Monthly Archives: June 2013

Visiting the wells at Midsummer – a lost holy well custom.

Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells.   Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. Johns  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.

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St. Govan’s Well and Chapel

A more romantic spot for a holy well one could hardly find and as such it is one of my favourite sites. Tucked within a rocky chasm struck from the Pembrokeshire coast, the sound of sea birds crying, the wind whistling and the waves crashing forcefully on the rocks below; one could easily imagine oneself back in the time of the saints, when a new faith was brought into these heathen heartlands and changed them perhaps forever. A remote site and perfect for a hermit. To reach the well below and its romantic chapel, the modern pilgrim descends a long row of steps, said impossible to count and these enter this delightful chapel of St. Govan.

Who was St. Govan?

No hard evidence can be found of the founder of this chapel. Some authorities identify him as King Arthur’s Gawain, but he is more likely to be Gobhan of Wexford as in the early medieval period there would have been links between the coasts. A legend tells that the saint journeyed to reach the family of St. David, the saint who trained him. Another legend identifies him as a repentant thief.  Doubtless a chapel existed from the early times but the present algae covered chapel was built sometime between 1300-1500.

The birth of a chapel

Local legend tells that the saint was sent upon by pirates and at the spot the cliff opened up to form a cave which allowed him to escape and prevented them from reaching him. Another legend is that the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor. A story tells that he had a silver bell which he placed in the chapel tower. It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge. It is a legend with is similar to that of St. Declan at Ardmore where his bell was left on the rock. When the saint died he was buried beneath the altar and indeed may still remain there. This cave formed the nucleus of the chapel and he survived on fish and water from two springs one within the chapel and the other covered in well house, both are now dry but the later is traceable.

The Holy Well.

This holy well is tucked below the chapel almost blending into the boulder below is St Govan’s Well It is a small well house made of the nearby boulders and stones with a round rough roof.  The chapel itself is said to be built over the springhead and local legend records it never flooded. The water cured lameness, eye problems and rheumatism and those cured would leave their crutches and walking sticks at the altar. Its waters were collected by a limpet shell by the faithful. However there are cures no more as if one looks inside we shall see nothing but small wave worn boulders. Despite the dryness of the well, the atmosphere of this rocky crevasse and its delightful chapel is worth the pilgrimage.

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A Well for June: St John the Baptist’s Well, Bisley


June is associated with John the Baptist and off Clews Lane, Bisley is an ancient well, dedicated to that saint. It was possibility used by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury from Winchester. Legend records that the Benedictine Abbey of Chertsey monks once taking the waters felt that it was so refreshing as to establish a shrine here, upon which the church was built around 1283. Aubrey’s (1673) Perambulation of Surrey noted:

“near the church is a spring called St John the Baptist’s Well. The dedication made by curious to try it with galls, which turns it to a purple colour. It is colder than other water in summer but warmer in winter.”

Parker (1909) in his Highways and byways of Surrey stated:

Aubrey says that the dedication of the well made him curious to try it with oak galls, which turned the water purple. Why should the name have impelled him to this particular curiosity? Aubrey was always testing wells with oak-galls, presumably for iron.”

Parker (1909) continues:

“…the water of which was once used for all the Christenings. It is not easily found, and local harvesters could tell me nothing about it; but I discovered it near a farm house a few hundred yards south west of the churchyard.

Mr Baker (1985) in his Holy Wells and Magical Waters of Surrey records that his wife’s Grandmother was baptised here in the spring in 1876. Her mother would send her down to collect the water ‘to wash babies in’. It continued to be used for baptism until 1900.

Visiting in the 1990s, it was pleasing to see the site still survived but in a sorry state, surrounded by an ugly brick and concrete structure. This was erected by the land owner a Mr. H. P. Lawson. He drunk a cupful of water every day and lived to 90!

Debby Thompson’s notes in Restoration of historic Bisley Well that in 2002 the parishioners of nearby St John the Baptist Church successfully applied for listed building consent to Surrey Heath Borough Council to restore it of the well. A Mr. Ray Spradbery oversaw its restoration noting that:

“The well is fed by a natural spring and flows at the same rate winter and summer and never dries up…The water flows into a small ditch and then into a larger ditch.”

He noted that when:

“we began clearing the undergrowth from the small ditch we found paving all around the well, which had hidden beneath a foot of water because the ditch was blocked.  The well currently stands nearly two feet high and the stonework is perfectly circular. It has a depth of about 12 feet and is thought to have been covered for safety reasons.”

What was constructed is a considerable improvement. The stonework has been cleared and the water arises in a circular chamber fitted with a grill in the centre. The chalybeate red water flows from a pipe into a small circular basin and thence into a channel and flows into a brook.

The site is easily found along the footpath overshadowed by a prominent old oak. Its location away from the village suggests a very ancient origin. Interesting Mr Spradbery believed that the:

“The well was named St John the Baptist Holy Well because people were baptised in the water.”

However, it is more likely it took its name from the church.

still a broken hard drive!

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