Category Archives: Devon

Guest blog post: Walking Between Worlds – a Secret Little Book of Devon’s Ancient and Holy Wells by Alex Atherton

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The third post is from Devon artist Alex Atherton, who has recently authored a delightful book which takes Devon’s beautiful wells weaving her artistic magic to draw the reader in. In this guest blog she explains how she became entranced by holy wells!

Often forgotten, occasionally neglected and mostly overlooked by visitors and locals alike, Devon’s beautiful and magical ancient and holy wells are worth just as much attention as those in other counties that are perhaps more well known. Indeed, many people are surprised to learn that Devon has such a rich and diverse well heritage, even though they may live close to and walk past local examples every day of their lives. And before I embarked on this project, I was one of these people – unaware that I regularly drove past at least two examples on the lanes around my home on Dartmoor, like Druids Well near Chagford (see drawing).

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The inspiration for this project came initially from an encounter with an ancient spring at Lydford whilst working on another art project early in 2015. Little did I realise at the time that this chance discovery would be the start of an enchanting journey that took me to some of the most remote, beautiful and hidden corners of Devon in search of its ancient and holy wells.

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As an artist living on Dartmoor, I normally paint landscapes in oils that capture the many moods of the moor. But my growing curiosity about Devon’s wells presented me with an exciting new challenge, and provided an opportunity for me to explore the world of pen drawing. Initially, I saw these drawings very much as a personal project, but as I continued on my journey of discovery, and produced more and more drawings, the idea of publishing a ‘secret little book’ started to take shape.

With a copy of Terry Faull’s ‘Secrets of the Hidden Source’ in one hand and my sketchbook in the other, I travelled the length and breadth of the county on a personal pilgrimage, descending through dark, narrow paths in shaded woodlands, scrambling down steep paths alongside coastal cliffs, carefully negotiating boggy fields and quietly searching the back lanes of peaceful villages.

Many of the wells are associated with local legends. When the Devil arrived in Widecombe one day, so the story goes, the locals gave him water to drink from Saxon’s Well, just outside the village centre. The water burned as he swallowed and with his wrath he brought down the church steeple. When Joseph of Arimathea tapped the ground near the Exmoor coast with his staff, water sprang up from the earth – and today an imposing 19th century structure marks the site deep in the oak woodland.

Others were highly regarded in the past for their healing properties. The three distinct troughs at Leechwell in Totnes may offer you relief from skin problems, snake bites and disorders of the spirit, if you know which is which of course!

It was hard not to be moved by some of the structures that I came across and their setting. For example, Fice’s Well is a wonderful structure, but its stark location on the bleak moor left me with a feeling of loneliness and a sense of regret leaving it behind.

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 Sometimes I would find a hidden jewel where I least expected it. This was particularly true of Cathedral Well at St James Park railway station, Exeter. When I visited the area late on a winter Sunday afternoon, there was a remarkable peace despite its urban address, helped by the quiet and nostalgic railway-side allotments opposite the sadly bricked-up well building.

It seemed on occasion that some wells just did not want me to find them! The first time I travelled to see the haunting Eyewell on the coast path at Morte Point I was defeated by failing light as the sun set; the second time I was turned away by gale-force winds and lashing rain. Only on the third attempt did I manage to reach this enigmatic and moss-drenched well!

 

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I have cherry-picked 40 of the most enchanting little structures for the book and I hope these captivating places entrance readers as they have entranced me, and that the illustrations will inspire others to seek out the county’s well heritage so that they too might discover what it is like to walk between worlds…

 

Further details about the book and how to obtain it can be found on my website at http://www.alexatherton.co.uk.

The wells of St. Nectan, Hartland Devonshire

St_Nectan's_Well,_Welcombe_-_geograph_org_uk_-_75518Speak of St Nectan and often his glen is recalled amongst those interested in water lore, however if we travel in the neighbouring Cornwall two possibly more significant and ancient sites can be found where he is the patron saint.

Who was St. Nectan?

It is not exactly clear who he was. A 6th Century Welshmen or Irishmen. We know through his Vita that he was a hermit and subsequent martyr, who may have been related to the chieftan Brychan from which many saints claimed descendency, one of 24 children. Possibly a native of Wales or Ireland, he is best known through legends. He lived as a hermit in Devonshire, England, founding churches there and in Cornwall, England.

A 12th century Gothan manuscript notes that as a hermit he lived in a remote valley near a spring. He is said to have been helpful in recovering a swineherder’s pigs and once had to convert from thieves of his cows. However, other robbers murdered him, of which more in a moment, and where his blood was spilled, foxgloves grew. His murderer is said to have driven made. Even after his death, he is said to have cured a boy of the plague and helped King Athelstan at the 937 Battle of Brunanburgh. His cult continued to be popular throughout the middle ages.

St Nectan’s Well, Welcombe

Easily found by the roadside just over the Devon boarder is this small stone well house which was restored around 1899 according to Baring-Gould. The spring fills a small stone trough, but any legends and traditions associated with the site are unrecorded, although it was used for baptism. There is a little niche above the doorway which often has an icon but may have originally been constructed for a candle. Of course this was probably the well of Welcombe of which record is made in King Alfred’s Will of 881 AD and as such is probably the oldest holy well in the county.

St Nectan’s Well, Hartland

This is perhaps the best recorded of the two local St. Nectan’s Wells. It is a similar stone well house except with an more pronounced pitch roof covers this spring although its source is often kept locked by two wooden doors and a grill. It is difficult to work out the age of the structure but it may only be a few hundred years old. However, this is probably the oldest surviving site in the country. There is evidence of a 7th century Celtic monastery at the site and indeed this survived until the Reformation

This well is associated with a number of legend. It is said that when attacked by robbers, his head was struck off and he picked it up and walked to this site, although another site claims that story. An alternative story is that a spring arose where the head fell – a common motif.

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Another unrelated piece of folklore, perhaps dating back to its pre-Christian origins is also told. It is said that the Lord of the Manor asked for some water from the well and it was collected in a large pot. However, the water proved impossible to boil despite the amount of fuel used. Hearing the problems, the Lord informed the servants that she look into the pot and see a giant eel. The eel was taken back to the well and released and subsequently the pot began to boil. Another common motif which suggests the existence of a protective spirit of the well. Sadly with the door often locked it is difficult to look for.

The water was used for baptisms by the church and was associated with a charming custom of which information is difficult to find out. On the saint’s main feast day, the 17th June, local children would process from the church carrying foxgloves and lay them at the well. One presumes that some sort of service was done at the well as well. When this ceased is unclear but certainly in the early 2000s as the picture above may show the remains of the custom. It is shame that such a delightful custom has died out and it seems very appropriate to mark such an important site with such ceremony.

GUEST BLOG POST Terry Faull’s Can there be a new Holy Well? Lewtrenchard and its holy well

It’s a great pleasure once again to introduce a guest blogger. Terry Faull is a well known Devon based landscape historian, he has researched and investigated the origins of the Christians, in what is now Devon and Cornwall, for many years. His book Secrets of the Hidden Source is an excellent and long overdue look at the Holy Wells in Devon. Highly recommended!

Much holy well research in Britain seems, quite understandably, to concentrate on evidence for the historical origins of  the well. This is done by seeking documentary, place name,local tradition,topographical or religious associations which can help establish a point in time why and when it became “holy”. There is little archaeological evidence to support the still popular view that many holy wells originated as pagan cult sites which were “Christianised”  perhaps by Celtic Saints or the later church of Augustine of Canterbury. However, votive offerings found at many early water cult sites do demonstrate the significance of some primary water sources to pagan people and the proximity of many wells to church buildings is evidence of their onetime importance to  Christians. The medieval church sought to exercise control over popular spirituality and many  celebrated  holy wells can trace their development from a time when the church acted to demonstrate its authority with a willingness to benefit from gifts left by pious pilgrims.

I suggest that above all, a holy well must have its heart, a belief ancient or modern, that here is to be found something “other”, a sense of place or feeling which, for some at least, provides a possibility of experience beyond the everyday. Perhaps the apocryphal Celtic “Thin Place between this world and the Other world” is after all the best description we can offer.

Many spiritual ideologies  accept the concept of continuing revelation and  provide one possible underpinning for identification of a holy well which does nor rely only on historical authenticity. I am fortunate to live quite close to such a place-the holy well at Lewtrenchard in Devon. In 1830 the curate there wrote in the parish register  the holy well behind the church has been re-erected and formerly its water was used for the font”. Some 80 years later, just before the outbreak of the First World War,  the antiquarian vicar Sabine Baring-Gould  developed a pleasure garden around the well site and he rebuilt the wellhouse. This was part of a plan to help restore the health of his crippled wife by encouraging her to walk in the fresh air. Baring -Gould had a great interest in holy wells and  his diaries record  visits to a number including to the well and church at St Clether where he gave money for the restoration of the  buildings.

Much holy well research in Britain seems, quite understandably, to concentrate on evidence for the historical origins of  the well. This is done by seeking documentary, place name,local tradition,topographical or religious associations which can help establish a point in time why and when it became “holy”. There is little archaeological evidence to support the still popular view that many holy wells originated as pagan cult sites which were “Christianised”  perhaps by Celtic Saints or the later church of Augustine of Canterbury. However, votive offerings found at many early water cult sites do demonstrate the significance of some primary water sources to pagan people and the proximity of many wells to church buildings is evidence of their onetime importance to  Christians. The medieval church sought to exercise control over popular spirituality and many  celebrated  holy wells can trace their development from a time when the church acted to demonstrate its authority with a willingness to benefit from gifts left by pious pilgrims.

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Baring-Gould knew that the identity of the original patron saint of his own church at Lewtrenchard was unknown and he believed it may have orginally been dedicated to that foremost of West Country saints, St.Petroc. Some credence to this view arises from the fact that since at least 1261, Petroc has been the patron saint of the church of  nearby Lydford which had been one of the frontier burghs established by King Alfred. In 1928, soon after Baring-Gould’s death, his ornate structure  by then called St. Petroc’s well, was  moved  to form a centre piece of an ornamental garden at the vicarage; it is this wellhouse in a garden setting which is an English Heritage listed building.

The  original location of the well and its surrounding garden behind the church were forgotten and then lost.  In recent years, through a process of exploration, dowsing and research, the site  has  been rediscovered and it now forms a focus of a woodland walk around Baring- Gould’s forgotten pleasure garden. In 2013 a new wellhouse was erected on what were believed to be the original foundations.

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What makes a water source a  “holy well” is a matter of ongoing debate and interpretation. However I have no qualms in agreeing with Baring-Gould, that at Lewtrenchard there is indeed  a holy well; this relies not on any  established ancient origin but on the sense of the place itself. The full story can be found at http://www.forgottengarden.co.uk     If you are ever close by, do please visit our “new” Holy Well.

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Terry’s excellent book is still available through Amazon although his website is in archive form it is still available here

http://web.archive.org/web/20090627181846/http://holywells.com/index.html

 

Terry Faull August 2014

Between the sow and its piglets…St Brannoc’s Well, Braunston, Devon

 

“I forbear to speak of his cow, his staff, his oak, his well, and his servant Abel; all of which are lively represented in a glass window of that church”

So reads Tristram Risdon’s 17th century The Chorographical Description or Survey of the County of Devon. St Brannock, a Welsh saint, was first noted in the 9th century, as Brynach the Goidel. He is famously noted as the quote above states for the positioning of the chapel according to a sow and her piglets.

It is said that when he returned from a pilgrimage to Rome, landed first in Wales, then crossed to what is now Braunton Burrows, the district and founded indirectly the town of Braunston by erecting a chapel beside a spring.  This chapel first mentioned by churchwardens’accounts for 1562and 1568 and apparently was still extant. However, by the 18th century it was ruined and described as ‘the shell of the chapel of St Brannock’ by the 19th century.

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St Brannoc’s Church seen beside his well. Source Wikimedia

The restoration.

An account in the Catholic Herald in the 1958 a Catholic church was to be built at the site:

“WITH the approval of the Bishop of Plymouth, a scheme due to the pious initiative of Lt.-Colonel and Mrs. Incledon-Webber, of St. Brannock’s, Braunton, in North Devon, has been launched for the restoration of the chapel and holy well dedicated from time immemorial to St. Brannock, the sixth-century apostle of the district. The plans for the new chapel have been prepared by Mr. Joseph E. Walter, of Paignton, and approved by the Barnstaple R.D.C. The work was actually started in mid-August, with the cleaning up of the well and the levelling of the site. A small section of the old chapel has been preserved and will remain standing close by the new building, which will be considerably larger than the former one. The purpose of this restoration is not merely antiquarian, but is meant to provide the Catholics of the village and neighbourhood with an inspiring place of worship….The foundation stone was laid on October 29th by the Bishop of Plymouth, and it is hoped that the inauguration may take place before Easter 1958.”

They note:

“At the restoration of the chapel the well was cleared of the accumulated rubbish of years and once more is filled with crystal clear water”

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The large circular well chamber with the grotto over looking. Source Wikimedia

The chapel was indeed built and consecrated in 1978. The well was restored and consists of a large stone lined pool which sits beneath a steep rocky hillside inside of which is a niche for a statue of Our Lady. The springs that fill the pool arise further up the hill and flow or rather trickle down the rocky escarpment to fill the spring. Thompson and Thompson (2001) in The Water of Life state that one the springs, which which flows down a small channel, taste bitter, suggesting a mineral origin.The size and nature of this well is quite curious and substantial. One wonders how much of it dates from the 1950s restoration and how much from a medieval or even pre-Medieval origin. The site appears to be a baptism site but of course this may be coincidental. All in all, a delightful site hidden away from the hustle and bustle of Barnstaple!

The veneration of water in 12 objects…number one the clootie

Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests. 

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Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if  I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.

Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.

As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).

It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:

“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.

Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.

The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag  Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record.  Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:

“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”

Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:

“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”

An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner  which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that

they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts.

Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:

 “twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.

Bogg (1892) refers to it as:

 “St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.

The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:

“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.

In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.

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This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.

An ancient tradition?

The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.

 A modern tradition

Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:

“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.

And so it continues.  Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!

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A cold draught…the holy wells of Nova Scotia

truroholywellI recently picked up a postcard which had a circular arched holy well which had carved across the arch Holy Well. It appeared to resemble sites found Cornwall and Devon, indeed it had Truro as its location. I was unaware of such a site in the Cornish capital and I had never heard of a Victoria Park in the town too. However, searching on the internet it revealed itself to be in Nova Scotia and such I was intrigued to find out more.

The Acadian influence

The Acadians is the name of the French colonists who settled in Canada in the 1600s around Nova Scotia in a separate colony from those of Quebec put were expelled from the region after the British conquest in the 1710. They clearly brought with them their traditions and customs and finding themselves in need of true holy well blessed this spring.

Confused tradition

Local legend states that the well was blessed by Celtic saint. This obviously is a little paradoxical to say the least as we are several 1000 miles from the Celtic homeland. It is more likely that the Celtic wells were used to explain the dedication, with an obvious Breton association, unless of course the site claims a connection with the legend of St. Brendan. Nevertheless, the site was used to baptise infants and as a wishing well.

The site today

The Victoria Park website refers to the holy well as a replica of one on Bible hill. There is still a Holy Well Park Bible hill is there a holy well there? The question being does the original survive? I have yet to discover the answer. The site itself looks old, sitting below the rock face and reached by a small number of steps. Sadly a cover is now placed over its entrance which appears to prevent access to the water.

Other holy wells

 Research reveals other holy wells in the country and the author would be keen on hearing about more. In the park itself there is an interesting spring called the Brandy spring, so named because soldiers in the Fenian raids kept their bottles cool there. It was until recently used by locals as drinking water. One holy well is associated with the legend of Oak Island and another at Point Pleasant Park Halifax, although other than having clear water I have been unable to find more information.

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More interestingly is St. Patrick’s Well, Mount St. Patrick, Ontario an area colonised by Irish Catholics.  It is said that a Father McCormack was responsible for the holy well in 1869 after finding the spring and blessing it in the Irish tradition. As can be seen from these photos from waymarking.com the spring arises in a square deep well associated with an altar with iconography in the enclosed whitewashed wooden building with blue roof. It is pleasing to see that the European holy well tradition manifested itself in the far reaches of their colonies and surely there are more wells to discover..if anyone knows of any such I would be interested to hear of more.

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