The Divine Juggler of Doulting by Caroline Sherwood Source Issue 2 (Winter 1994)
The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.
The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.
St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne.
He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’
The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.
In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.
According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.
For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring
(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author.
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