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“The worm shot down the middle stream
Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
In rainbow colours bright.
But when he saw the armed knight
He gathered all his pride,
And, coiled in many a radiant spire,
Rode buoyant o’er the tide.
When he darted at length his dragon Strength
An earthquake shook the rock
And the fire-flakes bright fell round the knight
As unmoved he met the shock.
Though his heart was stout it quailed, no doubt
His very life-blood ran cold
As round and round the wild worm wound
In many a grappling fold.”
So write a local Poet of perhaps the most famous British dragon legend. The story dates from the 14th century, where the heir to Lambton Hall instead of attending Mass would fish. One particularly Sunday he said to have secured a fine fish. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells accounts:
“he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.”
A stranger is said to have remarked that he had never seen such a creature and said it was like an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth and that he had caught the Devil himself. However, the worm remained forgotten in its well until one day it emerged, having outgrown the well and moved to the river where it lay during the day around a rock and by night around a hill, causing it to become stepped as a result of its twining. The hill remains called Worm Hill.
Such a beast then terrorised the area, eating lambs, chasing cattle and suckling cows’ milk. When it reached Lambton Hall, where the household was terrified, the young son was no-where to be seen and so the steward rose to the occasion. He ordered that a trough should be filled with milk and every day the beast would drink the milk and cause no harm returning to their resting places. This happened every year for seven years until the son and heir returned. He was a wiser and more mature man and seeing his land’s desolate took to a local wise woman to ask what to do. She at first scolded him for his wasteful life and bring the beast to the parish, but realising that he was repentant, told him to wear a suit of thickly studded with spears. He stood on the rock in the river with his sword and he was warned that should he fail – nine generations of the manor would not die in their beds! A tireless fight ensued between the worm and the heir in which a number of blows did not stop the beast but finally as the beast wrapped around him he made a body blow severing the beast in two. These two sections were separated and floated down the river…never to be united.
Not far away, is Long Witton’s Thruston Wells which were guarded by dragon, a winged serpent who valiantly fought Guy, Earl of Warwick too, but each time he was wounded the creature would dip his tail into one of the wells and was healed. Soon Guy realised this and leapt before the well and speared it through the heart blocking the beast’s ability to reach the well.
There are many other such serpent and well stories. Why? From a biological background the description of the Lambton Worm is interesting…it sounds like a Lamprey, and perhaps as this was a Royal fish, so peasantry did not often see it. Mix this with discovery of fossils – often found exposed near water perhaps – and the imaginary of Pagan vs Christian and you have the Dragon.
This chalybeate spring called alternatively by Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) as Holy Well, whilst Walters (1928) calls it Holy Red Well (SO 848 153) arises incongruously now on the edge of a dry sky slope in a field called Red Well field.
“The Red Well at Matson consists of a 3ft. square limestone trough at the road-side, fed from a chalybeate spring in the field a few yards above it. The interior of the trough is 2ft. square by 1ft. deep, and its overflow is fed through a gargoyle into a semi-circular basin on the east side. Nearby are the remains of stones, which, if placed round the well, would give it the form of a Maltese cross. The spring belonged to the Canons of Llanthony, and its history dates from 1066, when Ralph de Mattesdon gave the church of Mattesdon to St. Peter’s Abbey Gloucester.”
records that it was also known as Edith’s Spring according to H. Y Taylor in 1866 who immortalised it in the Saint Harold the martyr – the Red Well at Matson or Edith’s Spring two local legends. He tells an interesting and possibly unique legend to describe its origin. Edith was an 18 year Saxon old local noblewoman from Upton St Leonard. She married an Earl, giving him a son, but soon after he was killed fighting King Harold. Fear what repercussions may occur as a result from the invading Normans she climbed Matson Hill. Here she decided to kill herself and son and as she dug a grave. As she dug, so arose the red spring water. She saw this as a sign and as a result dedicated herself to a holy living, she and her son becoming anchorites. The well belonged to the Canons of Llanthony Priory, whose lands fell to the Selwyn family during the Reformation, whose coat of arms resembled a cross itself.
Embrey (1918–20) states that:
“the presence of iron salts is considered as conferring tonic properties.”
and its water being very ferruginous was said to be “good for the eyesight” or a cure for tired eyes. Another alternative name was the Rag Well and as such it was one of only two such sites in the county and certainly the most well-known. It is still overshadowed by a thorn tree, upon which tradition asserts clothes may have been left as a form of offering. However, the tradition has not continues or been revived.
Enclosed in square railings, a reason perhaps why the well is no longer treated as a rag well. The spring itself arises in a square limestone trough of two feet by two feet and one foot deep inside and three feet deep outside. Another small receptacle, or basin a semi-circular one of Oolite stone is found on the east side. It then flows into a roadside trough. Walters (1928) notes that some slabs were located around this spring, which could be arranged to form a Maltese cross
Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
The clootie tree at St Euny’s Well
Cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
The cloutie tree near Madron Well
Sancreed Holy Well
St Credan’s Well, Sancreed
Often the Heritage Open Day in September gives the curious an opportunity to see some hidden gems and Gledhow’s Bath House in Leeds is a great example. The bath house probably the oldest standing in the UK is a delightful find on the edge of the woodland cliff.
The building is grade 2 listed and consists of a small building with a fireplace designed to sweat patients after immersion in the sunken bath outside. It is made of coursed square gritstone with a slate gabled roof. There are high ways enclosing the plunge pool which is around 1.75 m deep and three metres square with a small edge around three sides of it. The entrance has quoined jambs with a circular window in the gable and moulded gable coping. There is a large Latin plaque which reads “constructed by Edward Waddington of Gledhow in 1671”.
How old is the bath house?
The earliest reference to the spa is when it was constructed in 1671 by Edward Waddington of Gledhow Hall subsequently it alternative name is Waddington Bath. A Latin inscription reading:
Annovae Domini 1671”
However, it first receives academic interest when in 1708 when the noted Leeds Antiquarian Ralph Thoresby took his younger song, Richard to the site. He had been suffering with either rhickets or rheumatism and as part of his treatment it was recommended that he visit the bath regularly to take a cold immersion. In his diary for the 5th of July the author wrote:
“Walked with my dear by Chapel-town and Gledhow to Gypton-Well (whence my Lord Irwin who comes thither in his coach daily, was but just gone) to enquire for conveniences for my dear child Richard’s bathing”.
It must have been a successful because he found in his 1715 Ducatus Leodiensis easily to promote the site stating:
“The Gipton well was accommodated with convenient lodgings to sweat the patient after bathing and is frequented by Persons of Honour, being reputed little or nothing inferior to St Monagh’s’
The later comment referring to a spa spring near Ripon which was popular at the time. Not much is known of the intervening century of the bath house as it does not appear to be much mentioned but it would still appear to have been utilised by 1817 as Edward Baines’ Leeds Guide of 1817 described the village as
” a small, pleasant village, 2 miles from Leeds. Within the wood is a cold spring with a small bathing house attached.”
However by 1834 the fame of the spring was waning as Edward Parson’s notes in his
History of Leeds: ”
“The Waters of Gipton have lost their celebrity and are no longer frequented.”
However he is positive by stating:
“There is no reason why they should not be restored to fame. If some chemist was to report an analysis of their component parts, if some physician were to publish a book in their praise, if some speculator were to build a decorative bath, a large hotel or perhaps a crescent of houses with a sounding name, it is certain that quite as much benefit would be reaped from Gipton Well as from many of the Springs which are highly extolled for their salutiferous qualities and around which complaining valetudinaians and idle loungers so numerously congregate.”
It had not been forgotten of course because Kelly’s directory of 1881 notes that they “are still resorted to by people who live in the neighbourhood.”
Fortunately, when in 1888 the eldest daughter of the first Lord Airedale, Honourable Hilda Kitson, , bought the farm which the bath house stood on she didn’t remove it but was concerned for its survival and as such she offered £200 to the Leeds Corporation from which the interest would repair it. However it was not until 1926 did they take her up on the offer and the Corporation took it over.
Sadly despite this the bath house went through considerable amount of neglect over the intervening times. The roof had been seriously damaged, trees grew through it and it was frequented by drug users and prostitutes. The site was fenced off as a result in 2004. Finally in 2005 the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods cleaned up the site and repaired it ready to open it to the public. And a delight it is too, when I visited I found the small place very atmospheric with candles flickering in the small fireplace.
The water was deep clear and inviting although I did not in. Nearby the group had made bottles of the spring water beside the pool although I would be interested if anyone drunk it.
In 2016 I was invited to do a symposium on ritual litter. Before this I had been running a survey on Surveymonkey on the use of wells as sites of votive offerings focusing on rag wells. Below are some of the comments made by the correspondents which I believe would be useful to share here. They have been made anonymous in most cases separated from the sites they describe. Please note the survey is still live and the author welcomes more entries and also note do not use this research without express permission of the author.
What is left at wells and what did people think of it?
Asked what they thought about the subject of rag wells and giving of votive objects. They were asked about what should be left at such sites:
“I am very pleased to see the right sort of offerings ie red rags or ribbons, natural objects, degradable objects, bits of clothing, prayers written on paper etc that will degrade, as they keep the site and tradition alive, but plastic/junk etc crystals etc are not welcome. I know this is not a popular point of view. Perhaps we should all agree to leave 1-2 items only in our lifetime.”
Another correspondent reported:
“The type of offering is important. Natural (crystals, small metal objects) or genuinely degradable materials should be used. walk softly! And don’t leave stuff in the water”
Referring to a specific site another recorded:
“the offerings at Goodmanham are very controversial as they have tended recently to be non-degradable items. My own feeling is that this isn’t too much of a problem provided they are regularly tidied, and while not visually very tasteful they show that people are using the site.”
Of such offerings another stated:
“Because it is non biodegradeable it piles up and blows around causing damage and danger to wildlife.”
Of another site a correspondent noted:
“The wiccans of my acquaintance have now left the area, there is also a high church anglican who collects water there, I have never asked him if he leaves a votive token. THE water of the well, incidentally, is taken for all purposes still. Also the water is in current use in a mediaeval ink preparation AND is used to write mss.”
It was good to see a number of correspondent noting that the offerings
‘should be biodegradeable’ Others noted that they ‘Do dislike plastic items, should be compostable’, ‘I don’t mind biodegradable stuff i.e. flowers but not non biodegradable stuff i.e synthetic fabric’; ‘I don’t mind flowers, sticks, straw or genuine pieces of clothing. Object to plastic nylon and tissues!’ Concern for the fabric and nature of the site was also raised ‘Increasingly the offerings are plastic and unnatural, carving in the stone of the well defaces it, someone tried to scrub it out then causing further damage.’ Or ‘Some people feel too many offerings on one tree. Others feel they must be left as its offerings from people.’
Finally interestingly, another notes: ‘it is not something we should have an expectation on’
Why did they leave rags (or other offerings)?
A number of correspondents identified the reason they gave they left votives as: “An offering to the saint/goddess as recognition of their healing and knowledge” or to give thanks in some fashion ‘To honour and feed the land and spirit of place, to give thanks’; ‘To say thanks, to leave beauty’ ‘for thanks to Gaia’ or more specifically ‘Thanking the goddess for her waters’. Some saw it as simply as an ‘Offering to deity’ or ‘As a wish/blessing’. Correspondents identified that they were ‘Following ancient, spiritual beliefs.’
Respect was evident that some did it as a ‘mark of respect, replacing energy’ or to ‘respect for the Spirit Of The Place’
Energy figured in some views with one stating they ‘believe in the transferrence of positive energy’
Connection was stressed by a number of correspondents. It being done as a ‘symbol of my connection to the place’ or to ‘Giving a little of myself to the spirit of the place.’
Tradition was mentioned by a few correspondents one more specifically saying ‘Traditional to leave an offering when you visit a well’ or ‘to show respect to tradition, the ‘spirit’ of that place and as an offering.’
Some correspondents were more specific in their reasons. One stated that they:
‘Left one for the improved health of my husband’ or for ‘For people and animals who have passed on. Or are/have been ill’ or ‘To show my respect, and thanks for the safe arrival of my granddaughter’ or ‘It was a symbol of my Intention to help friends through illness.’
One final long comment mentioned:
“To give thanks for being alive, for being able to visit, for arriving safely, for the health and safety of those I love, for my continuing health, as an offering to the Gods, in gratitude for my life. Once, a few days after my wedding, I passed a red ribbon through my wedding ring three times and tied it to the tree(ribbon not ring) at Madron to bless my marriage. Once, in a time of real need, I left an offering at Fairy Well St Ives because I really needed a wish to come true. which it did.”
What would be interesting is how these compare to more ‘traditional’ uses of the wells and the custom. We shall be exploring this in the final post of this series
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.