Monthly Archives: November 2019
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
Christian reader view in me,
An emblem of true charity,
Who freely what I have bestow,
Though neither heard nor seen to flow,
And I have full return from heaven,
For every cup of water given.
Cuthbert Bridgewater on a plaque above the spring
Overlooked by Liverpool’s august Anglican Cathedral rising amongst the dead of its rock cut cemetery, the spring arising there could easily be confused as a holy well. But of course, the Cathedral is Victorian in date and the spring was only discovered when the quarry was being made!. This was 1773 and a local surgeon, James Worthington was quick to identify its possible benefits. In his paper about the site he said the water was good for
“loss of appetite, nervous disorders, Lowness of spirit, headache is proceeding from crudities of the stomach, Ricketts and weak eyes.”
Similarly, a Dr. Houston identified the site as important and gave it the name ‘Liverpool Spa’ stating that the water was cool and refreshing to taste but ‘warmed the stomach and gave a cordial and inebriating sensation’ In an article called Virtues of the Liverpool Spa he records that:
“This water then contains, without a doubt, iron dissolved, both by fixed air, and by vitriolic acid: in this latter circumstance having the advantage over Tunbridge, and most of our other chalybeates. This renders it not liable, like them, to deposit its metallic principle by keeping. Yet the mineral vitriol is so very much diluted and so minutely divided, as to render it at once extremely beneficial, perfectly innocent and accepted even to weak stomachs. There is also a small proportion of muriatic and earthly salt, mentioned above, but not in such proportion as to claim any share in the medicinal effects.”
The account states that:
“It is particularly adapted to promote appetite and digestion, and to strengthen the tone of the stomach, impaired by excess or other causes. It gradually strengthens the whole habit, and hence is excellent in that weakness, which remains after acute diseases, and for those who, without any apparent cause, lose their strength, fall away, and are generally said to be going into weakness. It is useful in the first stage, or beginning of consumptions, and may be used with advantage, even in the more advanced stages, if the matter spit up be good pus and there be no considerable degree of fever.
It is of great service in nervous diseases, and in such as arise from weakness of the system, and reciprocally serve to increase it as in the beginning of a dropsy, in the Pluor albus or other feminal weaknesses, Diarrhoea and Diabetes. It is good to prevent the gout in the stomach and bowels, may be useful in rheumatisms, and in some bodies may remove the cause of barrenness or imbecility. In general it will be serviceable in a relaxed state of the solids arising from luxury, or excess or inaction, or a sedentary life, or consequent on iome d sease: it will correct a bad habit of body, and promote good suppuration and granulation in ulcers; and its frequent use will render a person less liable to be affected by cold, damp or putrid air, epidemical or other causes of diseases. It will provide an efficacious medicine in all the cases which were mention’d under the article of iron.”
After a length discourse on who should not take it the account the author talks about the method of using the water
“The best time for drinking this water is when the stomach is empty, in a morning, or an hour or two before dinner. It is proper to begin with half a pint, or a pint, and gradually to increase the dose, so as to take in some cases four or five pints a day, or even to use it for common drink at meals. The use of it should be continued for a pretty long time to reap the benefit of it, and where the quantity drank has been gradually increased, as soon as the end proposed is obtained, it shou’d be gradually decreased though not perhaps entirely left off. The summer season is best for drinking it, although the chief reason for this is that the fittest for exercise and bathing which greatly promote the good effects of the water, especially in nervous cases: this is also one motive for advising its being drank at the spring rather than at home. Moderate exercise, regularity, temperance, a light simple diet, not flatulent, using but little animal food, malt liquor, tea or coffee and relaxation of the mind also contribute much to assist its operation; as does, in obstructions, the warm bath.”
Another local surgeon, a Dr. James Worthington, also attempted to promote the spring in a pamphlet called Experiments on the Spa at Mount Zion, Near Liverpool in it he said it was good for:
“Loss of appetite, nervous disorders, lowness of spirit, headache, crudities of the stomach, rickets and weak eyes.”
However, the spring was largely ignored possibly due to its location in the cemetery and indeed within twenty years of its discovery it was overgrown by bushes. In the 1800s it was restored and surrounded by railings and filled a large pool. Despite the lack of interest for its medicinal water it did have a rather unusual effect on the graveyards its nearby occupants. In 1894, the copse of Captain David Gwin who died in 1813 was found to be completely petrified and turned to stone due to mineral water from the spring entering the grave. Today the spring flows continuously its water largely ignored by passersby but certainly still visited as shown by the presence of the leaf inserted into its flow.
In the final instalment of the examination of Carshalton’s healing, ancient and holy waters. In the first we examined the Queen Anne Boleyn’s Well and the second a possible holy well with St. Margaret’s Well. In this final instalment I explore what might be the less likeliest of holy wells but certainly not the less interesting.
The most intriguing nomenclature wise is not terribly picturesque or noted in its history is a dip in Carshalton Park. Often dry, the name Hogpit Pond is interesting. It was first mentioned in the 15th century as Hoggpytte, and is certainly springfed. James Rattue in his Holy Wells of Surrey notes that such sites are often indicative of holy wells. The hog being derived from Old English halig for holy and the pit similarly being an old word for a well or spring. It does appear to have an entry or exit lined by stones. Sadly no legends or traditions are associated with the site to give any indication.
A more significant site is the Scawen Grotto also found in the park. The grotto once had a statue of Neptune with a marble sea shell basin and was decorated with flint, glass, shells and coral. Although the construction only dates from 1724 it utilised the spring which once provided the source for the river Wandle, a river possibly sacred to the Romans. Flow channels brick lined can be seen under the grotto and to the side.
The next two sites, are located in the grounds of Carshalton House. One of these is an ornamented spring head called the Springhead. This is first recorded on the Arundel Castle Map of the mid-Seventeenth century although clearly it is older. The present structure may either originate from Sir John Fellowes estate improvements of 1716 and the work of landscape architect Charles Bridgeman or the 1690s-1700s work of Edward Carleton or even Dr Radcliffe who purchased it after Carleton. It is recorded that both Radcliffe and Fellowes employed hydrologists being Captain Thomas Savery and George Devall respectively.
The springhead is made of a wide outer channel leading under the embankment into three narrower inner tunnels parallel in a westerly direction under the lawn and may have continued further, their function is unclear but they may have been involved with a waterfall which water cascading from the tunnels as seen in Chiswick house not that far away. The outer of these tunnels have a small bay set at right angles to the tunnel’s line. The ends are blocked with a mixture of clunch, stone, flint and brick walling. If Bridgeman was involved it is likely that he created a circular pool as a feature in front of the hermitage along with canals. These canals were removed in the mid 18th century and the current Roccoco style lake area was formed and it is possible that the outer tunnel was added as an extension to the original three tunnels bringing water into the air in front of the house and allowed visitors to walk over the spring head at almost water level to the hermitage. The similarity in the flint work of the sham bridge at the other end of the lake to the springhead supports this view. Over time the water table dropped and now the spring rarely fills the lake and in the summer it is mostly dry. The spring head was restored by the Carshalton Water tower trust in 2015.
The last site was fed by a unique spring fed water tower and is an 18th century bath house lined by deft tiles called a Bagnio. Enclosed with the water house it was erected by Sir John Fellowes by 1721. It was described in 1724 by a John Macky as ‘curious waterworks in Fellowes garden’. Little is known of this plunge pool and no reference is made by Rattue and its first mention is only in 1839. The building pumped water from a spring nearby into a lead tank in the tower which then fed the bath. The original engine was replaced many years ago and only partial remains of mid-19th century water wheel survive in the wheel pit which can be seen. The bath itself is sunk below a marble floor to a depth of 1.37m and is lined with plain tiles, it has a marble floor and is reached by marble steps. under which are hidden lead inflow and outflow pipes It measures an area of 3.28m by 2.58. How it was heated is unclear as no hot water system survives however it may have simply functioned as a cold bath. Now water is found in the bath and has not for some time it would appear. Its secrets and stories are yet to be discovered in a suburb full of fascinating water history.