The mysterious “deep and fast-flowing” river that disappeared on New Year’s Day 1399….

Medieval New Year illustration taken from – which please read for information about those pesky medieval dates!
Dated: 21/06/2010 File Pic of the River Greta full flow of water see story of The River Greta, in County Durham ,which has seen the lowest rainfall between January and May since 1964. Which is now seeing the possibilities of a hosepipe ban being implemented in the region see story by North News


Dated: 21/06/2010 Live pic of the River Greta dried up. Local children take advantage of the lowest rainfall in decades as they can now play on the dried up river bed which is usually a full flowing river see story of The River Greta, in County Durham ,which has seen the lowest rainfall between January and May since 1964. Which is now seeing the possibilities of a hosepipe ban being implemented in the region see story by North News

Both River Greta illustrations taken from this Mail article

Well, here we are in 2021, which I hope it will prove an infinitely better experience than 2020. In the year 1399, some folk in Bedfordshire witnessed a “portent” that must have made them wonder what on earth that new year had in store for them. And I don’t mean the laurel trees that are mentioned first in the following extract.

The pictures above are obviously not medieval Bedfordshire, but are of the River Greta in modern County Durham, which dried up in a matter of two weeks in 2010. The illustrations are included here just to show the swift change from flowing to drying up. If the 1399 incident happened suddenly, then it certainly wasn’t a gradual drying up to which the local populace would become accustomed as it proceeded. It was sudden and dramatic enough to warrant being recorded in the chronicle.

According to the St Albans Annales (and repeated in Chronicles by Chris Given-Wilson, from which I have copied the text) – “…The year of grace 1399, and the twenty-second year of King Richard’s reign:- in this year the laurel trees throughout almost the whole of England suddenly withered, and then shortly afterwards many of them revived again; which seemed to presage (praesignantes fortisan) the fact that, although some of the lords had been humiliated and imprisoned, and others had been sent into exile, they would soon be restored to their former dignity. Also, another portent was seen on the Feast of the Circumcision [1st January] near Bedford, where what had undoubtedly been a very deep and fast-flowing stretch of water which ran between the villages of Swelston and Harlow suddenly stopped flowing from the higher of the two places, while what remained of the water ran down to the other, lower place, as a result of which the riverbed, which no one had ever seen before, remained dry for three miles. This was thought to signify a sundering of the people and the realm, and the desertion of King Richard, as indeed happened that year…”

I won’t try to solve the mystery of the laurel trees, except to imagine it was some cousin of Dutch Elm Disease that struck and then receded, but the business of the disappearing Bedfordshire stream is another matter. To begin with, I haven’t a clue which stream or between which actual villages it flowed. I’ve tried to find Swelston and Harlow but cannot. Not even one of them. Perhaps they have different names now? Perhaps they’re deserted? Although if the latter, they are still usually to be found on OS Maps.

As you can see, the above photographs were taken in the summer, whereas the event in 1399 was in the heart of winter. Yes, droughts happen in winter too, and according to my research it’s possible the summer of 1398 had been part of a series of very hot, dry summers, but the winter of 1398/99 was very cold. That’s not to define whether it was wet or dry, of course. All the story from Annales says is that this Bedfordshire stream/river ran dry “suddenly”.

I know that some streams and rivers do dry up, disappear, and then reappear, generally according to the weather, i.e. lack of rain to supply them, but on the whole these streams are known for doing this. Whatever happened to this particular “very deep and fast-flowing stretch of water” was so totally out of the ordinary that it was recorded for us to read of it now.

So, what do you think, ladies and gentlemen? Is it possible to identify these villages and the lost stream that ran between them. Did it ever flow again? Or did it dry up forever? The Annales fail to say. And what, with our modern advantages and knowledge, do we think could have happened?

Anyway, I’ll end this with another warm greeting for the New Year. Fingers crossed that it goes some way to banish the awfulness of 2020!

Vota pro bono MMXXI – if my Latin leaves a lot to be desired, I apologise! 😄



    1. Hi, I’ve been gone for a while through other commitments, but just wanted to post on this.
      I can’t find villages called Harlow and Swelsford near Bedford either, not even in the Victoria County History. I’m a bit puzzled as well because these spellings look modern, so has some editor or writer made an identification of his or her own?
      The obvious Harlow would, of course, be Harlow in Essex, now a large “new town” but then an extremely small one. If that is so, and the monks simply had the wrong end of the stick regarding the location, then the fast-flowing stream might be the River Stort. Interestingly, this is a chalk stream, and some of these are prone to flow only seasonally, when rainfall has been at a reasonably high level, because a certain amount of the water flow is continuously lost to the porous chalk.

      Incidentally, there is no chalk anywhere near Bedford:

      Although the Stort may not often dry up, there are a few chalk streams in that general part of the country that do. The monks of St. Albans would have been well aware of one of these, as it is the very river that flows through St. Albans. The upper stretches of the River Ver – often spelled Wer in the 15th century – flow over chalk, and thus form a seasonal ‘winterbourne’. Past Redbourn (4 1/2 miles north of St. Albans) the Ver is strong enough to maintain its flow. Yet, despite the Upper Ver running pretty often (which locals would have known), particularly in the days before water boards started extracting, the Warkworth author makes a big deal of it suddenly running in 1474 – this is his mysterious Wemere alias “Woe Water” at Markyate, which he claimed only ran when bad things were about to happen. Since he mentions Markyate specifically, I suspect he may have got this tale from the monks there. Was making dreadful portents out of the normal behaviour of the local chalk streams perhaps a favourite pastime of the monks of medieval Hertfordshire?

      Another seasonal chalk stream is the Mimmshall Brook, which flows happily over London clay along the edge of the area where the Battle of Barnet is now thought to have been fought, and down through South Mimms to North Mymmes where it hits a chalk ridge. At that point it has formed a swallow hole, and under normal summer conditions this gulps down the entire flow, leaving just a dry, grass-grown ditch, which passes under a bridge in front of the churchyard and then carries on northwards to wherever it goes. But when there’s been a lot of rain – usually in the winter – water flows on past the swallowhole and fills the stream bed. This one is only a couple of miles from where I grew up, so I know it well.

      This stream too also have found its way into the writings of the 15-16th centuries. Someone once informed me that there is a river in More’s Utopia with a Greek name that translates as ‘No Water’. Now, the More’s country house was at North Mymmes as many of you will know, and the Mores would have passed that swallowhole and the normally empty stream bed beyond it every time they went to church. So I wonder if Uutopia may have started off as a childhood imagining, like Narnia and the Brontes’ Gondal/Angria?

      Liked by 1 person

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