Ancient and holy wells of the city of Durham

The ancient city of Durham unsurprisingly has a number of interesting springs, which remember local saints.

The most remarkable is St Cuthbert’s Well (NZ 272 422), which is enclosed in the largest stone work of any well in this region, indeed it is one of the largest in the country. The stone work is made of sand stone with a rounded archway. Despite the impressive fabric and association with Durham’s most famed saint, its history is unrecorded and a question mark exists of its age. Hunt (1986) notes that:

“The County Archaeologist, Peter Clack, told me that nothing is known of the well’s history, and he doubts the antiquity of the well, suggesting it received its dedication from that of the nearby cathedral. It seems odd that so imposing a structure should have so little known about it.”

Osborne and Weaver (1996) even suggest that the well head was moved from the Butterby Spa, but give no evidence. Celia Fiennes visited the site in 1687 and recorded that it was a:

“a well which had a stone bason in it and an arch of stone over it, the taste was like the Sweete Spaw in Yorkshire”.

This was of course not long after the inscription over the archway which reads:

Fons Cuthberti 1660”

It is probable that the site was developed as a spa spring taking the saint’s name as a local association. This is in agreement with Fowler (1896–1905) and no early record is made for the site, first appearing on the 1861 OS map.

St Cuthbert's Well Durham

St Cuthbert’s Well Durham

St Cuthbert's Well Durham (8)

Hunt (1986) notes:

It has been intermittent in flow since the strata were breached by the new university library extension nearby, and has been dry on every visit I have made since September 1985”

A similar stone surround, destroyed by 19th century vandals, apparently surrounded St Oswald’s Well (NZ 275 419), this now consists of a cavern cut into the sandstone rock behind the church of St Oswald. Again nothing is recorded of its history, but the dedication of the nearby church suggests antiquity.



Beneath the cathedral under a metal grill is the Galilee Well (NZ 272 422), named after the chapel which is partly built over it. No properties are noted or tradition recorded, although it may be the source of St. Oswald’s well.

The final holy well which survives in the city is the ‘much restored to’ St Mary’s Well    (NZ 271 419) which is probably that close to Prebend’s Bridge by the path up to South Street arising from a pipe producing chalybeate rich water. Another un-named Chalybeate spring arises in an arc of stone walling and collects its iron rich water.

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on June 19, 2014, in Durham and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thanks, I might hunt them out the next time I visit.

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