Monthly Archives: December 2013
Some ancient and holy wells of the Holy Land
The arid land of the holy land is watered by a number of ancient springs. Perhaps the most famed is the Ain il-‘adra or Mary’s Well, a well which has served its Arab community well over the millennium. It is located below Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in modern-day Nazareth. The church is so called because it is believed that the well was the location where the Annunciation occurred, Mary learnt she would be carrying Jesus from the Archangel Gabriel.
However, neither the Four Gospels nor The Koran mention her drawing water from the well at the time and it only appears earliest written account that lends credence to a well or spring being the site of the Annunciation comes from the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James non-canonical gospel which reads:
“And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, you are blessed among women.”
The spring itself was one which fed the ancient city of Nazareth, and it was called ‘Spring of the Guardhouse’. Rae Wilson also describes “a well of the Virgin, which supplied the inhabitants of Nazareth with water” in his book, Travels in Egypt and the Holy Land (1824). An account in 1853 notes that:
“the water at this spring was very deficient this summer season, yielding only a petty trickling to the anxious inhabitants. All night long the women were there with their jars, chattering, laughing, or scolding in competition for their turns. It suggested a strange current of ideas to overhear pert damsels using the name of Miriam (Mary), in jest and laughter at the fountain of Nazareth.”
The present semi domed structure appears to be largely symbolic and no longer functions, although it was still used as a local watering hole until 1966. This was undertaken in 2000. During the late 1990s, evacuations revealed underwater systems suggestion its use as the town’s water supply from the Byzantine period and a separate accidental discovery revealed an underground bath house with Carbon dating it from the 1300s at the latest.
Hammat Gader’s mineral springs, one cold and four hot, fill the remains of a Byzantine bath house complex. Another Roman spa can be found on the southern side of Hammat but not as well preserved. The name Hammat means hot spring in Hebrew.
Another Mary’s Well is found in Jerusalem and is so named after the belief that she stopped there for a drink whilst visit John the Baptist’s parents and as a consequence it was a source of pilgrimage. Little can be found out regarding its history but it is thought that the spring has been used since the Bronze Age. The well is covered by a 19th century mosque.
More prominently mentioned in the bible is Jacob’s Well or Bir Ya’qub now lying in the Eastern Orthodox monastery named after it in Nablus. The Book of John states that Jesus:
“came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph, Jacob’s Well was there.”
It was at this location that a Samaritan Women spoke to Jesus according to the Gospel of John. By the early 300 AD it is believed that the well was being used by Christians for baptism and by 380 AD a church was built over it according to Saint Jerome which survived into the 500s. Another church was built in the 700s but this was ruinous when the Crusaders mention the well as no church is mentioned. However, the Crusaders built a church for an account from the 12th century noted:
“it lies in front of the altar in the church built over it, in which nuns devote themselves to the service of God. This well is called the Fountain of Jacob.”
This church fell in 1187 during Saladin’s raids. For over 700 years, no church was built over the well and only ruins are noted as being nearby, then in 1860, a Greek Orthodox Church was constructed but this too was lost to an earthquake in 1927. But the site was rebuilt to resemble a Crusader church where the well is enclosed in the crypt where it now consists of a winch well complete with its bucket surrounded by icons and votive candles. Its deep burrowed into the rock is 41 feet and still contains water.
St Christopher’s Well, Denton…in its a grotto
St. Christopher’s Well (SK 861 320) is an interesting well! St. Christopher is an unusual dedication for holy wells and one supposedly exists in a small backwater of the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire borders. I say supposed because it’s true origin is unclear.
Much of what we know of the well is from various contributes to Lincolnshire notes and queries in the 1920s. Key to these was Welby (1926-7), who was the owner of the estate. He states that a two storey tea-house was erected over the site, the under one having an inner arch over the spring and the upper having two tall sash windows, glazed with large panes with a sloping roof on all four sides meeting a ridge. Welby (1926-7) notes that his father remembered using the structure and states no older building such as a chapel could be seen inside. This tea house did not last long, and a small summer house was constructed in the 1840s but no sign of it can be seen now. Welby (1926-7) describes this as being tall and wooden, open at the front and having small side unglazed windows. This also did not last long as was removed in 1850 when he claims the present grotto was constructed. However, this clear has older fabric. This is without doubt the grandest structure over a well, especially in Lincolnshire and it’s sad to note it no longer remains.
The well today
Although, the summer house has gone, the well is still marked on the map in gothic italics suggesting something substantial remains. Exploring around the edge of the pool, soon the site can be seen. This is no simple spring, boggy hole, as sadly in the case of many other Lincolnshire, this is still something more. Despite being cloaked in undergrowth, an arched grotto or cave can be seen. It is four metres by two metres high which is lined with cement rubble stone. At the back of the structure is a circular 50cm diameter well with an overflow channel set out by large flag stones set below the ground surface by 5cm, its water a sluggish stream, running into the lake. This channel is set out by large flag stones either side of the channel. Above the basin is a stone tablet, which is heavily worn by water action it would appear that it is difficult to read cemented around this are small ammonites and possibly a stone head although it may be a large stone resembling a head. Set into the walls of this structure is a large ammonite. The stone tablet according to Headley and Meulenkamp’s (1999) book on Follies has a poem Huius Nympha Loci:
“Approach you then with cautious steps, To where the streamlet creeps, Or Ah! Too rudely you may wake, some guardian nymph that sleeps”
As started the name is an odd one and the first mention of a spring in the area is from for in the 1700s the site was simply called spring wells according to a book of furlongs in 1784. The first mention of the site as both a medicinal and holy well appears to be Howett (1801) in A selection of views in the county of Lincoln which is accompanied with a sketch so apparently it was already been ‘improved’ by the landowner as a folly structure. Marrat (1816) History of Lincolnshire rather than White (1852) as Welby (1926-7) notes, perhaps suggesting either its discovery then although there is no evidence of exploitation here, a case more common with older springs in this period. None of these sources name it St Christopher’s Well but the name may not be that old, although Antiquarius Rusticus names it Sancaster and unusual name again and perhaps a form of consonantal drift -Saint Christopher = San C…ster..the reader can be the judge! However, inspection of the actual tablet would suggest otherwise. Of what can be read:“Here fairies dance and sport…” is the clearest! It is probable that the name was affixed when the spring was transformed into an estate folly at the beginning of the 1800s, although why St. Christopher was used is unclear it is not a common dedication associated with springs. Today there is certainly no sign of the summer house.
Away with the fairies
Antiquarius Rusticus (1926–7a) informed by the Rev C.C. Buss notes that:
“… The children call it “The Fairy Well”… After a drink of the Fairy Well “your first wish is sure to come true”
He also adds
“St Christopher’s Well, the water of which is said to resemble that of Tunbridge… was once in great request for its curative virtues… An ancient dame who has lived all her married life in Denton went… a few miles away and while there she was taken ill…. She told me how greatly she had longed for a drink of the water from St. Christopher’s Well as she was sure it would have hastened her recovery. The spring issues from a smaller vault or cave.”
Sadly the associated manor was demolished many years ago but the site is still marks and remains being part of land belonging to Sir Bruno Welby. Despite its dubious origins, traditions have associated with it and it is said that the spring is very pure and is similar to that of Malvern waters. In the basin appear to be coins suggesting that ‘well wishing’ is still undertaken here, although by the verdi-gris on the coins some appear very old! Water sluggishly flows from this basin into a stone lined channel into the lake below. The site is one of the best in the county and is surprisingly little known. copyright Pixyledpublications and thanks to Holywell@megalithic portal for the photos
A Well for December – St Anthony’s Well Cinderford
Deep in the woods around Cinderford is one of England’s most mysterious sacred springs. The most famed of a number of ancient and sacred springs in the Forest of Dean. This is St. Anthony’s Well. Its remote location befits this hermit saint and one could quite image in some dark and distant time a hermit eking out an existence beside this large spring. So powerful is the spring in fact that the easiest way to find it is to follow the stream back to its source. When one does one is greeted by a substantial structure. Richardson (1930) in his work cataloguing the water supply of the county notes that it flowed from:
“ the foot of a steep bank into a stone-slab-covered dip. From the dip it is piped into a basin measuring approximately 11 ft. 6 in. by 8 ft. by 5 ft., in which there is usually about 3 ft of water.”
Fortunately this description stands today.
A healing spring
The spring was famous for curing skin complaints. Rudder (1779) in his New History of Gloucestershire states that:
“Bathing in this water is an infallible cure for the itch, and other cutaneous disorders; and a gentleman of Little Dean assured me, that his dogs were cured of the mange after being thrown into it two or three times. The water is extremely cold.”
MacLean (1881–2) in Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeology Society Transactions states that it cured leprosy and Palmer (1994) rheumatism. There was a ritual associated with the power of this water. Nicholls (1858) in The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account adds that:
“its peculiar efficacy being combined with the rising of the sun, the month of May, and the visits to it being repeated nine times in succession.”
Palmer (1994) in his Folklore of Gloucestershire suggested that:
“twelve visits were needed, with one step taken on the first, two on the second, and so on.”
Many authors agree that its waters are very cold. I remember my visit to the site in the 1990s with my father. He had been suffering with skin problems and upon hearing upon its properties tried the cure….he dipped his feet in the water, complained about its severe cold temperature, but then went around nine times. He was not cured, not because it was summer not May but because his skin complaint was due to diabetes!
Another claim for its waters was that it cured eye complaints as well. Certainly the water is very clear and pure. In the late 1980s the local church on Ascension Day visited the well and dressed it, although it is unclear whether this was of a Derbyshire form. The well was dressed in the 00s by local pagans which had mixed responses.
It is likely that the well was associated with Flaxley Abbey founded in 1148, but there is no evidence for this association. Indeed the first reference appears to be as St. Anthonyes Well in 1669 and is marked on the 1881 OS map. Beyond this no firm history is known other than that recorded in topographical works above. Yet its old mossy stone work and clear water speak volumes of its great age. St Anthony’s feast day was in December I am sure the water than is colder than ever!