Category Archives: Favourite site

Holy Wells of South Wales: A peaceful retreat by the sea St. Anthony’s Well Llansteffan

One of south Wales’s most evocative and peaceful holy well is that of St Anthony’s Well in Llansteffan. One approaches the site by a path that leads from the castle site down to the beach.

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Why St Anthony?

A fair few Welsh holy wells are dedicated to their local holy people but this one is dedicated to St Anthony. However, this still underlines its association with hermits as titular saint is St Anthony of Egypt who in around 251-356 AD was believed to be the first Christian hermit. Like modern day Catholics who take a saintly name at confirmation Celtic holy people would adopt names which had a spiritual significance. Thus locally this hermit was called Antwn; a Welsh form of Anthony who is said to have lived here in the sixth century. The plaque on the wall of the well records:

“Little St Anthony’s Well is barely large enough to get your hand inside for a drink of water. But you must wait patiently for the clear drops to seep from the mossy recess in the hillside.”

Chris J Thomas in his 2004 Sacred Welsh Wales describes it as cold and bland so it may not be worth the wait.

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It is recorded that in 1811 existing stonework has been built around the natural spring in the form of a pointed arch with an offerings shelf at the back. A small recess above the shelf is where a statue of the saint was reputedly placed. Now there is an icon of the saint.  Prayer flags festoon the area as well.

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In more modern times the surrounding area has been rather heavily improved with extra retaining walls and a paved forecourt. It is now described as a Grade II listed site is describe as having a well chamber  set within a triangular-headed recess into the southwest facing wall of the enclosure and above it are two stone shelves and a carved niche. Above it is a relief carving, presumably of Antwn, is on the rear wall of the enclosure

The shelf is full of cockle shells -and some other small votives and it is apparent that the tradition is alive and well. However, I am unaware of why they are doing so.

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A hermit’s well

So this was a hermit’s well which suggests in the location there was a hermitage or at least a site of refuge. A suggested site is a cave further down the bay shaped similarly to the well arch – however there is no evidence.

Local tradition suggests that he used the water to baptise local people It is still a site of pilgrimage. Paul Davis 2003’s Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales notes that:

“frequented by lovesick travellers intent on casting a pin into the well to fulfil their hearts desires.”

No photo description available.Thomas (2004) notes:

“Pilgrims still visit this well for their own secret purposes, the most prevalent of which is for ‘wishing’. Romantic aspirations and reparations are what St Anthony’s Well is best at, apparently. You must be totally alone, offer a small white stone and wish very sincerely. There ae no known statistics regarding its success rate.”

It is not difficult to see why this site would not be in anyone’s top 10 of sites – the seaside location, its secretive enclosure and the sweeping gardens and sylvanian setting surrounding it mean it would be easy to spend a few hours in solitude listening to the dripping water and the sounds of the waves. A more peaceful place would be hard to find.

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Farnborough’s St Botolph’s Well

During my research for Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire one of the surprising discoveries is St Botolph’s Well at Farnborough. Surprising because in P.M Patchell and E.M. Patchell’s 1987 ‘The wells of old Warwickshire’ in the first series of Source 1 note that:

“The well is chalybeate and reputed to cure eye ailments, but is now only a cattle drinking place on private land. It is just a little way down the lane leading south from the church, at a little bridge.”  

I had read this perhaps as being no more than the site being is an uninspiring boggy hole but this was not the case!

The earliest reference however to the site is William Dugdale in his 1730 The Antiquities of Warwickshire. He notes that: 

“Near the house of Mr Holbeach there rises a Chalybeat Spring, called… St Botolph’s Well.”

As the parish church is dedicated to St Botolph and the settlement was in existence at the time of the Domesday book and it is probable that the well dates from this period being associated as it is with a Saxon saint. There is certainly a traditional relationship with the holy well as the relic of a path which leads down to the well from the church can be traced in the grass the other side of the road from the estate. This leads to a wooden door close to the well – although interestingly the handle is on the estate side suggesting permission in more recent times was needed. As noted by Stephen Wass in their 2012 thesis A Way With Water: Water Resources and the Life of an Eighteenth-century Park.
http://www.polyolbion.org.uk/Farnborough/Dissertation/A%20Way%20With%20Water.html#2

“Of further significance was the exclusion of the community from access to St. Botolph’s Well (Fig. 33). The arrangement of church, holy well and connecting thoroughfare was probably an ancient one which reflected the communal use of this spring for practical and spiritual purposes. What is striking today about the spatial relationship is that the seventeenth-century park wall cuts across the bottom of the former route and effectively restricts access to the well as it is now on private property.
A door in the wall, which by analogy to other local properties, appears to be eighteenth century (Wood-Jones, R. B. 1963.  Traditional Domestic Architecture of the Banbury Region), was provided to allow some access. This door could only be opened from the park side. Even allowing for the fact that the Reformation brought about a divorce between the established church and the idolatrous practice of visiting a holy well one must assume that on some level of superstition the well still occupied an important part in the community’s consciousness. What was communal has become private.”

Healing waters and development as a spa

Francis Smith in their 1825 Warwickshire delineated

“A chalybeate spring rises at Farnborough, known by the name of St. Botolph’s Well, which was formerly resorted to by the credulous and superstitious, for its wonder-working miracles!”. 

According to C.S. Wharton (cited in A.W. Bates’S 1993, ‘Healing waters: holy wells and spas in Warwickshire’ in Warwickshire History): 

“its’ reddish water is said to be coloured by rust from the nails of the Cross”.

Which is an interesting and as far as I am aware a unique tradition. Does it suggest an association with a nearby relic?

Bates (1993) says that it had only a very limited reputation as a spa, and had fallen out of use by 1890, certainly there is no evidence of people visiting it and perhaps this was associated with the development of the estate by Sanderson Miller, the folly architect. However, its current structure although not a boggy hole is perhaps a little lacking the panache of a structure one would associate in a folly estate.

The current state of the well

The well is now enclosed in land owned by the National Trust. St Botolph’s well consists of an archway of red sandstone built into the wall surrounding the park which is a surprising arrangement and one would have imagined if it was developed a spa a more impressive arrangement would be found.  The water arises in a two foot deep rectangular chamber in a recess in the park’s wall. An arch of dressed stone covered the well but this has all but gone and either lays beneath it or else robbed. This notwithstanding the site was certainly more impressive than what Patchell and Patchell suggested and there were no cattle in sight! However, perhaps due to its ruined status it might not be far off becoming a boggy hole if its not repaired soon. 

Will the real patron of St Gudula’s Well stand up?

First noted by P.F.S Amery in his 1882 Old Ashburton: Being Recollections of Master Robert Prideaux, (Attorney-at-Law) 1509–1569 as:

‘Gulwell, a short distance down the Totnes road, in the corner of the vicar’s glebe field, which was called after St Gudula, the ancient patroness of blind folk. A stone cross… stood by… The tall stone still gives the name of Stone Park to the vicar’s field’.

St Gudula’s is one of the best known of Devonshire wells but whether it is a holy well or back derivation of its name is a matter of discussion as well shall discuss.  

Who was St Gudula?  

The most likely source recommended by Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1899–1902 A Book of the West is a little known 6th century Celtic evangelist who is claimed to have converted Brittany called St. Gudwal as Terry Faull, 2004 Secrets of the Hidden source, emphatically states:

“local interpretation of St. Gulwell who is also known as St. Wulvella, and was sister of Saint Sidwell of Exeter. They are claimed to have been the daughter of royalty being probably born in Wales.”

However, the site is dedicate to St Gudula who was born in Hamme, Flanders in around AD 648 and was associated with healing the blind. This appears to be what the plaque at the well claims:

 ‘This Well, The Waters Of Which Are Said To Be Good For Weak Eyes, Was Dedicated To St Gudula, The Ancient Patroness Of The Blind. The Cross (Probably 14th Century) Was Removed Prior To 1510. It Was Restored, Re-Erected, And Presented To The Parish Of Ashburton, 1933’.

However, this seems very unlikely and it would be more reasonable to assume that some learned antiquarian, probably Amery, has associated the saint with the site due to its name and properties – the name is being more likely be descriptive about it forming a gully.

The origins of the cross

William Crossing in his 1902, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor and its Borderland, says:

‘we shall not find the cross here, but at a farm a little further on, which bears the same name as the well… This consists of the shaft only, and… I learnt in 1892 from the late Mr Perry, the owner of Gulwell, who was then eighty-three years of age, that it was in its present situation in the time of his grandfather’

Another site?

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course.

The current situation

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course as noted by the 10th March 1933 Western Times. It recorded that it was re-erected by some unemployed men after being recovered from the location where it had been for several generations. It also notes at the same time it was planned to restore the well but there was not enough money available.

A forgotten spa – Orston Spa Nottinghamshire

St. Chad’ Well, Stowe, Lichfield – perhaps the only genuine St Chad’s Well?

St Chad’s Well at Stowe on the edge of Lichfield is perhaps one of the few such named wells with a direct link to the saint. The site has a more direct link as Thomas Dugdale’s 1817 County of Warwickshire states in his translation of the death of Saints Wulfade and Rufinus based on 14th century text that Wulfade the son of the pagan king Wulfhere of the Mercians was hunting when he pursued a white hart, and the wounded stag took him to the hermitage of St Chad:

“which he had built within the thickets of the wood on the edge of a spring, so that he might throw himself into its waters to overpower the heaviness of sleep and reawaken himself with its cold”. 

St Chad took advantage of the occasion to preach to the prince, telling him that:

“as the hart desireth the water brooks, so he should seek after the cool grace of baptism, and Wulfade, converted by this analogy, consented to be baptised from the well. Rufinus soon followed the same course. At first his father was angry and killed his sons, but afterwards he repented and gave nobly to the Church. “

According to Simon Gunton’s 1686 History of Peterburgh Cathedral there were windows in the cloisters of Peterborough Cathedral, accompanied by mottoes apparently of the fifteenth century which told how

‘the Hart brought Wulfade to a Well and ‘That was beside Seynt Chaddy’s Cell.” 

John Floyer discussing St Chad in his 1702 Essay to prove cold bathing both safe and useful  proposes that:

“the Well near Stow, which may bear his Name, was probably his Baptistery, it being deep enough for Immersion, and conveniently seated near that Church; and that has the Reputation of curing Sore Eyes, Scabs, &c. as most Holy Wells in England do”.

Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells states that the water was thought to be dangerous to drink because it caused fits. Septimus Sunderland’s 1915 Old London’s Baths, Spas and wells also met a woman who looked after the well who said that it still had a reputation for bad eyes and rheumatism and was known as a Wishing Well. Thomas Harwood in his 1806 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield states that at the well it was adorned with:

“…boughs, and of reading the gospel for the day, at this and at other wells and pumps, is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day.” 

However, by the time of Langford (1896) he noted that it was but sadly shorn of its ancient glory. According to Skyking Walters’ 1928 Ancient Wells and Springs of the Cotswolds, the site was still decorated with flowers on Ascension Day, a tradition which continues today in a modern form similar to that seen in Derbyshire. The site despite being in the grounds of an Anglican church was the site of Catholic pilgrimages from 1922 until the 1930s (although an Anglican one visited in 1926)

In his Itinerary of c. 1540 (published 1906–10), John Leland reports that:

“Stowchurche in the est end of the towne, whereas is St Cedd’s well, a thinge of pure water, where is sene a stone in the bottom of it, on the whiche some say that Cedde was wont nakyd to stond on in the water, and pray.”

The stone mentioned by Leland was still there or a version of it in the 1830s as it was shown to any visitors who visited the site and appears to have had its own significance in cures and rituals at the well.

The tour diary of John Loveday, 1732 (published 1890) states in reference to Stowe church that:

“near it, in a little garden is St Chad’s Well, its Water is good for sore Eyes; it is of different colours in a very little time, as They say.”

According to the V.C.H. (1908–84), the well was cleaned in 1820 by the churchwardens as it had become only six feet deep and the supply of water had become reduced by the draining of local water meadows. The well basin itself had become filled up with mud and in 1830 a local physician James Rawson built an octagonal stone structure over the well bemoaning in the Gentlemen’s magazine in 1864:

“Whatever the well might have been originally, it had, by the year 1833, degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than six feet deep . . .
…..from two men of far-advanced age, in the year 1833, I learned that the supply of clear water around the well had become much lessened by the drainage of the lower meadows during the latter part of the eighteenth century, At all events, by the date
first named here, the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed was described by the sight-showers as the identical stone on which St Chad used to kneel and pray!
For my own part, hoping by means of a public subscription to procure a new supply of water for the site of this ancient baptistry . . . I endeavoured to exclude the surface water of the old marsh land from the well, because of this surface water being loaded with orchre: and, as a feeder for the well, a supply of clear water was carefully obtained from the rock at a moderate distance, for close to the well a running sand became an impediment to the work. Over the well an octagonal building was erected with a saxon-headed doorway, and a stone roof surmounted by a plain Latin cross .”

It is interesting how a tradition soon built up around this new structure. Langford (1896) notes how wishes would be granted by placing one’s hand on a granite stone built into the well house, which was said to be that originally used by St. Chad.

By the early 1920s, the supply dried up and the well was lined with brick and a pump was fitted over the well and a special service was held in 1923 by the rector to officially open the pump. This created a revival. Catholic pilgrimages begun each year from 1922 to the 1930s and even an Anglican pilgrimage in 1926.

However by 1941 the well had become derelict, and after a commission set up by the Bishop of Lichfield it was restored in the 1950s, unfortunately replacing the 1840 octagonal structure with an open structure with a tiled roof (with R. Morrell in his 1992 Source article calls the Stowe bandstand). And so St Chad’s Well remains, not perhaps the most romantic of structures, but a link to those early Christian times.

A Gloucestershire rag well – Matson’s red well

This chalybeate spring called alternatively by Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) as Holy Well, whilst Walters (1928) calls it Holy Red Well (SO 848 153) arises incongruously now on the edge of a dry sky slope in a field called Red Well field.

“The Red Well at Matson consists of a 3ft. square limestone trough at the road-side, fed from a chalybeate spring in the field a few yards above it. The interior of the trough is 2ft. square by 1ft. deep, and its overflow is fed through a gargoyle into a semi-circular basin on the east side. Nearby are the remains of stones, which, if placed round the well, would give it the form of a Maltese cross. The spring belonged to the Canons of Llanthony, and its history dates from 1066, when Ralph de Mattesdon gave the church of Mattesdon to St. Peter’s Abbey Gloucester.”

records that it was also known as Edith’s Spring according to H. Y Taylor in 1866 who immortalised it in the Saint Harold the martyr – the Red Well at Matson or Edith’s Spring two local legends. He tells an interesting and possibly unique legend to describe its origin. Edith was an 18 year Saxon old local noblewoman from Upton St Leonard. She married an Earl, giving him a son, but soon after he was killed fighting King Harold. Fear what repercussions may occur as a result from the invading Normans she climbed Matson Hill. Here she decided to kill herself and son and as she dug a grave. As she dug, so arose the red spring water. She saw this as a sign and as a result dedicated herself to a holy living, she and her son becoming anchorites.  The well belonged to the Canons of Llanthony Priory, whose lands fell to the Selwyn family during the Reformation, whose coat of arms resembled a cross itself.

Embrey (1918–20) states that:

“the presence of iron salts is considered as conferring tonic properties.”

and its water being very ferruginous was said to be “good for the eyesight” or a cure for tired eyes.                                         Another alternative name was the Rag Well and as such it was one of only two such sites in the county and certainly the most well-known. It is still overshadowed by a thorn tree, upon which tradition asserts clothes may have been left as a form of offering. However, the tradition has not continues or been revived.

The Holy Red Well (Chalybeate) Matson, Gloucestershire. | Sacred well,  Magical places, Sacred places

Enclosed in square railings, a reason perhaps why the well is no longer treated as a rag well. The spring itself arises in a square limestone trough of two feet by two feet and one foot deep inside and three feet deep outside. Another small receptacle, or basin a semi-circular one of Oolite stone is found on the east side. It then flows into a roadside trough. Walters (1928) notes that some slabs were located around this spring, which could be arranged to form a Maltese cross

Fons Scotiae – The well of Scotland, the well of monarchs

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If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.

A Roman site

It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:

 “Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”

It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s  establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.

However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:

 “ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”

Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.

Restored site

The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:

“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”

This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.

Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:

“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”

Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.

The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house

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Still curing?

In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:

“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”

However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell  was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!

Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.

Gipton Spa Well and Bath House

Often the Heritage Open Day in September gives the curious an opportunity to see some hidden gems and Gledhow’s Bath House in Leeds is a great example. The bath house probably the oldest standing in the UK is a delightful find on the edge of the woodland cliff.

The building is grade 2 listed and consists of a small building with a fireplace designed to sweat patients after immersion in the sunken bath outside. It is made of coursed square gritstone with a slate gabled roof. There are high ways enclosing the plunge pool which is around 1.75 m deep and three metres square with a small edge around three sides of it. The entrance has quoined jambs with a circular window in the gable and moulded gable coping. There is a large Latin plaque which reads “constructed by Edward Waddington of Gledhow in 1671”.

How old is the bath house?

The earliest reference to the spa is when it was constructed in 1671 by Edward Waddington of Gledhow Hall subsequently it alternative name is Waddington Bath. A Latin inscription reading:

“H.O.C Fecit
Edvardus Waddington
De Gledhow
Annovae Domini 1671”

However, it first receives academic interest when in 1708 when the noted Leeds Antiquarian Ralph Thoresby took his younger song, Richard to the site. He had been suffering with either rhickets or rheumatism and as part of his treatment it was recommended that he visit the bath regularly to take a cold immersion. In his diary for the 5th of July the author wrote:

“Walked with my dear by Chapel-town and Gledhow to Gypton-Well (whence my Lord Irwin who comes thither in his coach daily, was but just gone) to enquire for conveniences for my dear child Richard’s bathing”.

It must have been a successful because he found in his 1715 Ducatus Leodiensis easily to promote the site stating:

 “The Gipton well was accommodated with convenient lodgings to sweat the patient after bathing and is frequented by Persons of Honour, being reputed little or nothing inferior to St Monagh’s’

The later comment referring to a spa spring near Ripon which was popular at the time. Not much is known of the intervening century of the bath house as it does not appear to be much mentioned but it would still appear to have been utilised by 1817 as Edward Baines’ Leeds Guide of 1817 described the village as

” a small, pleasant village, 2 miles from Leeds. Within the wood is a cold spring with a small bathing house attached.”

However by 1834 the fame of the spring was waning as Edward Parson’s notes in his
History of Leeds: ”

“The Waters of Gipton have lost their celebrity and are no longer frequented.”

However he is positive by stating:

“There is no reason why they should not be restored to fame. If some chemist was to report an analysis of their component parts, if some physician were to publish a book in their praise, if some speculator were to build a decorative bath, a large hotel or perhaps a crescent of houses with a sounding name, it is certain that quite as much benefit would be reaped from Gipton Well as from many of the Springs which are highly extolled for their salutiferous qualities and around which complaining valetudinaians and idle loungers so numerously congregate.”

It had not been forgotten of course because Kelly’s directory of 1881 notes that they “are still resorted to by people who live in the neighbourhood.”

Fortunately, when in 1888 the eldest daughter of the first Lord Airedale, Honourable Hilda Kitson, , bought the farm which the bath house stood on she didn’t remove it but was concerned for its survival and as such she offered £200 to the Leeds Corporation from which the interest would repair it. However it was not until 1926 did they take her up on the offer and the Corporation took it over.

Sadly despite this the bath house went through considerable amount of neglect over the intervening times. The roof had been seriously damaged, trees grew through it and it was frequented by drug users and prostitutes. The site was fenced off as a result in 2004. Finally in 2005 the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods cleaned up the site and repaired it ready to open it to the public. And a delight it is too, when I visited I found the small place very atmospheric with candles flickering in the small fireplace.

The water was deep clear and inviting although I did not in. Nearby the group had made bottles of the spring water beside the pool although I would be interested if anyone drunk it.

Far from the crowd: St Leonard’s Well, Dunster

Many people visit the picturesque village of Dunster with its delightful market cross but tucked up an ancient cobbled lane which becomes increasingly muddy even in the height of summer, is the less well known St Leonard’s Well, Dunster. Mossy and weather worn. An old wooden door appears almost from the wall to go where?

St. Leonard's Well (Dunster) Holy Well or Sacred Spring : The Megalithic Portal and Megalith Map:

How old?

It is believed to be of 14th-15th Century construction, and formed the supply for the ancient town priory ( now ruinous ). It is mentioned in records of Edward III and Henry IV reign as ‘Fontem sancti Leonardi’.

According to William Hamper 1808’s topographical account of Dunster a 1377 deed of 1377 records a:

subtus Grobbefaste, juxta fontem Sancti Leonardi

and again deed of 1412/3 (ibid.) refers to strips in Dunster open field:

 ‘vocata above ye town, prope fontem Sancti Leonard’.

Hamper is the individual who associated the current structure with said well stating:

 “a spring, over which a conduit is built, on the side of Grabice, which I presume to be the Well of St Leonard”.

One wonders whether the conduit and St Leonard’s Well are really one and the same especially when conduit houses are very rarely placed over wells from my experience. Certainly by the time the magnus opus on the county’s holy wells compiled his works Dom Horne was sure.  In his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells notes that:

“a small 14th or 15th-century building still stands over it, but the water is not used. It overflows into the lane by which it is approached, making it into a kind of water-course. This well may have been the water supply for the Priory, and it may also have filled the curious arched water trough in the southern wall of the churchyard.”

It is known that the water was still utilised until the 18th century when in In 1777 the old pipes were re-laid and covered and new ones added. It thus filling not just the churchyard trough but another at the south end of the high street. Architecturally the structure is made of rubble with a cemented roof and a chamfered free stone opening with a segmental head and plain wooden door. It was locked when I first visited but a subsequent visit when the door was open showed why. There is a considerable depth of water within filling a rectangular squared off pool full of some form of algae!

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Inside the well copyright Caroline Perry

Curative waters

Horne notes that until recently people still visited this well and used the water for strengthening the eyes but beyond this little is known. When locked the water could be sourced from a trickling pipe.

For those who visit St Leonard’s well offers a moment of peace, lying picturesquely by the side of the lane, overshadowed by a thorn bush not adorned with rags I would add, a pleasingly quiet place in comparison to the hectic nature of Dunster in Summer time.

A holy well in a mysterious sea cave

One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:

“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”

So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:

“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”

Over a hundred years later,  John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:

“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”

Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall

“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndZoeriJKRM

Cures for children

Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states

“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.” 

Further details are given by  John Cardell Oliver

“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”

He adds:

“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”

Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?

One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.

This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.

Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001