Monthly Archives: February 2013
An Edinburgh fieldtrip: some holy and healing wells around the city
Holyrood Park has a number of notable sites. St Margaret’s Well is a strange and possibly unique hybrid. The spring itself is a holy well, called The Well of the Holy Rood or St. David’s Well and dates from 1198, the well head was but the well house was re-erected from St Margaret’s Well at Restalrig. This was when this site became derelict once land nearby was to be built over by the North British Railway depot. This resulted in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland removing the structure brick by brick and resurrecting it over the Holy rood site.
The spring itself of course is the reason why the park is called Holy rood, for legend has it that King David after mass decided to go hunting in the area and was thrown from his horse by a giant stag which was then carried the king, him holding for dear life onto a cross between its antlers until it stopped at the spring. In thanks for his deliverance he built the Abbey of Holy Rood there.
The well house is a delightful structure, Gothic in nature and dating from the fifteenth century with an internal width of sixth feet and around five feet in height with a central pier with a carved hear which is provided with a spout through which the water flows.
There is something delightfully mysterious about St Anthony’s Well. Despite being traipsed across by hundreds of people on a daily basis, this spring is still difficult to find, the very essence of being pixyled. It can only really be seen from the ruins of chapel said to be a hermitage for it arises beneath a large boulder and fills a small trough. I cannot find any information about its origin but it is said that on May morning ‘youths and maidens after wash their faces in the dew on Arthur’s seat nearby come down and drink from the well.’ However every time I’ve seen it is has been dry.
In Liberton, perhaps in the most incongruous of situations, a Toby Carvery, but at least it is now easy to find and get to. This is the Balm Well or St. Katherine’s Well, a delightful little pitched roofed well house, which once had small pinnacles on its structure but these had gone when I visited and looks a little forlorn. However, this recent bit of neglect is nothing compared to what happened in the 17th century when Roundheads filled it with stones and defaced it. The present structure dates from 1563, but the site has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries by the Scottish kings, until James VI built this well house. Its waters are said to have arise from Queen Margaret dropping some oil accidently which she had obtained from Mount Carmel or Sinai and the spring arose. The waters thought to good for rheumatism is still oily, its origins thought to have derived from coal strata.
The final spring, is in the Dean village part of the city beside the Water of Leith, being the imposing St. Bernard’s Well, a temple like building with a statue of Hygeia and a pump room. Although it is said to be named after the Abbot of Clairvaux who is said to have drunk here preaching the Second crusade. However, this may be a back derived story as it was latterly discovered in 1760 and in 1789, Lord Gardenstone erected this structure over it and it became a popular spa.
A well for February- St Blaise’s Well, Bromley Kent
The patron saint of shepherds is saint with a strong association with February, the 3rd being his feast day. He was much celebrated in sheep areas such as Kent and this was by virtue of his gruesome martyrdom involving iron combs, which resemble a sheep shearer’s combs. Bromley, itself, has had a long association for popular lore suggests that the Parish church was also once dedicated to him. The earliest known connection between the two was during the reign of Henry VI, with St. Blaise’s Day fairs. It was also a common practice for local blasphemers to give homage to the saint’s image at Bromley. One recorded example is by a Thomas Ferby, who in 1456, promoted a clandestine marriage in St. Paul’s Cray Church. He was excommunicated for this act, and had to present a wax taper of a pound weight at the image here.
In the town he surprisingly had a well, one of the few dedicated to him, St. Blaise’s Well (TQ 408 692). Hasted (1797-1801) notes:
“There is a well, in the Bishop’s garden, called St. Blaize’s Well, which, having great resort to it anciently, on account of its medicinal virtues, had an oratory attached dedicated to the saint. It was particularly frequented at Whitsuntide on account of forty days enjoined penance, to such as would visit this chapel, and offer up their orisons in it, and the three holy days of Pentecost. This oratory falling to ruin at the Reformation, the well too, came to be disused, and the site of both in process of time became totally forgotten.”
Hasted (1797-1801) continues to record a discovery in 1754, by a Rev. Harwood, at the Bishops Garden near the old palace ponds, of a chalybeate spring. This is believed by most authorities as the rediscovery of the well. Its discovery and qualities was detailed by the surgeon Thomas Reynolds:
“It was discovered in September 1754, by the Rev Mr. Harward, his Lordship’s domestic Chaplain, by means of yellow ochery sediment remaining in the track of a small current leading from the spring to the corner to the moat, with the waters of which it used to mix. It is very probable that this spring was formerly frequented, for in digging about it there were the remains of steps leading down to it made of oak plank, which appeared as if they had lain underground a great many years.
When his Lordship was acquainted that the Water of this spring had been examined and found to be a good Chalybeate, he, with great humanity, immediately ordered it to be secured from the mixture of other waters, by skilful workman, and enclosed in a circular brick work (stone work) like the top of a well; in hopes that it might be beneficial, as a medicine, to such as should think fit to drink it. This order was speedily and effectually executed, and the Water not only secured but the access to it made very commodious to the Public, by the generous care, and under the inspection of Mr. Wilcox his Lordship’s Son. And their benevolent intentions have already been answered with success: for great numbers of people, of all conditions, but chiefly middling and poorer sort, drink daily of this excellent Water, many of whom have been remarkably relieved from various infirmities and diseases, which were not afflicting but dangerous.”
Hasted (1797-1801), gives the discovery of the wooden steps as evidence that this is St. Blaise’s Well. Whatever its origin, the waters were apparently good enough as to encourage Reynolds to retire in the Bromley neighbourhood, to take its waters, rather than return to his earlier resort, Tunbridge Wells. A latter description by Hone (1827-8) refers to the well as the ‘Bishop’s Well’, describing it as a trickling through an orifice, at the moat or lake’s side. A contemporary sketch shows it covered with a conical thatched roof, supported by six pillars, with water arising in a circular basin, this is also shown in a photo in Horsburgh (1939). Sadly, in 1887, a snowstorm resulted in the roofs destruction and the then owner Mr. Coles Child replaced it with a tiled one in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, its flow was lost.
Although, commonly accepted that the chalybeate spring and St. Blaise’s Well, are one and the same, there is some element of doubt. For in the late 1800s, these doubts were fostered by correspondence in the Bromley Record, which stated that nothing in the history books could be found to suggest that they were the same. A site at the ‘end of a large upper pond now drained off, in springy ground, not far south of the huge oak tree blown down about three years since in a paddock in the front of the palace’ was favoured. At this site about four courses of circular brickwork could be seen. Indeed, Wilson (1797), a local historian believed that it: “.. was 200 yards NW of the mineral spring in a field near the road with eight oak trees in a cluster, on an elevated spot of the ground adjoining.”
Latter Dunkin (1815), quoting this work stated that this structure: “..appears to have been originally designed to supply the adjoining moat.” Horsburgh visited the ‘brick reservoir’, in 1916, and found it was below the present ground level, roofless, and dry. It measured ten feet long, four feet wide, with a depth of eight to nine feet. The plan was rectangular, and although the upper part of the brickwork was of no considerable age, those below looked older, and perhaps were covered with moss. Coles Child pointed out that one outlet was in communication with springs, and the water flowed through a pipe into the uppermost of the three ponds to the north within palace ground. This lay in a direct line between the moat and Widmore Road, the uppermost being filled in before he acquired tenancy, and by then only a depression marked its site. He had filled in the remaining two. These ponds were believed to be paradise ponds, corresponding to four fish ponds referred to in a 1646 Parliamentary Survey of Bromley Palace.
Whether this other site was the real St. Blaise’s Well is difficult to say; especially considering that it has now has been lost. Perhaps, if archaeological evidence on the location of the oratory could be found, this would shed light on the exact site. Popular opinion states that the chalybeate spring and holy well, are one and the same, and that the other site is just a conduit and of no significance. It is worth noting the unusual small building that now sits by the old entrance to the Palace grounds. Cox (1905) describes this as a chapel built in the Eighteenth Century. This hollow building with a Romanesque-Norman archway and a shield showing the St. Blaise is an estate folly, fashioned after interest in St. Blaise’s Well. Today, this building stands rather forlornly beside the entrance to the sprawling municipal council offices. These have swallowed up nearly all the old Palace Grounds. Sadly only the fabric of St. Blaise’s Well remains, a large round red brick structure, in the centre of which is a pipe, through which presently pool water is being recycled. Beside which a sign noting its brief history. It’s a sad end, but at least something is there to remember it.
Take from forthcoming Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
Deep in a Lincolnshire hillside…the mysterious St. Helen’s Well of Brigg
During my research into Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire book (available now), I made contact with the Brigg Local history society, who in turn put me in contact with the owner of perhaps one of the counties more unusual sacred springs.
St Helen’s well (TA 013 077), it can be suggested is the most significant of the county’s springs with evidence of its usage going back to Bronze age periods. However, the first recorded account of it is in 1697 being noted in the diary of Abraham de la Pryme (published in 1870). He notes:
“having passed through Brigg on our way towards Melton, we went by a great spring, famous in days of old, called St Helen’s Well.”
It is unknown what the spring consisted of when Pryme visited, or why it was famous is unclear. It probably filled a large pool, rather than be associated with any structure, or possibly as the topography suggests a great fountain head, as suggested by it being considered a great spring. The next note of the site is probably that of Helingwell noted 1724 may derive its name from a vulgarisation of Helen or else O.E halig meaning holy. Interestingly, White (1856) refers to the site as St Anyan’s spring, and Peacock (1895) later spoke to:
“an old man brought up in its vicinity …. says that its true name is St Anyon’s Well”.
Although, he suggests that both authors have confused this site with St Trunnian’s Well at Barton-upon-Humber or St Aniel’s Well at Burton upon Stather. However, being a substantial spring, it would be identified in the 1850s as being a suitable source for a public water supply for the growing town of Brigg. Therefore in 1852, a Robert Cary and Cary Charles Elwes built a pumping house. This is what remains of St Helen’s well today: a plain rectangular building without windows built of yellow gault brick with a Welsh slate roof and York stone gable copings. The structure sits upon a large earthen mound.
However this is not all what it seems for with the door opened to the pumping house a deep chamber is revealed. Upon descending by means of a ladder, this deep chamber opens up to something far more impressive a large rectangular chamber with an oval roof burrowed deep within the hillside. The floor is inches deep in water and with the light of a torch only I followed this flow to its source: the springhead.
The spring arises via a pipe, set about four feet in the back wall, through which a considerable flow of clear water emerges. A large circular shallow basin, looking like a quern obviously from the nearby mill but possibly a precursor to the present structure, is found beneath the outflow. It may have been set up to be filled by the spring water but even with the present considerable volume and force it currently does not fill it. It may be setup to be filled by an outflow higher above the source. The present spring water now hits a slate stone tablet beneath it and forms a stream in the middle of the tiled floor, slanted to allow this. The spring filled the whole chamber at one point I was informed when the chamber was not opened up to allow it to now flow to a stream below.
Why is it called St. Helen’s well?
Mr Day, the present owner gave an unlikely story that it was named by Emperor Constantine on his journey up to York. What is clear that the site lies within the area Jones (1986) describes as his core zone (containing 25% of Helen site) although it is missing from his gazetteer. Archaeological remains and finds suggest it was an important site. Mr Day informed me of the presence of a Roman settlement in the field adjoining the spring and showed me a number of coins of Constantine so perhaps this is an early site to be Christianised. Recently was found a more significant Bronze Age find, which is currently treasure trove, and so I cannot comment. However it was an object of some value to its owner and had been bent. He was told by a local expert that it had been damaged to prevent it being reused, but it is more obvious that it was so treated as a offering. If so it is a significant find and emphasises Thompson’s belief that the spring was cultic.
This site has clearly much yet to reveal and perhaps will become one of the most important of such sites in the county.
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