Paul Vallely's Notebook: A pilgrimage to Barnsley

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We all need someone to look down on. In Leeds, when I was a young reporter, everyone looked down on Barnsley. How we laughed at the lawyer's bar-room story about the day a pompous judge had before him a young barrister representing a handler of stolen goods from the said town.

We all need someone to look down on. In Leeds, when I was a young reporter, everyone looked down on Barnsley. How we laughed at the lawyer's bar-room story about the day a pompous judge had before him a young barrister representing a handler of stolen goods from the said town.

"I trust," said the judge, "that your client is familiar with the principle Nemo dat quod non habet."

"Indeed, m'lud," riposted the young turk. "In Barnsley they speak of little else."

But the down-at-heel little ex-mining town may yet have the last laugh on those who have long assumed that Latin must be an alien language to its denizens. For it seems that no less a dignitary than Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine the Great, may have been a visitor to the town in earlier times. We know this because a JCB digger has just uncovered a well which, antiquarian records say, was at the site of a chapel dedicated to her in 1234 by the Cluniacs of Monk Bretton Priory. It was built to commemorate an association with the saint, who is reputed to have been in the area when her son was declared emperor, in York in 306.

The digger was not there by accident, as I found this week when I paid an on-site visit to the St Helen's Well Committee as they met at Crevesford School on one of the windswept hills above the town. The committee was a gallimaufry of characters such as might have been assembled by Alan Ayckbourn: a local councillor still in his Yorkshire Traction Company uniform; a white-bloused historian; the town's quietly-spoken conservation officer; an extravagantly ringletted icon-painter who happened to live up the road; a full-frocked deacon from the Orthodox Church with a Russian hat and a Doncaster accent; and a distinguished archaeologist who had supervised the local digs when the M1 was built half a century before and who looked so venerable that he might have been an archaeological specimen himself.

The discovery came about when the conservation officer, John Hislop, kept finding references to St Helen's Well on old maps, and yet no sign of it on modern ones. He made overlays of the old onto the new and decided that the well must be somewhere beneath the school playing field at Crevesford. He approached the school with some trepidation but found that, far from being protective of her turf, the head-teacher, Valerie Brewer, was as excited as he was, and persuaded the school governors to stump up £800 for a geophysical survey as a Millennium Project, to investigate the site. What they found when the digger arrived was a square well, dressed in stone, with a couple of stone-capped conduits running from it and cutting across what looked like a medieval brick path. The water, it seems, bubbles up from a fault in the bedrock near the top of the hill, though it is hard to tell since modern drainage systems in the area have turned the playing field into a quagmire.

"The trouble is," said the venerable archaeologist, Dr Dennis Ashhurst, "because it's impossible to date stone, we don't know whether we're looking at a medieval holy well or an 18th-century cattle trough."

Others have fewer doubts. "The family who lived in the old house before it was demolished in 1976 still called the oldest part of the building 'the chapel'," said Sue Button, the local historian, who interviewed the last surviving member of the family, Freda Birkenshaw, before she died. "She remembered people coming with bottles to take away the holy water."

Much discussion then ensued about preserving and landscaping the site with assistance from the local council, English Heritage and the Sacred Lands project. "We need to get that in place before we start the pilgrimages," said Ann Moffat, the secretary of the residents' association on the grey-bricked council estate that surrounds the site.

It all seemed a bit cart-before-horse. Before a sacred site needs facilities for pilgrims, it surely ought to have pilgrims first? Dennis the Deacon and Magdalena the icon-painter had been strangely silent. "There are 300,000 members of the Orthodox Church throughout the country who are waiting to find out if it is a scared well," said Magdalena. "If it is, we will come in an organised way."

"But it would be idolatrous to come if it can't be proved," said Deacon Dennis. Then, suddenly overcome with second thoughts, he added: "Though since we know that the site is holy, it may be enough to have a well which is just 'attributed', like the one at Walsingham." And he got up from the table and wandered out into the muddy field to have another look.

To the great places of pilgrimage such as Canterbury, Lindisfarne and Iona, the name of Barnsley may yet be added. All's well that ends well, or si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit, as they say in Barnsley.



There are some places where, as soon as you enter, you feel that all is right with the world. Crevesford School is one of them. The atmosphere is special from the moment you open the door. There is the sound of laughter from the classrooms. A welcoming smile from the school receptionist. Friendly dinner ladies setting out the little tables for lunch. And a warm but no-nonsense motherly head-teacher. It came as no surprise to learn that Crevesford is, according to Ofsted, a beacon school whose pupils - children aged 2 to 19 who range from those with learning difficulties through those with Down's syndrome to others who are profoundly handicapped - are happy, well-balanced and capable of taking a deal of responsibility for themselves.

So what is Barnsley local authority doing with the place? They are closing it at the start of the summer holidays. Rationalisation, they call it. The borough's three special schools are to be shut down and merged into one mega special school. It will be cheaper, you see. For a start, they won't have to pay the salary of the head, the much-loved Mrs Brewer, who is being made redundant.

The children, many of whom are from poor families with no car, will have their day lengthened with arduous journeys. But, worst of all, they will be deprived of all those special qualities which come from being nurtured in a small community.

Why do our public bodies nowadays so routinely mistake cost-cutting for efficiency? There are some things you can't just put a price on. I expect there is a Latin tag to that effect, but some times it is better to use plain English.