Severed Heads and Sacred Waters – Anne Ross (illus. R.W. Feachem) Source Issue 5 Spring 1998
JUST a mile down the road from where I live in Wales is a Welsh place-name, Rhydypennau, “Ford of the Heads”. According to local tradition, a battle was fought here against the Romans in the first century, and the heads of those slain were thrown into the ford by the Britons. The ford is situated on the Nant Ceiro, “Stag Stream”, which runs through our grounds. The ford is situated at the meeting of three parishes Tirymynach, “Monks’ Land”, for the terrain belonge to Strata Florida abbey; Ceulanamaesmawr; and Geneu’r Glyn. Nant Ceiro is a boundary stream.
Boundaries and thresholds were of great significance in early Celtic life and religion. For example, one of the important duties of the Druids would seem to have been the fixing and maintaining of boundaries. Caesar says as much in his De Bello Gallico (“Gallic Wars”):
For they (the Druids) have the right to decide nearly all public and private disputes…and disputes concerning legacies and boundaries (Tierney 1960, 271, 13).
Fords, in early Celtic tradition both continental and insular, were places of single combat and of sinister portents. The motif of The Washer at The Ford is well known in Celtic lore. In Welsh tradition, for example, Urien Rheged goes to Rhyd y Gyfartha, “the Ford of Barking”, in Denbighshire, to find out why hounds always barked there. No one else had been bold enough to investigate. Reaching the edge of the ford, Urien can see nothing but a woman washing. The hounds stop their barking, and Urien seizes the washer-woman and has intercourse with her. She tells him to return at the end of a year, when he will receive his son. When he goes back at the appointed time the woman presents him with a son and a daughter, namely, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien (Bromwich 1961, 459). There are Irish examples of this motif, while the name of the River Clyde in Scotland – Clota, the name of a goddess meaning “the washer” – mentioned by Tacit-us, suggests an early date for the motif.
Fords were places of single combat, rivers clearly forming boundaries between tribal terrains, and thus they acted as neutral territory. In medieval Irish texts single combat between heroes regularly took place at fords. The boy-hero Cu Chulainn, in the epic tale Tain Bo Cuailnge, who protects Ulster from Connacht in the first century B.C. according to tradition, comes to a ford. There he proceeds to cut down the forked branch of a tree with a single blow of his sword. He then drives it into the middle of the stream so that no chariot can pass over the stream. While he is engaged in this work two warriors from the enemy and their two charioteers approach the boy. Single-handed, he cuts off their four heads and impales them on the four prongs of the forked branch. He then writes an inscription in Ogam down the side of the great branch.
The ensuing remarks of the hero, Fergus, make it clear that this is indeed a boundary stream. When someone asks him who could have performed this amazing deed he replies: “The man who could have performed this deed is Cu Chulainn…it is he who would have come to the boundary (criche) accompanied only by his charioteer” (O’Rahilly, 1976, I, 341 ff.). This warlike episode would have applied equally to the Gauls, as attested by the classical commentators. The heads were left at the ford.
This epic tale of the deeds of Cu Chulainn and of how he left the decapitated heads of his enemies at the ford which marked a boundary would seem to cast some light upon the discoveries of human skulls in watery places where they had been deposited in antiquity. I shall return to this theme of severed heads and sacred waters in due course, but first I want to look at some prime pieces of evidence for the cult of the human head itself in antiquity.
We have very good grounds for believing that the severed head was regarded by the Celts as a sacred the classical symbol: writers testify to as much. I have discussed this topic in some detail in my earlier publications (see bibliography); for the present purpose it will serve to look at some new or comparatively new discoveries in Europe and in the British Isles.
An important group of sanctuaries is situated in Celto-Ligurian territory in south-east France in the vicinity of the Rhone delta, and dating to the pre-Roman period. All are within easy reach of Massalia, the Greek trading post established circa 600 B.C., which opened up the Celtic world of the hinterland by means of trading up and down the Rhone. The architecture of the Celto-Ligurian temples is sophisticated, and the cultural influence of Greece is evident. Thus it is remarkable to find that here, where access to classical civilisation was easy, the cult of the human head flourished. One is reminded of the presence of the archaic-looking heads which abound in early Christian churches and Norman cathedrals, the baleful albeit protective gaze of which strongly belies the benign quality of the Christian faith. Some of the best-known of these edifices are at Roquepertuse, situated some twenty miles inland from Massalia. The temple was cut out of limestone, and a great janus-head, painted in red and black, was surmounted by a goose-like raptor of which only the beak has survived.
This is echoed by the large sculpted goose which surmounted the lintel supported by pillars in which head, painted in red and black, was surmounted by a goose-like raptor of which only the beak has survived. This is echoed by the large sculpted goose which surmounted the lintel supported by pillars in which were cut niches for heads or skulls. Forensic analysis has shown that the heads had all belonged to young men in the prime of life (Piggott 1968, 56).
Another temple, associated with a spring and a cave- sacred places for the Celts – was situated at Glanum, near Saint-Remy-en-Provence. Here a lintel with skull- niches was found. This temple, re-used in the second century B.C., is likely to have had an early origin, as may well have been the case with some or all of the other temples. Here too, in the first century B.C. Celtic deities such as Sucellos and the horse-goddess Epona were venerated; the association between horses and sacred waters is well-attested for the Celtic world. The god Glanis was the god of the shrine, “the pure or clean one”. Glan means pure, holy, clean in both Welsh and Irish. (Salviot 1979).
At Mouries, Bouches-du-Rhone, remains of an earlier stone-built sanctuary had been incorporated into Gallo-Greek structures of the fourth century B.C. Here pillars were decorated by figures of horses and riders, and the head cult is likely to have flourished here too.
Another sanctuary at which an earlier temple had been incorporated into a fourth-century edifice is at Saint-Blaise. Here the jamb of a doorway had niches for severed heads or skulls cut into it. Perhaps the most on the northern outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. Here the threshold incorporated a re-used pillar on which are carved in outline twelve mouthless human heads, all but one of which are upright, the other inverted. Here also is the carving on a stone slab of a schematic human head flanked by niches for the display of the real thing. Some fifteen skulls of adult males were recovered here; some of them still retained the large iron nails by which they must have been fixed or suspended from some wooden structure. There was also a series of stone sculptures of squatting warriors, some holding a severed head in one hand and a lance or spear in the other. The temple must have existed as a sacred place well before its destruction in the year 123 B.C.
Hillforts, too, boasted their own quota of skull- trophies, set up, no doubt, as guardians, as in later times. A skull was set meaningfully in the wall of L’lmpernal, the oppidum of the Cadurci, situated near Cahors, Lot. At Bredon hillfort, Gloucestershire, skulls had decorated the lintel of the gateway. When this was set on fire during an attack early in the first century A.D. the heads came crashing down. The head cult is illustrated, too, by a sculpture of a sinister nature from Noves, situated – significantly perhaps – close to the River Durance, the Druentia, a tempting name. The sculpture is of a wolf-like creature of fierce countenance, with a human limb hanging from its lower jaw and an object now broken at either end in its mouth; it is powerfully ithyphallic. Known locally as “le Tarasque de Noves”, the sculpture represents a monster which, according to medieval legend, used to emerge from the river and devour people – leaving, it would seem, their doleful heads intact. Two lugubrious male heads are firmly held down, one by each fearsome talon. The monster may well date from the third century B.C. The story is remembered and marked by an annual fete in July known as the fete du tarasque. Paper replicas of the monster are carried through the streets of Avignon and, from what I was able to gather from an informant who had witnessed the fete, the actual sculpture was sometimes displayed.
The legend would serve to link the tradition with the river, and the whole may be based on the discovery of actual skulls in the water (see below). (Megaw and Megaw 1986, 170).
The classical writers amplify the evidence of archaeology in their descriptions of the custom of head-hunting by the early Celts. There can be little doubt that the taking of heads was an essential way of life and an integral part of Celtic religious belief and practice up to the Roman conquests, first of Gaul and then of Britain. Thereafter the taking of heads was banned, as were human sacrifices; but later literary and archaeological evidence demonstrates how deeply- rooted in the tradition this practice must have been. On the Arc d’Orange, Vaucluse, one of a series of triumphal arches set up by the Romans to mark their conquests of the troublesome Celts, the latter are portrayed with human heads hanging from their saddles – just as Diodorus Siculus describes them. Scalps also are depicted.
Heads were preserved with herbs and oils, and kept in chests, by the Gaulish nobles who would not part with them for any sum of money. Their apotropaic and protective powers were clearly appreciated from a very early date: I shall return to this point later. That the skull was used as a drinking cup in solemn circumstances, e.g. in temple rites, is likewise made clear by the classics. Livy, for example (born 59 B.C.), describes how the consul Postumius was lost in Gaul together with his army in a huge forest called Litana, “The Broad One” (early Irish lethan, modern Gaelic leathan). The Gauls ambushed and surrounded Postumius’ two legions and virtually destroyed them. The consul died fighting, spoils were taken from his body and, predictably, his head was severed, and it and the booty were taken by the Boii, the Celtic tribe in question, to their “holiest temple”. “Then, after they removed the flesh from the head (excarnation of skulls and of bodies generally is well attested in archaeological work and must have been widely practised) they adorned the skull with gold according to their custom. They used it as a sacred vessel to give libations on holy days, and their priests and the custodians of their temple used it as a goblet” (Koch & Carey 1994, 31). The libations were presumably sacred water from the springs which served the temples; blood, perhaps, from sacrificial victims; and on occasion the mead or ale which were the favoured drinks of the Celts, although wine-drinking early became popular when supplies became available.
Many rites connected with heads are attested from sacred sites in Gaul and the British Isles in the pre- Roman period. One or two of these can be mentioned in this context. The sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde, a late Iron-Age Gaulish sanctuary situated in Belgic territory, is one of an important series of temples in this region of northern Gaul. The importance of the entrance – the ritual significance of the entrance to such structures is well attested – was here stressed by the erection of a huge portico above the gate. This seems to have been closely similar to the portico at the Rhone temple at Roquepertuse. Here too, at Gournay, human skulls were displayed (Brunaux 1988, 27). The evidence lies in the cervical vertebrae and the incisors that were rcovered; these had become detached and had fallen as the heads rotted. A skull found in the ditch probably originally came from the portico. On either side of the entrance were two huge piles of the skulls of cattle and of weapons (cf. Thames and otherdeposits, infra). The animal heads would likewise have exerted some apotropaic power. Some type of funerary excarnation clearly took place at Gournay, as in Ireland (infra); for example, a skull was cut into the shape of a mask; one thinks of the tin mask found in a drain in the waters of the springs of Sulis at Bath (Aquae Sulis), perhaps intended to fit over an actual skull, or the face of a priest, or that of an idol. Many heads were placed in significant positions in shrines and temples, pits, shafts and wells down the Celtic ages, testifying to the deeply rooted nature of this most Celtic of cults. A few of these will be noted here.
At Odell, Buckinghamshire, the decapitated head of a woman had been placed behind the wicker lining of a Romano-British well, perhaps to protect the waters and ensure a good supply.
At the water-shrine of Springhead, which stands at the head of the Ebbsfleet Valley in northwest Kent, and one and a half miles from the River Thames, traces ofhead-ritual at two periods are evident. The temple ison the site of Vagniacis, which is from a British word meaning a marshy or boggy place – a good description of the site. Four babies were found to have been buried- two on the west side of an early floor and two on the east side of a later floor. This happened in the original room of the Antonine period, and again some ten to fifteen years later in a new floor. In the first floor the baby on the southwest corner had been decapitated: in the later construction the infant in the northeast corner had been decapitated. The excavators supposed that one pair had been offered as a foundation sacrifice, and the second pair at a ceremony of rededication. As is well attested from the dramatic Gournay shrine, constant rebuilding, and thus rededication, must have been a regular feature of Celtic sanctuaries. What happened to the heads is not recorded; excavation did not recover them. It is likely that they were placed in the sacred waters of this impressive Springhead shrine which must have been accorded worship some time before the second century, according to the evidence revealed by excavation.
This is reminiscent of the remarkable Celtic sanctuary at Libernice, near Kolin in Slovakia which dates to the third century B.C. (see Rybova and Soudsky 1962). Consisting of an elongated ditched enclosure, it revealed many traces of quite dramatic
From fame to forgotten – Scarborough Spaw spring
Scarborough is well known for its impressive seafront which typifies the Victorian sea bathing craze and one of the notable buildings in this vista is the Spa. The delightful building, now a concert venue, has rather obscured the real spa location which surprisingly survives not far away from it.
The spring was discovered, as often happens, by accident by a Mrs Farrer, whose husband was one time, Bailiff of Scarborough, in 1626 discovered some springs at the south of Scarborough beneath the cliffs. Tasting it she noticed that it tasted bitter and that the rocks were stained a reddish brown and recognising such waters as being healing she told friends after finding the water had made her feel better.
It soon received attention of those interested in such springs and in the book Scarbrough Spaw, or, A description of the nature and vertues of the spaw at Scarbrough in Yorkshire. Also a treatise of the nature and use of water in general, and the several sorts thereof, as sea, rain, snow, pond, lake, spring, and river water, with the original causes and qualities. Where more largely the controversie among learned writers about the original of springs, is discussed. To which is added, a short discourse concerning mineral waters, especially that of the spaw by Robert Wittie in around 1660. His analysis showed that the water was rich in Magnesium sulphate. He stated that
“some above an hundred miles to drink of it, preferring it before all other medicinal waters they had formerly frequented. Nay, I have met with some that had been at the Germane Spaws, … who prefer this for its speedy passage both by seige and urine before them.”
Being a local man who said he had twenty years knowledge personally and from others of the spring and perhaps in cahoots with local hotels he suggested:
“I think it much better if a disease be rebellious, that the Patient after a continuance at the Spaw a month or five weeks, do leave off the waters a while, and return to his ordinary Diet and state of living, and then after such respite given to nature, apply himself to the waters again.”
Thus, he suggested the development of the Summer season: mid-May to mid-September. Soon people came and by 1700 the first Spa House was built on or near the spring. It was only a wood hut where the dipper would stay and sell and display waters. However, water was also bottled and sold further away. The town appointed a governor of the spa and it believed that Dickie Dickinson was appointed the first one. His role was to oversee money collection and keeping law and order. Unfortunately in 1737 a landslip destroyed it and lost the springs. But in 1739 a new source was established and a new saloon with sea views and steps up to the wells were established. Thus the spa’s popularity continued. Disaster struck again in 1836 and the spa was rebuilt in a more extravagant style with famed Victorian architect Joseph Paxton designing concert hall. By the later ends of the 1800s, less people visited the spa and the main draw was sea bathing, the Spa pavilion survived as it does today ad a major venue as it does today…and the spring fell into obscurity.
The spring today is found beside the steps down to the beach. In fact there appear to be two spring heads one in the middle and another on the beach level. The one in the middle of steps arises in a brick arch and arises from the mouth of a rather fine small carved head with a pipe inserted in its mouth. There is just a perceivable flow, and the brickwork is stained around it. There are two plaques, the first one guides the curious down, reads:
The second one reads:
The spring head further down I assume is the overflow outflow and/or used for animals. A plaque on this simply reads: ‘not fit for drinking.’ Sadly, like many spa waters this is the modern way and it always seems a shame that this is the end for such spas which brought hundreds flocking to see their waters…!
In search of rag wells: The Old Wife’s Well, Stape Yorkshire
The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
A cat collar perhaps a votive to wish for the return of a lost cat?
There are some more personal items as well like a glass teddy bear, perhaps linked to a loss of child?
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
Holy, healing and ritual waters of Catalonia: Caldes de Malavela
If you are in Barcelona or anywhere in the Costa Brava or Dorado and are looking for a curious place off the beaten track which has that real Catalonian feel and have an interest in healing springs Caldes de Malavela is a must. It is a town which has been attracting seekers of healing waters since the Roman times and is still a major spa town with waters rich in in sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate and are thermal arising at around 60°C,
In the middle of the 1st century B.C., the Roman settled in the area and constructed the baths. Being located close to the Via Augusta and many would have stopped here for the hot water and thus a Roman town developed. It was in 1897-1902 that archaeologists revealed the remains of the baths. The complex was a simple one, being composed of a central pool surrounded by rooms given over to curative treatments. It was believed to be a simple building, lacking any detail and had a ten metre rectangular swimming pool with changing rooms and massage rooms.. The water itself was delivered to the baths via an aqueduct from Ànimes hill although there is no sign of water in the site now one can see how it flowed. through.
“Sacred water spring The central room in the east wing is one of the most important spaces in the thermae due to the presence, in Roman times, of the thermal water spring that was the raison d’étre of the site. The water emerged from the lower part of the east wall, at the north end, from where it was channelled diagonally into a small square regulator controlling the flow into the pipe that supplied the natatio. The curative and therapeutic properties of the water made this room a sacellum (small sacred space). On the north wall, we can still see the remains of a small altar flanked by two affixed pilasters, which must have housed one or several images of healing divinities. These most likely included Apollo, whose cult has been documented in Caldes from inscriptions found in the locality. A bench on the south wall provided seating for visiting devotees. Furthermore, this was the only room in the whole thermae enclosure where the walls were stuccoed and decorated with polychrome paintings. Later on, but still in the Roman era, several alterations were made to this room; these mainly consisted of walling up the three accesses from the ambulacrum, and adding a small piscina or water deposit in its interior. The altar was no longer used. The spring and the regulator, however, continued to operate as before. In the medieval period, all these structures were “buried” under two new small pools. The water supply now emerged from a different point located one metre higher on the same wall; the pools were drained through a hole in the south wall leading to the adjacent room, which gradually became covered in calcareous concretion.
By the end of the 4th Century the site being developed as a castle and then converted into a hospital for the poor.
A lost pagan cult?
What’s in a name? Caldes translates in Catalan as hot mineral spring. This enables non-Catalan speakers to identify spas in the area. The general agreed name of the Roman site was thus Aquae Calidae although some have called it Aquis Voconis. Its modern name Caldes de Malavella is interesting. This second part of the name – “de Malavella” – comes from a local legend, of a local “bad old woman” who lived in the now-ruined castle just outside town. Thus “Malavella” in Catalan comes from two words: mala (bad) and vella (old woman). Thus “The Thermal Springs of the Old evil one”! The story dates back to 1057 which may suggest it has an ancient pagan origin? Was it an attempt for the Christians to demonise the focus of a local cult. Quite often of course, springs are associated with female deities, and it is interesting to consider the Scottish tradition which one assumes descends from the Celtic tradition where there is of course the Old Hag or Cailleachan. This might at first be irrelevant but is worth considering that this region was settled by the Celts too in 1000 – 300 BC in two migratory waves: 900 BC and 700 – 600 BC. It seems likely that this does such record a Celtic or even Roman tradition. Mind you if the intention was to demonise the deity has not really worked as the Evil Old one is everywhere and whilst I was there I was privileged to see a parade of Giants, where she featured prominently.
Taking the waters today
All around the town can be found three natural hot mineral-medicinal fountains: La Mina or Raig d’en Mel, Sant Narcís and Bullidors. In some cases such as La Mina these waters were utilised for safareigs or municipal cloth washing areas and indeed I was informed at the museum that people still use them although generally it was around the 1960s that they generally fell out of favour. However, the Font Raig d’en Mel arises at the base of a large wall of rubble and feeds quite modern looking washing areas.
Around the town there are other springheads/wells- Font de Bullidors of the kettles and Font des Saint Narcis. Both well preserved in a modern setting, although the former is dry. Both lie close to the baths so presumably their source. The later well appears to be a holy well named after the patron saint of Girona. On the subject of holy wells, there is also an unnamed and unheralded well under the church, which surely is something significant but not mentioned in the town maps or guides. There is also the modernist font of Font de la Vac and associated music room and conduit.
The use of the water for medicinal purposes it appears that this did not start to happen until 19th. Three spring sites were tapped: El Puig de Sant Grau (utilising four springs), El Puig de les Ànimes (three springs), and El Puig de les Moleres (two springs). Spas were developing elsewhere and what with its close proximity and easy reaching from Barcelona, it was perfectly situated for the wealthy to visit and those expensive villas and chalets were constructed. The springs themselves were enclosed within splendid spa buildings which provided then and now various hydrothermal therapies and treatments.
In the 1800s, the water was bottled commercially with three brands coming from the town: San Narciso (since 1870), Vichy Catalan (1891) and Agua Malavella, formed by a merger of two companies after the Spanish Civil War and later acquired by Vichy Catalan in 1985. Of the spa the first of these modern spa was built in 1840 and is called Balneari Prats. Here one enters an archway boldly exclaiming the name and there is a large pool and to the side a small white19th century building which is the spring house. Here the spring flows from a wall mounted spring head and can be sampled
Then in 1898, Vichy Catalan was established. This is a far more august and spectacular building done in a classic Spanish art nuovo style, much of the building is private treatment rooms but there is also a chapel. The spring arises in a wall mounted spring head surrounded by an ankh shaped surround. The water appears more iron rich from this spring.
The town is a delightful one full of interest and their spa heritage is well looked after and describe I cannot recommend it enough.
Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer and Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Bangor, Gwynedd by Howard Huws Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
Readers of Source will need no reminding of the numerous holy wells lost or destroyed through neglect and vandalism. Others, still extant, have become obscure and do not appear in lists such as Francis Jones’ Holy Wells of Wales or Myrddin Fardd’s Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon, l However a familiarity with sources of local history may reveal such sites of interest. This was the case with two holy wells at or near Bangor which I have been able to locate with but a little effort, and some help.
The first is Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well), in the parish of Llan-fair-is-gaer near Bangor. The old parish church stands on the shore of the Menai Straits, a short mile west of Y Felinheli. This spot was formerly an important crossing point, served by a ferry.2 The well of Ffynnon Fair is about 500 yards south-east of the church, where a noticeable scarp marks a geological fault of some severity. The O.S. Grid reference is SH 5053 6564.
Until very recently a road ran from the church directly past the well and thence up the slope towards higher ground. This would have linked the ferry to the old Roman road from Chester to Caernarfon. Continuing southwards, the track would have passed through Eryri LSnowdonial to Beddgelert, and towards Cardigan Bay and South Wales.3 Beddgelert Priory owned land in Llanfair-is-gaer and in the Anglesey parish of Llanidan directly opposite. Beddgelert Priory was similarly dedicated to the Mother of God, and had a Ffynnon Fair.4 I do not know the date of Llanfair- is-gaer’s foundation, but as Llanfair yn Arfon it was known to the fourteenth-century compilers of the Triads of the Isle of Britain in connection with the myth of Henwen the sow.5 The first written mention of the well which I have seen is a reference to ‘Cae Uwchyffordd alias Cae Ffynnon Fair’ in a Llanfair Hall Estate deed dated 1458 and now at the National Library in Aberystwyth (Llanfair Estate D2).6 The name appears subsequently in other estate documents, but not in any well-list that I know of, and not in the Royal Commission Inventory.
My attention was drawn to it by a chance reference in a papur bro (community newspaper) to Allt Ffynnon Fair as the name of the above- mentioned scarp. Subsequent enquiries established that the well is locally known, being noted for its cold, clear water, available at all seasons. This preservation of the well’s name amongst Llanfair’s inhabitants since before the Reformation reflects the tenacity of local oral tradition, and the importance of a dependable water supply.
Had the site come to my attention two years ago, I could have reported concerning the water’s potability. However those planning and constructing the Felinheli By-pass have since seen fit to incorporate the well in the road’s surface water drainage scheme. The well is now enclosed in a concrete sump, and access denied by a heavy iron grid. The water rises and falls according to rainfall, but for the most part looks stagnant and unappealing. Even where it is accessible, there are no means of determining what part of the sump’s content is spring water, and what part roadwork runoff.
Nearby ground tends to become waterlogged after rain, and investigation proved that a layer of stony clay, probably glacial, lies about a foot below the surface. Any hole dug quickly fills with water, but this is probably soil runoff rather than an upwelling. To strike the water table, one would probably have to dig several feet through the clay: so any question of restoration remains speculative. The site of the well is easily accessible from the road, but the nearby field is private property and permission should be sought at Crug Farm before venturing there.
This well is (or was) situated about a mile and a half west of the centre of Bangor, behind the suburb of Glanadda. There is no mystery concerning its general location, old Ordnance maps naming the area as Cae Ffynnon Deiniol St Deiniol’s Well Field). Francis Jones refers but vaguely to wells near Bangor.8 The name Deiniol or Daniel appears in several place names at or near Bangor, as would be expected. There is Perllan Cae Daniel, Porth Daniel, Gwely Deiniol and Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol.9 The well site stands at the northern end of what was a wooded ravine, in rough ground. The ravine is referred to in documents by various names, including Nant Gwtherin, Nant y Fferam Nant Uffern, Nant Offeirin and Nan yr Offeren, i.e. the Ravine of the Liturgy (10) The latter version appears in Garmon Jones’ toponomical notes of 1951 11 as being favoured by the the inhabitant of nearby Nant Farm, who said that he had ‘a letter from London’ so addressed. If correct, it would certainly be interesting in the present context: but Welsh toponomy is bedevilled by ill-informed speculations concerning the ‘true meaning’ of place-names. Any of these versions, or none of them, could be the ‘correct’ one. Nowadays the area is simply known as Nant. Somewhat behind this ravine are three fields called ‘Llan’ (i.e. enclosure or church), where another aged informant interviewed 1951 said there was ‘a very old rum .12 There are very many wells in the Bangor area, but why this one should be specifically linked with St Deiniol, I cannot tell; no legend or tradition has survived. As with Ffynnon Fair above, the site is very near to a road linking the Menai shore at Y B011h (the present George Hostel site, and an important crossing point) to the old Roman Road. It was much used by drovers.13 The first written reference to Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol of which I know is in an episcopal rental of 1647.14 The land was church property, specifically that of the bishop of Bangor, and remained so until the middle of the last century. It appears to have been regarded as inalienable, and was only sold off when mid-nineteenth century legislation enabled church land to be so disposed of. In any case, such poor ground would appeal little to the rapacious.
The upper part of the ravine, noted as being part of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol, was sold to the enterprising James Smyth Scott in 1843 and a reservoir was built there to provide Bangor with a dependable water supply. This was expanded in 1845, but then abandoned as inadequate. A brewery was established at the lower and of the field by c. 1867,15 utilizing water from either the research
By that time the land-hungry Penrhyn Estate was showing interest, and maps then drawn up are to be found at the National Library (Church in Wales, B/Maps/II) and the archives at University College Bangor.16 The latter is particularly interesting as showing two wells as small rectangles, possibly indicating that they were stone-lined. One at O.S. Grid Reference SH 5743 7101 is in the middle of the area named Cae Ffynnon Daniel. The other is shown in an adjacent field (at O.S. 5752 7103), named Cae Ffynnon. The Penrhyn Estate acquired the land in two purchases in 1871 and 1872. Worrall’s trade directory of c.1880 contains an advertisement for a soft drinks manufactory which replaced the brewery. The advert makes specific mention of the renowned health-giving properties of St Deiniol’s Well: and hyperbole apart, may indicate the proprietor’s awareness of a local tradition concerning the water’s healing powers.
A tradition now lost, alas. The manufactory closed by the middle of this century, but the name ‘Cae Ginger Beer’ has stuck to the field. The ravine was used as a dump until about 1965, and is largely filled The land, having been owned by Bangor City Council and Arfon Borough Council, now belongs to the Lowry family of nearby Hendrewen Farm. With their permission I visited the site following rain in November.I almost immediately came across a slate-lined structure half buried and mud-chocked of which I had high hopes. But a little digging revealed it to be a conduit, not a well, and probably intended to convey water to the brewery, It contained a few shards of glazed nineteenth-century pottery, and the remains of a glass bottle. It was also obvious that the site had changed much since the last century: field boundaries have altered, and a quarry which would have provided a useful point of reference with the old maps has been filled and has disappeared under scrub. Dirty water flows strongly across the field from the ravine/dump, and then disappears down an old concrete drain sited roughly where I had imagined one of the wells, i.e. the one in the middle of the 1872 map, to be.17
The well may have suffered the same fate as Ffynnon Fair, and have been incorporated into some past drainage improvement scheme. But further study of the available maps leads me to suspect that I may have been ten or twenty yards out in my guess of where the spring should be, and that a rather unappealing area of muddy scrub may prove rewarding. Another visit during slightly drier weather may therefore be in order.
As for the second well, the landowner tells me that it was filled in only about two years ago. It was walled, with steps and a grating, with a public right of access to it. It fed the same stream as the other above-mentioned. It could be as viable a candidate for the title of ‘Ffynnon Ddeiniol’ as the other, given that it was obviously a maintained structure sufficiently important to be specifically mentioned in land deeds, and given that the boundaries of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol may have changed and shrunk over the years. At present therefore I cannot say which of the two wells is Ffynnon Ddeiniol; but the information gleaned so far is sufficient fuel for further research. I shall inform readers of any progress.18
- BMSS z: Bangor Manuscripts collection, University College of North Wales, Bangor.
- CV Carter-Vincent manuscripts collection, UCNW, Bangor.
- Jones, Francis. The Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1954
- Jones, John (Myrddin Fardd). Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon.Caemarfon, Swyddfa ‘Cymru’, 1908.
- Davies, H.R. The Conway and Menai Ferries.pp. 69-71. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1942.
- Margary, I.D. Roman Roads of Britain. 3rd ed. London, John Barker, 1973. Map p. 316; course of road described, p. 351. It may not be too fanciful to suspect that a branch of this road may have run from Caeathro across the Afon Saint at Pontrug and on towards this important crossing point at Llanfair-is-gaer. This would spare the traveller a needless detour via the fort at Segontium (Caernarfon).
- Davies, H.R., op. cit. p. 70.
- Hughes, H. , and North, H.L. The Old Churches of Snowdonia. pp. 200, 227. Bangor, Jarvis and Foster, 1924.
- Beddgelert Priory’ s reputed impoftance to travellers to and from Ireland would underline the signifiance of the Llanfair ferry over the Menai Strait. This had to be crossed before reaching Anglesey ports of embarkation. If Llanfair church is a late dedication, it may have been so founded and sited for three reasons. Firstly, as an act of piety. Secondly, as a place of prayer and thanksgiving at a potentially hazardous ferry crossing. Thirdly, to confirm the prior of Beddgelert’s economic and territorial ties with lands on both sides of the Straits hereabouts.
- Triad 26: ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain: Drystan son of Tallwch…And Pryderi son of Pwyll…And Coll son of Collfrei,qy, who guarded Henwen, the sow of Dallwyr Dallben, who…went to the Black Stone in Llanfair in Arfon, and there she brought forth a kitten; and Coll son of Collfrewy threw that kitten into the Menai. And she was afterwards Palug’s Cat’ – Bromwich, Rachel, Trioedd Ynys Prydein:The Welsh Triads, 2nd ed., Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1978, pp. 45-6.
400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
Holy and healing springs of Stamford, Lincolnshire
Being a noted aged town Stamford claims its fair share of ancient wells. A number of wells appear to share dedications with a nearby church and so it is unclear whether the names were obtained as a consequence of their proximity, all have been lost.. A map of the town by John Speed, 1611 features ‘S. Peter’s Well and S. Maryes Well. Butcher’ 1647 Survey and Antiquitie of the Towne of Stamford however is the main source who notes three wells: St. George’s Well, St. Clement’s Well and All Hallowes Well. There is a St. John’s Well associated with St. John’s Church.
More is noted of St. Thomas’s Well, of which Francis Peck in his 1727 History of Stanford repeats a story, originally told to him by his father, about Samuel Wallace, a crippled shoemaker of Stamford. Wallace was instructed on how to cure his sickness by a strange old man who mysteriously came and went on Whitsunday 1659, and who refused an offer of food, saying:
‘that he almost never drank anything but water, and that the water he drank was sometimes the water of St. Thomas’s well. That well, said my father, was the well you know in such a place. I heard him describe the place, but being then very young, can only remember it was somewhere without Stanford on the east, not far from the Uffington road. I have since enquired of several persons, but they can none of them tell of any such well’.
A church in Stamford was dedicated to St Thomas. There are springs found at TF 054 072, TF 054 072 and TF 058 071 along the footpath and disused Welland canal so one of these could be the likely contender.
Stamford’s Spa or Iron Well (TF 018 060) is a delightful and little known survival, so named because of its chalybeate waters. It was according to Thompson (1914) an open spring until 1864 when the Mayor of Stamford covered it with its present structure which is grade II listed. This is a circular stone onion shaped cupola about four feet high and sixteen feet round, which has on it the inscription ‘John Paradise Esquire Mayor 1864.’
Beeby Thompson’s 1914 Peculiarities of springs and wells of Northamptonshire notes that the spring was beneficial for skin diseases and eye problems and people used to fetch water to use in their houses, but today appears little regarded. Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock, Examples of printed folklore concerning Lincolnshire, Folklore Society, County Folklore Vol V, 1908 state:
“Tradition recounts that a religious house inhabited by pious women once stood near this holy well, and that its waters then had the power of restoring sight to the blind. It is still a wishing well. You wish, and drop a pin into it.”
It is curious that they call it a holy well so it maybe they are describing one of the former sites especially as it is called the Spa on old maps. Interestingly, Bath house can be found not far from the Iron Well with its name painted on the front wall. Built in 1923 it is Gothic building of two storeys with two pinnacles and central carved pinnacles and gothic glazed windows in chamfered reveals. Although now a private residence it apparently still retains its baths apparently, but I was unable to ascertain this. Incidentally there is another Bath house in Burleigh Park although this is strictly speaking in Northamptonshire and beyond this volume. Burleigh Park also boasted a chalybeate spring or Spa. Thomas Short’s 1734 Short The Natural Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, only makes passing note of it stating that it was a ‘product of iron stone’ and Thompson (1914) found no one in the locale who could verify a location and maybe it is linked to the above.
Various references in the 14th century note a Sevenwells which is perhaps significant. It was granted to the nuns of St. Michael but details are not forthcoming where it was.
Will the real Mossy Well of Muswell hill reveal itself?
Many years ago a friend of mine claimed his mother had discovered the location of the Muswell and she had become a bit of an expert on it. I remember her claiming that it was in a cupboard which at the time I thought was odd although I did not challenge her and forgot about it until now. In truth there still appears to be some confusion over the titular well of this well-known, London area- Muswell The name of this well has been confused, the most obvious is the secular Mossy well, which has been interpreted as Moses Well or St. Mary’s Well. Harte in his 2008 English holy wells suggests that the site is synonymous with St. Mary’s Well at Willesden. However, John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae of 1593. He wrote:
‘at Muswell Hill, called also Pinnersnall Hill, there was a chapel sometime bearing the name of Our Lady of Muswell where now Alderman Rowe hath erected a proper house. The place taketh the name of the well and the hill, Muswell Hill, for there is on the hill a spring of fair water which is within the compass of the house. There was sometime an image of the Lady of Muswell, whereunto was a continual resort in the way of pilgrimage, growing as is fabulously reported in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water upon a certain King of Scots who being strangely diseased was by some divine intelligence advised to take the water of the well in England called Muswell, which after long scrutation and inquisition, this well was found and performed the cure…’
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, 1696, states that:
‘the water of this well is drunk for some distemper still’.
Indeed it is probable that two wells are under discussion. Stanley Foord’s 1910 Springs, Streams and Spas of London records that:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure”.
The king believed to Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby) but Malcolm has also been mentioned, and the illness was thought to be leprosy. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells calls it St Lazarus’ Well, although he is the only source. The author adds that it was ‘situated behind the Alexandra Palace’. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Indeed, Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace. However there
is also a neglected well in front of a house in Muswell Avenue which has been identified by
one website Earth Stars. Alternatively, another website, https://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html, states emphatically:
“The present day Muswell Road, N10 is the location of the “Mossy Well” where the well still exists but is capped beneath a private house.”
The Hornsey Historical society, https://hornseyhistorical.org.uk/pins-or-muswell-hill/ state:
“The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.”
To put a plaque up suggests pretty much certainty and indeed the site does correspond to marks on the first series OS.
The confusion is probably explained as Curls in his 2010 Spas, Wells and pleasure gardens of London notes that there were two holy wells in the area see Tottenham. These were described as being in good preservation at the end of the nineteenth century according to T. K. Cromwell (1823) History and description of the Parish of Clerkenwell. One well was described as producing hard, pellucid and hard water, the other was like rainwater. It is stated that in the mid-1800s, contrary to Cromwell, the landowners of one had sealed one well, prompting a civil action to preserve access for local people. The local people won in the case of 1862 and the Alexander Park Company had to provide a pump. Yet by 1880s the pump had begun to cease to function and the wells were only supplied by surface waters which was polluted. Around this time it was lost, this would appear to be the same site as St Dunstan’s Well. In 2016 workers digging Muswell Hill Broadway revealed a circular 30m deep well, which English Heritage are planning to investigate. Its location is unlikely to be the titular site but it is not impossible
The Minster Wells: An Archaeological Evaluation of the Holy Wells of Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey, Kent – Brian Slade.
- The Abbess’s Well
The Abbess’s Well at Minster Abbey is so named because it supplied the water for St Sexburga’s palace. It is a timeless and sacred place, full of legend, symbolism and atmosphere. In 1991, I directed the award-winning excavations undertaken by the Sheppey Archaeological Society, of two wells associated with the former abbey. The Abbess’s Well produced proof positive of habitation on the site dating back to the very dawn of Britain’s history. The evidence includes pottery from the late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) and Iron Age, to the Norman periods; with, in between, no less than ten varieties of Roman ware. Most remarkable of all, we uncovered more Anglo-Saxon imported Ipswich Ware (A.D. 650-850) than has been discovered in all the excavations at Kent’s cathedral city of Canterbury put together. Metal finds include seven Anglo-Saxon bronze dress pins, some with decorated heads, perhaps once worn by Sexburga’s nuns; and a delicate chain or chatelaine to which is attached a small pair of shears, equivalent in size to modern-day nail-scissors, which might have hung from some nun’s girdle. A cressett lamp-base (cressett, from the French, croix, a cross) from the 650 to 850 period was found, as were a silver sceatta coin, of a type issued for Egbert, archbishop of York, in currency between 732-4 and 766, and four Henry Ill silver coins (1216-1272).
Some of the most exciting finds were of glass. These include the broken remains of 7th-9th century natural green-blue Anglo-Saxon glass intentionally streaked with opaque red. Smooth free-blown glass and re-inflated high-relief ribbed glass blown in a mould is represented. Spanning the period from c. 500 A.D. to the 800s, some of the glass is from domestic jars and squat-jars. However, in the context of their being anciently broken around the holy well of St Sexburga’s convent, the most personal, poignant and mentally stimulating objects are the remains of glass beakers, pouch bottles, and dull natural green-blue ribbed palm cups. As the name implies, ‘palm cups’ do not have handles (nor, for the most part, do Anglo-Saxon beakers), their shape and size enabling them to be easily and comfortably cupped in the drinker’s palm. We may picture to ourselves Anglo-Saxon nuns, beakers and palm cups in their hands, sitting and standing around their abbess’s well on hot summer’s days, quietly sipping water freshly drawn from the well’s deliciously cool depths. Other nuns would be coming and going, filling glass pouch bottles either to keep about their person to drink from later as required, or to take to other nuns whose duties or state of health prevented them from coming to draw water for themselves. Inevitably, over the centuries every now and then one of the nuns would accidentally drop her beloved (and probably inherited) green-blue decoratively-ribbed glass palm cup, beaker or pouch bottle onto the ground around the well, where the delicate glass would break into many pieces which would gradually be trodden into the soft ground. And there they remained buried, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years, until the Sheppey Archaeological Society came into being, dug them up, and had them examined, identified and dated by an expert at a museum.
The sheer density and richness of Anglo-Saxon finds unearthed in such a very small area around the Abbess’s Well reflect the wealth of royalty. The nunnery was founded more than 1,300 years ago by the widowed Anglo-Saxon queen Sexburga, to house her nuns of royal and high birth. An abrupt reduction in the pottery finds around the well from between c. 850 and 1,100 A.D. bears terrible witness to a period of diminished habitation, following documented Viking raids made on the Monasterium Sexburga, latter called Minster Abbey.
As an archaeologist and local historian well acquainted with Minster Abbey’s documented history, I had expected the Anglo-Saxon pottery evidence around the well to begin c. 660 A.D., when St Sexburga’s nunnery was founded. Instead, the team also unearthed Anglo-Saxon pottery from about 450 A.D., predating Monasterium Sexburga by some 200 years. This suggests that Sexburga introduced her nunnery into an existing and presumably pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement. This provided the first evidence of such a scenario yet discovered. An English Heritage report based on their own inspection of the Abbess’s Well concluded that the stones forming the well- shaft are consistent with a 12th-century date. Yet, objects found down inside the Well date back to
3rd-century Roman occupation of the site. As there is no indigenous stone on the Isle of Sheppey, this suggests that c. 1130, when Archbishop William de Corbeuil shipped stone to Minster, he had the original wicker and timber-lined well-shaft replaced by the stone still to be seen in place there today.
The Abbess’s Well was found to contain a 400-year-old size-five woman’s shoe. Attached to the wooden sole was a raised iron ring designed to keep the shoe above the surface of unpaved streets, and thus raise the lady’s dress out of the mud. This type of footwear is called a pattern. Although iron rings from such shoes are often discovered, a complete shoe is a rarity. It is believed to have survived protected by the silt, preserved by being constantly waterlogged since it was deposited in the well.
With a powerful pump keeping the water at bay, at the very bottom of the 31 ‘-deep well two Roman coins were discovered; an Antoninianus of Victorianus (269-271 A.D.), and an Antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268 A.D.). This last bears an image of a stag on the reverse, possibly a symbol of the goddess Diana. (Diana is sometimes termed the goddess of sacred springs and wells, and it is interesting that Daly’s History of the Isle of Sheppey records a tradition that a temple at Minster was dedicated to Diana, which may have stood where
Minster Abbey was later built. In the second part of this article I will give details of the team’s investigation of what I have come to call ‘the Well of the Triple Goddess’ here at Minster, and of a three-headed female image discovered therein. It is interesting that the Romans called the goddess Diana Triformis -triformis meaning, having three forms – in other words, Diana was in some sense a ‘triple goddess’. ) From the archaeological evidence discovered around and within the Abbess’s Well, it seems possible that Sexburga inherited and blessed a pre-Christian well in the name of Christ, and adopted it as her own. (The Bible tells us that one of the marks of Divine favour towards the Chosen People was that ‘they should come into possession of wells which they had not digged’ – Deuteronomy VI, 11.)
Sexburga was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, and the sister of the more famous St Etheldreda. She was married to King Erconbert of Kent, and founded the royal convent of Minster. Upon Erconbert’s death in 664, she became abbess at Minster. Around 673 she moved to Ely, where she succeeded Etheldreda as abbess after the latter’s death in 679. Sexburga herself died c. 700, and was buried beside her sister at Ely. Her daughter St Ermengild, widow of King Wulfhere of Mercia, followed Sexburga first as abbess of Minster, and afterwards becoming the third royal abbess of Ely.(2)
According to Elizabeth Mills (the granddaughter of the Rev. William Branston, vicar of Minster, 1878-1901):
St. Sexburga, and her holy sisters, are traditionally said to have had a vast knowledge of healing waters, herbs and medicines, and that they used the waters from certain magical springs and wells for drinking and bathing the wounds of injured people, and sometimes even animals, thus effecting many outstanding cures among the sick and injured. (3)
In common with many other saints it is said that St Sexburga personally blessed all the wells she used. (4) Situated high on a hill overlooking the sea, the source of the water in Sexburga’s well is unknown, but it is thought to be fed by a spring deep beneath the Abbey grounds. Its supply has never been known to fail, even in the severest drought. In 1536 Henry VIll dissolved Minster Abbey, and over the following centuries the wells that once supplied the proud abbey with water were filled in. But such was its location (and possibly, too, the reverence and awe in which the people and Church held this particular water source) that it has remained a working well right up until the present day.
Even if one was totally to discount the recently discovered archaeological evidence that the Abbess’s Well existed during and before St Sexburga’s time, the 12th-century stone-lined well-shaft still implies that, at the time of writing, it has survived as a working well for over 850 years. Long after the Dissolution, the Abbess’s Well continued in the ownership of the church, the land being rented out for farming and market gardening. An ancient map shows the well amidst trees. The team discovered great numbers of plum stones in the Abbess’s Well, identified by Kew Gardens as ‘Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family’; indicating that the well once stood in a plum orchard. Sections of ancient brickwork (one with a piece of timber beam still mortared into it) were found in the well, together with broken peg-tiles, suggesting that at one time the well had a brick-built well-house over it. One might suggest that the plum-stones and other rubbish had fallen into the well after the well-house had collapsed or had been demolished, or perhaps even before the well-house was built. This is borne out by the fact that only worthless rubbish was found in the top few inches of the mud at the bottom of the well, after which (and apart from the pattern) the mud and silt was free of artefacts down to the level at which the medieval pins were discovered. Even deeper were the Roman coins, right at the very bottom of the well. Unlike so many of even the best-known holy wells in the British Isles, which for the most part are void of any contextual evidence of habitation and use in antiquity, the archaeological evidence unearthed within and around the Abbess’s Well is overwhelming. It is now arguably the best-authenticated monastic holy well on record in Great Britain, archaeologically speaking.
The first person to disturb the water of the Abbess’s Well was Ian White, of Sheerness. Indeed, because he was the only member of the archaeological team thin enough to squeeze his body through the bottleneck opening into the well, all the work down inside the well was carried out by Ian. Perhaps as a result,
in 1993 England’s news-media network – radio, television, newspapers, magazines – reported:
Sharon, wife of archaeologist Ian White, had suffered four miscarriages. Specialists told her they didn’t know what the problem was. Sharon began to lose faith and wondered if she would ever be able to have a baby. But almost exactly nine months after her husband finished working hours on end immersed up to his waist in water down a reputed healing well at Minster Abbey, Sharon gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl, Emily.
That was in 1991, and now the happy couple also have Hanna. (5) The land on which the Abbess’s Well is sited was sold to a builder in the 1930s, and the well was incorporated into the garden of a house called Abbot’s Gate, in Falcon Gardens.
Abbot’s Gate was purchased in 1994 by Leon and Brenda Stanford, who are perfect heritage-minded custodians, always ready and happy to show the well to people and to discuss its history (by appointment only). If any reader is genuinely interested in paying them a visit, please telephone them first, on xxxxx, mentioning my name and that of Source. A small timber shed has been built over the well, to provide protection and easy access to the well, which stands exactly as it has for centuries: clean, functional, and delivering crystal-clear fresh water, water given by the earth and blessed by history.
- Augustus A. Daly, The History of the Isle of Sheppey, Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. (London) 1904, p. 18.
- David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 161, 433-4.
- Elizabeth Mills, ‘The Forgotten Saint’. St. Wendreda of Erning, Newmarket. No details given. (This is a leaflet given away with plates depicting St Wendreda, sold at Newmarket.)
- This is still-current local tradition in Minster,
- Sheppey Gazette, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 1; cf. also, e.g., Jane Simon, ‘Fertility goddess gave me babies! Woman’s Own, Christmas edition 1993, pp. 52-3. Please note: Ian White worked down both the Abbess’ Well and the well of the goddess’ – one following the other – so that the ‘miracle baby’ story could be attributed to both or either. Naturally, the media preferred the ‘fertility goddess’ story. Christians will associate the ‘miracle’ with the Abbess’ Well; pagans (especially pagan feminist groups) with the ‘triple goddess’. (Unlike more purely archives-based research articles, in the context of this archaeologically-based article the primary sources are my own publications. If you wish to know more about the two holy wells of Minster Abbey, and the team’s other excavations there, full details, illustrations, photographs, etc., are contained in the following booklets:
The Abbess’s Well,
The Well of the Triple Goddess;
The Well of the Triple Goddess: What the Experts Say;
The Minster Miracles;
Minster Abbey: An Account of the Excavations.
The first three booklets were reviewed in Source 3: they are f2 each inclusive of p. & p. , obtainable from Brian Slade. If you mention Source and my article when ordering, and enclose a separate letter suggesting that the ‘Well of the Triple Goddess’ should be re-opened as a tourist attraction, as recommended by Dr Richard Morrice of English Heritage, Swale Borough Council, and our Archaeological Society, all five booklets will cost only E6, including p. & p.. Please make cheques and postal orders out to Brian Slade. The booklets are sold on a non-profit-making basis, to defray costs of research and production. It is my fond hope that readers of Source will send me further relevant information to assist my research regarding the Minster Abbey wells; and I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to readers to visit me if ever they are in this area. I can be contacted on xxxxx, evenings only, between 7 and 8.)
Note Brian sadly passed away I believe in the early 00s and the folding of the new series of Source meant that the other wells were not featured.
The Minster ‘holy wells’ an appraisal -my personal reflections
When I researched holy wells for holy wells and healing springs of Kent, I visited Sheerness in search of more information and contacted Mr and Mrs Stanford to visit the Abbey Well and they were more than happy to arrange a time for me to visit. I was taken to their garden where there was to what appeared, a simple wooden pine ‘shed’, within which the well was found. The well had been fitted with security lid and lights has been placed over and down the well shaft, by Mr Stanford.
This shed was becoming a sort of mini-museum with artefacts from the well. He informed me that after consultation with NRA and Southern water, the water had been analysed and was shown to contain essential minerals: manganese, phosphorus, silicon, zinc, copper and calcium, and was one of the purest in the county.
I was informed of a catalogue of cures which had been documented, which included Mr Stanford himself. He informed me that when he took over the property he walked with a stick, and was to undergo surgery, but after taking the water for a couple of weeks, he now walks unaided and never needing the operation. He also said that it was good for eye complaints and one such individual is a Mary Smith, whose serious eye infection made her a virtual recluse. Yet, despite using eye
lotions for two years with no effect, the complaint was cured the day after.
He stated that hundreds have come drink the water, some with fertility issues or, wanting to cure serious illnesses such as including cancer and blindness. Often he said they filled 25-litre water to take away with them some even going to mainland Europe with it. Of course he does not charge for the water. However, orders come for water throughout the world it would appear, from Africa to the US to Australia to send water too.
A second well was also excavated by Mr. Slade and his team and lies outside the old Abbey
Gatehouse, sadly still not still not marked and under concrete, called the Gatehouse Well or Well of the Triple Headed Goddess. The well was a public well and a number of similar discoveries
to those of St. Sexburga’s well, have been found in relation to this well, however overshadowing these is the controversial ‘Venus de Minster’ also called a triple headed goddess.
Interestingly, Slade suggests that Minster Abbey replaced a temple dedicated to Apollo and Diana and the image may be of her or equally of course St. Sexburga and her sisters and functioned as ancient pilgrim souvenir or a votive object. The image was associated with a strange ‘miracle’ concerning one the excavators, Mr. Ian White, being the only team member able to squeeze into the well he had direct contact with its water, and it was claimed that his wife became surprisingly pregnant, after four miscarriages and being told that she was unable to have children. When When a Dr Ian Godsland, a medical research scientist at Imperial College, heard about the Whites’ baby, he decided to send £150 towards the excavation of the well. He told the Daily Express:
“I really believe that the goddess may have played a part. Don’t ask me how it happened or for any explanations. I just believe now that the world can work in a different way to the one we scientists think we understand.”
Ian White told the Daily Express:
“Of course I can’t say it was the goddess for certain. No one can. But we both like to believe it.”
I never saw the Triple Goddess figure, as I never in the end went to see Brian and I have no idea where it is now. He had told me that there were at least three other cases similar to Mrs White’s one.
As Mr. White went down both wells the ‘miracle’ could be attributed to either site, but the media liked to connect it to this well. A modern ritual developed involving the touching a copy of the goddess image for luck, and then going to the Abbess’s well to drink its water.
Are either really holy wells?
What makes a holy well? Certainly there is a lot here to process – association with abbey ruins, highly mineralised water, cures and effigies but in a way no mention of this site itself as a holy well either by tradition of pilgrimage to it or association directly with saint historically recorded. What in way we have is a modern holy well based on an ancient mediaeval well. A well with some pedigree but none the less an abbey well or in the case of the other site a domestic well with no recorded sanctifying of the site. Brian Slade’s books are very interesting reads and he writes a lot which suggests that Sheerness was a very interesting place but its nearly all conjecture without any real evidence. But does it really matter?
The Abbey Well and Well of the Triple Goddess appear to have fallen again into obscurity and one cannot be sure whether people still come for the water. The later, really the gatehouse well still from what I can gather remains sealed! The site is marked on google maps as a tourist attraction but so little is on the internet about it, that I am sure modern miracle seekers are very puzzled by this marker which just appears to be in a non-descript street!