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Letter: Is Oil Seepage A Clue to the Hill Cave Mystery?

Published on: 2 Apr, 2020
Updated on: 2 Apr, 2020

14th century St Catherine’s Chapel on St Catherine’s Hill

From: Graham Dean

In response to: Mystery Medieval Cave Discovered Below Guildford’s Historic St Catherine’s Chapel

“St Catherine’s Hill clearly had something special about it,” says Dr Mary Alexander in her letter. It could be special, perhaps the site of an oil seep. And any oil seep might also be why the hill is named after St Catherine and also called Drake Hill.

In the Middle Ages, the monks of St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai in Egypt collected and sold oil from a seep. They marketed the oil as the tears of St Catherine. The oil was hugely popular because it was claimed to heal leprosy and many other complaints. Of course, oil does not cure leprosy but it does help clear up skin rashes common during medieval times.

One of the reported miracles of Edward the Confessor was that he rubbed some of the oil on a man’s face to cure him.  Demand for St Catherine’s oil was so large that oil seeps across Europe were rebranded in the name of St Catherine. One example is St Catherine’s Well in Liberton in Edinburgh. Another example could be our own St Catherine’s Hill here.

As stated, it was also called Drake Hill or Dragon Hill and this name could also derive from the presence of oil and gas. Gas seeping from the ground sometimes ignites and burns continuously.  If this happened on St Catherine’s Hill it would be easy to imagine a fire-breathing dragon lurking beneath.

Today the oil comes to the surface only occasionally as an oil sheen on a spring in one of the private gardens backing onto the river but in earlier times the flow of oil may have been much greater. Geologically, St Catherine’s is where a seep might be expected, the oil originating in the underlying Jurassic Kimmeridge Oil Shale.

Of course, it might just be coincidence that there is oil and the hill is named after St Catherine. The cult of St Catherine was extremely popular with the Normans. So St Catherine’s chapel might have been built simply to make Guildford more Norman.

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Responses to Letter: Is Oil Seepage A Clue to the Hill Cave Mystery?

  1. Carol Norris Reply

    April 2, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Fascinating to hear about the possibilities connected to St Catherine’s Hill. I used to live there many years ago and shall look forward to hearing more on this subject.

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