Monthly Archives: November 2015
A quiet village
A sign off the main road reads – Rebeccu medieval village – the road winds; upwards past an old Gothic Aragonese church surrounded by grazing sheep to the small hilltop village of Rebeccu – a lost village 508 metres above sea level. That’s is not to say that the village is deserted; just that its’ population has reduced and indeed bar a small bar in the compact village square the place was deserted!
This an ancient community with evidence of centuries of inhabitation – the Tres Nuraghe for example. The hills around are peppered with rock cut cave tombs and within the larger parish is the incredible Sant Andrea Priu tombs with their caved sacred cow, Roman wall paintings and early Christian iconography…..an incredible example of ritual continuation – indeed when I visited there appeared to be animal skull placed rather than left on the summit of the caves suggesting that such rituals survive in modern Sardinia.
At this village bar I enquired about the Fonti Su Lumarzu. They knew it but it appeared to be a distance away; quite remote and removed from the village. Indeed a small wooden sign indicated its location taking a small track through an area called the wilderness. Talking this path it flowed down the valley to an open area when I was assured I would find the well. Just before this and beside a stream is a small well, well I assumed it was, it was dry but resembled one. Indeed, one could be confused to think this was the exact site although it lacks the isodomic nature of the basalt blocks or the basin. Indeed, although there is some old fabric this would appear to be modern – probably medieval!!
A perfect miniature pozzo
The well is a perfect miniature pozzo only a metre six in height and 97 cm wide at its base. Constructed into the hillside to take advantage no doubt of the spring which arose here and is channelled through a canal with T blocks. The well is constructed of the usual basalt being partially isodomic, some blocks being smaller than others, probably to fit into its location. One can still see evidence of the original clay and lime based mortar on some. The spring fills a circular basin with a monolithic bottom conch. Looking up it is clearly enclosed with a tholos as typical. The water is accessed from a square cut opening. Water then flow beneath the floor of a paved rectangular vestibule only around 5 metres to 2, appearing from a hole and down a grooved stone into a small brook.
A ritual use?
Little is recorded concerning the use of the site but a nice suggests perhaps votive offerings. Taramelli (1919) in his Fortezze, recinti, fonti sacre e necropoli preromane nell’agro di Bonorva, discovered miniature Nuragic pottery jars which may have had a ritual function but equally could have been domestic. Interesting sherds of such pottery were found in the mortar when the site was restored in 2004. Was this purely for bonding or did it signify a ritual deposit? Certainly like more substantial Pozzo, there are lateral and frontal benches, for ‘priests’ or although equally for those wanting a rest, wait or chat at the well (many British Holy wells have such arrangements and it should be noted these are purely functional in use). What is interesting was the find of Roman Imperial coins in this vestibule. So it is clear that like the town the well continued generation over generation to provide both function and perhaps ritual to the settlers on this hill. As indeed the fresh flowing water does today despite a flowing spring beside the church which fills a substantial rectangular basin. Perhaps this water is better, it certainly was a delightfully refreshing draft and needed as I ascended back up the hill and into modernity..
If one walks up a small lane into the woods above Henley on Thames, just north of the village of Wargrave is one of the country’s largest, most attractive but little known wells. A holy well, although the evidence is lacking to confirm, but a source who’s Victorian community was so much dependent upon that the local vicar decided that it must be Christianised once and for all.
That the site has ancient origin is probably indicated by the name, Crazies hill, some authorities believe it which from the O.E cray meaning clean water and its waters were said to be health giving probably because of the local water was boggy.
Its old name is said to be Rebra, although it is known as Rebekah now, named after the Old Testament prophetess, indeed the Rebra name sounds more like a contraction of this than an original name as there is no evidence of its name before the current improvements. These improvements were down by the local Reverend Greville Phillimore who in 1870 decided it was necessary to improve and sanitise the supply. It was subsequently called Phillimore’s spring.
Phillimore constructed a considerable building for the well. The spring flows into a round shaped basin which is enclosed in the arch of a 10 foot high brick edifice, plastered over to an exposed brink face upon which is the well’s most eye catching and unique facet, a painting which illustrates Rebecca and a servant, standing at the well of Nahor. Either side of the scene as the following inscriptions:
“Rebeka and the Servants of Abraham at the well of Nahor. And the servants ran to meet her and said let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”.
The well house has a conical tiled roof with gabled frontage with an iron gate which prevents the idle falling in perhaps. At the back is a caved stone inscription with a stone in a segmental stone panel. The structure deserves to be better known being that its artwork was designed by famed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and thus makes it unique in the country.
“let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”
So said Abraham when he met Rebecca at Nahor and she was is remembered as providing water for Mesopotamian camels. Therefore as someone who provided water for thirsty villagers of this small Berkshire community.
Well which well is it?
This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.
Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.
Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.
In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.
A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:
“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.
The wishing wells
These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.
Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.
More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2016.