Monthly Archives: March 2012
‘and immediately a spring burst forth under a rock, which they lifted up, and the whole company drank healthfully before moving on. The spring runs into the river to this day’.
High above the picturesque village of Winchcombe is a substantial conduit house. This conduit house with its heavy stone pitched rood of local stone and substantial door contains a four foot wide, two foot deep well fed by a spring associated with most of the country’s most interesting saint. In a text called Vita Sancti Kenelmi, written it is believed by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, in the 11th century the story of the saint is told. It relates that King Kenulf, King of Mercia and founder of Wincombe Abbey (in 789 A.D) had an heir Kenelm. His half sister Quenride was jealous of her brother and being ambitious murdered him and had his body hidden in Clent, North Worcestershire ( and now on the outskirts of the West Midlands Metropolitan area ). His death was seen as a great scandal and soon the dead revealed itself and when the body was found, and a white dove sent the message to the Pope:
“In Clent in cowback Kenelm King’s bairn lieth under a thorn bereft of his head.”
The Clent monks removed this body, a miraculous spring arising in the process, and carried it to Winchombe. Where the funeral cortège rested miraculous springs arose. Of these springs, only the two remain, that at Clent and the one under discussion here, the last resting place. The monks of Wincombe claimed this body and established a pilgrimage place, the spring being part of this pilgrimage. The Annals of Wincombe, related in the South East Legendary c1280, translated below reads:
“These men towards Winchombe the Holy body bear,
Before they could it thither bring, very weary they were,
So they came to a wood a little east of the town,
And rested, though they were so near, upon a high down,
Athirst they were for weariness, so sore there was no end,
For St Kenelm’s love they bade our Lord some drink send,
A cold well and clear, there sprung from the down,
That still is there, clear and cold, a mile from the town,
Well fair, it is now covered with stone as is right,
And I counsel each man thereof to drink, that cometh there truly,
The Monks, since, of Winchombe have built there beside,
A fair Chapel of St Kenelm, that man seek wide.”
In Caxton’s 15th century Golden Legend it states:
‘for heat and labour they were nigh dead for thirst, and anon they prayed to God, and to this holy saint to be their comfort. And then the abbot pight his cross into the earth, and forthwith sprang up there a fair well, whereof they drank and refreshed them much’.
The site, as St Kenwolphs Well, first appears on the map in 1777 on Taylor’s Gloucestershire map but Walters (1928) in his work on Ancient springs of Gloucestershire, states that the well house or conduit house was enclosed by Lord Chandos (of Sudeley Castle in the valley below) in the reign of Elizabeth I dating from around 1572. It is possible that the conduit house replaced a previous well house and it is thought to have been a chapel nearby which was still standing in 1830 when it was either demolished or converted into a cottage. The later seems possible as a Perpendicular window is to be found in the rear of a Victorian cottage nearby but I did not find it.
To return to the conduit house, a figure of the saint was placed over the door, crowned and seated, with sword and sceptre. It bears the date 819 A.D. and the name St Kenelmus, but was erected in 1887. The inscriptions within these walls are as follows :
East wall :
“THIS WELL DATING FROM THE ANGLO-SAXON TIMES, ANNO DOMINI 819, MARKS THE SPOT WHERE THE BODY OF KENELM, ‘ KING AND MARTYR ‘ RESTED ON THE WAY TO INTERMENT IN THE ABBEY OF WINCHOMBE.
A CHURCH WAS ERECTED IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY FOR PILGRIMS ATTRACTED HITHER BY THE WONDERFUL POWERS OF THE WATERS. ALL THAT NOW REMAINS OF THIS EDIFICE ( DEMOLISHED ANNO DOMINI 1830 ) IS A WINDOW INSERTED IN THE ADJOINING FARM HOUSE.
IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN ELIZABETH LORD CHANDOS OF SUDELY ENSHRINED THE HOLY WELL BY ERECTION OF THIS CONDUIT HOUSE, PROBABLY TO COMEMORATE ONE OF THAT QUEEN’S VISIT TO THE CASTLE.
IN THIS JUBILEE YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA, JUNE 20TH, ANNO DOMINI 1887, THE SCULPTURE-FIGURE OF ST KENELM WAS ADDED EXTERNALLY AND THESE THREE LEGENDARY TABLETS PLACED THEREON.
“OH TRAVELLER, STAY THY WEARY FEET,
DRINK OF THIS WATER, PURE AND SWEET,
IT FLOWS FOR RICH AND POOR THE SAME,
THEN GO THY WAY, REMEMBERING STILL,
THE WAYSIDE WELL BENEATH THE HILL,
THE CUP OF WATER IN HIS NAME.”
“IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE THREE BROTHERS JOHN, WILLIAM AND THE REVD. BENJAMIN DENT, AND OF THEIR NEPHEW, JOHN COUCHIER DENT, WATER FROM THIS ABUNDANT AND EVER FLOWING STREAM WAS CONVEYED AS A FREE GIFT TO THE INHABITANTS OF WINCHOMBE BY EMMA, WIDOW OF THE ABOVE JOHN COUCHIER DENT. JUNE 20TH, 1887”
“LET THEY FOUNTAIN BE DISPERSED ABROAD,
AND RIVERS OF WATERS IN THE STREETS. ” PROV. V. 16”
On a pleasant summer’s day it makes a delightful goal to the pilgrim, although sadly the well itself is now inaccessible…it is currently locked.
Many years back, when I lived in Bristol, I started working on a book on holy and healing wells of Somerset. I still hope one day to complete it but until then, here are some field notes from some of the sites.
Horne had difficulty in dry weather finding this site and indeed the walk to Childen Polden’s Holy well is probably not worth it, as the well arises in small circular area with some signs of rockwork around it but ruined by rather ugly farm shed. Nothing of any antiquity remains, which is indicated by the blue writing on the current pathfinder. It is said to be a noted sulphur spring, but upon visiting I failed to notice any distinctive features. above it This site is clearly marked on the Landranger map is the Holy Well with the note (Sulphur), and said by Kelly’s Directory to have healing qualities and that people from Bridgewater came to take its waters, and Tongue as an eye well.
Edington’s Holy Well by comparison is far more impressive structure. Indeed it comes as quite a surprise as one takes Holywell Road through the village and come across it at the corner of this road protected by a clump of trees. Unfortunately the source of water has now dried or else seasonal ( although this may have been the result of a summer drought ). The first mention is by Collinson (1791) describes this as a
‘perpetual spring, which contains sulphur and steel, and stains silver yellow in two hours… It has been found efficacious in scorbutick cases’
He interestingly fails to call it a holy well and it was until Phelps (1836–9) would the name holy well be applied to the site so perhaps it is his invention, the name being immortalised for good on the 1886 OS map. Phelps notes that the spring was the same quality as a holy well at Shapwick but contained less sulphuretted hydrogen. Horne ( 1923 ) states :
“ ..water gathers in a well-made stone tank about three feet square, the top of which is level with the surrounding ground. It is covered with two stone slabs, one of which at the date of visit in April 1915 had been removed, and the tank was half full of decaying leaves as a consequence. The water was three feet in depth and ran through a stone spout. The flow was slight, and the water of a greenish milky colour, with a strong and horrible smell of sulphur.”
As I noted, the well appears to be dry although the structure is still in good condition consisting of seats set around a stone forecourt. This structure was restored in as a stone plaque recalls :
“Edington Holy Well was renovated in 1937 in the memory of Margaret Charlotte Fownes Luttrell”
It is an interesting well to discover, but in the nearby village of
One of my favourite villages, with its delightful church full of hidden treasures including a plesiosaur, the overly picturesque castle ruins and St Andrew’s Well, one of the largest in the county. Down this side lane one is greeted with the most impressive structure surrounding a Holy Well in Somerset. One enters a large archway into a forecourt where two small ‘brick huts’ are apparent (now with windows) within which apparently the waters arise and perhaps custodians sat. The water emerges beneath these ‘huts’ a series of three pipes. Two to the left and one to the right. There water gushes out at some force filling stone throughs and then draining away.
In a delightful private garden set amongst cascading is a particularly venerable looking Holy Well called St. Pancras’s or Holy Well, although some doubt over its antiquity. It consists of a stone walled structure with two larger stones set across its opening, with one inside having fallen in. The lady owner stated they were worried that it was going to collapse any day : but has not! Indeed this condition was noted by Horne in 1914 that it has:
“has two slabs of stone over the top gable-shaped, but the stonework inside has fallen in somewhat, and is moss and fern grown… It is locally known as the HolyWell”
The water travels through a narrow liverwort covered channel, and then underground. The owner stated that they had had the water tested and found it purer than any water around!
Horne (1914) notes that:
“The well is in the garden of an old cottage which was once a chapel, though it has been much re-constructed. The cottage has always been known as St Pancras, and this was no doubt the dedication of the chapel, of which little remains beyond a built-in lancet window and the doorway”
Its position in the enclosed area of an old chapel, dedicated to St Pancras suggests perhaps that it may have had a role in supplying water for visitors to Old Cleeve Abbey . The owner noted that recently the well had received some notice in the local press, which pleased her it seemed.
Many wells have associations with seasonal customs, but perhaps one of the most unusual traditions is that found in the Glentham Parish in Lincolnshire. Here can be found the Newell or Newell’s Well which had associated with it a rather unique custom: the ceremony of ‘Washing Molly Grime’ The tradition appears to have become confused over the centuries. A full account is recorded by a H. Winn in Notes and Queries (1888-9):
“The church of Glentham was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, a circumstance obviously alluded to by a sculpture in stone of the Virgin supporting the dead Christ in her arms, still to be seen over the porch entrance and placed there by some early representative of the Tourneys of Caenby, who had a mortuary chapel on the north side of Glentham church. The washing of the effigy of the dead Christ every Good Friday, and strewing of his bier with spring flowers previous to a mock entombment, was a special observance here. It was allowed to be done by virgins only, as many desired to take part in the ceremony being permitted to do so in mourning garb. The water for washing the image was carried in procession from Neu-well adjacent. A rent was charged of seven shillings a year was left upon some land at Glentham for the support of this custom, and was last paid by W. Thorpe, the owner, to seven old maids for the performance of washing the effigy each Good Friday. The custom being known as Molly Grime’s washing led to an erroneous idea that the rent charge was instituted by a spinster of that name, but ‘Molly Grime’ is clearly a corruption of the ‘Malgraen’ i.e. Holy Image washing, of an ancient local dialect. About 1832 the land was sold without any reservation of the rent charge.”
The origin for the well’s name is also confused. Rudkin (1936) notes:
“They reckon it’s called Newell’s well on account of a man named Newell as left money to seven poor widow women..”
However, it is more likely to be simply new well, perhaps deriving its name from ‘eau’, a common word in the county.
When and why the tradition switched from washing the holy image to that supposedly of the Tourney (Lady Anne Tourney a local 14th century land owner) is unclear, but it is possible that the change occurred at the Reformation and that perhaps the money was given to wash both holy image and that of the benefactor and post Reformation only the benefactor washing survived. There is a similar tradition called the ‘Dusters’ in Duffield. The name of the activity clearly survived as Rudkin that:
“ they’d wash a stone coffin-top as in the Church; this ‘ere coffin-top is in the form of a women. ‘Molly Grime’ they calls it.”
The tradition even appears to have earned some note nationwide, for a nursery rhyme about the custom is known:
|Seven old maids,||Seven old maids,|
|once upon a time,||Got when they came|
|Came of Good Friday,||Seven new shillings|
|To wash Molly Grime,||In Charity’s name,|
|The water for washing,||God bless the water|
|Was fetched from Newell,||God bless the rhyme|
|And who Molly was I never heard tell.||And God bless the old maids that washed Molly Grime|
Sadly the selling of the land appeared to killed off the tradition, except that between 2004 and 2007 a special Father’s Day race for women was established. This involved filling a balloon with water from Newell’s spring and the subsequent attempt for getting it back to the village without bursting it. In essence it remembered the tradition, but sadly it too appears to have fallen into abeyance.
Another tradition in the village was that if one drank its waters one was said never to leave the village. A correspondent of Sutton (1997) states:
“An old boy told me about the ‘healing well of Glentham. It was named after a saint but I can’t remember the name he used. Some folk call it Newell’s well. Many people came to take the healing waters and in the spring of the year, the Church held an annual service for ‘good water for the rest of the year’, the service marked a new year of the waters. The well was dressed in a traditional way using clay and flower petals to make some kind of picture, usually a saint. I’m told it look very impressive”
This is presumably before the site was enveloped in scrub as it is now. The report is interesting for a number of reasons; firstly because the correspondent refers to the waters as healing, secondly that it was dedicated to a saint and thirdly the account of well dressing more reminiscent of Derbyshire, and as far as I am aware it is only such example, as well dressing at Welton and Louth appeared to be more garland related. None of these observations have been made elsewhere which either casts doubt in the correspondent or more likely the patchy nature of well traditions in the county.
Despite the loss of the custom, the well survives, the water clear and flowing arises beneath a stone built chamber of seven courses of stonework with a small square outlet through which the water flows. However, according to recent reports boring in the vicinity has resulted in the water being drained away but I have been unable to ascertain this.