Monthly Archives: September 2013
A well for September…St Edith’s Well, Kemsing
St. Edith’s Well (TQ 552 586) lies below the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent and is the county’s most notable and best preserved sites. It is one of only two wells in the county which are dressed and the only one with a long lasting, over 50 years, tradition. this being St Edith’s procession held on the Sunday nearest to St. Edith’s Day.
A collection of cures
Chiefly, it was noted for its cure of eye complaints, and Watt (1923) also notes that it cured women’s barrenness. Belief in its curative power continued until the early 1900s. Its fabric is presumably ‘mediaeval’, and according to most authorities was once enclosed within a religious establishment, who were probably responsible for its upkeep. However there s neither archaeological nor written evidence of one but there is a recording in 1419 of a chapel of St. Edith the Virgin, which presumably was near the well and perhaps held a relic. Sadly, we do not really know.
A local saint
St. Edith (961-84 AD) was the daughter of the early Saxon king, Edgar and Queen Wulfthryth. Despite being nominated Abbess of Winchester, Barking and Amesbury, she refused these positions, disliking state affairs, preferring to commune with the poor and animals. This made her popular among her countrymen, who immediately recognised her saintly attributes. Despite this, her canonisation was not recognised everywhere, and Cnut’s scepticism, prevented her feast day being adopted in many areas. Those who championed her, used miracles at her tomb and her incorruptible thumb, as evidence for her saintliness and she was canonised, with her body being transferred to Wilton in 997 AD. She was said to have been born on land which is now covered by a property called the Box, but again it here is no evidence.
Evidence would suggest that her local popularity was deeply rooted in pagan belief! It is interesting to note, that an image of St. Edith was erected within the churchyard, which according to Lambarde (1571), prevented mildew and the blight of corn and wheat crops. Lambarde (1571) describes a ritual associated with the belief, and the following appears significant:
“Priest made uses to toll the greatest portion, and then to take all handful or little more of the residue the which after aspersion of Holy Water, and mumbling a fewe woordes of conjuration, he first dedicated to the image of Saint Edithe and then delivered it back to the parte that brought.”
This appears to be some persistence of an ancient fertility rite to a pagan deity, further supported by with the cure of cure barren women. Lambarde (1571) believed this, suggesting the Roman god, Robigus (after Robigo, a canker of corn), was the earlier cult focus here. It is recorded that similar ‘sacrifices’ were made to ‘him’, and so it seems likely that even the saint’s effigy could have directly replaced his and the church being built on his temple. The holy water, used in the ritual, may have originated from the well, and in pre-Christian days this may have been an important part of the ritual.
The well today
Today it lies within a small garden of remembrance forming a focal point for the original village. It is approximately three feet high, a round rag stone structure, with a series of steps approach the well. Access now, via these steps, appears impossible, the gate being locked. Watt (1917) notes that the structure was forlorn, and then repaired, and then forlorn again, but now appears in remarkable condition, being within recent years cleared of much of its overgrown ivy! To prevent rubbish falling into the well, brown wiring has been set across, both the well passage, and shaft. A considerable depth of water was present in 2013, and even after a long drought, in 1995. Indeed, I have been informed that it has never been known to dry up! A local belief conveniently ignoring that it was recorded dry at the beginning of this century! Today the well is the best it has ever been although sadly one cannot access the water directly due to the wiring up of the steps.
A modern pilgrimage
Even today, it is pleasing to note that the well is still an important and respected part of the village. It is depicted as the centre piece of a fine tapestry in the church, and on the village sign.
Two separate religious observations are undertaken on the day. In the morning, a procession, established in 1961, after the well was established. It passes through the village from the church is traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the saint’s day September 16th. Every ten years this forms part of a village wide celebration called St. Edith’s Festival, last held in 2011. A banner in the church maybe associated with an earlier 1920s revival perhaps as Mr. Taylor, a local associated with he present Catholic observation suggests.
Traditionally posies have been placed on the well during the service by the congregation, but in the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.
The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before.
I arrived just in time to see the board turn up wheeled on a barrow and just in time to give some extra muscle to set it up beside the well where it was duly staked in. The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation. A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:
“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”
Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:
“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”
A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.
Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s. An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.
It is said that not only does her water cure eyes, but spiritual blindness, and Richard Bateman, the local Anglican vicar, attributed his conversion to Catholicism in part through her intercession.
Certainly the Catholic community may be aware of the need to start later. In the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. However, in 2013 although they planned to meet at 3.00, the weather had turned to the worse. The glorious weather of the morning being replaced by a penetrating drizzle, subsequently, the planned Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn which were to be at the well were moved to nearby Otford Catholic church…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.
2011 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
2012 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter
Many thanks to Mr. Antony Taylor, Jane Bowden and Erica Cole as well as the congregation of St Mary’s kemsing and especially Heather Porter
Images and post copyright Pixyledpublications.
Gumfreston’s church wells
Wales is much endowed with holy wells many dedicated to local saints. Behind the evocative 14th century church of Gumfreston, lay three wells which should be right be dedicated to some saint, but they only have the name – Church wells. Nevertheless, these wells are a fascinating example of water lore in this region of Wales. Three springs arise here, two enclosed in rough stone walling the other a simple spring. According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate. Francis Jones (1954) Holy Wells of Wales states that the wells were visited on Easter Day and bent pins were dropped into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’, a recognised custom this appears to have been last recorded in the 17th century when the rector of the church was removed by puritans. However, despite the superstitious popularity of the well being removed by the 18th century the water was being analysed. A Dr. Davis, a physician to William IV, described the warers as being chalybeate and were ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’. At this time nearby Tenby had developed as a spa and visitors would visit Gumfreston to take the waters and there was a growing business to provide bottles for those unable to reach it. In the 1830s plans were drawn to enclose the springs and build a pump house and changing rooms for these visitors. This does not appear of have occurred but the wells continued to be regarded. Later a Dr. Golding Bird who was a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’. He described it as follows, reported in Samuel Hall and Anna Hall The Book of South Wales 1861:
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity if iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution. In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.
Customs associated with the well
Jones notes that it was custom here and at other wells to visit at New Year to get ‘New Year’s Water’. He recalls that children would collect it and carried it to local houses to sprinkle on their front doors with sprigs of evergreen or box. They sung a song which went:
“Here we bring new water from the well so clear, For to worship God with, this happy New Year, Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine, With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine, Sing reign of fair maid, with hold upon her toe, Open you the west door, and turn the old year go. Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin, Open you the east door, and let the new year in.”
When the custom ceased is unclear, but traditions continue at the well. The custom of throwing Lent away has been recently revived with nails used to symbolise the crucifixion and done on Easter Sunday. Within recent years a number of newer customs have arisen. Davis (2003) in his Sacred Springs states that for a small donation visitors can make a wish or make a prayer and hang a ribbon and bell from one of the trees overhanging the springs. Since the 1990s a simple well dressing has been developed in Easter.
Image and text Copyright Pixyledpublications
A Norfolk field trip
In a previous post, I promised a return to Norfolk…I unfortunately haven’t physically been there but there are still some sites of which I can describe from my original survey.
Located in a private garden is one of the least known holy wells is those found opposite the church called St. Botolph’s Springs (TF 721 219). It is absent from Harte’s work and I have been unable to find its origin. According to local tradition it apparently named after a local saint who baptised converts in them. Little appears to be recorded of him, but clearly the church was founded to Christianise the springs considering its proximity. These appear to be two in number and now flow to fill a large pool in the garden of the house opposite the church called The Springs. There is a small section of stone walling just above the first spring and the spring itself bubbles from underneath this through the chalk. The second spring arises similarly from under a ledge nearer to the church. Whether there are any old fragments of this site is unclear, especially as there appear to be no authorities to confirm that the truth behind the local saint.
Arises in a small copse of bushes on the edge of a field is St Mary’s Well (TM 021 781) whose waters were thought to be good for eyes. It was recently been tidied up with a new fence erected around it although it is a simple spring. There as a number of small stones lying around suggesting a possible structure.
Better reported St Margaret’s Well (TF 680 017) is noted by Chambers (1830) as:
“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.
Here is a confusing one! Reports state that site still arises beside a circular pond fills a small foot wide basin beneath a small obelisk. Water flows sluggishly from this structure but clearly contributes to the pond beside it. However sadly it is not for the said well is now further east where the road is and buried. The oblelisk is spring fed but not the same spring sadly.
East Dereham boasts one of Norfolk’s best and most interesting holy wells. This is St. Withburga’s Well (TF 988 134) which arises behind the church through a flint and stone archway in front of the well basin is a stone coffin lid. The site is protected by railings and since the 1990s there has been a well dressing although not in a Derbyshire style. In 1757 there was an attempt to convert the spring into a minor spa, although never referred to as such. A bath house was constructed over the well and this was restored in 1786 and 1792-3 the latter being undertaken by local man Sir John Fenn and his committee established to repair and maintain the structure. This resulted in a brick built classical building being erected over the well. However, this was finally removed in the 1850s by the Rev Benjamin Armstrong who opposed the structure.
The well is associated with Saxon St. Withburga, daughter of King Annas who died in c 743. The spring is said to have arisen after the monks of Ely Cathedral stole the saint’s relics.
Chambers appears to suggest that there is another St. Withburga’s Well (TF 986 133) some distance from the churchyard but gives no further details. This would appear to have been that at Old Becclesgate where it lay in the garden, however in the cellar which shows evidence of the building being probable monastery site was a supposed well said to be a holy well. Neither site appear to exist.
Records show that St Lawrence’s Well (TG 228 089) in the time of Edward I was a common well and probably served Fullers Hole, where cloth was cleansed and thickened. In 1547 the Court granted the parishioners the lane from the High Street to the well, together with the said well, on the condition that they erect the door at the south end of the lane and keep it open in the day, and shut up securely at night. However, in 1576, Robert Gibson was given a grant of the said lane, or entry, and the well, and had thus to provide at his own charge access to the well. It states:
‘He shall bring the water from the said well in a cock of lead, into the public street, for the ease of the common people, and shall maintain the same.’
In latter times this site was known as St Lawrence’s Pump, and following inscriptions had been applied:
“This Water here cavght, In Sorte as yowe se. From a Spring is brovghte, Threskore Foot and thre. Gybson hath it sowghte, From Saynt Lawrens Wel.”
The site appears in drawings by Cotman (1818) and Willis (1885). Suffling (1887) notes that:
“A few years since, Mr Harry Bullard, a brewer, and well-known patron of his city, transformed it into a public drinking fountain.”
After a number of years of looking rather sorry for itself this is without doubt the most splendid of the wells in this survey, resplendent in its guilt and painted brick work.