Imbolc Ceremony at the Rock Well in Darlington

Our Imbolc Altar

Our first ceremony took place on Saturday 5th February 2022 at Rock Well in Darlington. Seven of us joined together for a quiet and simple ceremony at the well to bless its waters and from it, the waters of all rivers and oceans throughout the world.

We began by carrying out a litter pick to tidy the site and then set up our altar which you can see above. We invited in the spirit of Brighid, embodied by the wonderful totally hand made figure of her placed on the altar (top, centre) who exuded a huge amount of presence. Jars of water from Chalice Well in Glastonbury mixed with sea water gathered from Southport beach and Whitby beach – the East and West boundaries of the Brigantes’ territory were poured by each of us into the Well to bless its waters so that they will be cleansing waters of healing and renewal.

Figurine of Brighid, totally handmade by a member of the seed group

Poems about Brighid and a reading from R. Taylor Manson’s 1897 book  Zig-Zag Ramblings of a Naturalist about the Rock Well also formed part of the ceremony.

The Rock Well is a natural spring situated near the north bank of the River Skerne, between North Road and Haughton-le-Skerne, in Darlington. The Rock Well gives its name to the Rockwell Nature Reserve that we are now within, but until quite recently lay overgrown and mostly forgotten. The area around the Rock Well has been called ‘The Lion’s Den’ by local children for many years and is a popular hangout, which unfortunately can lead to some problems with litter. 

The Rock Well is unique in the Darlington area as it is not made of a single rock but rather thousands of small stones that are naturally cemented together. This is called ‘breccia’ (pronounced bretshia) or ‘glacial conglomerate’ by geologists, which occurs when small stones were crushed together thousands of years ago by the power of a glacier and bound up in sand or clay.

It seems that the well may have been more extensive in the past, as the historian W.H. Longstaffe in his book The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington, published in 1854, noted that the Well,  “…with its canopy of trees, is a beautiful little scene, but it has been much injured in latter years by a wholesale plunder of part of the rock, to the great regret of all lovers of nature’s elegance.” (page 38).

Dr Richard Taylor Manson, the founder of the Darlington & Teesdale Field Naturalists Club and a 19th Century columnist for the Darlington & Stockton Times was fascinated by the Rock Well and devoted most of the first chapter of his 1897 book book Zig Zag Ramblings of a Naturalist to it.

A drawing of the Rock Well from Dr Richard Taylor Manson’s 1897 book
Zig Zag Ramblings of a Naturalist
Two lads sitting above the Rock Well, probably taken some time around the First World War.
(Picture courtesy of Carol Atkinson and the Haughton Local History Society)

Between 1901 and 1964 the Rock Well was at the southern edge of the huge 52 acre site occupied by the Robert Stevenson & Company locomotive works, known in Darlington as ‘Stivvies’. 

Robert Stevenson & Company locomotive works (top) with Rock Well in the center of the image, 1945

Large parts of the ‘Stivvies’ factory site were sold off for house building during the late 1970s and early 80s. The houses that now stand around the Rock Well were built by Bovis Homes, whose Managing Director wanted to fill the site with concrete and build over it. Thankfully the Darlington Borough Council architect, John Burroughs, and local resident David Race fought for the preservation of the site and the Rock Well and the area surrounding it by the banks of the River Skerne was turned into Darlington’s largest nature reserve by the mid-1980s. The area is now owned by Darlington Borough Council, which manages the nature reserve with help from the Friends of Rockwell Nature Reserve group, which has an active Facebook page. Today the Skerne has a healthy fish population and water voles, kingfishers and even otters can sometimes be seen. 

Since the 1980s the Rock Well has become forgotten about and overgrown. I discovered it in May 2017, when it was almost hidden by earth, ivy and nettles and the Well appeared to be completely dry. 

Rock Well in May 2017
The Rock Well, October 2017

In November 2017 there was a post on the Friends of Rockwell Nature Reserve Facebook page from local resident Paul Scott asking for help to start to remove the rubbish and clear out some of the area around the spring to get the water flowing clear again, rather than just seeping away under a pile of deadwood and brush.  

By 2019 Paul, along with other local residents Alan Harrison and Alan Craig (known locally as “the two Alans”) had cleared most of the overgrowth and brushwood away from the Rock Well and dug it out so that it had some water flowing from it again:

The Rock Well, January 2019

The Friends of Rockwell Nature Reserve are now working with the ‘Discover Brightwater’ project to see how the Rock Well can be restored and made a centrepiece of the Nature Reserve. The Discover Brightwater project is speaking with the Environment Agency to get more information on the concrete channel leading from the Rockwell into the Skerne so they can find out if its appearance can be improved or it can be removed altogether. 

With Covid, meetings have had to be postponed and things have gone quiet, although the “2 Alans” and other members of the Friends of Rockwell Nature Reserve group have continued to work on the area, cutting back the undergrowth and picking litter, and any further progress will be reported on their Facebook page.

The spirit of Rock Well welcomes people who would honour and respect it, and we all felt it made the newly formed Mandua Briga Seed Group welcome for our Imbolc ceremony to bless its waters and ask that they might flow clearly and abundantly. 

Blessings of Brighid upon the Rock Well and its waters

Further Information & Reading: 

Exact location of the Rock Well (paste this into the Search box in the top left hand corner of Google Maps)  – 54.540895902324166, -1.537194825787582

Interactive map of the area around the Rock Well comparing the area in 1892 with how it looks now

Unique rock formation rediscovered on the edge of Darlington – was it once the home of fairies and “wee savages”? Northern Echo article 26th January 2019 by Chris Lloyd

Fairy stones, elf bolts and brummel-kite pie Northern Echo article 2nd September 2013

The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington by W.H. Longstaffe, 1854

Zig Zag Ramblings of a Naturalist (Chapter 1) by Dr Richard Taylor Manson, 1897

Friends of Rockwell Nature Reserve Facebook Page

The Discover Brightwater Project

by Liz

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