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:
b) Archival based
Usually archival based research is first.
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 old-maps.co.uk 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..
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!