‘Deep as Hell Kettles’ 15.5x19.5 inches Mixed media on watercolor paper
The Hell Kettles, three small circular ponds about seventeen feet deep near Darlington, have long been regarded with superstitious awe. Holinshead’s Chronicle reports:
There are certaine pittes or rather three little pools a myle from Darlington, and a quarter of a myle distant from the These [Tees] bankes, which ye people call the Kettles of hell, or the devil’s Ketteles, as if he should seethe souls of sinful men and women in them: they adde also that the spirites have oft been hearde to cry and yell about them…
It’s added that “the water is nowe and then warme,” and seventeenth century chronicler William Camden had heard the same - ‘“The common people tearme them Hel-Kettles, because the water in them by the Antiperistasis or reverberation of the cold aire striking thereupon, waxeth hot.”
But had Holinstead or Camden tested the water? Or had they simply heard the pits described in much the same terms as were used in 1634 by the Military Company, who dispatched “a captain, a lieutenant, and an ancient” on a survey and ultimately reported: ”The three admired deep pitts, called Hell Kettles, we left boiling by Darlington”? This might refer to heat or motion, as the kettles contain vigorous springs, and the water was certainly not hot in the nineteenth century, nor indeed at the turn of the seventeenth.
Camden had said that the pits were “of wonderful depth” and this was put to the test by “a very ingenious Gentleman” on behalf of Camden’s translator:
Sir, According to the promise which I made you, I went to sound the depth of Hell-Kettles near Darlington. The name of the bottomless pits made me provide myself with a line above a hundred fathoms long … but much smaller preparations would have served: for the deepest of them took but fifteen fathoms, or thirty yards of our line. I cannot imagine upon what grounds the people of the Country have supposed them to be bottomless…
That more than one person must have known that the Kettles were not very deep did nothing to dampen the belief that they were bottomless, and in the nineteenth century they were proverbial - “As Deep as Hell Kettles.” Regarding their origin, Camden was probably nearer the mark when he reported the belief of the wiser sort that they had come by the sinking down of the ground swallowed up in some earth-quake. This might have been the one described in a Chronicle from 1328:
1179. About Christmas, a wonderful and unheard of event fell out at Oxenhale [part of Darlington township], that …the ground rose up on high with such vehemence, that it was equal to the highest tops of mountains, and towered above the lofty pinnacles of the churches; and at that height remained from the ninth hour of the day to sunset. But at sunset it fell with so horrible a crash that it terrified all who saw that heap, and heard the noise of its fall, whence many died from that fear; for the earth swallowed it up, and caused in the same place a very deep pit.
Whether or not they were created thus in 1179, a tradition of an earthquake seems to lie behind a tale told here in the nineteenth century. According to some versions, the farmer who centuries ago owned the land was about to cart his hay on St Barnabas’s Day, and when reproved for this act of impiety replied:
“Barnaby yea, Barnaby nay, A cart-load of hay, whether God will or nay!”
Instantly he, his carts and horses were swallowed up in the pools, where they can still be seen on a fine day with clear water, floating midway, many fathoms deep.