Some swords and no bells

It is said that a mermaid is given legs on the condition that when she walks they will feel like two upturned swords.  St Michael’s well in Longstanton in East Anglia is often described as a pagan water shrine later re-consecrated for Christian baptism. Some people say it lies on a ley line, and make much of the fact that it is a site of the uneasy coexistence or happy merging of pagan and Christian belief systems.

Instead of the church’s font, babies were christened in the well, a cross shaped opening in the wall shedding light on the fontanelle. The well is an anklelock of cold water, pure smelling but minerally brown with buntings of cobwebs, and the grass burns after. Supposedly no-one knows where the water comes from, but there is lots of it to feed the primulas, both male and female (or thrum and pin eye) in the church yard.

The knocker of the elegant white door adjoining the churchyard is fashioned into the shape of a giant fish from a slug of brass. Knock and a man hands over the key to the disused church which is stripped and nearly empty. There is a dead starling on the floor. The markings on its plump breast look like those of a doublet, like that worn by Christopher Marlowe in the one painting of him. There are dust and flies on the altar; ‘It Is Finished’ glows in stained glass on the window.

In the visitors’ book, someone has written ‘I was christened in this well 84 years ago! Is this church a dream?’ When I am returning the key a man in a hoody raps on a window with a chisel in the house opposite and he and other men laugh in unison: they have been watching all along. Would St Michael knock on the door with his sword if he wanted to come into the church?

There are no bells at the top of the church but there is a torn bellrope like a snipped nerve. Phantom bells ring under the sea to warn ships or lure them off the right path. Getting lost on the way home, I meet someone who tells me that there is an underground cave near Royston carved inside by the Knights Templar and that there are tunnels under the fens where the monks used to run about. Near here, too, is a church with mermaids carved around the font, St Peter’s.

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