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CLIFTON HOTWELL SPA PAST AND PRESENT



SAINT VINCENT






Hermits were not always looked upon with approval by the early institutionalised Church, nor indeed by government officials, especially at the time of a disintegrating Roman Empire. They could appear a potential force for disorder, as when during the Aryan controversy they suddenly thronged the streets of Alexandria, walking in from the desert, emaciated, hairy and wild-eyed. Hermits who went up on to the tops of pillars were known as stylites, and those few who lived in trees were dendrites. St. Simeon lived on the top of a pillar for about thirty-six years, and shouted cheerfully to the crowd below him, Welcome, man of God! St. Simeon was the most famous of the stylites and his pillar became a place of pilgrimage. The church that was built around it, some time between 476 and 491, was the largest in the world before Justinian built St. Sophia in Constantinople in 537.

St. Vincentís Priory near the summit of St. Vincent Rocks, on Sion Hill, was never a real Priory but was a romantic Regency Gothic house of about 1828, built to a design which looked back to the medieval Perpendicular Gothic, with slender lancet windows and figurative carvings copied from the north porch of the medieval church of St. Mary Redcliffe. Nevertheless, it built on the local legends, because it was literally built on caves traditionally claimed to be the home of a hermit.

St. Vincentís Caves, also known as Ghystonís or Giantís Cave, home of the Giant Vincent, sits 250 feet high up a sheer cliff in St. Vincentís Rocks and has a very long and interesting history. There is evidence to suggest that it was used as a chapel in the year AD 305. One year before that, in AD 304, Saint Vincent, a Spanish saint, experienced a relatively early but very cruel and warrior-like martyrdom that required great endurance, fortitude and strength, because he refused to worship and recognise the ancient gods of Greece and Rome. Saint Vincentís martyrdom must have spread quickly round the Roman Empire. Today, we underestimate the speed of communication and travel that went on in ancient times, during what must have been a time of resistance, to what amounted to foreign occupation of Europe. Excavations have revealed that St. Vincentís Cave was both a holy place and a place of refuge at various times in its history, in which Romano-British pottery has been found. Therefore, it was probably used by an early Celtic Christian hermit, or a series of hermits over a long period of time (because the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 and left in AD 410). Also, there were probably several hermits living in natural caverns, clefts and crevices in the Avon Gorge, long since destroyed by quarrying.

It takes just a small jump of the imagination to surmise there might have been hermits, or dendrites and sylites, who preached from tree houses and rocky niches in the Avon Gorge, during the Roman occupation of Britain, keeping alive old stories from when Brennus took Rome. Like St. Simeon, the hermit who occupied St. Vincentís cave might have shouted from the cave in a type of dog Latin, preaching to crowds of early Celtic Christian tribes on the banks of the River Avon below, making use of Godís natural acoustics, empowered by the Celtic myths and legends associated with the old eternal rocks of the Celtic Giant Vincent, stories of St. Simeon and hermit rebellions in Alexandria, and St. Vincentís recent martyrdom in Spain.

MARTYRíS PRAYER OF ST. VINCENT.

Martyr of God, whose strength was steeled
To follow close Godís only Son,
Well didst thou brave thy battlefield,
And well thy heavenly bliss was won!

Now join thy prayer with ours, who pray
That God may pardon us and bless;
For prayer keeps evilís plague away,
And draws from life its weariness.

Long, long ago, were lossed the chains
That held thy body once in thrall;
For us how many a bond remains!
O Love of God release us all.

All praise to God the Father be,
All praise to thee, eternal Son;
All praise, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
While never-ending ages run. Amen.

William West (artist) cut the underground passage to St. Vincentís Cave after 1828, when he constructed the Camera Obscura in The Observatory, formerly a windmill, and converted it to a house on Observatory Hill. Prior to that, the cave would have had more limited access by rope or rope ladder. Today, the cave visiting platform may be seen clearly from Clifton Suspension Bridge; both St. Vincentís Cave and the Camera Obscura remain open to visitors.

IN ESSENCE: we know that the Hotwell has the same underground source as Bath Spa, and is the warmest spring in the Avon Gorge. Seismic tremors have linked it with Wells, Cheddar and Lisbon, Portugal. The Hotwell flows from the foot of St. Vincentís Rocks in the Avon Gorge, and local mythology links the Celtic giant or god Vincent with the creation of the Avon Gorge. Comparisons might be drawn between the mythological giant god brothers, Vincent and Goram, with the real lives of the Celtic Gaelic warrior brother kings, Brennus and Belenus, who have ancient connections with the city of Bristol itself. Local Celts believed that when the sun god, Belenus, went down, he travelled under mother earth and heated the Hotwell Spring. We do not know what deities the Romans attributed to the Hotwell, but considering the history of Brennus and Belenus, combined with local hermits who might have caused problems, the Romans might have attributed it to Vincent. In any event, the Celtic giant god Vincent, who has been associated with the Avon Gorge for thousands of years, transposed into the Christian St. Vincent; both act as a marker on the passage of mankind through time that reflect our highest hopes.


Picture: St. Vincentís Rocks in the Avon Gorge, 1815. View from just below the Hotwell at high tide. Watercolour and pencil by Francis Danby (1793-1861), a leading British Romantic artists, who also painted in Nightingale Valley, Leigh Woods, and Rownham Fields, and who sought to elevate folk art, ancient customs and revive medievalism. Saint Vincentís Cave is three-quarters of the way up St. Vincentís Rocks. Today Clifton Suspension Bridge hangs from the top of St. Vincentís Rocks, the Portway worms its way through the Avon Gorge, covered at this point by the Alpine-style canopy to protect the road from potential rock fall.



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