Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Romanesque beauty of Sardinia’s Santa Sabina and the little known pozzo sacro Su Cherchizzu

The road through to Macomer from Nuoro passes one of the island’s most iconic views, the Romanesque beauty of Santa Sabina beside a large intact Nuraghe from the 1600 BC laying on the desolate plain. Nearby were two giant’s tomb, but these was destroyed.

Baptismal church?

The church is a wonderful relic and is unique in Sardinia. Dedicated to the cult of Santa Sarbana and was probably constructed in the mid 11th century. It is made of three distinct parts; the central circular covered by a dome and two side compartments covered with barrel vaults. It is thought that the site was an early Christian baptistery. This is perhaps significant and may hide a lost significance for a site close by.


Lost Pozzo sacro discovered.

Like the giant’s graves, similarly, my indispensable archaeology guide related to the sacred well in the complex but notes ‘no traces are found nowadays.’ I visited the complex and had left it there but reading the leaflet given out it noted the survival of Su Cherchizzu, returning to the site I managed to explain what I was looking at and was directed across the road and up a dirt track, 400 metres from the more noted church.


The site was discovered in 1881 by Vivanet, but then largely forgotten being abandoned. It was not until 1982 that a survey by Foschi revealed more including some pottery fragments but it was not dated. The well is found in a small enclosed area and is completely buried beneath the ground. Twenty steps, 50-70 cm wide and five metres long take us beneath the ground and reveals it to be full of water. Looking up is a stepped ceiling and a circular well tholos of two metres. The structure is made of basalt to maintain the water in the well and it still had some considerable volume in the hot August sun. Entering the chamber you immediately became divorced from outside yet again and wonder what uses these waters had many centuries ago.


Springs by the seaside…beside the sea

With the sun shining, many of us will head to the seaside to soak up the rays, do some rock-pooling and eat some ice-cream, however hundreds of years ago, when the sea was predominantly an industrial location and the therapeutic nature of sea bathing unknown, pilgrims would visit the sea-side to sample its sacred springs as they would elsewhere.

A classic example is recorded by Wallis (1769) in his Natural History of Northumberland, he tells us that:

“Among the sea-rocks, on the north side of the church at Newbiggen, is a sacred fresh-water spring, called St Mary’s well, over which the tide flows.”

Such an arrangement would mean that often springs would have greater powers because the high tide would mean they were available for less time. A similar spring being St. Agnes’s Well Humphrey Head (Cumbria) where at the foot of the limestone cliffs is the spring arising in a rectangular chamber. A similar well has already been discussed at St. Govan’s chapel, but sadly dry. In Wales, a location which cannot be bettered for grandeur can be found at St. Mary’s Well on the Lleyn Peninsula. Regularly covered by the tide with its salty water, the spring remains fresh at low tide.  The natural spring was said to be the location pilgrims to Bardsey Island would stop. To get a cure it is said that a mouthful of water from the well would be needed as you would climb the cliff above to walk around the chapel above three times.

The most famous seaside spring is the most evocative, Holy Well in a sea cave Holywell Bay near Newquay (Cornwall). Many doubtlessly pass this sea cave on the way to the sea without a second thought. Many hundreds of years ago it is said that the bay was littered with crutches as evidence of those who had been cured there. Despite no sign of any obvious Christianisation, a legend is told of its creation. It is said that the cave was one of the places that the cortège carrying the body of St. Cuthbert rested here on their way to Iona. However, that sounds like a convenient story to cover and explain attendance at this most pagan of wells. The water trickles across multicoloured natural basins of limestone, in the dim light of a torch, the pinks and blues, provide a remarkable view of a peaceful refuge.

Not surprisingly, being a fluid environment, such spring can be lost to the erosive power of the sea. Such may have happened to that at Eastbourne (Sussex), first recorded in the 15th century. Described by Horsfield (1835), no exact location is given. It reports:

“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton.”

Then in 2010 they were re-discovered, repaired and rededicated and cures are now reported…goes to show that some seafronts can provide all aspects, so if you are off with bucket and spade consider there may be a sacred spring somewhere to give a quench to the spirit and thirst perhaps.

Between the tower blocks and the Anglo-Saxon…St. Alkmund’s Well, Derby

Well research can be quite rewarding in a strange way…and finding St. Alkmund’s Well in the urban setting of north Derby laying virtually beneath the tower blocks is one. Where urbanisation has swept away many wells in a joint wave of sanitation and urban expansion, the planners in the city wisely decided to preserve this relic in no doubt protected by the long vanished church bearing its name. It is excellent that they do for not only is its setting and preservation unique its dedication is too.

Early record

The site is first recorded in 1190 in a rental agreement but considering its association probably earlier. Indeed it is likely that the well was so named from the time of the Saxon saint who who died 800 AD and whose tomb or shrine was located in church nearby (and is now located in the Derby Museum). It would be interesting to contemplate that pilgrims to his shrine took to the waters but there is not evidence.  Indeed there is little is recorded of its history however and much of which we know comes from the plaque which reads:

“Until the area was built up from 1814, the well was in a rural setting, part of St Helen’s Park. The stone niche surrounding the well was built by the Rev Henry Cantrell in the early 18th century”.

What is also known is that according to church historian Cox (1875–9) in his Derbyshire churches records that a vicar of the local S. Werburgh’s was cured of his low consumption, after constantly drinking its water, although the sign It has been traditionally dressed, revived in 1870 and continued infrequently until 1993, stopping because the boards were thoughtlessly vandalised. The demolishing of the St. Alkmund’s Church in the 1960s for road widening stopped the tradition of processing to the well.


Present structure

The well is below ground level with four steps to its water which flows with some force into an oval basin. A stone carving states its name. When I first visited it was possible to reach the water. I was told by a local elderly lady that she still drank the water and that it was very pure…I was not sure myself! Now I would not be able to know as the railings have enclosed the whole structure.

It now sits rather incongruously in an area of urban landscape,  an odd juxtaposition amongst the older houses and tower blocks still exists, but is often prone to vandalism. and has suffered from it. Well dressings were discontinued due to vandalism and it was blocked off my tall metal fencing for a period recently. Now it is surrounded by a small wall and black railings which has blocked access but will protect it.

Who was St Alkmund?

An 8th century son of a Northumbrian king, Alkmund who was murdered by those who had overthrown the King, Eardwulf and was buried first in Shrewsbury and then Northworthy, the Saxon settlement which became Derby. The removal of his relics to Derby in 1140 produced a perfume. The tomb in which he was enshrined was discovered at the demolishing of his church in 1968 to make the ring road! It can now be seen in Derby Museum.


Well revived

Despite an attempt to emasculate the site with the railings its importance has seen a revival. What is more remarkable is that the modern St Alkmund’s Church has revived or created a procession to the well at Whitsuntide. The church process carrying banners to the well where a blessing and hymns are made. All in all it is good to see even in this urban land ancient wells can still have a role!