Water-Witching for Unholy Rites
Unholy Rites, the third the Danutia Dranchuk mystery series, is due out in March from TouchWood. This time RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk finds herself drawn into investigating ancient rituals in England’s Peak District.
The idea of setting a book in England came years ago, when my husband Chris Bullock and I were at the Buxton Gilbert and Sullivan Festival to promote our first joint novel, A Deadly Little List. Chris is a man of many interests, however, and wasn’t ready to start a second novel right away. So I wrote Sitting Lady Sutra on my own, solving the problem of what to do with Chris’s main character by sending ex-patriate Arthur back to England to care for his ailing mother.
Meanwhile, during visits to Chris’s English friends and relations, we explored possibilities for a Peak District novel. Stone circles and abandoned mines seemed promising until we discovered local mystery author Stephen Booth had already claimed that territory. Then we came upon the popular local custom of well dressing and its attendant festivals, and thought “aha!”
Well dressing likely began as a pagan custom of bringing flowers and garlands to the quixotic springs that bubble up and disappear in this limestone landscape, in gratitude for the blessing of water. In late Victorian times, these simple garlands became elaborated into the forms we see today: large clay-covered panels depicting religious or secular scenes made entirely from natural ingredients such as flower petals, cones, seeds, and small stones. Hydrangea petals, with their wide range of hues, make spectacular skies; sprigs of parsley make luxuriant borders. When finished, these panels are erected adjacent to wells or other sources of water, blessed in a special ceremony, and after a week or so of slow disintegration, removed. The money raised through donations and accompanying activities help to support village churches, schools, and other community organizations.
Well dressing festivals take place in over a hundred Peak District towns and villages between May and September. Because we visited at different periods, we were able to talk to well dressers as they created the panels and to observe the blessing ceremony at several major sites, including Bradwell, Stoney Middleton, Whaley Bridge, and Tideswell. You’ll find photos on my website: www.kaystewart.ca.
Tideswell was crucial to our final choice of setting, for while we were exploring the area, we came across the history of Litton Mill, notorious for its exploitation and abuse of orphan child labourers during the Industrial Revolution. Here was another and much more sinister use of water that we could weave into our narrative, along with the story of Lindow Man, a prehistoric bog man most likely a victim of ritual sacrifice.
How do all these elements fit together? Read Unholy Rites and find out.
Kay Stewart is the author of police procedurals featuring RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk. Unholy Rites, written with husband Chris Bullock, is the third in the series. Kay has also published short stories, personal essays, and writing textbooks. She taught at the University of Alberta before moving to Vancouver Island to devote her time to writing. She is active in the crime-writing community, having served as National Vice President and President of Crime Writers of Canada and co-chair of Bloody Words 2011.