Monthly Archives: December 2014
For the final examination of water veneration finishing with one of the most distinctive objects. Of course the most important aspect of visiting a holy well is to take the water. However, sometimes it is not possible to drink the water in situ often it had to be given to some in more need for example far away. However, no run of the mill vessel would do, no one would need an ampulla, a small bottle or vial, often made of pewter or terracotta often sealed over to be broken open when received. It was often worn around the neck and did itself act as a sacred souvenir much like the allied pilgrim badge, deposits at river crossings in particular showing that they themselves acted as a votive offering.
The earliest ampulla, is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for British Christianity, from Abu Mena, dating from the 6th–7th century which was found at Meols in the Wirral. One of the most notable accounts is at Canterbury Cathedral’s St. Thomas Becket shrine where a spring was used as a holy well. It is accounted that all pilgrims who visited the shrine went away with some water. Indeed the 14th Polistoire states even Henry II after his penance:
“drank from the water of St. Thomas’ well… and took away with him an ampoule full of this water, in the manner of a pilgrim.”
Harte (2008) Holy Wells believes that the water derived its miraculous reputation after it had come into use to fill the votive ampulla. Whatever, it is reported that sometimes even ampullae emptied before the leaving the Cathedral precincts as the saint’s judgement on the individual. The use was widespread as indicated by this account in the Exeter Express and Echo:
“THIS tiny lead container, called an ampulla, is modest in appearance, but is nonetheless important evidence for medieval pilgrimage in Devon. Found using a metal-detector in 2009 near Whimple by Simon Wildman, it once contained water from a holy well. The water from holy wells was ascribed sacred qualities through their association with particular saints or certain miracles. Prior to Henry VIII’s Reformation, Devon was littered with holy wells, few of which survive today. One such holy well was that of St Sidwell in Exeter, which was purported to have sprung up instantaneously on the spot where her decapitated head hit the ground. This well was once a popular pilgrimage site, and pilgrims could purchase ampullae full of holy water.”
Of course, we are unaware what holy well it came from of course, it may have not been from Devon of course. The most active holy well in the county, St. Winifred’s Well at Holywell, unsurprisingly has a long history of producing ampullae. A mention is even made in her 1130 first Life where the priest fills a lagena with the water, which was ‘transmitted everywhere to the sick, and drunk’ certainly by 1620 ‘little bottles’ we being used.
In revival of the pilgrimage under Fr Beauclerk S.J., in the 1890s, a 250mm bottle was specially tall which held an image of St Winifred, with the words ‘St Winefrides Well Holywell’, and Fr Beauclerk’s. An advert in the The Holywell Record of May 1896 stated that ‘a bottle of water can be sent post free to any part of the United Kingdom’ a promise I believe that is still upheld although the bottle and postage is now paid. A longer account of the development of these bottles post 1890s is given in this article.
Similarly, at Walsingham small bottles are provided with the image of the vision to Richeldis in 1096 with the Virgin hovering above with the spring below the Lady Richeldis showing how to build the Holy House. These were an improvement of the simple medieval ones with a cross and a W.
And the trend for ampulla is still present and can be seen at ‘new’ holy wells – Lourdes and Fatima – suggesting that the basic function of the holy well has not ceased!
It is my great pleasure to present an article from one of the most important contributors to the holy well research field. Author of the excellent The Living Stream – the first academic book on the subject, the indispensable guides to holy wells of Buckinghamshire, Kent and Surrey, as well as countless articles for Source and Living Spring, as well as his own webpage..he’s been in retirement holy well research wise and sticking to the day job of being a rector, so its a great privilege that he’s contributing this ground breaking piece of research about a holy well which is not recorded elsewhere to this blog..
In 1960 the Revd John Bickersteth, unlikely owner of the ancient seat of the Earls of Ashburnham in East Sussex after the death of his second cousin, created the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The estate, which Revd Bickersteth had only visited once before he inherited it in 1953, consisted of 8,500 acres of farmland and woods, a crumbling 82-room mansion filled with antiques, and a tax bill of £427,000. Most of the land and the treasures were quickly sold, but the house remained, inconvenient, expensive, and it seemed unlettable. However Revd Bickersteth was approached with the idea that Ashburnham Place might house a Christian training and conference centre. Most of the house was demolished, the grounds tidied up, the Trust established, and this is the role it fulfils today – along with a tea room open to ordinary members of the public, who can, provided they let Reception know, walk the grounds – and see the wells.
The approach to Ashburnham brings the visitor along a swooping drive through Burrage Wood and across the gorgeous stone bridge of the 1820s spanning Capability Brown’s lake formed off the River Ashbourne, to park around the back of the house near the old parish church. As far as wells are concerned, the chief attraction lies just south of the Broad Water. The Ladyspring Grotto is approached by one of two routes up a short gully leading uphill from the edge of the lake: either a high path along the eastern edge, or a lower path along the bottom of the gully. The upper path curves in around the top of the gully past a collection of massive boulders and stone steps. In both cases the Grotto is more or less hidden from view almost until the visitor reaches it. It consists of a well-chamber about five feet square by seven feet high, set into the bank, with a flagged stone floor and plastered walls, and a semi-circular arched roof; the walls are of very substantial stone blocks and the arch is constructed from thin clay tiles. The water pours from an outlet in the back wall into a stone trough raised above the floor.
Nothing is known for certain about the Ladyspring’s history. Information available at Ashburnham ascribes it to Capability Brown’s landscaping of the gardens in the 1760s and ‘70s, but if so it would be an item unique in his entire oeuvre. The only other folly in the grounds is a tiny Temple (really just a glorified seat) looking from the southwest bank of the lake across at the house. My guess is that, even though it may date from that sort of time, the real responsibility will have lain not with Brown but with the incumbent Earl who may have had a taste for that kind of thing. The Grotto seems to be an attempt to recreate a Graeco-Roman nymphaeum or shrine, with shades of the great spring at Bath (and rather like the site at Santa Fiora near Rome uncovered in 2009 – http://aqueducthunter.com/fiora/), and suggests a landowner who had some interest in and experience of such sites. John, the second Earl Ashburnham, who commissioned the landscaping work from Capability Brown, was, Horace Walpole described, ‘a decent, reserved and servile courtier’, and seems a less likely candidate than his son, the academically-inclined third Earl, George, who was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and trustee of the British Museum. He was in charge of Ashburnham between 1812 and 1830 – a bit late for the sort of Romantic folly-making the Grotto represents, but George is still its most probable builder.
The origin of the name is mysterious too. The Ashburnham Place guidebook and various information boards around the grounds ascribe it to a painting on the plaster at the rear of the well-chamber, depicting, as variously stated, one or three ‘ladies’. The image is supposed to be visible when water is thrown on the plaster – though, even allowing imagination the greatest latitude, I couldn’t make out anything more than random stains of mould – or under infra-red photography. An estate map of 1638 (thekeep.info/places/eastsussex/parishesandsettlements/Ashburnham) shows a ‘Lady’ field name to the north of the house, so the title had some pre-existing local usage, and a ‘Lady Spring’ might have existed before the creation of the Grotto, even if the name did not refer to the Virgin Mary (the church is dedicated to St Peter).
The Ladyspring is the most impressive of Ashburnham’s wells, but there are others. A couple of hundred yards to the southwest is Ironspring, a somewhat overgrown, artificially-dammed pond emptying into the lake and fed by waters which seep in from the slope above. The name suggests mineral content, but nothing is very obvious from the appearance of the water and there are no tell-tale red stains on the mud or undergrowth. Again, the history of this site is unclear: it isn’t named on old or current Ordnance Survey maps.
The Palladian Fountain is harder to locate (I stumbled upon it by accident). It lies south of the carriage drive and seems to be more modern than the Ladyspring, dating to a later phase of the development of the gardens. The outlet is a metal pipe set into a recessed semi-circular arch about four feet high, dripping water into a trough edged with shaped, dark bricks. On the left-hand, eastward side of the fountain, a stone wall curves away, supplied with what appears to be a low bench although the ground is now a bit boggy for sitting and contemplating, as well as the surroundings being somewhat overgrown. The Fountain doesn’t in fact tap a spring, but the overflow from one of the rivulets feeding the lake. The pink stone Shell Fountain, lying in the grounds to the north (and now dry) dates to the 1850s when water was channelled from springs to feed the gardens around the Orangery, next to the house.
The Ladyspring alone would justify a far greater fame for Ashburnham in hydrolatric terms. The combination of well-house and slightly tweaked and augmented topography creating a Romantic neo-pagan experience but one which aims at authenticity is unique in the UK and it would be fascinating to know more than just the speculations I’ve given here.
I did become a bit pixy led looking for this one…it was the hottest day of the year so far, fortunately the walk to the well, or rather what I could assign to it poorly marked on the OS, was down hill! Good job as it was very hot. A long way from the weather today…
The Nun’s Well is a fascinating site. I have yet to find any concrete facts about its history, yet its local legend of a ghost which is most appealing. Legend tells that a local nun was pushed down the well and it was covered over, only to be discovered by farm labourers, some years later. As a result she has said to have haunted the area. I have been unable to neither substantiate the origins of this story or the nun in question, neither F. W. Hackwood’s 1924 work nor Jon Raven’s 1974 work, both on the folklore of the county, record a ghost or the well, despite the latter’s detailed notes on wells in the county. Only Duignan (1884) suggests a grant of Henry II to a priory of Farewell and the spring may have gained its name from then, suggesting the origin of the story. Nuns immured in wells are not unique in well folklore and it is possible that they mask a more ancient tradition.
A hidden source
This is perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated. Accounts are misleading, some accounts on the web suggest it has been destroyed, but that is far from true. It is however, difficult to come across for the well arises beside, not under as some accounts state, an oak tree. Despite having a photos of the said tree I walked past it and went into the wood beyond which led to the Nun’s well car park..which was locked! I followed my instincts and took a path which looked well trod, but led to the edge of the wood but to a man mowing a lawn. After disturbing him, in more ways than one, he said he did not know where exactly it was but it was not here! Tracking my route back I noticed the tree I passed had a blue sign upon it:
“Nun well. End of permissive path.”
I had found my tree and the well. This tree was surrounded by a small white fence which I at first feared may have been electrified. It wasn’t fortunately. However the area was surrounded by tall nettles. I gently lay them down so that I could have a look for the well.
More substantial than first thought
I found the narrow hole described by Tim Prevett on Megalithic Portal, with one or two bricks around it and thinking this was the only hole used by 33mm camera to get some shots. This is a bit disappointing if it’s the only viewing point. However, it was only when I took some shots upwards to capture I thought the chamber’s roof that I noticed I had taken a shot of sky. There was another viewing area! Sure enough the other side of the tree was a much larger opening about two feet square which was covered with boughs for safety. Removing one or two of these boughs (replacing them back afterwards) I could see a better view of the well. The first aspect I observed was the remains of a brick arch and it was clear that well was still partly covered by a barrel roof made of bricks which was in quite good condition. Using my SLR camera I took some shots. From these it is clear that the chamber is quite a large one, partly cut from the sandstone rock from which the spring arises, although some of this wall appears to be made of dressed stand stone blocks, particularly at the back I thought. Towards the front a piece of corrugated iron and some barbed wire has been placed there, when it is difficult to gage but it must have done by someone in the well chamber and presumably to prevent the earth back filling. The brick work is said to be 16th century and came from a local iron works. The tree’s roots have clearly grown partly over the roof at some time and causing it to collapse resulting in the rubble of stones around and the large hole to the north of the tree. One could climb down into the well but I thought twice, one could I climb out? Probably. Secondly, peering down the well I felt a little disquiet. Had I disturbed the nun?
The well contained a considerable amount of water which was quite clear despite the considerable amount of debris and leaf litter within. Access the water is difficult and one needs to stretch so clearly access was better from the front before the tree. Despite this its waters were said to cure eyes.
An interesting site pity despite the park being named after it no one thought of putting an information sign up!
Taken and amended from Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming 2015.