Holy Well or folly Bath house – Woolston’s St. Winifred’s Well
Hidden down a little lane in the quite Shropshire village of Woolston is a picture-postcard holy well or is it? A site cited in every major countrywide review of the topic but is it a genuine site?
A holy well?
Thompson and Thompson (2001) in their Wells of Mainland Britain are pretty equivocal stating that the well was used in the medieval period as a source of healing. A fact perhaps taken for the association with Saint Winifred. However, although this is a common theme amongst modern well researchers the earliest reference referring to the site by name is Phillips and Hulbert’s 1837 History of Salop:
“In the township of Woolston is a remarkable well, dedicated to St Winefred, but whether of healing virtues I am not able to give information.”
However, Charlotte S. Burne, Shropshire Folk-Lore reveal some interesting local evidence:
“some have sought to explain this dedication (now locally forgotten) by supposing that the relics of St Winifred may have rested here on their way from Gwytherin in North Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey, in the twelfth century; but it is easily accounted for by the fact that certain small stones spotted with indelible red marks resembling bloodstains are occasionally found in the water… The water, which is singularly clear, is supposed to have wonderful powers of healing wounds and bruises and broken bones”.
Burne tells had some of the pebbles examined at the British Museum, ‘where the red marks are pronounced not to be mineral, but organic; probably a kind of fresh-water alga’ – perhaps the Byssus jolithus formerly found in the Holywell well? Interestingly Hope (1893) in the Legendary Lore of Holy Wells does not refer it to as St. Winifred’s Well:
WEST FELTON: HOLY WELL. There is a small holy well in this parish (West Felton), in a hamlet called Woolston. The water of this well is still used by the country people for complaints of the eyes. It is a beautiful clear stream, running under a small black and white chapel into two paved square baths environed with stone walls, one of which is lower than the other. The higher one has steps down to the water, and, strange to say, there is more water in summer than in winter. Under the chapel, which overhangs the stream, is a long-shaped niche which has evidently contained the statue of the saint. At this side is a small cell, or covered place, where probably the priest or monk stood to dispense the water. The chapel is now unfortunately used as a cottage, and the beams of the roof inside are covered with whitewash. At one end there is the tracery of Tudor roses and acanthus leaves, upon what is evidently the framework of a window.–See Shropshire Arch. Soc. Trans. ix. 238.”
This delightful black and white building is a difficult edifice to evaluate. Some accounts suggest it is 14th century and built by Margaret Tudor the same endower as St. Winifred’s Well in Holy Well Clywd. This is the view of Lawson Tait (1884–5) in a piece called The holy well at Woolston, Salop in Bye-Gones Relating to Wales & the Border Counties:
“is an original remain of the fourteenth century, untouched by the hand of the restorer… duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
Indeed early OS maps do mark the site as ‘Old Chapel’ but the question is if it was orientated such why is the well dedicated to St. Winifred. Adolphus Dovaston (1886) in a piece for the Transactions of the Shropshire Archaeological. & Natural History Society called‘Woolston Well, Shropshire’ may have provided the answer stating that West Felton church may have been the source for its fourteenth-century. It was rebuilt in 1600s, a stone to the right of the entrance of the bath states 1635, which is a suitable date for the development of something else – a plunge pool.. These start appearing around the mid to late 1600s and it is worth noting that many of those which remain from that period often have a unifying theme – they are dedicated to saints. However, many are spurious – St Chad’s Bath near Lichfield and St Catherine’s Well and Bath, Southwell, are particularly significant examples especially the former which adopts a local popular saint. However, the site does not appear to have been big enough to attract any significant trade, but it is perfectly arranged for a private plunge. The cold bath below and the warming room above as a single cell typical of later cold baths. However did the local legend appear to explain the well’s dedication by the lord of the manor? This is suggested by Dovaston (1884-5) who quoting a local historian who was writing in 1800 recalls:
“a court house being built in Woolston, over a well made for a bath for the Jones’s of Sandford family, when they left Sandford, it became the rendezvous of the country who from the middle of May to the end of Harvest resorted from all parts hither, some (at nights) to bathe and dance and riot most of the night at the alehouses…till… about the year 1755”.
If the site was a cold bath, why do we have no record of this usage? This might be because the land owner converted the site for use as a manorial court and there is record of its said usage until 1824. This however is at variance perhaps to another account which states it was derelict around 1800 and restored by the rector.
So summing up what is likely? There are two possible scenarios:
- The well is medieval, the upper section being a mediaeval and in situ. In the post reformation it was converted to secular use
- The well is 17th century only, a cold bath, using fabric from a local church. Once the cold bath fad passed the upper section was utilised as a court.
There is perhaps a third possibility. The spring was dedicated by recusants in the county, although Catholic densities were low in the county and mainly centred in the north around modern day Telford such as the Giffards.
Whatever the truth unlike other sites….which languish unloved…after a time when its future was uncertain the Landmark Trust took it on and now it’s a delightful and unique holiday home, with an extra outside bath.