TOMORROW, March 28, is the feast day of St Alkelda, but it is believed there are only two churches in England named in her honour. Both are in the Yorkshire Dales, one being at Middleham and the other at Giggleswick, near Settle.

The snag is that there is no formal record of a saint called Alkelda. The Roman Martyrology, whose scope is worldwide, is widely accepted as an official list of saints although it does require constant updating and amendment. It contains the dates of birth and death of those proclaimed or canonised as saints, but the declaration of sainthood is rather more complex.

In the distant past, saints were declared as such by local proclamation – for example, the Virgin Mary has never been canonised, and neither have the apostles. Many saints in ancient times were regarded as such by their strong religious beliefs and work – the Venerable Bede is a good local example. He was known Venerable as early as 836 when a church council in Aachen described him as such, and in 1899 Pope Leo XIII formally recognized Bede as a “Doctor of the Church”. The famous Alcuin of York (c735-804) referred to Bede as “blessed".

The lives of many known saints are well documented but when it comes to Alkelda, it seems the name may not be that of a saintly woman. Instead, it seems to derive from an old word meaning well, i.e. keld or kelda, with Alkelda meaning a holy well or spring. Nonetheless, there is a legend which features Alkelda.

The story tells of a Saxon princess called Alkelda who was murdered by a Viking woman, being strangled with a scarf. The supposed murder was committed more than 1,000 years ago. Consequently, no original written record exists. It is not known whether the killer was brought to justice but it is said that the remains of Alkelda were buried beneath the nave of Middleham Anglican church which is dedicated to both the Virgin Mary and St Alkelda.

There are many references to Alkelda in and around Middleham, albeit in different ways. Keld is a word that is widely used in Yorkshire where it means “well” or “spring”. Examples include Keldholme, Keld Head or Keld on its own. The Anglo-Saxon word for holy was halig, and their name for a well was kelda, hence a holy well was halig kelda.

Such was the importance of wells, because they provided disease-free water, that they became the meeting points for various councils and groups such as the wapentake. The area around Middleham became known Hallikeld and in 1157 one of the wapentakes near Richmond was called Halikeldshire. And there is a St Alkelda’s Well at Middleham.

The name continues in the names of some old houses and farms while the local court’s area of jurisdiction was known as Hallikeld Petty Sessional Division. I doubt if any of those “hallikelds” had links with a saint.

The Middleham St Alkelda is probably not the same one who is honoured in the famous Ebbing and Flowing Well near Giggleswick, and in whose honour Giggleswick Anglican church is named – although it is possible that only one mythical Alkelda existed. Giggleswick’s links with St Alkelda were known in 1528 when a man called James Carr expressed a wish to be buried in "the church of Gigleswicke of the Holie and Blessed Virgin Saint Alkelda".

Giggleswick, however, does not claim to be the birthplace, home or place of burial for St Alkelda. It merely honours her, although great emphasis is placed on the amazing Ebbing and Flowing Well, whose pure waters rise and fall several times each day in a most mysterious way. A deep trough has been constructed to contain its water and a stone seat for viewing surrounds it on three sides. It is beside the road at the foot of Buckhaw Brow, but when I paid a visit, there was no parking for motor vehicles on this busy road.

Thanks to the two churches of St Alkelda, and to the marvellous Ebbing and Flowing Well, the legend of St Alkelda may continue for many more centuries.

Alkelda is no longer a fashionable name for girls but some years ago, I received a letter from a ten-year-old girl who read this column. Her name was Alkelda.

Blackthorn lore

At this time of year we welcome the new foliage on our hedgerows and trees along with amazing displays of flowers and blossom, both in the wild and in our gardens. Irrespective of frost and snow, they always appear on cue and bring smiles to our faces and a sense of wellbeing to our hearts.

A few years ago, my morning walk took me past a dark and thorny hedge and as early as March, those prickly bushes would be smothered with dense white blossom, even though their branches would not be bearing any leaves. That pretty blossom appeared even if the prevailing weather was harsh and cold.

Those bushes were blackthorn, the name indicating their dark coloured bark and densely packed twigs, all armed with dangerous thorns in the form of long spikes. For anyone wishing to have a hedge that is proof against trespassing animals or even humans, the blackthorn is ideal. Quite often at this time of year, birds take advantage of those thorns to build their nests in safe places and as the blackthorn can grow up to a height of more than 12ft feet (4m or so), it offers a safe haven. The thorny undergrowth also protects plants from browsing animals.

The white blossom is usually very dense and eye-catching, providing a feast of flowers early in the year when most hedgerows don’t even have their new leaves. When the blackthorn’s leaves do arrive, they are very small and green, rather dull coloured too, but it is the fruit of this tree that increases its popularity.

These are called sloes and when ripe they are a pleasing blue-black colour but very bitter to the taste while being very popular among country folk for making jams and even wine or sloe gin. These bitter plums may be related to damsons and even some garden plums.

The wood of the blackthorn is darkly coloured brown and is very tough, but it can be polished into a handsome colour, but is not large enough for planks or furniture making. It is used where small items are necessary, like the teeth of rakes, decorative marquetry work and the famous Irish cudgel known as a shillelagh. With care, it can also be fashioned into walking sticks.

Because the blossom usually appears in cold wintry weather, such a time is known as a blackthorn winter – some say it’s always cold when the blackthorn appears. An old belief was that if you took blackthorn blossom into a house, it heralded a death to someone who lived there. Country folk believed that if you baked a crown of blackthorn wood in the oven until it turned to ash, then scattered it on the garden before dawn at New Year’s morning, it would produce a good crop.