Monthly Archives: June 2015

A hidden oasis – Pozzo sacro Sa Testa, Sardinia

DSC_0373Many of Sardinia’s great sacred wells are found in romantic lost landscapes, dry arid fields or high in mountainous regions. However, one of the island’s most significant and evocative is found a few feet away from a busy main road, tucked behind an industrial estate and often overshadowed by the multiply planes which fly in and out of Olbia airport from across Europe. This well enclosed in a quiet oasis is that of Sa Testa, well sign posted from Olbia.

Discovery and artefacts

The site’s discovery was in the 1930s by shepherds seeking out water supplies. It was subsequently excavated by Franceso Soldati in 1938 and subsequently restored in 1969 by Ercole Contu. The work revealed bronze objects, such as dagger hilt, bracelet, ring as well as fragments of cup. These pieces placed the date of the site in line with the other sacred springs of the island, around Bronze Age end, 1200-900 BC.

However what is perhaps more amazing is that this was a site of continued ritual use. A fashioned juniper wood figurine was the most interesting. This was believed to present the archaic Greek God of Xoanon, a sort of phallic like large headed and little or in this case no armed deity, which dates from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC. Also found were thymiateria, Greek incense burners. Both finds clearly indicate that the site was of ritual use by a group unconnected ethnologically to the Nuragic people who built it. These was probably deposited by Phoenicians whose black painted bowls and pitchers were also found. However, the finding of jar and cup fragments from the Tuscan pottery production of Arezzo, emphasizing the influence of the Romans and their continued use if not for cult reasons than for domestic use.


The ritual use by the constructors is suggested by the curious circular courtyard arrangement, 8 by 7 metres approximately around the well. This appears have been constructed so that some ceremonial activity could be undertaken with the circle with the ‘priests’ or secular members watching from around the edge from a bench. One view is that this site like that of Santa Christina was aligned astronomically with the moon’s minimum and maximum declination during its 18.6 year cycle.

The construction

Although not the largest of the wells, it is nevertheless substantially made. Built with cut granite and shale blocks it covers a length of around 18 metres and consists of a circular courtyard,, trapezoidal entrance, staircase and a tholos roof to the spring head. A second tholos has been lost but steps still ascend to it.


Seventeen steps make their way to the clear deep water and to descend into them divorces you immediately from the hot air outside. The channel down through which these steps descend is made of shale and is narrow. What is also interesting in a paved over channel which goes from above the source and round into the source. Such an arrangement is usually stated to be collect run off but with a strong source even today in August why collect rain or condensation water? Was there another source above or was something else poured into the channel to collect in the well? Perhaps we shall never know what happened in this enclosure but despite the industrial and urbanisation around one can just feel the separation from modern times in the cool confines of its chamber.

A lost spa? King’s cliffe’s The Spa

It was soon provided with all necessary Conveniences and Accommodations, and made one of the most beautiful and convenient places of that sort in England, much and deservedly celebrated, and frequented, and it’s certain that County, nor Warwickshire have any of this class comparable to it.”

So states Morton in his 1712 Natural History of Northamptonshire. Standing in this remote part of Northamptonshire, in a field far away from any urbanisation it is difficult to picture how this site could have been developed akin to something like a Spa town. Perhaps the clue to the decline is in the line: “tho it be neglected at present.” Did it ever recover…certainly Leamington Spa developed to overshadow it! Thomas Beeby (1915) in his invaluable Peculiarities of Waters and Wells. How They Were Explained 200 Years Ago and how They are Explained To-day tells us that the water was recognised before 1670 but little used. Morton (1712) describes its location as:

“The mineral waters at Cliffe, or the Spaw, as it is there called, arises at the foot of a clayey hill in a pleasant wood about a mile south of the village.”

Morton (1712) visited it in 1703 and his account states:

“The Reverend Mr. John Broughton, formerly Fellow of St. John’s College in Cambridge was the first who observ’d it to be a mineral water. In 1670 or thereabouts, it was approv’d of, and publically recommended by the Learned Dr. Brown, a Physician, then residing at Cliff, And has ever since been apply’d to, and deservedly celebrated, for the real Services it has done the Drinkers of it in divers Distempers, and especially those arising from Obstructions. It has likewise been successfully used externally in the Way of Bathing or from the spring, to take in Water for the Use of those who have cutaneous Diseases or Ulcers.” Short (1734) in his Natural, Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters in states that the water rises in a round stone basin; is a clear laxative or purging water, requiring 3,4 or 5 quarts to purge strong people and that it had cured several lame people. “It was soon provided with all necessary Conveniences and Accomodations, and made one of the most beautiful and convenient places of that sort in England, much and deservedly celebrated, and frequented, and it’s certain that County, nor Warwickshire have any of this class comparable to it, tho it be neglected at present.”

He notes that:

“A little below the spring is avery good bath” northantsspa3

Bridges (1791) in his History and antiquities of Northamptonshire adds that the spring was in Cock’s pits Coppice, between two hills and was made up with stone work. Beeby (1915) describes it as:

“The main chamber is a depression in the ground practically 18 feet square inside, with limestone walls and coping. Since it is on a slope, two of the walls also slope, the up-hill side sidewall being a little over 5 feet high and the downhill side one a little under 4 feet. There are five steps down to the floor from the coping on the lower side of the excavation, and the floor is cemented. On the floor is a circular, cup shaped cistern about 15 inches deep and 18 inches across, and on the rounded bottom if this, a little on one side, is a circular hole about 1 inch or more across, through the water comes. The water runs away through a trench about 41/2 inches wide and 2 inches deep, into a second chamber, which has an overflow to a drain. The smaller chamber is set an angle with the larger one the corner nearest the exit of the trench; it has 5 steps down like the larger chamber. Without the steps the chamber would be less than 6 feet square in area and taking out the space occupied by the steps there is left a space near to but somewhat under 6 feet by 2 feet, in which the water stands, also that this is scarcely a bath in the sense that Dr. Short’s remarks would lead one to anticipate; but apparently there was no other.”


He also adds that the water is still used to a small extent by people in the neighbourhood as a medicinal water, but more so for outward application in cases of cutaneous diseases and diseases of the eyes. Today, the site is forlorn but still remains much as Beeby describes although it looks when I visited during a rainy May, that the spring no longer flows.

The wells of St. Nectan, Hartland Devonshire

St_Nectan's_Well,_Welcombe_-_geograph_org_uk_-_75518Speak of St Nectan and often his glen is recalled amongst those interested in water lore, however if we travel in the neighbouring Cornwall two possibly more significant and ancient sites can be found where he is the patron saint.

Who was St. Nectan?

It is not exactly clear who he was. A 6th Century Welshmen or Irishmen. We know through his Vita that he was a hermit and subsequent martyr, who may have been related to the chieftan Brychan from which many saints claimed descendency, one of 24 children. Possibly a native of Wales or Ireland, he is best known through legends. He lived as a hermit in Devonshire, England, founding churches there and in Cornwall, England.

A 12th century Gothan manuscript notes that as a hermit he lived in a remote valley near a spring. He is said to have been helpful in recovering a swineherder’s pigs and once had to convert from thieves of his cows. However, other robbers murdered him, of which more in a moment, and where his blood was spilled, foxgloves grew. His murderer is said to have driven made. Even after his death, he is said to have cured a boy of the plague and helped King Athelstan at the 937 Battle of Brunanburgh. His cult continued to be popular throughout the middle ages.

St Nectan’s Well, Welcombe

Easily found by the roadside just over the Devon boarder is this small stone well house which was restored around 1899 according to Baring-Gould. The spring fills a small stone trough, but any legends and traditions associated with the site are unrecorded, although it was used for baptism. There is a little niche above the doorway which often has an icon but may have originally been constructed for a candle. Of course this was probably the well of Welcombe of which record is made in King Alfred’s Will of 881 AD and as such is probably the oldest holy well in the county.

St Nectan’s Well, Hartland

This is perhaps the best recorded of the two local St. Nectan’s Wells. It is a similar stone well house except with an more pronounced pitch roof covers this spring although its source is often kept locked by two wooden doors and a grill. It is difficult to work out the age of the structure but it may only be a few hundred years old. However, this is probably the oldest surviving site in the country. There is evidence of a 7th century Celtic monastery at the site and indeed this survived until the Reformation

This well is associated with a number of legend. It is said that when attacked by robbers, his head was struck off and he picked it up and walked to this site, although another site claims that story. An alternative story is that a spring arose where the head fell – a common motif.


Another unrelated piece of folklore, perhaps dating back to its pre-Christian origins is also told. It is said that the Lord of the Manor asked for some water from the well and it was collected in a large pot. However, the water proved impossible to boil despite the amount of fuel used. Hearing the problems, the Lord informed the servants that she look into the pot and see a giant eel. The eel was taken back to the well and released and subsequently the pot began to boil. Another common motif which suggests the existence of a protective spirit of the well. Sadly with the door often locked it is difficult to look for.

The water was used for baptisms by the church and was associated with a charming custom of which information is difficult to find out. On the saint’s main feast day, the 17th June, local children would process from the church carrying foxgloves and lay them at the well. One presumes that some sort of service was done at the well as well. When this ceased is unclear but certainly in the early 2000s as the picture above may show the remains of the custom. It is shame that such a delightful custom has died out and it seems very appropriate to mark such an important site with such ceremony.