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The Erasure of Saint Eadburg

The Erasure of Saint Eadburg by Anthony Levings

Station Road chicanes past a takeaway named China China. The cycle ride is closing in on its final stretch before the sea. Lyminge is a welcome pause. You can hear the relief pass over those at the back.

‘Last stop before Folkestone,’ says Gary, organiser of our small gathering. ‘There’s shops for refreshments and a toilet block in the car park. Be quick, rendezvous in twenty minutes.’

‘I remember before the war,’ says April, the eldest member of the group, ‘you could buy a ticket between Canterbury South and Shorncliffe. Back then Lyminge was a couple of stops before the coast and everyone would be getting excited as we pulled in.’

‘Shorncliffe?’ I ask, not being able to place it.

‘The army camp,’ she says. ‘Folkestone West, as you young folk know it.’

‘Ah, okay. And the South station?’

‘All except the Station Master’s House. It was removed when they expanded the hospital.’

‘And where do the trains from Lyminge travel to now?’ I ask, pointing at the station house clad in white clapboard with green framed windows.

‘Nowhere,’ says April, ‘it’s a library.’

‘That’s right,’ says Jim, adjusting his lycra shorts, ‘has been since the eighties.’

‘Interesting. So the last tickets issued weren’t for train travel, they were for borrowing books.’

‘Precisely,’ says Jim, ‘journeys of the body have been replaced by journeys of the mind.’

‘You should write that in your article,’ says April.

‘Would you mind?’ I ask, with no intention of doing so.

‘Not at all,’ says Jim.

As the group seeks out energy gels and protein snacks in the local stores, I pootle around the village in search of a late-Victorian red-brick construction that has been the subject of some advance research. I ask April and Jim if they’d like to join me. They decline in favour of a ‘breather.’

I discover the building propped drunkenly against an elevated stone wall. The clay-tiled, timber-framed shelter sitting atop the brick with a painted iron gate to prohibit entry, although, from the smell that emanates, this hasn’t prevented its use as a place of urination. Inside the shelter there’s a solitary pump, offset from the centre, while the rest of the floor is a bland slab of concrete, an expanse of negative space. It collects dirt and leaves in its corners, along with drinks cans and crisp packets.

‘Who’d’ve thunk it,’ says Gary, cycling to a halt in front of me. ‘This was where Saint Augustine placed his knee.’

He points over the wall to the spot where the source of the Nailbourne bubbles forth.

‘It’s weird to think,’ I say, agreeing with him, ‘fourteen hundred years ago, Pope Gregory’s famed missionary might’ve been where we are now.’

‘Did you know that angels battled with Woden and Thor to maintain the river’s flow?’

‘I did read something.’

‘You should meet the local historian, Robert Baldwin, he knows everything about it.’

Gary offers to introduce me. I decline, wishing to investigate the pump house on my own.

‘Fair enough,’ he says, cycling off to explore the nearby church.

Historical maps record the location of the pump house as Saint Eadburg’s Well. As a schoolboy, the story of Queen Eadburg was familiar to me. Her orgy of beheadings and assassinations, and the poisoning of her husband, were a surreal delight compared to the rest of the history we were taught.

I was rather hoping the well was named after her. Not so. According to an eleventh-century Benedictine monk called Goscelin, it wasn’t named after any of the early medieval Eadburgs at all; it was named after the daughter of the first rulers of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Kent: Saint Ethelburga.

Saint Ethelburga married King Edwin of Northumbria, and, after his martyrdom at the Battle of Hatfield Chase, became the first abbess of Lyminge.

Goscelin’s onomastic somer-sault led to the official renaming of this place as Saint Ethelburga’s Well in the late-Victorian era. But this doesn’t mean all historians believe the monk’s narrative. Neither is there any evidence linking to Queen Eadburg of Wessex (who besides being royalty and an abbess was far from saint material).

Outside of Goscelin’s rather influential version of history, which was upheld through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Saint Eadburg is the Third Abbess of Minster-in-Thanet, whose relics were translated to Lyminge around the beginning of the ninth century. She might not have been a queen (only a princess), or as badass (for want of a less cringeworthy word) in life as her namesake, but posthumously she had her moments.

In one account, an army of heathens bled out from their bowels when they tried to prise a priest from Saint Eadburg’s shrine.

A second account records a thief sitting on a privy, who swears to his innocent companion upon the shrine of Saint Eadburg that he didn’t steal. For this falsehood the thief’s entrails abruptly exit through his anus.

I hope my cycling companions, taking a comfort break in the car park toilets, aren’t frivolously swearing by Saint Eadburg—otherwise my article could turn into a whole different thing.

Buzz. There’s a text from Gary: ‘Ready?’

On my way to rejoin the group, I catch sight of April and Jim, concealed behind a tree, each smoking cigarette.

‘We’ll be with you soon,’ says Jim, giving a wink. ‘We’re just finishing our breather.’

‘I saw Robert,’ says Gary, as he arrives behind me. ‘He had some news about your well.’

‘You mean Bobby Baldwin,’ says Jim, coughing from the smoke in his lungs. ‘He’s a fine chap.’

Gary tells me that despite the best efforts of past eras to remove Saint Eadburg from the records, a single word, written by someone called John Leland in the 1530s, was enough to pivot opinion of the parish council, which recently voted to reinstate the title of Saint Eadburg’s Well. Leland wrote that Queen Ethelburga was laid to rest with St Eadburg.

‘Will the church follow suit?’ I ask.

The church was renamed from Saint Mary’s and Saint Eadburg’s at the same point in time as the well.

‘He doesn’t know. But I thought you’d be happy about the news; it’s a proper twist to your tale.’

In truth, I’m divided by it. To watch one figure brought to the surface only to see a deserving counterpart at risk of being subsumed is troubling. Jim calls it the quicksand of history, a phrase I note down.

‘Let’s go,’ says Gary, as we head off on the final stretch to the sea, where we’ll swim and be refreshed before cycling home.

‘Bye,’ says the voice inside my head as a farewell to Saint Eadburg and Saint Ethelburga.

‘Cheerio,’ they reply, less troubled than me by whom has their name attached to the well.