Category Archives: Bristol
From Celtic Gods to Smugglers’ Rum – Paul Dewer Source New series No3 Spring 1995
Originally published in Source New series No3 Spring 1995
I have been fascinated by springs and wells since I was very small, and in recent years I wangled myself an allotment garden with a holy well in an adjoining wood! I live with my wife and children in the centre of Bristol and the allotment is a beautiful escape from the exhaust fumes. Our patch is a few miles out of town near the spot where the River Avon joins the Severn, so the animals my children get to see include not only horses, goats and domestic birds on nearby smallholdings, but estuary birds like heron and curlew. Larger animals like badgers and foxes have their homes in the woods at the bottom of the allotment. The foxes live in the ancient den at the back of the boat cave which contains the Bucklewell or Shirehampton’s Holy well (ST 539766) Britain’s own wild dogs guarding an entrance to the underworld! Last summer the fox cubs were spotted playing ball with the pumpkins growing in our garden. I’ve always dreamed of owning or living near a holy well but never thought it possible I count myself very lucky indeed,
Shirehampton is now a suburb of Bristol but until century it was a small though very busy village. It lies just north of a severe bend in the river Avon called Horseshoe point. This bend, and limited periods of access for large vessels due to the ridiculous tidal range of nearly 40’ eventually led to the decline of Bristol as an international port.
But ironically it was this huge rise and fall of the water in the Severn estuary and her tributaries, especially the spectacular spring tides, that must have partly attracted such a cluster of religious sites associated with the curative powers of the water. From the famous Romano-British temples and cult sites like those of Brean Down and Glastonbury, the area has a rich heritage of healing centres associated with water.
The immediate locality around Bucklewell has been inhabited since the lower Palaeolithic, some 2-300000 years. The people of that warm interglacial period left us their flint tools alongside teeth and bones of the elephants they hunted. These were among the first known people to settle in Europe and the arguments continue as whether they were Homo sapiens or, as seems more likely, Homo eretus, a different species of man and wom -kind.
Two ancient roads lead down to Shirehampton’s old Village Green to either end of a stretch of the River Avon called Hung Road, where the sailing ships were moored and hung by ropes from their masts to the river bank, to avoid topping over at low tide. The two roads that run there are Station (formerly lamplighters) Road and Woodwell Lane. Station road ran to the ferry, until recently the only river crossing for miles, and apparently of considerable antiquity. Woodwell Lane originally led to a small wooded cliff above Horseshoe Point. In this wood is Boat Cave in which lies a spring-fed pool called Bucklewell or Shirehampton Holy well.
The name Bucklewell or ‘Well of the Bowing down’ describes the attitude that every visitor to the spring adopts. Even in these irreligious times we are forced to bow before the holy well. A natural outcrop of conglomerate stone, locally quite rare, forms this roof. In some parts of the country this natural concrete is known as ‘pudding stone’ or ‘breeding stone’ because of the varying coloured pebbles that fall out or are ‘given birth to’ by the ‘mother’ outcrop.
Overlooking the Horseshoe Bend, lying close to an ancient river crossing, and the cave itself being the shape of a horse’s roof or crescent moon, make Bucklewell reminiscent of more famous entrances of the underworld. In Greek mythology the Well of the Muses on Mount Helicon was created by Pegasus stamping his hoof. Also nearer to home, the well of St Milburga at Stoke St Milburga in Shropshire was made when the saint fell out riding and told her horse to stamp the ground. Whereupon a spring of fresh water gushed up, enabling St Milburga to clean the blood from her eyes. Bucklewell shares with St. Milburga’s Well the reputation of waters beneficial for eye complaints.
It has been pointed out many times that folklore of holy wells and springs all over the world contains elements that hint at some recollection of oracular powers used in the service of a female deity; and Bucklewell is no exception. The central theme of its legend is as follows:
“Inside there is a crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.” (Sally Watson Underground Bristol Bristol 1991 p.47)
This is of course, displays a fertility theme: the inauguration and marriage ceremony of a Sun God/King go the female spirit of the land. Thus ceremony was preceded by the sacrifice and later rebirth of the God/King. This is beautifully described in the story of Lleu Skilful Hand in the Mabinogion. The name Bucklewell could incidentally be read as the ‘marriage well’ ‘to talk buckle’ is an old phrase meaning to ‘talk marriage’.
While we are looking at the mythology of damp places it might be worthwhile mentioning that at some time the area around the Bucklewell was planted with hazel trees in such a way that nuts would drop into the pool of the cave. A similar association of hazel nuts and a holy well can be found in the story of Connla’s Well from Ireland., where the hazel tree was poetic inspiration that could be found bearing fruit and flowers simultaneously; the fruit symbolising concentrated knowledge (as in’ in a nutshell’) and the flowers symbolising poetic eloquence. Indeed the most famous pool of poetic inspiration – that of Persephone herself – is described as a ‘hazel shaded’.
The legend of the Bucklewell mentions the ‘crumbling masonry’ that can be seen at the back of the cave. I can find no mention anywhere of the well having ever been dedicated to a Christian saint (although John the Baptist would be my guest, the principle action around Bucklewell occurring at the Midsummer’s Day) so I was doubtful of the interpretations of this ‘masonry’ being the remains of a hermitage. After months spent ruminating on theories of shrines, light boxes, sound boxes or foundations for Romano-british statues. I decided to crawl to the back of the cave and check out the crumbling masonry. Several unfortunate encounters with fox-droppings later, Ii found the remains for a small semi-circular structure, the masonry extends into a large crack in the stone roof. Then feeling a little sacrilegious I rolled my back and shone a torch up this crevice. There it was. No not s silver chalice, or even the remains of a chimney from the goddesses’ eternal flame. No, what the torchlight fell upon was a half brick! Along with this were numerous sandstone blocks held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces. The ‘crumbling masonry’ is of post-16th century date, and (of half brick being reused) is probably of, at most, and 18th century date. It looks to me like some sort of hiding place.
The prospects of a time jump from the poetic myth of prehistory to the activities surrounding a busy 18th century port seemed at first like a bit of a let-down. But it turned out to be an exciting period of the place. The port of Bristol was different from other ports in that not only did it lie miles from the ocean, but right in the city centre. Ships were moored a few feet from a labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and houses where illegal imports could disappear quickly – a nightmare for the Customs and Excise.
By the 1750s the port was seriously overcrowded and various plans for redevelopment were put forward. Merchants must have been sweating under their wigs. There was the ever present fear of valuable cargo, having sailed halfway round the world, only to be wrecked on the mud banks of the River Avon. But there was also the terrifying risk of fire sweeping through the ships, laden with gunpowder, moored cheek by jowl right in the heart of the town. The Bristol Merchant Venturers decided to build a magazine, away from the city, at which all incoming vessels could unload their gunpowder before reaching the port. The Powder House , as it was called, was built just on the seaward side of Horseshoe Point. The course of Woodwell Lane was altered to accommodate the magazine and the wall was bullet enclosing the whole plot of land, The Powder House and stretches of the wall survive to this day. Recently part of it, now incorporated in the garden wall, was rebuilt. Having a good poke about, I found the wall was made from sandstone blocks with occasional reused brick, held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces- identical to the masonry in the cave.
I must have occasionally worried the local neighbourhood watch, picking at garden walls with my biro, but so far I’ve not found mortar with the same make-up anywhere in the old village. It seems that the builders employed by the Bristol Merchant Venturers to construct the Powder House used some materials to make a small structure at the back of the cave. Two further stories appear to solve the mystery of the ‘crumbling masonry ‘Sowing the crop’ was the phrase given to a method of smuggling, and involved letting a rope tied with half a dozen ‘ankers’ over the side of the incoming ship. This was done at a prearranged location on the river. The middlemen or smugglers, came along under the cover of darkness in a small boat and retrieved the ankers with a grappling hook. Then he rowed ashore and usually hid the rum along the river bank where it could be collected later.
In 1798 the local Customs and Excise carried out ‘creeping’ exercise along the Hung road stretch of the river. Customs officers dragged the river from boats while their colleagues searched the riverside for their concealed contraband. On this particular ‘creep’ the officers searching the ‘holes and the gullies found 20 ankers of rum. That is I estimate 150 gallons! There is no record of anyone being persecuted as a result of this haul but it could well have put a small smuggling enterprise out of business.
Several years later – so the story goes – a party of local gentry decided to beat the bounds of Westbury Parish. Bucklewell was one of the boundary markers of the Shirehampton tything of Westbury. These people used to send out a couple of farm workers, or ‘pioneers’ as they were called, ahead of the main party to clear a path and find the boundary markers. On the occasion when the pioneers came to Bucklewell, they found an ‘old boat’ in the cave. This was and still is quite astonishing if one considers that the cave is in a heavily wooded cliff, some 40’ above the river at high tide, and 20’ from the cliff top! Astonishingly enough for Bucklewell to become known as the ‘Boat cave’ throughout the 19th century
Now for fear of the story getting around and upsetting the Bristol Merchant Venturer, I leave the reader to draw his or her conclusions about the crumbling masonry at the back of the Bucklewell or Boat Cave. Maybe the smuggling activities in the area led to another legend about the cave, which says that there was hidden treasure buried in the Bucklewell. Or maybe the treasure is the vision of the future, found in the depths of the pool on Midsummer’s Day. For me, the treasure is the glimpses into the past I have had researching the possible history of the Bucklewell.
The lost wells of Bristol – Mother Pugsley’s Well, Cotham
The once much visited well seems to have consisted of two stone basins or cisterns. Water from one was supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially for ailments of the eyes. The other seems to have made a very good pot of tea.
Frederick C. Jones in his The Glory that was Bristol in 1946 suggests that the well may have had another dedication:
“Much speculation must always surround the venerable fountain called Mother (or Dame) Pugsley’s Well which rose amid the daisied turf at Kingsdown. That the well existed long prior to the seventeenth-century is certain, and its feminine appellation has suggested to some students an earlier dedication, possibly Saint Mary, since an ancient title appears to have been “the Virgin’s Well.”
Jones continues by suggesting a ritual approach to those visiting the well:
“the well furnished for many centuries a copious supply of water, it being the custom for substantial citizens to perambulate on summer evenings around the meadows enclosing the two stone-basins, one holding healing water and the other crystal liquid for domestic purposes. Miss Marian Pease informed the writer that she has heard her mother say that when she was a very little child, about 1832/3, living at Union Street, it was a favourite place for the nurses to take “the children there.”
Who was Dame Pusgley?
Pugsley was said to be Royalist officer and he owned or died in the well the field was in but the name may hide a local wise women who lived near the well. F. Nicholls and John Taylor in Volume III of their 1882 Bristol, Past and Present gives greater detail:
“Mrs. Pugsley died August 4th, 1700, aged eighty. Her funeral was according to here directions, and was ‘punctually performed to the admiration and in the view of ten thousand spectators.’ Her body was borne uncoffined on a litter, with a sheet for shroud, preceded by a fiddler playing a sprightly air, and two damsels strewing sweet herbs and flowers, while the bells of St. Nicholas church rung a merry peal. Thus it was carried to a grave in a field adjoining Nine-tree hill. Dame Pugsley was supposed to be the widow of a young soldier killed at the siege of Bristol, 1645, and buried with military honours on Nine-tree hill. His widow wore mourning all her life, and desired to be borne to her grave with demonstrations of joy at their happy reunion. Mother Pugsley’s well is within recent memory. It consisted of two stone basins, one of which contained ‘an infallible remedy for the eyes,’ whilst the other was especially renowned for making tea. She built a hut over the spot where her husband fell and was buried, which gave her name to the field and well. At her death she bequeathed money for a sixpenny loaf and a ninepenny loaf at Easter, and a twopenny loaf on Twelfth-day, to each of the sixteen women inhabiting St. Nicholas’ almshouse. The vulgar supposed her to have been a witch, and they trampled upon her grave. A skull, thought to have been her husband’s, was dug up; it had a bullet hole just above the temple.”
The disappearing well
Mr. F. J. Burt (of Brislington) writing in the Western Press in 1920 remembered that the well situated in a builder’s yard at the top of Nugent Hill, Cotham when he was a child, he recalled drinking the water which had the reputation of being of medicinal value, especially for the eyes.
In January 1845 a local meeting met over the proposal to build Fremantle Square on the site which meant that free access would not be allowed. The meeting was unsuccessful in finding money to support the survival of the rights. Then in 1864, the following statement was made:
“29 July 1864 As regards ‘Mother Pugsley’s well’ it appears that the quantity of water is not large and that in order to render this available for the public use it would be necessary to purchase the property on which the well stands, the cost of the premises and of laying pipes for leading the water would be more than the benefit to accrue therefrom would warrant”
Thus the well was lost. A compromise was the placing of a pump on the site which was recorded as still being extant in 1940.
Its exact location being the boundary wall of 10, Nugent Hill from 2, Clare Road, Cotham. Quinn (199) in his Holy Wells of Bristol and Bath states some evidence of the well head remains but I was unable to discover it. One day it may be recovered.
The Redcliffe Pipe and its walk – a 923 year old tradition
When is a well a holy well? Ruge well in Bristol, may not having any history of healing, association with saints or legends but by its association with the grand church of St. Mary Redcliffe and the continuation a unique tradition makes it a worthy consideration for this blog. The well is one of the few surviving and largely functioning springs which fall between two forms of classification, neither holy (or healing) nor domestic, by its association with the church it could be considered holy and as such I have included such sites in my surveys, but clearly there does not appear to have been anything sacred thought about it. But what is more remarkable is that there remains a surviving custom associated with it which dates back on and off 900 years!
An ongoing gift
The giving of the spring head by a member of the Berkeley family of nearby Berkeley Castle dating back to 1190 is perhaps the only such one surviving. The record reads:
“The Grant by Robert de Berkeley, at the instance of William, Chaplain of the church of St. Mary Redcliffe, to the said Church of the well called Rugewell, which is between his wood and that of Robert de Werve, with free access thereto. With a proviso that the hospital that the hospital of St. John the Baptist, Redcliffe, shall have a pipe as ‘mensuram unius mediocris pollicis’ for carrying water to their building.”
So reads the grant recorded in the Bristol record office dated 1190. What is surprising that not only does this spring still flow towards the church, an annual inspection of the source and pipe continues to this day. This was made possible by Juliana, Robert’s wife who affirmed that ‘the Church and her Ministers were allowed to lead off the stream of the well over the demense lands and lands of the tenants, through fence and enclosure and meadow and pasture by a conduit to the church in perpetuitary However, the first record of the pipe is not until 1552 the pipe gets its first notice when the vestry accounts recorded there is a charge for the purchase for the use of pipe for a house, the rental of which continues for a number of years. When the annual inspection begun is unrecorded but it is assumed to be when the grant was given.
This annual event was not at one point unique in the city, a similar annual inspection was undertaken by the city corporation of the Raven’s Well, also in Knowle and its conduit, called the Temple Conduit. This inspection being paid by an annual Temple fair, whose rowdy reputation, led to its closure and as a result without its annual meal. The Pipe walk similarly was associated with annual meal, although when abandoned is unclear, whatever it did not stop the custom although it is possible that it may have been responsible for its temporary abandonment and revival in 1928 as reported by the Bristol Evening Post. An amusing account from Pipes, pumps and conduits reads:
“Had you passed by the Wells Road on Thursday week, you would have seen a small troup of substantial citizens, walking with their sticks in hand, resolutely bent on a rustic expedition; and had you followed them, they would have led you through the fields about a mile further on, to a farm at Lower Knowle. Here the jolly pilgrims would have come to a standstill at a flat stone, about two feet square, in the centre of some ploughed ground. Presently a couple of plumbers, who accompanied them, raise the stone and disclose down below a deep subterraneous and good sized chamber, which it would require the light of Aladdin’s lamp to explore. There is a good deal of joking amongst the gentlemen as to who shall descend the ladder first, and as you look around and see amongst them several plump worthies, you come to the conclusion that to them ‘the descendent to Avernus’ is not only ‘not easy’ but physically impossible; but there are among them slim gentlemen, whom parish dinners, have not blown out, and these come forward and disappear one by one into the bowels of the earth, leaving their ‘fat friends’ behind, not only loath but unable to quit the warm precincts of the cheerful day.”
The description of the well head indicates that post that date some considerable improvements were made and now the well, enclosed with allotments, is a substantial stone well house. When the door is opened, now a rather ugly metal one, an older chamber is visible in which a considerable flow was visible. However, one is mistaken if thinking that this structure is the true well for a few feet behind it some land hand given way and a deep stone lined conduit could be seen. Beyond this is a circular boggy area where the springs arise. The report states:
“Don’t be afraid to descend the ladder after those who have been hardy enough to get down, and there by the flicker of a lamp and the occasional flash of a lighter cigar, you will see sparkling up from the fissure of the living rock the water of Ruge Well.”
From this spring a pipe line was laid travelling two miles to a tap conduit head near the church. This route has changed little since the 1190s although urbanisation has sprung up to enclose it and now Victorian pipe has replaced whatever medieval structure there was; the route remains fossilised in time. From the spring head the walk takes itself through allotments, much to the bemusement of those tilling it, down narrow lanes, along streets, at certain points, small stone monuments mark the pipe. If you were not looking for them you would miss them! Most vaguely reading SMP. At certain points, most amusingly in the garden of a ‘modern’ house a manhole cover is lifted and the pipe revealed. What is particularly interesting is how the depth of this pipe becomes increasingly greater to where we reach Victoria Park, where a ladder is needed to descend some distance into the earth. At this last one, ceremonies appear to have developed; in early times the walkers would take a refreshing draft from the pipe…not recommended now but probably welcomed then. The other being the bumping of new attendees on the walk, a ritual often associated with boundary walks which was done to ensure the walkers remembered the marks. The above account also suggests other aspects of beating of the bounds were done – the hitting of the markers with ‘their sticks in hand.’ In 1990, when the 900 years of the pipe was celebrated a token walk over the railway line was done here. This is because despite the presence of an underpass and the importance of this main line, walkers arranged for the trains to be stopped so all the walkers could cross. During the 900th walk, a celebration peal of the church was also rang during it and the Bedminster Citadel Band of the Salvation Army played at one of the stopping points.
A water labyrinth
Also in Victoria Park is a delightful and unique fountain head, the result in 1984 of Wessex water needing to build a sewer across Victoria Park where the pipe ran. The resulting labyrinth was created based on one depicted on a boss of St. Mary Redcliffe. The pipe water fills this labyrinth, the water flowing around the pattern. From the Park, under the railway and down Spring Lane, the pipe travelled over Bedminster bridge and up to the church to fill a tank in the church yard and flow from a lion headed pipe over which reads translated from Latin:
“For the health of the soul of Robert Berkeley, who gave to God and the church of St. Mary Redcliffe and its ministers the Rugewell and conduit. AD 1190 Erected.”
Sadly, during the Second World War, the pipe got a direct hit, however in the 1990s, the source of its break was located and now the flow continues, albeit rather rusty looking to the tank behind the fountain head. It has yet to flow from the lion’s mouth. So Bristol’s Pipe and its walk is a curious survival. It survived the Reformation unlike many church related customs, probably became it was not necessarily associated with ritual but function. It survived the 1800s, when similar customs such as the Temple Walk declined. It survived the wars, although I believe it ceased for the First World War. And it continues to survive long after there is any need for its waters. Yet it is a worthy celebration of the importance of water and long may it continue.
A well for July – St. Anne’s Well, Brislington
Now remarkably lying in a green oasis in some of the worst areas of industrialised Bristol is the St. Anne’s Well (ST 621 725). This lies in St Anne’s wood, which was acquired by the Bristol Corporation, and since then very little has been done thankfully to change its situation. The circular brick rounded well, was restored early this century. A suitable inscription reads:
“Wishing well, St Anne’s Well. This Holy Well was associated with the chapel of St Anne, which stood about 300yards to the NW; throughout the Middle Ages , pilgrims were made here, and especially by the sailors of Bristol, Henry VII. Visited this spot in state in 1485, and hither his Queen came in 1502.”
“The Chapel, dating from about 1392 was destroyed with Keynsham Abbey, to which it belonged, in 1539 by Henry VIII.”
William Worcester described the chapel as:
“58ft by 80ft high, with colossal square candles, renewed yearly at the Pentecost, that touched the roof nearly at the roof and cost £ 5 each. Thirteen others burnt before the image of St Anne. There were also 32 models of ships and boats, 20 shillings each, for receiving and containing offerings and sometimes to burn incense in .”
It was founded by a certain Lord de la Warr, of Brislington. One can say without doubt that the pilgrims, many of the important, must have contributed greatly to the coffers of Keynesham Abbey. A typical entry is shown in the Duke of Buckingham (1502) diary:
“ My Lord’s and my young Lady’s oblation to St Anne in the wood, seven shillings and four pence.”
The chapel was controlled by a custodian or warden. One particular individual is remembered in the Keynesham church. It reads:
“Hic Jacit Walternus Jose canonicus nuper custos capelle Sancti Anne in the Wode cujus animo propicietur alissum amen.”
From 1635-1800 the chapel was used as a pottery works when it was demolished. In 1889 action was brought about concerning a public right of way through the wood and passing the well. This footpath had been used for centuries for passing to St Anne’s Ferry, and to make pilgrimage to well and chapel. This is referred by Leland in 1542:
“At two miles above Bristow was a commune trajectus by bote (ferry boat) where was a chapel of St Anne on the same side of the Avon that Bath standeth on , and here was great Pilgrimage to St Anne.”
Interestingly none of these authors directly make reference to the well and authorities such as Harte (2008) in a magnus opus question that there was ever a holy well. This may be so, certainly the recorded history of St Anne’s Chapel being much greater than that of this well, which does not get mentioned until the 1880s, when Morris (1885) who discusses ‘the Shrine Well of St Anne’s-in-the-Wood, Brislington’. The well becoming at this time a place of pilgrimage by local Catholics who perhaps replaced the chapel as it was no longer possible to re-build or even trace its remains with the well. Indeed, it may be when as Hope (1893) notes a Father Grant cleared out the well in 1878 and found:
“some coins were found in this well… 1. Half groat, Edw.IV; 2. An abbey token; 3. A half groat, Hen.VII; 4. A Portuguese coin; 5. A reckon-penny or counter.”
By the time Hope (1893) refers to this he states that:
“The water of this well was formerly considered good for affectations of the eye”.
Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells monologue reports that the well:
“has been cleaned out to a depth of twenty feet, and the stone work at its sides is in perfect condition. The spring enters the well about six inches from the bottom, on the north side.”
According to Jones (1946) in his The Glory That Was Bristol, states that by the turn of 1900s the well was ruined again who adds:
“The writer as a boy often visited the well taking away, with others, the water for the bathing of weak eyes. Its water is used to-day for weak eyes, rheumatism, and blood impurity. “Johnny Onion Men” from Brittany made annual pilgrimages to the well till recent years… The writer commenced in 1920 a movement for the restoration of the Well”
This also resulted in the woods containing the well being given to Bristol Corporation to allow continued access to the site. Winchester (1986) in St Anne’s, Bristol: A History,, notes that:
“in front were five large stepping stones, said to be Holy Stones. The Stones were very old and worn, with deep impressions made by hundreds of feet. They were removed in 1924 but replaced… In 1926, the City of Bristol had the well covered with a picturesque canopy and surrounded by a protective wall… Few people lived in the area, but I do not think that any child passed the well without standing on the stepping stones and stirring the waters with a twig, hoping to find Queen Anne’s ring!”
Another account records that the Cordwainers:
“In May, 1939, members of the Guild with their friends and distinguished visitors made a pilgrimage to the “Holy Well” in St Anne’s Wood. They were led by the sheriff of Bristol, Colonel Lennard, who was a cordwainer.”
The fortunes of the well and its pilgrimage over the last 90 or so years have been mixed. In the 1920s a circular well was constructed with a conical tiled roof. However, the well has gone through several stages of neglect. Winchester (1986) records in 1975 that rubble filled the well with a metal disc cover over it but a local holy wells pagan group, The Source set about restoring the site and created a new circular well chamber and a statue of St. Anne, although this statue now lays prostrate. They also established a regular visit to the well. Currently, a theatre group enacting the characters of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York for a mile long community walk to the well with readings at it on the Sunday closest to the saint’s day following the ancient route.
More can be found out here, with some excellent photos and illustrations http://brislingtonarchaeology.org.uk/projects/st_anne/index.html
and https://www.facebook.com/events/133809176814235/ for the events
Copyright Pixyledpublications. Happy for photos to be used on amateur websites/blogs but please give attribution to this website. Thanks
Visiting the wells at Midsummer – a lost holy well custom.
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.