Monthly Archives: March 2013

Researching our sacred and healing springs a guide

The seasons are changing here in the Northern hemisphere and when the days get longer, the temperature rise but the foliage has not managed to reach its highest levels, its time to do some research. I have visited hundreds possibly thousands of springs in the cause of my research, and I encourage you do the same and rediscover our sacred spring heritage.

Any research comes in two forms:

a)     Field

b)    Archival based

Usually archival based research is first.

Archival research

Sources for information

a)     Archives – can be a daunting and they are rather large and overpowering. I always find the people there very nice and despite the fact it can be like look searching for a needle in a haystack, some do have good referencing either there or sometimes on line. You’ll need to sign up for a CARN ticket and collect your pencils!

b)    University library collections – Similar to above and useful for periodicals. Most allow you day tickets and of course UCL has the folklore society library.

c)     Local history collections in public libraries – Little less daunting and can actually have more in them. The works can be open shelves which helps and some have excellent references files, the result of a good use of work experience candidates no doubt.

d)    Local history societies – Can be an excellent source although I am always surprised that no one knows about a site which still survives. They may have already done the research or have their own collections.

e)     Parish councils – may have someone who knows or links to above.

f)      The local vicar – some have an interest in this sort of thing, many wrote local histories.

g)     The internet (may of course cover the above – and don’t forget to put the name in “”, wells are a bit of a common theme and well of course could be a word used anywhere)

Where to look for information:

Local history and county history books – These of course vary from great 19th, 18th and even 17th great tomes to small privately founded works made often on a short run. The millennium spawned a lot of the latter, but there’re not always very useful and despite the importance of water holy wells rarely figure! The former ironically can be more useful, if of course no indication on whether the site still survives. Some older books can be found posted in full on-line which is helpful, all can be found in any library local history section worth its salt!

Folklore books – they can often be useful although most commonly these use the above as their sources

Websites – more convenient as you don’t need to learn the sitting room! Their utility depends on how good someone else’s research is and remember little is peer reviewed on the net! Three particularly useful websites are the NationalArchives on line, Pastscape and Megalithic. Forums can be useful too.

Parish records – can be revealing although do not always locate them but will name them

Diaries – as above

Terriers – can reveal sites but can be difficult to read and they are in Latin. Difficult to access as in archives.

Estate maps – difficult to get unless in an archive and you have no idea they’ll be a notable well there so it could be a fruitless task

Tithe awards and maps – the map is essential and if it’s there; cross-referencing with an OS map will allow you to identify a simple spring as the site you’re after.

OS maps (old or new) – Modern ones are useful but often the series between the wars and just after are more useful. They can be viewed on for free. It is a complete mystery why some holy wells and related sites are marked others absent, some appear and disappear between editions, some are italicised despite the lack of age and some are in blue but are older!!

All these sources may locate an unknown site or locate the location of a know site and so the next stage is field work.

As stated if you are researching lost or less well known sites, this is best done in the autumn/winter/spring when the vegetation is less. Having said this it may not always be the best weather and most convenient. You can of course do your research in the summer but remember shorts and holy well research are not the best! As I have found out may times…too many nettles!



Map – larger the scale the better, the old OS pathfinder now Explorer, 1:25000 is the best. The larger the scale the more detail, although for reasons above you may need to use older ones.

Garden gloves – for brambles, briars and nettles

Clippers– for brambles, briars and nettles, but of course be sensitive to ownership and the natural ambience of the place.

Wellies and water proofs – Water = mud= dirty!

A camera = depends on what you want but a decent point and shoot is often good enough, and prevents the SLR dropping into the mud!

Desirables, things I always forget

A tape measure – to measure any fabric

Compass – to align with the map

Mobile- but I am sure you’ll have it

Sturdy shoes – if you walking to the site and changing into wellies there.

A bottle to drink the water??? At drinker’s risk I would say.

What to look for?

Sometimes finding a site is very easy and the map is accurate, you follow the instructions and lo and behold it’s there. That’s not always the case..

The clues:

A stream, brook or river – follow it to its source of course.

A difference in foliage – in open areas such as fields look for clumps of trees or at least nettles.

Animal activity – in those fields look for tracks to the springhead made by livestock or birds flying over.

Sound – The sound of trickling water if you are lucky, but another thing to look for may be the sound of a pump at the site if it has been utilised by the farmer.

Smell- sometimes spring smell and not nicely.

The shape of the landscape – look for undulation, old indentations and channels in the valley.

The Countryside code

Where possible you should always try and find the land owner. In some cases the springs may be on footpaths or on common land (or private golf courses!) and so it can be easier. Many times it is difficult to find the correct land owner and if you are only coming off the footpath please try to do it with the minimum impact to land and livestock (and livelihood of course) so: close gates properly, try to not to disturb wildlife or livestock (i.e best not to have a dog) and leave everything as should be ( note this is not an encouragement to trespass!)

What do next?

Why not write up the research, either in printed form- book or article or else put it on a website, blog or perhaps email me!

There’s a well in there…..honestly!

its in there somewhere!!!

A cold draught…the holy wells of Nova Scotia

truroholywellI recently picked up a postcard which had a circular arched holy well which had carved across the arch Holy Well. It appeared to resemble sites found Cornwall and Devon, indeed it had Truro as its location. I was unaware of such a site in the Cornish capital and I had never heard of a Victoria Park in the town too. However, searching on the internet it revealed itself to be in Nova Scotia and such I was intrigued to find out more.

The Acadian influence

The Acadians is the name of the French colonists who settled in Canada in the 1600s around Nova Scotia in a separate colony from those of Quebec put were expelled from the region after the British conquest in the 1710. They clearly brought with them their traditions and customs and finding themselves in need of true holy well blessed this spring.

Confused tradition

Local legend states that the well was blessed by Celtic saint. This obviously is a little paradoxical to say the least as we are several 1000 miles from the Celtic homeland. It is more likely that the Celtic wells were used to explain the dedication, with an obvious Breton association, unless of course the site claims a connection with the legend of St. Brendan. Nevertheless, the site was used to baptise infants and as a wishing well.

The site today

The Victoria Park website refers to the holy well as a replica of one on Bible hill. There is still a Holy Well Park Bible hill is there a holy well there? The question being does the original survive? I have yet to discover the answer. The site itself looks old, sitting below the rock face and reached by a small number of steps. Sadly a cover is now placed over its entrance which appears to prevent access to the water.

Other holy wells

 Research reveals other holy wells in the country and the author would be keen on hearing about more. In the park itself there is an interesting spring called the Brandy spring, so named because soldiers in the Fenian raids kept their bottles cool there. It was until recently used by locals as drinking water. One holy well is associated with the legend of Oak Island and another at Point Pleasant Park Halifax, although other than having clear water I have been unable to find more information.


More interestingly is St. Patrick’s Well, Mount St. Patrick, Ontario an area colonised by Irish Catholics.  It is said that a Father McCormack was responsible for the holy well in 1869 after finding the spring and blessing it in the Irish tradition. As can be seen from these photos from the spring arises in a square deep well associated with an altar with iconography in the enclosed whitewashed wooden building with blue roof. It is pleasing to see that the European holy well tradition manifested itself in the far reaches of their colonies and surely there are more wells to discover..if anyone knows of any such I would be interested to hear of more.

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The Trent Aegir: a sacred river and its god?

March is a time when the Trent Aegir is at its strongest with the High Spring tides with heights ranging from 8 feet to 13 feet. However in 2013, July and August have the highest predicted Aegir and much of its impact has been reduced by dredging. Brown’s (1874) Notes about Notts describes it as:

“Near the mouth of the Trent at spring-tides the influx of sea water causes that of the river to mount up into a tidal wave six or eight feet high which rolls on its onward course between the confined banks in a remarkable manner. Boatman call it the Eagre, and woe betide the craft that upon such occasion has not a man standing by to pay out a sufficient of cable.”

Firth’s (1915) Highways and Byways of Nottinghamshire notes:

“At Littleborough if you have good fortune, you may see the Aegir. This is the bore, or wall of water, which rushes up the Trent during the spring tides, followed by a series of waves known as the ‘Whelps’. It is caused by the tide moving up the Humber to the mouth of the Trent where they are met by the big volume of water coming down. A wall rises and flows rapidly up the river, sweeping round the bends with great speed and with a curious rippling sound. Sometimes the wall of water is six feet high, and it brings disaster to any boats which it catches unprepared. George Elliott speaks of the Aegir and the floods in the Mill on the Floss, for the Floss is the Trent.”

Swinnerton’s (1910) Nottinghamshire History notes:

“The influence of the spring tide is felt as far as Sutton, but for some miles above Stockwith it is shown as remarkable bore.”

Sadly although West and East Stockwith is still a good place to see it, weirs to the north of Newark and dredging beyond means that locations such as Littleborough are no longer good view points.


Origin of the name

Marsden’s Lincolnshire stated that it derived from a Norse god of the sea, Kaye in Lincolnshire and South Humberside, suggests that it took its name from ‘Oegir the Terrible’ a Danish god and significantly refers to St. Oggs in the Gainsborough area. It could itself also mean Og suggests it is the same as the sea-giant Hlér, who lives on the isle of href. Aegir is said to be the brother of Logi (fire), Kari (wind) and his wife a sea goddess”Rán”Their children were nine billow maidens who were Unnr (or Uðr, wave), Bára (or Dröfn, wave), Blóðughadda (bloody sea), Bylgja (large wave), Dúfa (the pitching wave), Hefring (the surging wave), Himinglæva (reflecting) Hrönn (the grasping wave) and Kólga (cold wave) doubtless waves which may have gone up the Trent.

A sacrifice to appease the god

The suggestion of an origin from a pre-Christian god, is indicated by the fact that sacrifices were given to the Aegir. This is recorded by Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar. Animal sacrifice was according to Sutton (1996) to be celebrated in the Gainsborough area within living memory:

“It was said that the river Trent was a greedy river and would take seven lives a year, so in March when many of the lambs were born a farmer would sacrifice to the river a cade or weak lamb. He believed that by his action a human life would be saved.”

Latter perhaps the giving of a coin was good enough:

 “It was the custom to throw a coin into the Aegir to appease the anger of the flow. A number of people believed that the more money the less angry it became.”

From Gainsborough in the 1920s:

“When I was a boy it was the custom to throw a piece of silver into the Trent during the Aegir at the high spring tide and the autumn tide (the equinox). The piece of silver was a toll fee to prevent you from drowning in the Trent. I’ve done it a few time myself as a bot; the silver was a silver three-penny bit, or a tanner (6d). I was once out on the river in a cob-boat diring an Aegir and was lifted very high on the tidal wave. It was very scary at the time but being a kid I didn’t realise just how lucky I was to get away with it. The Aegir always dumped plenty of mud along the river bank and when the mud dried out it was like Fuller’s Earth, a kind of fine powder. It was custom for local mothers to gather this mud for babies’ nappy rash: it was very effective for a sore bottom.”

The Aegir and King Cnut

Another legend is that whilst Gainsborough castle, now covered by Gainsborough Old Hall, King Cnut annoyed by the flattery heaped upon by his courtiers asked to be carried down to the sea in his throne. It is thought that the Aegir was what he was trying to repel. He was of course unsuccessful, noting:

“Let all the world know that the power of monarchs is vain…no one deserves the name of King but He whose Will the Heavens, Earth and Sea obey.”

Other Trent traditions

It was at some point believed to be lucky to cross the river by boat and it conferred healing in some cases, this as may explain why the ferryman across the Trent received a very warm welcome at Clifton, where every Christmas he received a free meal and hospitality on the Parish. The family at North Clifton were famously said to be haunted by a great fish which appeared in the river as a harbinger of doom for one of its members. Notes on it suggest it was a considerable sized surgeon.

Similarly 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.

The Trent is still a mysterious and foreboding river, much of its route quiet and remote…that is until the sound of the tidal wave appears.