Friday, July 17, 2015

Dark Dungeon

The fourth of the set of drawings, or sketches really, that began with "Castle Gate", "Down in the Dungeon" and "Dungeon Door", intended less as memories of a place visited than as possible illustrations for a children's book that I was planning, but never wrote.

While I do not truthfully recall where the first three drawings were made, this one I most definitely do remember.

My personal journey into the history of the Jews of England, which culminated in the writing of "The Badge and the Cross", began one day in the early years of this century, when I was the Housemaster of Polack’s, the Jewish boarding house at Clifton College, and also the founding chair of DAVAR, the Jewish Institute in Bristol. Permission had at last been given by the owners of a derelict water-bottling plant at the foot of Constitution Hill in Cliftonwood to enter the site and, moving among debris in a ramshackle wooden hut that had been nailed to the cliff wall, the four of us who had been invited to do so explored by torchlight the theory of one of our number, Lawrence Trackman by name, which had brought us here. Jonathan Sacks, the then Chief Rabbi, had come all the way from London just for this; our local Rabbi, Hillel Simon, made up the party. Our quest took us through spider webs, loose floorboards, mounds of broken glass and almost a thousand years of history; but it only took seconds to confirm the theory. The cliff wall opened onto what was less a cave than a crevice in the rock, and then a drop of more than a hundred feet into the hot springs that egress into the River Avon. A semi-circular lintel held the opening secure, and on its face, though barely readable, several Hebrew words, of which "zochalim – flowing" – gave us the confirmation we were seeking. The date on the Hebrew inscription was 1087.

The place had been known for centuries as Jacob's Well, and it was located literally on the outside of the city wall in Bristol, or Brigstowe as the city would have been called in Norman times. A series of warm water springs, known as Hotwells, come up from the river Avon at Cliftonwood, and three of them are recorded as having been given to the Jews, linked by underground tunnels, to be used for their mikveh, their ritual bath. After our initial visit, the archaeologists at Bristol University took over. The date inscribed in the lintel makes Jacob's Well, by several hundred years, the oldest and therefore one of the most important Jewish relics anywhere in Europe, though whether the ritual bath was indeed used as a mikveh, for personal purification, or simply for the washing of corpses prior to burial, remains to be resolved.

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