Friday, 3 June 2011

The Beautiful Damsel of the Silent Pool, Surrey

Also unclear is the true nature of the beautiful damsel of the Silent Pool. This beauty spot lies just off the A25 a mile west of Shere and today has its own car park. This beautiful pool of crystal clear water nestles beneath towering trees at the foot of the Downs. It is a famously charming spot which tempts motorists passing on the A25 as much as it does the more energetic walkers on the North Downs Way, which runs along the crest of the hills half a mile to the north. The pure waters come from rain which falls on the North Downs and spends years soaking down through the chalk before striking a layer of impervious clay and being forced to the surface.

Elsewhere the springs form small streams, but here the waters are caught by a ridge of sandstone and form a delightful, tear-shaped pond. Sheltered by the trees and the hills, the spot is charmingly quiet. On occasion the birds and the breeze fall still and the Silent Pool truly lives up  to its name.

This peaceful scene is sometimes disturbed, local legend has it, by a most beautiful and mysterious figure. Splashing about in the pure waters is sometimes seen an attractive young lady. Entirely naked, the spirit washes herself and swims playfully before diving into the waters and disappearing from sight.

Who she might be is not clear. According to a version of the story first written down a century and a half ago, the beautiful young woman was a local peasant girl named Emma who lived here in the early 13th century. She was in the habit of bathing in the clear waters of the Silent Pool, but one day while she was bathing a nobleman rode by and saw her. Overcome with lust for the pretty farm girl, the nobleman splashed into the Silent Pool in an attempt to grab the girl and drag her ashore. Rather than give in to his decidedly improper advances, the girl waded into deeper water, slipped and drowned. The girl’s cries attracted her father who arrived too late to save his daughter, but in time to see the evil nobleman ride off.

Although this version of the girl’s tragic fate seems to be widely believed in the area, it is sadly untrue. The evil nobleman and his unwelcome advances were invented by the writer Martin Tupper in a short story he wrote in 1858. In this story, set in the early 13th century, the nobleman is identified as King John from a cap he dropped at the scene of his crime. The local priest takes the cap to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was born nearby at Friday Street. Langton uses the evidence of the cap to sway the barons against King John. The King’s crime becomes the basis for the doctrine that nobody, not even the king, is above the law. This doctrine is then enshrined in Magna Carta by the outraged Langton and the barons.

A good story, but sadly it is nonsense. Langton was born in Lincolnshire, not Surrey, and he had nothing whatsoever to do with the vicar at Shere. Moreover, whatever motives the barons had for drawing up Magna Carta, the plight of a peasant girl was not among them. Nor is there any historical record of King John ever molesting a peasant girl - though in truth he did many shocking things. Tupper simply invented the tale and grafted it on to the local legend of the attractive phantom.

Which leaves us to wonder who the beautiful maiden of the Silent Pool actually is. She may indeed be a poor drowned local girl, but there is a more interesting theory. Water sources, such as the Silent Pool, were sacred to the beautiful water goddesses of the pagan past. It is clear that the more atmospheric the place – and the Silent Pool is nothing if not atmospheric – the more sacred the spring was considered. Could it be that the beautiful ghost of the Silent Pool is simply the half-forgotten memory of a powerful pagan goddess?

We know that before Christianity came to England the pagan English believed in not only the great gods, but also in a multitude of local spirits and paranormal entities. Natural landscape features each had their own minor deity or spirit to stand guard over them and care for their well being. Water features tended to attract beautiful young goddesses, so it is reasonable to assume that a water feature as noticeable as the Silent Pool would have been the home of such a lovely deity. Perhaps she lives there still.

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