In honour of Obscura Day, I’m starting an occasional series based on the sacred landscapes that surround us. So here we go with the patron saint of Derby and a holy well…
We don’t know a huge amount about St. Alkmund. The story begins in the medieval kingdom of Northumbria, which covered the north of England and south-east Scotland – in other words, not Derby. It was an area plagued by dynastic struggles, and in 765, the Northumbrian king Athelwald Moll was deposed by a group of nobles who gave the crown to Alhred. In turn, Athelwald’s son deposed Alhred, who promptly exiled himself to the kingdom of the Picts in Scotland. Alhred’s family remained in exile for around 20 years, until Alkmund lead an army in an attempt to reclaim Northumbria. It didn’t work – he was killed by men working for King Eardwulf around 800 and buried in, you’ve guessed it…
However, those pesky Vikings kept raiding England, and in order to preserve Alkmund’s posthumous dignity, his body was moved to Northworthy – or, in Danish, Derby. A church dedicated to him was built to house his relics, although that’s now under the ring road; while they were building the road, Alkmund’s tomb was dug up, and now resides in Derby Museum and Art Gallery.
Pretty soon, by 803 at least, Alkmund had been canonised and become the focus of popular devotion and miraculous happenings at various churches, with one of his most ardent fans being Aethelfleda, the daughter of Alfred the Great. This explains how someone we know next to nothing about became the patron of a bunch of churches throughout the Midlands. It also explains why, next to a block of residential flats at the back of Derby city centre, the last surviving Holy Well in Derby.
To be honest, I’m amazed at how easy it was to find Alkmund’s Well. I expected it to be in a field somewhere, or in a picturesque outlying village. Instead it’s pretty much in the city itself, almost as if an urban landscape grew up around it. Now it’s surrounded by railings, and a sign makes it clear that drinking the water wouldn’t be a good idea. It used to be part of the local tradition of well dressing, but that was discontinued in the sixties. Now it just sits there, trickling away, a monument to a near-forgotten saint.
It was a cold day when I visited, and to be honest I felt a little conspicuous standing at the well while other people looked at me suspiciously as they walked past or performed a three-point turn. I said a quick prayer for the people who lived around the well, and for those who’ll eventually live in the housing development that’s going to overlook it, and then I left for a quick mooch around the city.
I guess Alkmund’s Well is an example of how there’s more to the world than we see at first glance. A holy well can be found in the shadow of a tower block, and the distance between sacred and secular isn’t nearly as extensive as we may think. Sacred history lurks around every corner, the hidden stories of our towns and cities tucked away on street corners and on housing estates. You’ve just got to know where to look.