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A Magazine for Sheffield

David Bramwell The Cult of Water

Celebrated musician David Bramwell mixes hydrology with magical realism and occult geography to create a unique portrait of the River Don.


David Bramwell.

Best known in underground circles for his long-running project Oddfellow's Casino, in recent years musician David Bramwell has found himself returning over and over to his Cult of Water project.

In each iteration Bramwell seeks to re-mystify the River Don, tracing it back to its source and back through time. We asked him about the most recent version, which has just been released, and how it draws on the story of the water goddess Danu.

Tell us a bit about the project.

The Cult of Water began life as a programme about the River Don for Radio 3’s experimental series Between the Ears in 2017. Its original title was Dead Flows the Don. It was a personal story about the River Don that mixed magic realism and interviews with folklorist David Clarke and cultural historian Ian Rotherham from Sheffield Hallam University, two witches affiliated with the shop Airy Fairy, and folk from the Don Catchment Rivers Trust.

Two years later it became a live candlelit performance, mixing spoken word with original music archive footage from Yorkshire Film Archive, ritual, animation, interviews with former steel workers and the voice of comic book author Alan Moore.

It was first performed in Sheffield as part of the Enable Us Festival in 2018 and also at Doncaster’s Cast. Since then it’s been performed at various film and theatre festivals, Soho Theatre and Berlin’s Occulture festival. Its last outing, before lockdown, was at the winter gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids in Glastonbury to which it received a standing ovation. I’d clearly found my target audience and joined the order a few weeks later.

Now it's available to listen to and read as a spoken word and music album created by the band Oddfellow’s Casino, and the full text has been published by Rough Trade Books with illustrations by Pete Fowler, best known for his work with the Super Furry Animals.

Who is Danu?

Danu is a water goddess who gave her name not only to the Don but also to the Danube, The Dun and many other rivers. She is the goddess of primordial waters once revered by our ancestors but ‘left for dead’ by the severe pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution and our mistreatment of the Don.

When I discovered that Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, had been adopted by Sheffield’s steel industry as a mascot I thought the allegory of conflict between a male god of fire and a goddess of water was too good to ignore, so became part of the story.

How did Alan Moore get involved in the project?

Alan kindly gave up a whole morning of his time to answer my questions relating to waterways and magic. With his blessing I used some of the interview as part of the performance and writings.

For those who don’t know him he’s best loved as the author of Watchmen, From Hell, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He’s also an expert on magic and the occult and held forth of the subject for three hours.

What is it about the Don that draws you in?

I grew up in Doncaster never knowing the Don, despite Danu giving her name to the town, whose original Roman name was Danum.

I wanted to re-connect with the Don, so decided to walk from Donny back to its source - as best I could. As I describe my journey back to the source in the Cult of Water, we also head back in time, allowing me to unfold the history of the Don and Danu in relation to industry, ecology, mythology, ritual, magic and our present day interest in waterways and wellbeing.

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The story also touches on flooding, the return of the salmon, Jarvis Cocker’s river journey in the late 1970s, the remarkable discovery of a forest of figs growing by Meadowhall and the history of Rotherham’s chantry. Oh, and also the mystery of the drowned village at Ladybower, which I know is nowhere near the Don but is too important for me to miss out.

I went to see the church spire poking out of Ladybower’s waters in 1976, which was an experience I could never forget. Only thing is, the church had been destroyed by then. Yet my whole family and many others have a shared hallucination of seeing that church spire during the long drought of the summer.

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