Monthly Archives: October 2012

Happy Birthday Blog..Let’s look at the legends concerning the birth of holy wells

As it’s the first year anniversary, it is time to reflect upon the how holy springs are  born. There appear to be four ways in which holy men and women has caused springs to be created. Perhaps the most easily explained in view of modern science is that miracle associated with St. Thomas a Beckett at Otford or St Augustine in Kent and Dorset, where they struck their staffs into the ground or a rock and caused a spring to arise. A story which of course arises in relation to the work of Moses,  who supplied water for the Israelites in Exodus. Indeed, it appears to have been done as a claim of holiness as seen by Sir John Shorne in North Marston (Buckinghamshire). Some modern day antiquarians may relate their actions to that of dowsers, but a little bit of local knowledge of hydrology would help!

Sometimes like that of Holy Well bay (Cornwall), St. Ive’s Well (Huntingdonshire) or St. Winchombe (Gloucestershire), a spring arose when the body was disinterred and rested. This again makes some logical sense for one would expect that digging a body in some geological areas could possibly hit ground water, the junction between two rock types being likely. When arising from the resting of a body is slightly more problematic, but one would expect in a journey fraught with thieves, wolves, bears and all sorts of hazards the body may have been temporarily interred to prevent loss, especially as journeys being done on foot.

Often there is a gruesome origin to springs. St Alban’s Well in St Albans came about after the saint was decapitated by the pagan Romans and at his martyrdom, his head rolled down and where it rested a spring formed. This is one version of the legend, a story repeated in the more famous perhaps St. Winifred’s well.  This is a more problematic origin and perhaps again links the idea of temporary disinterment.

Certainly, the construction of a hollow may explain how St Morwena’s well arose in Morwenstowe (Cornwall). It is said that the saint journeyed to find a stone for the font and fell asleep here and a well arose. This resulted in the well being used as the location of the church.

A Gloucestershire field guide


The site of Mary Magdalene’s Well was famed for its healing and petrifying qualities, for it is reported that when pieces of stick were immersed into the water they became coated with stone. The water had associations with curing sore eyes. A Saxon monastery was established in the 13th Century by the Cistercians in the vicinity of this never failing spring, and then conveyed by means of an aqueduct. This feel into disuse when the order moved towards Kingswood and the monastery became unused.

Two references to the well note that in 1357:

“John de Brerousa, granted forever the inhabitants of Tetbury free liberty to fetch water in Magdalen Meadow. A.D. Edward III 1357”

Again in 1487 a John Lymeriche, of Tetbury, Gentleman, gave leave the inhabitants of Tetbury to fetch water at a well-spring butting upon Magdalen Meadow, which evidently had its origins in the edicts. Within the town a drinking fountain was feed by the well. The spring is one source of the Bristol Avon, and it emerges from the Forest Marble, and then flows into a pond surrounded by a stone wall. In the 1857 the site was dilapidated and the water mixed with other streams. The site has indeed seen some changes from being in an industrial estate in the 1980s-90s to now being where Tesco is and considerably tidied up in the proceeding decades.


The interesting site, of Broadwell arises from beneath the Broadwell Tavern, to forma pool of approximately 15ft square, with near two foot of water. The spring was probably the origin of the settlement’s name Dur – water, Sley – meadow. The Inn itself would appear to have been a religious house bearing the name St. Mary’s House, a name which continued until 1610, and in 1639 reference is made to the nunnery of which the inn was part. The Rev. W. R. Lett believes that the dip well within the courtyard to supply water to the order easier.

The belief that the Tavern was a nunnery is supported by the presence of Gothic windows, which were until recently on the tavern, and the finding within the inn religious images. Thus the well could as Walters (1928) notes be called the Nun’s Well or St Mary’s well. The water itself arises from inferior Oolite limestone, being thrown out by the impervious Upper Lias clay. The water is hard and deposits a limestone called ‘tough or puffe’ stone.


This small well of Lady well, (SP 177 258)  lies in the private grounds of Abbotswood, and its water is derived from the Coteswold Sands resting on Upper Lias Clay and flows into a small well house. This is built of stone it has a sloping roof and upright sides. The water flows through four inches by two inches opening and thence to a 1ft dipwell and then overflows to the River Dikler.

The most interesting note concerning the site is the strange and certainly pre-Christian legend that connects it with a nearby megalith called the Twizzle stone. It is said that:

“When the Wizzlestone or Wissel stone heard Stow clock strike, it went down to Our Lady’s Well to drink.”

This stone is said to conceal treasure but woe betide anyone who would try to uncover it whilst the stone is away, for it would swiftly return and squash them.


Gloucestershire boast two sites where crosses mount springs. Whether this is an examples of how sacred pagan springs were quickly Christianized by the erection of a simply cross above their waters or simply a marker for the spring is unclear. What is known that the Well-cross (SP 045 086) is 14th Century. This cross itself is without embellishment being a very crude and primitive lantern form. It seats on a stepped platform, and beneath which the spring flows at great speed through a typical stone wall and fills a iron trough (a replacement for an earlier stone one). It is possible that the cross was erected by the Knight’s Templars, who were active in the area.


Sadly the well cross at Condicote was destroyed in the 19th century and its fine finial had to be replaced by a gable obtained from the church during its restoration. Although a pump now feeds from this spring, originally there was a stone dipwell with two trap doors. Unfortunately this was often contaminated and hence the pump was erected on sanitation grounds. This cross is again believed to be of 14th Century date and bears upon the socket of the cross, virtually illegible. East side ( behind pump ) :




This later statement refers to another pump and trough however.


Boggarts fairy folk, ghosts, other otherworldy beasts….and waterlore: an analysis

Hobwell Kent

Hobwell Kent

Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker,  Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln.  One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.

Chislehurst Caves Pool haunted by a women drowned in it



When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.

Perhaps Hobwell’s name was a way to discourage visitors…it looks pretty eerie even now!