Category Archives: Fairies
Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
Sometimes mysterious creatures at wells and springs have mysterious origins and perhaps one of the most mysterious is Nanny Rutt, who is associated with an artesian well in Math Wood near Bourne, Lincolnshire.
The story tells of a young girl who arranges to meet her lover in the wood and sets out early in the evening and meets an old woman wrapped in a shawl which obscures her face. She warns of the dangers of the wood at night as well as why she should not elope without knowledge of her parents. She ignores this advice and reaches the well where she has arranged to meet her lover. Waiting for a long time she realises her lover is not going to come and it has become very late. With tears in her eyes she becomes hopelessly lost and stumbles upon an overgrown stone house in a clearing and there in its doorway is the old woman who’s face is revealed it the moonlight to be hideous. As the girl runs, the old woman’s shadow paralyses her and her throat becomes so dry she is unable to scream and is never seen again.
How old is it?
An interesting legend, who apart from the name of the Old women is very modern and resembles an ‘urban legend’. What is unclear is why there is a well included. Does this suggest that at some point it had a greater role? Did Nanny Rutt haunt the well? Was she another Jenny Greenteeth? Did the girl actually drown in the well?
Its origin is equally mysterious, neither the authors Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in their Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, Volume 5 or Ethel Rudkin in her Lincolnshire folklore , both very thorough folklore collectors in the turn of the last century
According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest reference is 1920s, but the name Rutt is possibly very old deriving O.F rut the same origin as Latin rugitus both meaning ‘sexual drive’ and perhaps suggest a greater date. The contributor notes:
“It may be possible to suggest an explanation for the story of the disappearance. Perhaps at some date a girl took her developing sexuality into Math wood, met someone who complemented it and was soon taken off to a home for un-married mothers never to return to Northorpe. An explanation was required for the other young people and at a time of reticence about sexuality, Nanny Rutt was invented. If this happened when the use of the French language in England was remembered, the story is medieval. Nanny Rutt could also be based on a real woman who once lived in the wood”
Rutt could also reference rutting or a goat both again very sexualised! Nanny is a common name for a fairy character but equally for someone who might offer baby sitting!
Although the woods still exist I could find any evidence of a well on the 1880 O/S or current map, and according to my correspondence with local historian Rex Needle, he believed the whole story is made up, but when, why and by who and more importantly why include a well, name it after the main character, but do not explain why. In all it is a very confused story. Even more confusing is that since including the well in my work on Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire the well is included in a geocache! Does it exist then?
Japan is a spiritual place. One of many sacred places. The majority of these being associated with the Shinto faith. Water is protected by the Suijin, a type of kami or Shinto spirit. These creatures were believed to be either serpents, eels or kappa . Women in the Shinto society were thought to be able commune with the Suijin and across Japan there are a number of sacred springs.
One important Shinto site is Mount Fuji which is doted with shrines or Akagami. In the grounds of the main one, Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is a the sacred water of Mt Fuji said to have considerable healing properties. At the Goshado Shrine is the Sugatami-no Ido, or the Well of Full-Length Mirror, which is supposed to reflect the person’s remaining days who looks into the well. If no reflection is seen the person will die in three years!
A feature of the temples are the purification pools, or Mitarashi-no Ike, or ‘Holy Washing Pond’ Local legend states that at the one on Mount Hakusan that it is still haunted by mountain spirits and that it was formed in a single night, and through the years it has never run dry, even when the region was struck by droughts. At the Kashima Shrine, it is said that whether tall or short, the pond will have the same depth!
Japan’s other main religion is Buddhism and this too has it sacred water sources. The Daishi-do temple is set into the cliff of the Goishizan mountain. Dedicated to Shingon Buddhist founder Kobo Daishi. It is here that a spring can be found. Local legend tells us that Kobo Daishi formed it by hitting the ground with his staff. Beside the spring is a figure of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened figure. What is interesting is that the area of Dounzan is especially sacred during the Summer Solstice because an image of Kannon appears on the rock said to caused by the light.
Of course Japan is particularly famed for its Onsen or Hot Springs, which are distributed widely across the country
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
The small village of Trellech provides much to excite the antiquarian. Its curiosities being forever immortalised in the 17th century sundial in the church. The most obvious is the Tump Turret, a large mound once a Norman motte and bailey castle. However, a local myth states that this was the burial mound in a battle between Harold Godwinson and the opposing Welsh in Gwent in 1063. This claim is also given to three large conglomerate stone monoliths. Here folklore states that three chieftains fell in that battle with Harold. Another theory is that they were arranged to indicate local springs and that is significant in consideration of the village’s most famed site – St Anne’s or the Virtuous Well.
The springhead arises in a horseshoe shaped stone built well enclosure. Stone benches are set up either side along the curved walls of a small paved courtyard. The spring arises in the arched recess through a stone basin. There are two squared niches in the rear wall which may have been used to place offerings. Although the stone work is medieval in date it has gone through periods of dereliction as noted by 19th century writer W. H. Thomas described it as ‘neglected fountain’ and the owner needed to ‘cleanse out its channels and invite guests to a festival of health’ as well as ‘rebuild its ruined walls’. Sir Joseph Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (1913) shows the walls overgrown, soil virtually reaching the wall and the central forecourt flooded. It was fortunately the advice was headed and it was restored, the last time fully in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. A local legend claims that the water is connected to Tintern Abbey by a three mile tunnel, but this is more likely a confusion between the discovery of drainage channels and the knowledge that the Abbey owned property in the area.
Although not apparent today, the spring is a chalybeate one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and according to Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709)
‘very medicinall to such as to have the scurvy, collick and distempers’
and ‘complaints peculiar to women’. These wide range of powers owed it the name the Virtuous Well, a convenient name to re-focus from any popish reflections. Furthermore the spring is one of the traditional locations for the hanging of cloutties, which dipped in the water and rubbed on the skin, took away the affliction as it rotted on the trees around. Cloutties are the only evidence today of veneration at this site regularly seen however there were none there when I visited last in a snowy January.
The commonest form of well-wishing here was that by throwing a stone into the water, a maiden could find out by the number of bubbles how many months it would take to be married. Other folk would throw a stone which by the number of bubbles rising would indicate whether the wish would be granted.
A well for the fairies
The well was said also to be the haunt of fairies who were particularly visible in Midsummer. A local legend tells how a farmer dug up a fairy ring near to the well and the next day found the well dry which never happened. However it was clear that to others it had water and that it only happened to him, the other villagers could draw water! Finally he was told by an old man sitting on a wall that if he returned the ring he would be able to withdraw water – he did and the water was restored to him.
Another story tells of a witch who displeased with the suitor of her daughter sent him to the well where he was pulled into the water. After a struggle, three times over, he escaped and running back to the house saw the mother as an evil witch stirring a pot and he ran!
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
Two counties which has poorly researched are Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, I have been researching for volumes on these counties a number of years, and although I have yet to chase down a number of sites, may well be ready to publish next year! (Finally!)
One such site is the Old Red Well. Many years ago I searched in the dark elm woods for this site. There is something quite eerie and mysterious about this site, nestling in these woods, especially when visited in the autumn. A fact noted by this website on faeries. I didn’t see any of these but I can quite imagine them disporting themselves.
Boy, mound or money-lender?
The origin of the name Knapwell is unclear, Cnapa may be the name of the first settler, or simply ‘boy’ ‘moneylender’ or even ‘mound’ referring to the earthworks to the end of the present village. The site is doubtless ancient and probably pre-Christian origin. Interestingly, one wonders whether the boy meaning is the correct one considering another Cambridgeshire site, the Barnwell on the outskirts of Cambridge has the same suggested origin. It may suggest that the local tribes here perhaps washed their infants in its water in a ritual fashion. There is some evidence of wells associated with ritual washing in other locales so it is possible. Knapwell is first mentioned in a will by A.D. 1000, and the settlement is noted in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Chenewelle, being held by Abbot of St Benedict of Ramsey. However, this was the estate not the well so nothing should be implied from Ramsey Abbey’s ownership.
The well was the sole source of freshwater for both Boxgrove and Knapwell parishes and footpaths still lead from both communities to the well. Knapwell was also known as Little Wellesworth indicating the importance of this and The Victoria County History notes for Knapwell:
‘..named from the chalybeate Red Well, supposedly medicinal, in Boxworth Wood just east of the village.’
Like many Chalybeate springs, healing traditions are attached to it but curiously no details are recorded.
The water was well thought of well into the 20th century, for the Parish guidebook, KNAPWELL VILLAGE And The Parish Church of All Saints (1978) notes:
“Within living memory a drinking cup used to hang on the small brick arch over the spot where the spring rises.”
The spring produces copious but sluggish red water and is protected by a red brick domed or arched well house similar to those of Holywell and Longstanton. When I visited the well is in fear of collapsing, and had deteriorated over a number of years, but recent pictures suggest it is in better condition. It is well worth investigating if you are in the area and below are some instructions from my forthcoming book:
“If you wish to find it park the car at the church and follow the footpath beside the church and after crossing the stream and style turn right and continue along the woods passing the information centre ( where a wooden box holds maps ) and then after a few feet one reaches a small clearing and a path leads to the right into the woods. Take this and this will lead to the well.”
St. Christopher’s Well (SK 861 320) is an interesting well! St. Christopher is an unusual dedication for holy wells and one supposedly exists in a small backwater of the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire borders. I say supposed because it’s true origin is unclear.
Much of what we know of the well is from various contributes to Lincolnshire notes and queries in the 1920s. Key to these was Welby (1926-7), who was the owner of the estate. He states that a two storey tea-house was erected over the site, the under one having an inner arch over the spring and the upper having two tall sash windows, glazed with large panes with a sloping roof on all four sides meeting a ridge. Welby (1926-7) notes that his father remembered using the structure and states no older building such as a chapel could be seen inside. This tea house did not last long, and a small summer house was constructed in the 1840s but no sign of it can be seen now. Welby (1926-7) describes this as being tall and wooden, open at the front and having small side unglazed windows. This also did not last long as was removed in 1850 when he claims the present grotto was constructed. However, this clear has older fabric. This is without doubt the grandest structure over a well, especially in Lincolnshire and it’s sad to note it no longer remains.
The well today
Although, the summer house has gone, the well is still marked on the map in gothic italics suggesting something substantial remains. Exploring around the edge of the pool, soon the site can be seen. This is no simple spring, boggy hole, as sadly in the case of many other Lincolnshire, this is still something more. Despite being cloaked in undergrowth, an arched grotto or cave can be seen. It is four metres by two metres high which is lined with cement rubble stone. At the back of the structure is a circular 50cm diameter well with an overflow channel set out by large flag stones set below the ground surface by 5cm, its water a sluggish stream, running into the lake. This channel is set out by large flag stones either side of the channel. Above the basin is a stone tablet, which is heavily worn by water action it would appear that it is difficult to read cemented around this are small ammonites and possibly a stone head although it may be a large stone resembling a head. Set into the walls of this structure is a large ammonite. The stone tablet according to Headley and Meulenkamp’s (1999) book on Follies has a poem Huius Nympha Loci:
“Approach you then with cautious steps, To where the streamlet creeps, Or Ah! Too rudely you may wake, some guardian nymph that sleeps”
As started the name is an odd one and the first mention of a spring in the area is from for in the 1700s the site was simply called spring wells according to a book of furlongs in 1784. The first mention of the site as both a medicinal and holy well appears to be Howett (1801) in A selection of views in the county of Lincoln which is accompanied with a sketch so apparently it was already been ‘improved’ by the landowner as a folly structure. Marrat (1816) History of Lincolnshire rather than White (1852) as Welby (1926-7) notes, perhaps suggesting either its discovery then although there is no evidence of exploitation here, a case more common with older springs in this period. None of these sources name it St Christopher’s Well but the name may not be that old, although Antiquarius Rusticus names it Sancaster and unusual name again and perhaps a form of consonantal drift -Saint Christopher = San C…ster..the reader can be the judge! However, inspection of the actual tablet would suggest otherwise. Of what can be read:“Here fairies dance and sport…” is the clearest! It is probable that the name was affixed when the spring was transformed into an estate folly at the beginning of the 1800s, although why St. Christopher was used is unclear it is not a common dedication associated with springs. Today there is certainly no sign of the summer house.
Away with the fairies
Antiquarius Rusticus (1926–7a) informed by the Rev C.C. Buss notes that:
“… The children call it “The Fairy Well”… After a drink of the Fairy Well “your first wish is sure to come true”
He also adds
“St Christopher’s Well, the water of which is said to resemble that of Tunbridge… was once in great request for its curative virtues… An ancient dame who has lived all her married life in Denton went… a few miles away and while there she was taken ill…. She told me how greatly she had longed for a drink of the water from St. Christopher’s Well as she was sure it would have hastened her recovery. The spring issues from a smaller vault or cave.”
Sadly the associated manor was demolished many years ago but the site is still marks and remains being part of land belonging to Sir Bruno Welby. Despite its dubious origins, traditions have associated with it and it is said that the spring is very pure and is similar to that of Malvern waters. In the basin appear to be coins suggesting that ‘well wishing’ is still undertaken here, although by the verdi-gris on the coins some appear very old! Water sluggishly flows from this basin into a stone lined channel into the lake below. The site is one of the best in the county and is surprisingly little known. copyright Pixyledpublications and thanks to Holywell@megalithic portal for the photos
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.