Category Archives: Dorset

In the shadow of a giant…St. Augustine’s Well of Cerne

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“Augustine and his worthy companions were wandering through an empty land, where no water was. Heat and drought and weariness weighed on them… True, Augustine had drunk too copiously of that sweet well which flows to eternal life for him to hanker after those earthly wells where those who drink will thirst again; nor did he take much pains for the food that decays, being nourished instead by that which endures in life eternal… But then he thought how good it would be for the land to be flooded by the goodness of heaven, sparkling with the true spring of life. He fixed his staff in the ground, and when he drew it forth, out surged a stream of pure water. All gave praise to God as they tasted of these waters, and drank till they were satisfied. This is the spring which today feeds many streams, so that a district which was once barren is now thickly populated”.

Shorter Life of St Augustine by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, around 1090

A later legend states:

“T”.he shepherds complained to him that there was neither water nor beer. So he asked them whether they would like water or beer. They answered “Water”. He then struck the ground and lo! water appeared

Both accounts states the legend which explains Dorset’s most famous holy well. A holy well which as an ancient site, is much overlooked by the swarms of tourists visiting the famous Giant and deserves to be better known. Goscelin notes further that:

one of the brethren at Cerne Abbey was a parish priest, whose business it was to celebrate the sacred mysteries for the laity. He was worn down by such weakness that he was given up for dead. The onset of night, and of exhaustion, brought some sleep to the poor wretch. Then, in his sleep, he saw the merciful figure of Augustine standing before him, in archbishop’s vestments, shining with bright embroidery. He spoke to the trembling invalid, putting him at his ease with kindly words, and told him to get up and go to St Augustine’s well. When he got there, he was to say the fiftieth psalm three times over with true devotion, and three times, after each psalm, he was to dip himself in the well and wash in its waters. Do this, he said, and you will be restored to life and health. And you can be sure that it is I, Augustine himself, who is telling you to repair to my spring. Now comes the miracle! The priest awoke immediately, and half-dead as he was, he threw himself out of bed. Leaning on a stick, he hobbled off to take the bath as instructed. The men of the infirmary thought he had lost his wits with the onset of death. They tiptoed after him, making no attempt to stop the man, but wondering where he was heading. The sick man bathed himself with a threefold washing in the waters of the well, saying the psalm three times, as he had been told to. And, so rapid was the remedy of his holy doctor, that the man who had set out as an invalid went home again healthy, snatched from the jaws of death”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

The well survived the dissolution of the Abbey it was associated with as John Gerald notes in 1625 in his Survey of Dorsetshire:

“His Well you may see at this Daye in the Abbie Church Yarde, heretofore covered with a Chappell dedicated to St Augustine, and from him likewise was it called St Augustine’s Well”.

It is interesting to note that it was covered with a Chappell which may refer to a traditional building akin to something like St. Winifred’s Well (but probably no where as grand!) or a well house, which is more likely. Whichever it is, the site no longer covered by any construction and consists of a spring filled channel associated with an upright stone with a circular cross upon it.

What’s in a name?

It would be apparent that by the late 1700s it was in need of repair as churchwardens’ accounts of 1761, refers to a payment of £1 5s for:

 ‘John Thorne’s Bill for work about St Paston’s Well’.

Paston’s corruption form of St Augustine’s Well no doubt! However, some confusion has arisen concerning a supposed second name – Silver Well. However, this name may record a second site located at Stockwood which has an alternative name of St. Edwold and the too not the same.

A wishing and curative well

“if anyone looks into St Austin’s Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year”.

St Augustine’s Well for some unknown reason has collected its fair share of folklore. In recent years it has even become a rag well! Moule (1888) in his ‘Dorset folk-lore’ in the Folk-Lore Journal states that:

“folks hold to the belief that St Austin’s Well… still works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring”.

In another copy of Folk-Lore, March (1899) in this ‘Dorset folk-lore collected in 1897’, is informed that:

“a man now living, named Vincent, aged fifty-five years, had a crippled child. Every morning, for several months together, Vincent carried his child, wrapped in a blanket, to St Austin’s Well, and dipped it into the well, and at last it was cured. Sore eyes are healed by bathing them, and feeble health is restored by drinking curative. A farmer used to go down to this well every morning and drink a tumblerful of the water.”

To obtain a wish an unusual ritual was developed. Hall (1925) in their Concerning Cerne notes that:

“The prescribed usages for “wishing”. Pluck a laurel leaf – there will be one handy – fold it into a cup, fill it from the spring, then standing on the little parapet, face the Church, drink, and before swallowing the water, make a secret wish”.

Interestingly, in Dacombe’s 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along she records the strangest piece of folklore that: 

 “There are eleven trees on the way to the well, representing the eleven apostles – only eleven, because Judas betrayed our Lord”

Udal (1922) associated the well with a spring in the parish were babies could be cured if dipped in at sunrise, however this may be another site. All in all a very rich site for legends and folklore. A few moments here has a peaceful nature to it and to be highly recommended…after all it even has a seat.

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

Before I begin….firstly belated happy new year…I’ve added some changes this month.

Secondly, some changes. Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the cloottie. As the title suggests. 

I’m also adding a book review section as well. 

 

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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.

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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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. Johns  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.

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A Dorset field trip: some holy and healing wells of Dorset

Dorset is a rich county for holy well and healing spring explorers, many years ago I did some field work there. These are some of my notes.

St Candida’s or St. Wite’s Well, Morecombelake

Long overgrown and forgotten, this is a significant site associated as it is with one of the few surviving church shrines which has both foramina (holes for closer contact to the relics) and presence of the saint. Much has been discussed over the origins of saint, who is generally called St. Wite, but is more likely to be a local saint who probably utilised the spring. This is emphasised by a report by a traveller in the 17th century who recorded:
“St. White the Virgin Martyr, whose well the inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation.”
Its waters were used for eye complaints and today the spring is clear and flowing. Christine Waters in her book Who was St. Wite? (1980) states:

“After venerating the shrine, our pilgrim made his way to the saint’s well, about a mile away at Morcombelake. The waters of St. Wite’s Well enjoyed a reputation as late as the 1930’s as being “a sovereign cure for sore eyes”. They were said to be most efficacious when the sun’s first rays lit upon them. Sore eyes, were of course, a constant source of discomfort to medieval man, living as he did in low cottages from which the smoke did not escape properly. Lead holy water bottles or “ampullae” were filled here and taken home for later applications.

The wild periwinkles that carpet nearby Stonebarrow Hill every spring, are still known locally as “St. Candida’s Eyes.”

It flows into what is possibly one of the smallest stone basins I have ever seen for a springhead and it is not surprising that it was lost for many years! The survival of the site is secured as this one of the few holy wells on National Trust land.

Holy Well, Hermitage

Little appears to be known of this well but its name is significant deriving as it does from probably from a hermit long forgotten who probably used the spring. It is known that Augustian Friars established a community here in the 14th century. One assumes the well is dedicated to Our Lady as the church is called St Mary’s. It is interesting that a local place was called Remedy on the old maps. The well fills a stone chamber by the edge of the wood above the church.

Leper’s Well, Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis has much commend itself and it also claims in a public path close to a footpath a quite substantial well. This is the Leper well which is so called in its association with a leper hospital dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The water arises beneath a mossy and algae covered arch and flows into a rectangular basin. This may be the same as St. Andrew’s Well associated with a chapel in the town of the same name. This well is mentioned in a number of medieval documents

St Edward’s the Martyr’s well, Corfe

One cannot fail to miss the grand ruins of this mighty fortess, now despite being broken and breached its very position as a sentinel to the picturesque Corfe it remains the iconic and impressive place. What is easier to miss and less well known is the well which lies within the ruins.
The story tells that here the body of the Saxon boy king who reigned from 975, after the death of his father Edgar. Although he was the eldest he was not officially recognised and this issue appears to have precipitated his demise, being thrown down this well in 978. Who planned the murder is unclear, history has always accused the mother of Ethelred the Unready, Aelfhryth Edward’s step mother, as she had more to gain. When the deed was revealed, by a pillar of fire from heaven, and the body retrieved it was found to be incorruptible and was enshrined with great grandeur first at Wareham and then at nearby Shaftesbury Abbey. The water thereafter was thought to be curative and was particularly good for eye complaints and the ague.
When I visited there was no sign of water and all there was to mark it was a depression. Whether this is the exact well or not is of course unclear the date of the indeed long predates the ruins. It is possible that the story hides some pagan motif and so is its similarity to that of St. Kenelem is interesting.
It is interesting to note that the church also dedicated to the saint had a well dressing ceremony in 2008.

Happy Birthday Blog..Let’s look at the legends concerning the birth of holy wells

As it’s the first year anniversary, it is time to reflect upon the how holy springs are  born. There appear to be four ways in which holy men and women has caused springs to be created. Perhaps the most easily explained in view of modern science is that miracle associated with St. Thomas a Beckett at Otford or St Augustine in Kent and Dorset, where they struck their staffs into the ground or a rock and caused a spring to arise. A story which of course arises in relation to the work of Moses,  who supplied water for the Israelites in Exodus. Indeed, it appears to have been done as a claim of holiness as seen by Sir John Shorne in North Marston (Buckinghamshire). Some modern day antiquarians may relate their actions to that of dowsers, but a little bit of local knowledge of hydrology would help!

Sometimes like that of Holy Well bay (Cornwall), St. Ive’s Well (Huntingdonshire) or St. Winchombe (Gloucestershire), a spring arose when the body was disinterred and rested. This again makes some logical sense for one would expect that digging a body in some geological areas could possibly hit ground water, the junction between two rock types being likely. When arising from the resting of a body is slightly more problematic, but one would expect in a journey fraught with thieves, wolves, bears and all sorts of hazards the body may have been temporarily interred to prevent loss, especially as journeys being done on foot.

Often there is a gruesome origin to springs. St Alban’s Well in St Albans came about after the saint was decapitated by the pagan Romans and at his martyrdom, his head rolled down and where it rested a spring formed. This is one version of the legend, a story repeated in the more famous perhaps St. Winifred’s well.  This is a more problematic origin and perhaps again links the idea of temporary disinterment.

Certainly, the construction of a hollow may explain how St Morwena’s well arose in Morwenstowe (Cornwall). It is said that the saint journeyed to find a stone for the font and fell asleep here and a well arose. This resulted in the well being used as the location of the church.