-author of the paper, said the new study “has produced convincing and exciting evidence” of earlier occupation.

He said: “Is similar evidence to be found in Iceland, where similar arguments are made for a pre-Norse presence, and for which tantalisingly similar archaeological, pollen-analytical and human DNA are forthcoming?”

The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Communications Earth and Environment’.

Greek monkey mystery points to ancient Bronze Age links with India

Ancient frescoes like that of the Greek monkeys on Santorini could point to trade links between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent as far back as 3,600 years ago.

That is the conclusion of a recent study of ancient murals on the Aegean island, which is also known as Thera.

The blue monkeys painted on walls at Akrotiri are around 3,600 years old and were originally believed to be an African species.

Obviously, the proximity of Greece to Africa and the extensive interrelationships between the Hellenic world and Africa, via Ancient Egypt would make this a reasonable assumption.

But the new study has reached a different conclusion.

A team of primatologists were drafted in to study the simians depicted in the frescoes and their evaluation had pointed to potentially greater globalisation in the Bronze Age.

Researchers now think that the paintings actually depict Hanuman langurs, a species from the Indian subcontinent.

This suggests the Aegean people, who came from Crete and the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea, may have had trade routes that reached over 2,500 miles.

The murals, which also depict other animals, were preserved by ash from a volcano that destroyed the city some time in the 16th or 15th century BC and offer an incredible glimpse of an early civilisation in Europe.

The researchers said: “We haven’t been able to translate the earliest Aegean writing, but the paintings suggest just how developed these people’s society, economy and culture were.

“Much animal art from this period is generalised, meaning it’s hard to confidently identify individual species. In the case of the monkeys, we also don’t have any physical remains from Aegean settlements to provide additional evidence of which species are depicted.”

Marie Pareja and taxonomic illustrator Stephen Nash examined photos of the art and discussed the animals depicted, considering not only fur colour and pattern but also body size, limb proportions, sitting and standing postures, and tail position.

They said: “While we all agreed that some of the animals depicted were baboons, as previously thought, we began to debate the identification of the animals from one particular scene.”

The monkeys in the paintings are grey-blue. But although some living monkeys have small patches of blue skin – the blue on a mandrill’s face, for example – none have blue fur.

There is an African forest monkey called the blue monkey, but it is mainly olive or dark grey, and the face patterns don’t match those in the paintings.

So researchers needed to use other characteristics to identify them.

They were previously believed to be vervets or grivets, small monkeys weighing between 3kg and 8kg (roughly the size of a housecat) that are found in the savannas of north and east Africa.

Despite their silvery white fur, they also have dark-coloured hands and feet and an overall look that matches the depictions in the paintings.

However, Hanuman langurs, which weigh a more substantial 11 kg to 18 kg, have a similar look. They also move quite differently, and this was crucial to the identification.

The researchers added: “This study is an excellent example of the importance of academics from different disciplines working together.

“Without the expertise of primatologists, it may not have been possible to confidently identify these animals.

“Conversely, primatologists may not have considered these ancient human-primate interactions without a prompt from archaeologists.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a slightly comical scene in the the 2004 film ‘Alexander’, which tells of Alexander the Great’s conquests, in which the Macedonians shoot arrows at what was referred to as a “new tribe” they called ‘monkey’.

The paintings on Santorini and the proximity to Hellenic influence to Africa highlights how this was simply artistic license on behalf of the filmmakers.

Although, that said, the Roman author Pliny the Elder once described a race of silvestres, or forest-dwellers, in India who had humanoid bodies but were covered in fur and unable to speak. This mystery race were almost certainly gibbons.

Such asides, aside, the new research potentially reveals just how interconnected the ancient world may have been.

Major new excavation to reveal Gobekli Tepe secrets

A new excavation is planned at the extraordinary 12,000-year-old Gobekli Tepe and other ancient sites in modern-day Turkey.

Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency have revealed Tas Tepeler, a project to unearth the secrets of how human history transformed from hunter-gatherers to a culture of megaliths and agriculture.

Researchers from Turkey and around the world met at a hybrid symposium on ‘Reflections of the Neolithic in the World’ in Şanlıurfa. 

The project involves archaeological excavations and research carried out in seven areas: Gobekli Tepe, Karahantepe, Gürcütepe, Sayburç, Çakmaktepe, Sefertepe and the Yeni Mahalle mound.

The excavation in Karahantepe, which was temporarily opened, was also visited.

The excavations will be conducted by scientific committees and the Şanlıurfa Museum Directorate.

During the visit to Karahantepe, Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy observed that the sites and their excavations reveal the contribution of Anatolia to human history.

He said: “In the coming days, excavations will begin in the mounds of Ayanlar, Yoğunburç, Harbetsuvan, Kurttepesi and Taşlıtepe settlements, as part of the first phase of the Şanlıurfa Neolithic Research Project which will take place between 2021-2024.”

He added: “Geomagnetic measurements and ground-penetrating radar measurements have already been carried out in some of these areas. These measurements will continue in parallel with the excavations.”

The Tas Tepeler Project aims to unearth how shelters were converted into houses 12,000 years ago, and in which villages emerged, stratified society formed, and the ability to carry out basic trade developed.

It is thought that the megalithic structures, some of which are 20-feet tall, were believed to be communal spaces where people gathered.

The International World Neolithic Congress, which will be held in 2023 as part of the Neolithic Age Research Project, will include scientific sessions, and will showcase the cultural treasures of Şanliurfa from Neolithic Age.

The Minister added: “Co-operation was planned with 12 institutions and organisations, including eight universities in Turkey. Within this framework, co-operation protocols were signed between Istanbul University, Harran University and Ankara Bilim University.

“We also involved eight universities in five countries, and four international academies, institutes and museums in the Şanlıurfa Neolithic Age Research Project, establishing a wide international outreach with Japan, Russia, Germany, United Kingdom and France.”

Between this year and 2024, excavations will be carried out in a total of 12 locations, including Karahantepe, a site with more than 250 T-shaped megalith blocks similar to those found in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gobekli Tepe.

Gobekil Tepe continues to baffle archaeologists and others. How did supposed hunter-gatherers build such an intricate and gigantic site – and why?

Hopefully these new excavations will shed some light on what could be the world’s oldest religious site.

Controversial Nebra Sky Disc to star in Stonehenge exhibition

The controversial Nebra Sky Disc will be at the centre of a forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum.

The ancient object, thought to be the world’s oldest map of the stars, will form part of ‘The World Of Stonehenge’ exhibition at the central London site.

The disc is thought by many to be a Bronze Age relic dating back 3,600 years. Its existence came to light in Germany in 1999.

While many see the disc as one of the most significant archaeological finds in history, some experts believe it to be a fake.

The object was discovered near the town of Nebra in Germany along with swords, axes and other items dating from the Bronze Age.

But it is the criminal manner of its discovery that has caused controversy.

It was located using a metal detector by two illegal treasure hunters and later seized by police officers in a sting operation.

Last year a paper was released by two archaeologists who say the disc is actually 1,000 younger than its Bronze Age designation, placing it in the Iron Age.

The Nebra Sky Disc is owned by Germany’s State Museum of Prehistory and this forthcoming new exhibition will be the first time it is being loaned out in 15 years.

Neil Wilkin, curator of The World Of Stonehenge exhibition, said: “The Nebra Sky Disc and the sun pendant are two of the most remarkable surviving objects from Bronze Age Europe.

“Both have only recently been unearthed, literally, after remaining hidden in the ground for over three millennia.

“We’re delighted that they will both be key pieces in our once-in-a-lifetime Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum.

“While both were found hundreds of miles from Stonehenge, we’ll be using them to shine a light on the vast interconnected world that existed around the ancient monument, spanning Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe.”

On the exhibition in general the Museum released a statement, which read: “Shrouded in layers of speculation and folklore, Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle, and its image is famous around the globe.

“This major exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK. It will bring the story of Stonehenge into sharper focus, showing that rather than a shadowy age of mystery, the Britain and Ireland of four millennia ago were places of big ideas, commerce and travel.

“You’ll journey back to the time of its construction around 3000 to 2500 BC and, with the help of objects from across Europe, including stone axes from the North Italian Alps and stunning metalwork from Ireland, the world of Stonehenge will be illuminated like never before.”

Returning to the disc, which is certainly not from the Neolithic unlike Stonehenge, we can assume its presence will be used to demonstrate that knowledge of the stars and their movements across ancient skies were better known than previously believed.

What (or who) lies beneath Trethevy Quoit?

Trethevy Quoit is an impressive Neolithic dolmen in south eastern Cornwall.

It is known locally as ‘The Giant’s House’ and its official name alludes to the giant legend, with the structure said to have been formed by them playing the throwing game quoits.

But it was actually built by Neolithic farmers, probably around 3700 to 3500 BC.

Trethevy Quoit is one of the best preserved chambered tombs in Cornwall and, intriguingly, it has not been excavated.

Similar monuments have yielded human remains, leading to the possibility that there are interred Neolithic farmer bodies beneath the stones.

It is believed that chambered tombs like this could have been used as communal burial places.

They may have also continued to be used in such a way into the early Bronze Age.

Clearly the structure had a strong religious significance and rituals are likely to have taken place close to it.

The enormous West Kennet Long Barrow, in Wiltshire, is another Neolithic monument and evidence suggests that human bones were placed within and removed later in what could have been ancestor worship or other rituals.

Trethevy Quoit was formed of six large granite slabs, with the uprights supporting the colossal 20-tonne capstone.

At the east-facing entrance is a small entryway called an ‘antechamber’, but only one of the two original upright stones survives.

A small rectangular hole is located at the bottom of the main stone that divides this antechamber from the main chamber.

This hole may have been used as an entrance to the 9-foot high dolmen.

Trethevy Quoit was first mentioned in 1584 by John Norden, in a topographical and historical account of Britain, but this account was first published in 1728.

In the 19th century William Copeland Borland made a study of the structure and its surroundings and made drawings of it.

In 1932 the first modern interpretation was formulated and it was noted that the site held parallels with similar structures in Brittany, France.

The stones lie in the ancient landscape of the St Cleer parish, which include a number of other fascinating monuments.

On set at the filming of new Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks WW2 epic

I recently happened upon the location filming of a new TV series helmed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

The versatile Old Town part of Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire, had been transformed into WW2 settings including an air raid shelter, a French cafe and a piano repairs shop.

Vintage cars were also on the set as well as actor Callum Turner, who has previously featured in other historical productions like Ripper Street, War and Peace and The Borgias.

He was in military uniform and preparing for a scene when I visited the set.

The filming is for the forthcoming Masters of the Air project, which is seen as a follow up to the epic Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

It is set to air later this year on Apple TV+.

The characterful Old Town in Hemel Hempstead has been used in a number of filming projects including Ricky Gervais’ After Life.

Historic English cults that plotted, schemed, maybe murdered and could have made America

Not all historical cult movements were doomsday cults per se, but outlandish beliefs have led their adherents to come to grief.

One such figure was the explorer Percy Fawcett, who believed in the esoteric tenets of the Theosophy movement.

Theosophy was co-founded by the mystic Helena Blavatsky in 1875.

It fused beliefs from a number of religious and philosophical tracts including Qabbala, Sufism and Buddhism, as well as neo-Platonism and other philosophical traditions.

But one of the shibboleths of the movement was a belief in ancient lost cities.

Percy Fawcett got lost in dense jungle looking for one of these so-called civilisations in Mato Grosso, Brazil, in 1925.

The theoretical city was known as ‘Z’ and the hunt for this site most likely led to the deaths of Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend, who all disappeared in the jungle, never to be seen again.

However, the mystery persists and, in March 2004, The Observer newspaper reported that television director Misha Williams, who had studied Fawcett’s private papers, believed that he had not intended to return to Britain but rather meant to found a commune in the jungle based on the principles of Theosophy and the worship of his son Jack.

The fate of Fawcett’s party remains unknown to this day.

Well-heeled men at the heart and height of the British Empire were often involved in cultist activities in the 1800s, with London often a focal point of strange and potentially murderous rites.

Bram Stoker, author of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, along with a host of other leading literary lights, were rumoured members of, or had connections to, a secret society offshoot of the Freemasons, which formed in 1887.

Bram Stoker

The organisation, called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was a magical order, concerned with metaphysics, alchemy, the paranormal, geomancy and occultism.

Stoker’s former London home
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Order’s first permanent meeting place – the Isis-Urania Temple, in Kensington, London – opened in the spring of 1888, just months before the infamous Jack the Ripper or Whitechapel Murders began.

The murders have been suggested to have been ritualised killings inspired by a Masonic conspiracy by some writers in recent years.

The killings could also have been part of an artworld conspiracy, with the post-impressionist painter Walter Sickert being suggested as being Jack the Ripper by some authors.

Walter Sickert

My own book ‘The Inevitable Jack the Ripper’ dives more deeply into this suggestion.

The current site of the Isis-Urania Temple Is now an average cafe, close to the Olympia exhibition centre, which belies nothing of its otherwordly past.

Ultimately a schism emerged in the Order, with one faction gravitating around the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.

Aleister Crowley in Order garb

What this illustrates is that this was very much the era of the secret society, of conspirators and cults.

It was an age where the wealthy and influential formed clubs and even pseudo-religious orders and carried out strange rites.

Slightly earlier an organisation existed called the Hellfire Club, which held lavish and depraved rituals in a man-made cave complex in the Chiltern Hills of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

Members used prostitutes they referred to as “nuns” and dined on fine foods in large banquets held in the inner sanctum of the cavernous chalk construction.

The organisation was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer and included members such as ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ artist William Hogarth, John Wilkes, John Montague and others.

The gatherings were said to have involved immoral acts and rumoured to have involve Satanic black masses.

The club motto was: “Fais ce que tu voudrais”, which translates to “do what thou wilt”.

The motto was later adopted by the aforementioned Aleister Crowley.

Dashwood’s club meetings often also included strange rituals, pornographic materials, and excessive drinking.

During its active period, up until the early 1760s, the club was known by a number of names, such as the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, the Order of Knights of West Wvcombe and The Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe.

It was later dubbed the Hellfire Club and the caves are still there as a rather odd tourist attraction called the Hellfire Caves.

I visited the site in 2014 and was struck by the absurdity of the place. It had a certain magical quality, but also raised questions about the nature and intentions of those who gathered there, in ultra-secret conclaves.

The caves feature a number of mannequins, including one of American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who was rumoured to be a member of the club.

The suggestion that Franklin, a prominent Freemason who helped to launch the American Revolution, was present raises the prospect that this effective cult could have sparked what would become one of the most significant geopolitical developments in history – the foundation of the United States.

Chip shop faces backlash over Jack the Ripper play on words

A London fish and chip shop business has faced a backlash over a play on words on the nickname ascribed to the Whitechapel Murderer, who is thought to have killed five prostitutes in Whitechapel in 1888.

The Jack the Chipper firm was criticised after using the moniker, which is based on the name of Jack the Ripper.

But the owner of the small chain of two eateries has insisted that the name will stay and said it is “just a play on words”.

Owner Recep Turhan has two chip shops in Greenwich and, perhaps more provocatively, in Whitechapel.

After a customer boycott at the Greenwich location he appeared on ITV’s This Morning and vowed to carry on regardless.

He said: “The other shop is in Brick Lane and I don’t have any kind of problems in that area.”

His son Cagri Turhan, who is the manager of the chip shop, added: “We don’t want to change the name. We don’t want to disrespect anyone. We’ve already shown our respectfulness by offering 50% discount for women just to show we’re not here to be disrespectful or damaging in any sense. We’re just here to provide good food and a good service.”

This Morning host Eamonn Holmes asked how the boycott had affected the firm.

Cagri said: “It’s quite bad at the moment – more online than anything else.

“The customers that we have inside the shop – when they come in they love the food and say our product and customer service is great.”

Asked about the controversy over using the name of a serial killer who preyed on down-at-heel women Recep said: “I totally understand this one. I’m being respectful to women complaining about the name.”

He added: “I’ll give the person 50% discount and everybody will be happy.

“I don’t think we will change the name because this is the history from 160 years ago. I’m only using a play on words for the name and nothing else.”

The Ripper Murders have proven to still be a controversial subject in recent years, with Whitechapel’s Jack the Ripper Museum facing criticism when it opened in 2015.

So what do you think? Is it acceptable to use this play on words as so many years have passed, or is it distasteful?

Sacred wells and springs: Myths and legends

I have visited a number of sacred springs and wells up and down the length and breadth of England.

These ancient water sources all hold fascinating myths and legends about their origin, their usage or the apparent properties of the waters they carry forth.

Some of these springs and wells have stories connecting them to the earliest human civilisation, some are attested to be sites of miraculous incidents and others are alleged to hold fabulous treasures.

I’ve featured some of these in posts before; including the Chalice Well and connected Red Spring of Glastonbury and the neighbouring White Spring, which have been in use since the Neolithic.

The Chalice Well alleged to be the hiding place of the Holy Grail.

This location is also associated with the mystical underworld in Celtic mythology.

There is also another sacred well in Glastonbury that is associated with miracles.

St Joseph’s Well and Crypt, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey is fed by a spring in the natural rock.

In medieval times it was enclosed within a well-house and approached by a stairway, the lowest steps still visible beneath the modern iron stairs.

The Norman round-headed arch over the well recess is probably a reused window from the Lady Chapel east wall, which was removed in the late 13th century.

The cult of St Joseph of Arimathea was very important at Glastonbury and the crypt became a popular destination for pilgrims.

Miracles and cures were recorded at the well in the early 16th century, when victims of lameness, the plague and childhood diseases were brought back to health.

I have also done a previous post on Aquae Sulis, the Roman name for the ancient city of Bath, where the compound Romano-British goddess Sulis Minerva was worshipped in ritual bathing ceremonies.

The site in Bath, just like the Chalice Well and surrounding area in Glastonbury have moved from places of Celtic pagan devotion to Christian worship or mythology.

This is evidenced by the fact that Bath Abbey sits almost directly atop the ancient Roman bath complex.

Another example of a pagan well and spring being syncretised into Christian legend is in the beautiful spa town of Buxton, in Derbyshire, at the other end of the country.

The naturally warm waters have been viewed as sacred since the Roman occupation.

At that point the settlement around the spring was known as Aquae Arnemetiae means ‘Waters of Arnemetia’.

Arnemetiae was the Romano-British goddess of sacred groves, with the name Arnemetia deriving from the Celtic for “beside the sacred grove”, so it was more of a description than a name as such.

By the 1520s the sacred spring was dedicated to St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and was being associated with healing.

A 16th century act of parliament ruled that a free supply of the spring water must be provided for the town’s residents.

I have availed myself of this free water, drinking directly from a lion-headed spout.

And the water is readily available in almost every supermarket in the UK, under the Buxton brand, which began bottling and selling it in the 19th century.

The bottles reveal that the water is high in calcium and magnesium and that it is “mineralised on its journey up through a mile of British rock”.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote about the site in his De Mirabilibus Pecci: Being The Wonders of the Peak in Darby-shire of 1636.

He wrote: “The Sun burnt clouds but glimmer to the fight,

when at famed Buxton’s hot bath we alight

unto St. Ann the Fountain sacred is:

With waters hot and cold its sources rise,

And in its Sulphur-veins there’s medicine lies.

This cures the palsied members of the old,

and cherishes the nerves grown stiff and cold.”

In the 1970s a hoard of 232 Roman coins was found in the main spring, spanning 300 years of the Roman occupation of Britain.

These probable votive offerings are likely to have been thrown into the water to curry favour with the goddess.

The tradition of throwing coins in so-called wishing wells for luck persists to this day.

But not all sacred wells and springs are so revered or maintained today.

One such site, at St Albans, in the south east of England, is hidden away in a modern housing estate.

The story of the site has a gruesome legend and a fanciful link with the mythical King Arthur.

The well is intrinsically linked with the man for whom the city is named – St Alban.

The chroniclers Gildas and Bede wrote about Alban’s martyrdom under the Roman ruler Diocletian, although later writers claimed others may have had the dubious honour.

The story of Alban’s conversion to Christianity involves his sheltering of a fugitive priest, who was later called St Amphibalus.

St Amphibalus taught Alban the tenets of the faith and baptised him.

Alban provides clothing to the runaway priest and helped him to escape with Alban taking the rap instead.

Alban was taken to be executed up what is now Holywell Hill, in St Albans.

There are a couple of legends around the execution itself and its genesis of the sacred spring.

One states that Alban was desperate for a drink so fell to his knees and prayed. Then a spring appeared to quench his thirst.

Another tale states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, the former name of St Albans, he snubbed a pagan sacrifice, and was executed.

His severed head rolled down the hill, from close to the site of the current Cathedral and Abbey Church to the bottom of the hill.

At the spot where Alban’s rolling head cane to a final stop a spring gushed forth.

It is likely that the spring actually had a pre-Christian pagan usage, but the stories have stuck and pilgrims would venture to the location.

St Alban was also adopted at the Abbey and a shrine was installed.

But the spring was also a part of Arthurian legend with Uther Pendragon, father of the mythical King Arthur, said to have had his combat injuries healed by the supposedly sacred waters.

In the reign of Richard II, the chronicler John Brompton claimed that Pendragon had been saved after a battle with Saxons.

He wrote: “Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven.”

And the Benedictine nuns of a nearby nunnery were said to have revered the water, dipping bread into the well, lending it the name Sopwell.

This comes from the Old English word ‘soppian’, which means dipping bread in liquid.

The word has an even older root, which alludes to the sop used by the legendary Aeneas, in Greek mythology, to appease the devil dog guardian of Hades, Cerberus.

The grounds on which Sopwell Nunnery existed are today occupied by the ruin of a great Tudor-era house, which replaced the former religious site after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

The well was long abandoned and thought lost, although the name of Holywell Hill kept its ghost alive.

But it was preserved thanks to the work of local campaigners as development threatened its existence in the 1980s.

Thankfully the developer was sympathetic to its storied history and restored it.

It now stands in a small, but largely unknown, walled garden.

The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille.

The water table can still sometimes be seen, especially after heavy rain adding to the water from the River Ver.

It is not just in Britain, or Europe, where wells are considered to be sacred and mystical gateways to the realm of the gods.

I have also explored the cenotes in Mexico, which were believed by the Maya to be the route to the underworld and the home of the water deity Chaac.

Sacrifices are believed to have taken place at these sinkholes, surrounded by dense jungle, and human remains have been discovered beneath the crystal clear waters.

My book ‘The Little Book of Mermaids’ looks further at the religious and folkloric significance of water and the alleged creatures that dwelt within it.

And the Anglo-Saxons, prior to their conversion to Christianity, also held wells to be places of mystery and divinity.

A poem, written down in the 14th century, but consisting entirely of Old English words read: “At a sprynge wel under a thorn

“Ther was bote of bale, a lytel here aforn:

“Ther beside stant a mayde

“Fulle of love y-bounde.

“Ho-so wol seche truwe love

“Yn hyr hyt schal be founde.”

This approximately translates to: “At the source of a spring under a hawthorn tree there was a cure for sorrow a little while ago. Beside them stands a maid full of love, held fast by love. Whoever wants to seek for true love will find it in her.”

Water is and was obviously of essential importance to people now and in the past, but this relationship goes far beyond just a biological necessity.

There is clearly something deeply ingrained in the human psyche about the places where water bursts forth from the ground.

It can come as no surprise that our ancestors deified it and associated it with their gods.

Even with my modern and fairly sceptical head on there is tranquility and spiritual potency to these wonderful places.