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Mark Olly is a Cheshire writer and archaeologist who runs the Celtic Warrington Project Archaeological Unit. You can read about Mark's work in the 'Celtic Warrington & Other Mysteries' volumes.

 

The River Mersey and the Estuary Belisama
by
Mark Olly

 
The source of the Mersey
 
There is far more to the basic river Mersey than meets the eye. At source the river is fed by three smaller rivers; the Tame with its origins at Saddleworth in Yorkshire, the Etherow from Featherbed Moss beyond Ashton-under-Lyme, and the Goyt flowing from Goyt Moss and Axe Edge near Buxton in Derbyshire. It is true to say that the river Goyt is the most significant and direct river passage with the Etherow joining it first between Marple and Stockport and the Tame at Stockport. It then becomes the river Mersey. Its waters pass through the towns and villages of Whaley Bridge, New Mills, Marple, Stockport, Didsbury, Stretford, Urmston, Flixton, Cadishead, Hollins Green, Warburton, Rixton, Woolston, Warrington, Great Sankey, Moore, Norton, Widnes and Runcorn before heading out into the Irish Sea through the estuary past Ellesmere Port, Liverpool and Birkenhead. This may not always have been the case in ancient times.
 
photo: View of rock shelter at Axe Edge
 
Ptolemy's Mapping
 
In the 1947 book 'Companion Into Cheshire' produced by J.H. Ingram he makes the little known and slightly improbable observation that: "An intriguing theory advocated by the late William Ashton of Stockport suggests that originally the Mersey entered the Irish Sea by way of the estuary of the Dee, and that what is now the Mersey estuary was in earlier times, a low boggy isthmus linking Lancashire with Wirral. The Shropshire Union Canal follows the line of the vanished channel of the Mersey and the old bed of the river is said to lie at no great depth beneath the present surface. Ptolemy's map of the second century (Author's note: This should read "mapping" as Ptolemy did not produce a 'map') does not show the Mersey estuary, and an old couplet declares that:" "The squirrels ran from tree to tree, From Formby Point to Hilbree." "A great cataclysm in the sixth century is believed to have resulted in the sea breaking through the isthmus where Liverpool and Wallasey now stand, thus diverting the Mersey into its present channel.
 
Estuary Belisama
 
This disaster is referred to in a poem attributed to the bard Taliesin (520-570 AD) which is corroborated by the record of a great earthquake on September 6th 543 AD, included in the British Association list of earthquakes." It is worth noting here that Ptolemy only recorded a travel journal of names and locations in 140 AD which were used to produce "Ptolemy's Map" of Britain which appeared for the first time in print in Ptolemy's 'Geographia' in Bologne in 1477 AD over a thousand years after his survey. However, Ptolemy recording the Roman name of the Mersey estuary as the 'ESTUARY BELISAMA' is the most important clue to the origins of the river's identity as it is a Romanised version of a known Celtic river name best fitting the Mersey (for many reasons which are to follow).

 

 

 

 
The Celtic goddess Sequana
 
The Mersey would have been known by early Roman settlers as the 'BELISAMA' and later as 'MINERVA-BELISAMA'. If Ptolemy was consistent with the Roman policy of the day he would simply convert the Celtic name of the river goddess worshipped in the local groves to the nearest Roman equivalent - which means that the Celtic name for the river 'BELISAMA' had in fact been 'SEQUANA'. Considering connections with France going back into very ancient Prehistoric times, it is interesting that 'Sequana' was the goddess who also ruled over the river Seine (which runs between Paris and Le Havre on the English Channel) and no other Celtic river in all Europe apart from the Mersey! In its original form the name also contains a rare language trait of 'Q-Celtic' quite unique to Gaul, possibly indicating the original homeland region of the first Warrington Celts who followed the early Iron Age hunters. In a nut shell, they probably settled here from northern France (the same region as the later French Arthurian 'Grail Romances' and the Norman invaders).
 
Sequana of the Seine
 
The French shrine of 'Sequana of the Seine' lies about twenty-two miles (35.5 kilometres) north west of Dijon and protects the hot spring source of the Seine. This Delightful wooded valley was provided with an extensive temple complex in the Roman period (as was Warrington). It centred on a pool and spring in much the same way as Buxton at the head of the Goyt Valley centres on its hot spring and is next to Goyt Moss, the primary source for 'Sequana of the Mersey'. A developed or undeveloped Celtic shrine to the goddess Sequana probably exists somewhere in the Buxton/Wildboarclough mossland region of the Peak District National Park still waiting to be discovered !
 
View of Wildboarclough  
 
Wildboarclough
 
On a visit to Axe Edge I noted the existence of a small rock shelter next to which my attention was drawn to a large horizontal boulder. From close range nothing was greatly discernible but I photographed it and the greatly reduced size print clearly shows either a monumental horse head in full flight or that of a bristling wild boar. It is highly similar in style to an engraving of a horse head on a rib bone from Robin Hood's cave at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire, and the French Stone Age cave paintings of horses. It points directly towards Wildboarclough ! The Romans constructed roads along the river, the Celts created a sacred route of pilgrimage and marked it out using mounds and cats as the key. This pattern was continued by Medieval builders and story tellers who used it as the path taken by Sir Gawain in 'Gawain And The Green Knight' on his quest to save the 'fertility of the land'. This story leads us to Staffordshire and Ludchurch, the 'Green Chapel' - but more of this in the next article.  
photo: Carved boulder at Axe Edge
 

 
ARTICLE ADAPTED FROM: CELTIC WARRINGTON & OTHER MYSTERIES -
VOLUME TWO: EAST TO SOUTH. MARK OLLY. CHURNET VALLEY BOOKS,
43 Bath Street, Leek, Staffs. (01538) 399033.

 
 
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