GUEST BLOG POST Terry Faull’s Can there be a new Holy Well? Lewtrenchard and its holy well

It’s a great pleasure once again to introduce a guest blogger. Terry Faull is a well known Devon based landscape historian, he has researched and investigated the origins of the Christians, in what is now Devon and Cornwall, for many years. His book Secrets of the Hidden Source is an excellent and long overdue look at the Holy Wells in Devon. Highly recommended!

Much holy well research in Britain seems, quite understandably, to concentrate on evidence for the historical origins of  the well. This is done by seeking documentary, place name,local tradition,topographical or religious associations which can help establish a point in time why and when it became “holy”. There is little archaeological evidence to support the still popular view that many holy wells originated as pagan cult sites which were “Christianised”  perhaps by Celtic Saints or the later church of Augustine of Canterbury. However, votive offerings found at many early water cult sites do demonstrate the significance of some primary water sources to pagan people and the proximity of many wells to church buildings is evidence of their onetime importance to  Christians. The medieval church sought to exercise control over popular spirituality and many  celebrated  holy wells can trace their development from a time when the church acted to demonstrate its authority with a willingness to benefit from gifts left by pious pilgrims.

I suggest that above all, a holy well must have its heart, a belief ancient or modern, that here is to be found something “other”, a sense of place or feeling which, for some at least, provides a possibility of experience beyond the everyday. Perhaps the apocryphal Celtic “Thin Place between this world and the Other world” is after all the best description we can offer.

Many spiritual ideologies  accept the concept of continuing revelation and  provide one possible underpinning for identification of a holy well which does nor rely only on historical authenticity. I am fortunate to live quite close to such a place-the holy well at Lewtrenchard in Devon. In 1830 the curate there wrote in the parish register  the holy well behind the church has been re-erected and formerly its water was used for the font”. Some 80 years later, just before the outbreak of the First World War,  the antiquarian vicar Sabine Baring-Gould  developed a pleasure garden around the well site and he rebuilt the wellhouse. This was part of a plan to help restore the health of his crippled wife by encouraging her to walk in the fresh air. Baring -Gould had a great interest in holy wells and  his diaries record  visits to a number including to the well and church at St Clether where he gave money for the restoration of the  buildings.

Much holy well research in Britain seems, quite understandably, to concentrate on evidence for the historical origins of  the well. This is done by seeking documentary, place name,local tradition,topographical or religious associations which can help establish a point in time why and when it became “holy”. There is little archaeological evidence to support the still popular view that many holy wells originated as pagan cult sites which were “Christianised”  perhaps by Celtic Saints or the later church of Augustine of Canterbury. However, votive offerings found at many early water cult sites do demonstrate the significance of some primary water sources to pagan people and the proximity of many wells to church buildings is evidence of their onetime importance to  Christians. The medieval church sought to exercise control over popular spirituality and many  celebrated  holy wells can trace their development from a time when the church acted to demonstrate its authority with a willingness to benefit from gifts left by pious pilgrims.

petroclew

Baring-Gould knew that the identity of the original patron saint of his own church at Lewtrenchard was unknown and he believed it may have orginally been dedicated to that foremost of West Country saints, St.Petroc. Some credence to this view arises from the fact that since at least 1261, Petroc has been the patron saint of the church of  nearby Lydford which had been one of the frontier burghs established by King Alfred. In 1928, soon after Baring-Gould’s death, his ornate structure  by then called St. Petroc’s well, was  moved  to form a centre piece of an ornamental garden at the vicarage; it is this wellhouse in a garden setting which is an English Heritage listed building.

The  original location of the well and its surrounding garden behind the church were forgotten and then lost.  In recent years, through a process of exploration, dowsing and research, the site  has  been rediscovered and it now forms a focus of a woodland walk around Baring- Gould’s forgotten pleasure garden. In 2013 a new wellhouse was erected on what were believed to be the original foundations.

DSC_0093

What makes a water source a  “holy well” is a matter of ongoing debate and interpretation. However I have no qualms in agreeing with Baring-Gould, that at Lewtrenchard there is indeed  a holy well; this relies not on any  established ancient origin but on the sense of the place itself. The full story can be found at http://www.forgottengarden.co.uk     If you are ever close by, do please visit our “new” Holy Well.

Lewtrenchard

Terry’s excellent book is still available through Amazon although his website is in archive form it is still available here

http://web.archive.org/web/20090627181846/http://holywells.com/index.html

 

Terry Faull August 2014

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on October 19, 2014, in Devon, Favourite site, Folklore, Folly, Well hunting and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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