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.

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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.

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on June 19, 2015, in Devon, Favourite site, Folklore, Hermits, Pilgrimage, Saints and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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