O did ye ne’er hear of St Giles,

The Sainte of famed Butterbie steeple?

There ne’er was his like seen for miles,

Pardie, he astonied the people!

His face was as red as the sun,

His eyne were a couple of sloes, sir,

His bellie was big as a tun,

And he had a huge bottle nose, sir,

O what a strange fellow was he!

MEMORIES 404 told of the wells of Butterby, to the south of Durham City, which bubbled strange briny waters from the centre of the earth. These waters, it was claimed, had magical medicinal properties, and in the 18th and early 19th centuries, quite a little tourist spa resort grew up here on the banks of the Wear, near Sunderland Bridge.

Chris Giles of Shadforth draws our attention to a funny poem published in 1846 in The Borderers Table Book, which is a collection of folklore put together by Moses Aaron Richardson. The author claims the poem was originally written in Latin in 1555, but it would appear to be a comic parody put together in the 19th Century to explain why so much of Durham is dedicated to St Giles.

It claims that St Giles was not born but instead, as a baby, he fell out of a tree on top of the Prior of Durham at Finchale. The prior took the unconventional infant, which arrived able to speak, to the priory where it spent many years studying, drinking brandy and performing miracles, like parting the River Wear so people could walk across it without getting their feet wet.

Another miracle was performed at Butterby. The poet says:

To Butterbie often he’d stray,

And sometimes look in at the well, sir;

And if you’ll attend to the lay,

How it came by its virtues I’ll tell, sir;

One morning, as wont, the sainte call’d.

And being tremendously faint then,

He drank of the lymphe till he stall’d,

And out spake the reverend sainte then,

“My blessing be on thee for aye!”

Thus saying, he bent his way home,

Now mark the event which has followed,

The fount has from that time, become

A cure for sick folk – for it’s hallowed:

And many a pilgrim goes there,

From many a far distant part sir,

And, piously uttering a prayer,

Blesses the saint’s pious heart, sir,

That gave to the fount so much grace.

So St Giles was a regular visitor to Butterby, and one day was so thirsty that he drank the well dry, but when he blessed it, it sprang back to life and became a tourist attraction. Butterby gets two full verses in this 12-verse poem which suggests it must have been fairly well frequented in 1846.

After establishing the wells, the poem explains that the saint then settled in the abbey at Finchale:

At Fynchale, his saintship did dwell,

Till the devil got into the cloister,

And left the bare walls as a shell,

And gulp’d the fat monkes like an oyster:

So the sainte was enforced to quit,

Driven out of Finchale by the devil, Giles then founded another church in Durham City:

Another kirke straight he erected,

And for holiness, one which famed much is,

Where sinners and saintes were protected,

And kept out of Beelzebub’s clutches.

This, of course, is St Giles’ Church, and it is, of course, nonsense. St Giles, the patron saint of cripples, was a 7th Century hermit from Athens who founded an abbey near Arles, in southern France. He never came to Durham, but during the late medieval centuries, he was one of the most popular saints of the continent. Indeed, so popular was he that for a while, Toulouse as well as Arles claimed to have his body in a bid to attract his fans on pilgrimage.

In this country, there are 160 churches dedicated to him, including the one in Gilesgate, which was started in 1112 by Bishop Ranulf Flambard with a hospital – for cripples – alongside.

ANOTHER antiquarian note: we’ve spent many months in the Sunderland Bridge area ever since we were asked about why there was a pile of stones across the Wear beneath the medieval bridge (answer: it’s a fish ladder, built in the 1980s).

Dave Shotten, though, draws our attention to a mention of Sunderland Bridge in the work of the late 18th Century Durham historian, William Hutchinson. He suggests that there was a Viking camp there in the 10th Century.

Hutchinson was a solicitor from Barnard Castle, but he should also have known about the Sunderland Bridge area: his mother, Hannah Doubleday, came from “Butterby-by-Durham”.