Category Archives: Favourite site
Now on the edge of a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Brecon, the Maen du well is a delightful find. Nestling in a small wood, a signed footpath takes you from the road to another world. The well is a small building, measuring 1.7, by 1.5 m inside. It is constructed of stone with a high vaulted roof formed with overlapping slabs. A doorway leads into a shallow pool of clear water with steps descending into it. The water flows into a large stone lined pool below it.
How old is it?
Despite resembling the early Christian chapel/monastic cells that survive in Ireland and Scotland . A stone by the entrance is engraved 1754 with the initials WW. Which suggests it is not medieval after all. However, this could be the date it was built, or perhaps of a later rebuilding. The remains of an older well-building maybe evidenced by the ring of rough boulders in the pool.
An article provides more in The Express dated 27th February 1913:
“THE MAENDU WELL – The well-known and ancient well is situated four fields from Maendu Street, and is to the north of the Priory Church. There is a pathway leading from Maendu Street, but this path for many months of the year is simply a gutter to carry away the water overflowing from fields higher up which badly want draining. The well was for many years the chief supply for the people residing in the Baileyglas and Pendre, and in ancient times it also supplied the Brecknock Castle. Old Sam Cooke, whose father was at one time wood-man to the Camden estate at Brecon, tells us that the well for some years also supplied water to Priory House, being carried through pipes to a tank placed in one of the fields near the Priory Churchyard. There is always a strong and clean supply of water. The well is arched over with stone-work and behind is planted a holly tree. On a stone at the entrance are the letters and figures “W.W. 1754” – probably the date when the present arch was erected. The stone-work shows signs of decay on the N.E. The dimension of the well inside is about 5 feet square, and the roof is about 10 feet from the water, which is only a foot deep, but very clear. The water runs away to a place outside, where those who were in the habit of fetching the water could descend steps and there place their water vessels, beneath the running stream.”
A well for the castle
Thompson notes Pen y Crug an iron age hill fort nearby and suggests that the population therein used the spring. Certainly, Maen-Du well supplied Brecon Castle with water. An account reads:
“THE MAENDU WELL SUPPLIES THE CASTLE.
Hugh Thomas tells us, that at each corner of what he calls the square of this spacious building, were two watch towers, as might then be seen. The ruins of two of them still remain at the southern angle, and join an elevated and artificial mound, to the north east is the keep, since the confinement of Morton bishop of Ely, called Ely tower, where the conversation with the duke of Buckingham, mentioned in the former volume, is supposed to have passed. The adjoining ground on this side is considerably higher than the site of the castle, which made the northern front more assailable than on any other aspect ; there were here therefore, in addition to the deep ravine or mote before noticed, two additional fosses, occasionally filled with water from a well called the Maendy well, which also supplied the fortress, though from the facility with which this stream could be interrupted by an enemy in the time of a siege, there can be no doubt that there was also a well within the walls, as water could be procured there without digging to any great depth.”
A well for lovers
This well is very generally known as “The Wishing Well”, and love sick maidens are said to make pilgrimages and drop pins in the water whilst making their wishes.
Ian and Francis Thompson note in their 1999 The Waters of Life notes:
“the water was also good for eye complaints. We were assured that one man still fills his bottles at the well for his own use and that of his dog, who will not drink the local tap water.”
Richard Hall, the Brecon poet, has a reference to this well in his “Tale of the Past and other poems.” Today there are no pins in the well that can be seen so perhaps the lovers have ceased to come…and now only local children hide out in this place.
Thompson notes that:
“within living memory hat pins were dropped in the well by girls seeking a husband, and since hatpins were relatively expensive, cheap imitations were sold in local shops for this purpose.”
The pool was restored with EU money and a local group called the Maen Du Group since 2009 have looked after the site clearing litter from the site, keeping the pond clean and producing signage although part of this sign has recently been vandalised. One does wonder how long the well can survive with the encroachment of urbanisation on its doorstep but for now it remains a romantic curiosity.
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,
There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :
‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’
No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.
When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.
It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date. Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow
A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.
Who built it?
William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.
The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:
“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”
Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.
However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.
In the final instalment of the examination of Carshalton’s healing, ancient and holy waters. In the first we examined the Queen Anne Boleyn’s Well and the second a possible holy well with St. Margaret’s Well. In this final instalment I explore what might be the less likeliest of holy wells but certainly not the less interesting.
The most intriguing nomenclature wise is not terribly picturesque or noted in its history is a dip in Carshalton Park. Often dry, the name Hogpit Pond is interesting. It was first mentioned in the 15th century as Hoggpytte, and is certainly springfed. James Rattue in his Holy Wells of Surrey notes that such sites are often indicative of holy wells. The hog being derived from Old English halig for holy and the pit similarly being an old word for a well or spring. It does appear to have an entry or exit lined by stones. Sadly no legends or traditions are associated with the site to give any indication.
A more significant site is the Scawen Grotto also found in the park. The grotto once had a statue of Neptune with a marble sea shell basin and was decorated with flint, glass, shells and coral. Although the construction only dates from 1724 it utilised the spring which once provided the source for the river Wandle, a river possibly sacred to the Romans. Flow channels brick lined can be seen under the grotto and to the side.
The next two sites, are located in the grounds of Carshalton House. One of these is an ornamented spring head called the Springhead. This is first recorded on the Arundel Castle Map of the mid-Seventeenth century although clearly it is older. The present structure may either originate from Sir John Fellowes estate improvements of 1716 and the work of landscape architect Charles Bridgeman or the 1690s-1700s work of Edward Carleton or even Dr Radcliffe who purchased it after Carleton. It is recorded that both Radcliffe and Fellowes employed hydrologists being Captain Thomas Savery and George Devall respectively.
The springhead is made of a wide outer channel leading under the embankment into three narrower inner tunnels parallel in a westerly direction under the lawn and may have continued further, their function is unclear but they may have been involved with a waterfall which water cascading from the tunnels as seen in Chiswick house not that far away. The outer of these tunnels have a small bay set at right angles to the tunnel’s line. The ends are blocked with a mixture of clunch, stone, flint and brick walling. If Bridgeman was involved it is likely that he created a circular pool as a feature in front of the hermitage along with canals. These canals were removed in the mid 18th century and the current Roccoco style lake area was formed and it is possible that the outer tunnel was added as an extension to the original three tunnels bringing water into the air in front of the house and allowed visitors to walk over the spring head at almost water level to the hermitage. The similarity in the flint work of the sham bridge at the other end of the lake to the springhead supports this view. Over time the water table dropped and now the spring rarely fills the lake and in the summer it is mostly dry. The spring head was restored by the Carshalton Water tower trust in 2015.
The last site was fed by a unique spring fed water tower and is an 18th century bath house lined by deft tiles called a Bagnio. Enclosed with the water house it was erected by Sir John Fellowes by 1721. It was described in 1724 by a John Macky as ‘curious waterworks in Fellowes garden’. Little is known of this plunge pool and no reference is made by Rattue and its first mention is only in 1839. The building pumped water from a spring nearby into a lead tank in the tower which then fed the bath. The original engine was replaced many years ago and only partial remains of mid-19th century water wheel survive in the wheel pit which can be seen. The bath itself is sunk below a marble floor to a depth of 1.37m and is lined with plain tiles, it has a marble floor and is reached by marble steps. under which are hidden lead inflow and outflow pipes It measures an area of 3.28m by 2.58. How it was heated is unclear as no hot water system survives however it may have simply functioned as a cold bath. Now water is found in the bath and has not for some time it would appear. Its secrets and stories are yet to be discovered in a suburb full of fascinating water history.
It’s great to record that this is the 300th post of this holy well blog and as this month is also its 8th Birthday I thought it would be worth making it clear why the posts are by Pixyled Publications or more precisely why Pixy led! What does this mean and why is it used? Well for this 300th blog post and on the blog’s 8th birthday I felt it was appropriate to describe the well where the term is most commonly associated with. This is Fitz’s Well laying in the desolate moors of Dartmoor at Princetown overlooking its foreboding prison. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells aptly explains:
“John Fitz, of Fitzford, near Tavistock, who was one day riding with his wife, lost his way on the moor. After wandering in vain to find the right path, being thirsty and fatigued, he at last found a delicious spring of water, whose powers seemed to be miraculous, for no sooner had he partaken thereof than he was enabled to trace his steps correctly homewards.”
Getting lost was often thought to be due to elemental spirits and Hope continues to note:
“John Fitz erected the memorial stone marked I. F., 1568, which, with a few other slabs of granite, protects it, for the advantage of all pixy-led travellers.”
Comically Sabine Baring Gould in his 1899 Book of Devon recorded that when he came to the well in the 19th century, some of his party including officers from the Ordnance Survey complete with their surveying equipment went astray in the mist and were completely lost. He noted:
“pixy-led out of pure mischief to show how superior the pixies were even to the most scientific equipment.”
However, you may still ask what does Pixy-led mean? British novelist Anna Eliza Bray first recorded the Pixy or Pixie in her 1837 The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy. It was recorded that Pixies would enjoy the prank of leading people astray and getting them lost. Thus the terms pixy led or rather amusingly for modern ears, pixilated, meant someone lost on a familiar route which lead to a state of confusion or bewilderment. If one thought they would be pixy led they would turn their coats inside out.
Hope goes on to describe the site as:
“about 3 feet deep, and lies in a swamp near the remains of an ancient bridge, or clam, the bridge being partly swept away by a flood in 1873”.
Sabine Baring-Gould notes:
“Fice’s Well, which I remember in the midst of moor, is now included within the new take of the prisons, and a wall has been erected to protect it. This deprives it of much of its charm.”
In 1826 an engraving by P. H. Rogers shows no sign of the enclosure wall. This must have been built by the prison’s intake post this date and before Baring Gould’s visit. The Field Investigators of State Environment in the 1954 note:
“A well constructed granite dipping chamber of drystone masonry. Internally it is 0.8m. square and 0.8m. high with a slab roof and a lintel over the open S side bearing the initials “IF” for John Fice and the date 1568. The well is enclosed by a circular protection wall, probably of much later date, and access is by steps over the wall which effectively precludes a photograph of the build.”
Confusingly, Okehampton and Tavistock also have Fitz’s well, although only the former could claim to have a position which might match the legend, but these are for another blog post perhaps. Finally, apart from removing the powers of the Pixy or as Sabine Gould calls it ‘Pixy glamour’ in an account obviously borrowed from Hope, it is also said to have:
“possess many healing virtues”.
No authority says what.
Today the well is a lot easier to find following the footpath from the road but I have only visited it on a warm and clear summer’s day. One could still imagine the Pixies would be about on a cold and misty November.
Overlooking the Bristol channel on a hill in Watchet is a holy well associated directly with the struggle between paganism and Christianity. A spring which arose at the site of his brutal martyrdom. Now a delightfully peaceful oasis and a favourite site
Who was St. Decumen?
Born of noble Celtic parents at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Wishing to live a hermit life he travelled across the Bristol channel on his raft made of a cloak with a cow for a companion. There he became a hermit teaching the local people Christianity and healing people.
St Decumen’s martyrdom.
The Life of St Decuman in the Nova Legenda Anglie, records how in AD 706, his missionary teachings were becoming unwelcome to the old heathen leaders, and so they plotted to remove him. Thus he was attacked whilst in prayer and summarily decapitated ( other authorities say it was by pagan robbers possibly Vikings? ) They were described as:
‘a certain man more venomous than an asp, more poisonous than the adder’
They were said to have cut his head off with a spade and in the legend it is said:
“when he was beheaded with a spade, the trunk of the mutilated body, they say, raised itself and took its own head in its hands and carried it from the place where he was beheaded to a fountain of most limpid water, in which he was accustomed to wash his face with his hands. Which to this day in memory and reverence of him is called the ‘Fountain of Saint Decuman’, and is sweet, healthful, and necessary to the inhabitants for drinking purposes. In which place the head, together with the body, were afterwards sought for and found by the faithful, and honourably placed in a tomb”.
However his decapitation did not stop his missionary zeal and he picked up his head and washed in the nearby stream. After which he replaced it back on his own body and carried on. Others say that the spring itself arose where the head fell. It is said that this act was so miraculous that the local people helped build a church according Ben Norman’s 1992 Legends and Folklore of Watchet.
Legends associating springs with heads are common in holy well tradition and a number have been discussed on this blog. One wonders whether the spring was originally a pagan site in this case and that was why the pagan community was angry…this anger still continues I note as seen on Facebook and some forums!
The holy well
Dom Horne (1923) in Somerset Holy Wells states that
“the holy well is in a field at the west end of the church, and the water comes out between great stones set on end, having a third forming a roof on top of them. The water runs down sharply sloping field it flows into a number of stone basins, one below another”.
This is what remains today although it has gone through periods of neglect and vandalism since. Today the side walls consist of a number of slates, however the cover is still one large piece. The water still flows into three stone basins, although they are a little clogged with sediment. A series of steps ( somewhat eroded ) reach the well. A great deal of clear water remains in the well, and according to Horne, it was still sought after in 1923, although it would appear that bar a few coins, there is now no evidence of this.
Michael Calder in his 2003, Early ecclesiastical sites in Somerset: three case studies in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology .& Natural History Society. Suggests that the spring maybe all that is left of an earlier minister church which was probably lost by the 11th century with the cult moving to the well and church once it had vanished.
Interesting a sign by the well states the well was restored in association with a local pagan society….perhaps at last the struggle has gone!
In this second and final part I shall examine the other noted springs on the edge. Mention Alderley Edge to anyone interested in folklore and if they are worth their salt they will recall the legend of the sleeping knights. This legend involves a wizard and it first appeared in print in the Manchester Mail in 1805 the source being a servant of the Stanleys, Thomas Broadhurst who was also known as ‘Old Daddy’:
“According to this veteran the tradition says that once upon a time a farmer from Mobberley, mounted on a milk-white horse, was crossing the Edge on his way to Macclesfield to sell the animal. He had reached a spot known as the Thieves’ Hole, and, as he slowly rode along thinking of the profitable bargain which he hoped to make, was startled by the sudden appearance of an old man, tall and strangely clad in a deep flowing garment. The old man ordered him to stop, told him that he knew the errand upon which the rider was bent, and offered a sum of money for the horse. The farmer, however, refused the offer, not thinking it sufficient. ‘Go, then, to Macclesfield,’ said the old man, ‘but mark my words, you will not sell the horse. Should you find my words come true, meet me this evening, and I will buy your horse.’ The farmer laughed at such a prophecy, and went on his way. To his great surprise, and greater disappointment, nobody would buy, though all admired his beautiful horse. He was, therefore, compelled to return. On approaching the Edge he saw the old man again. Checking his horse’s pace, he began to consider how far it might be prudent to deal with a perfect stranger in so lonely a place. However, while he was considering what to do, the old man commanded him, “Follow me!” Silently the old man led him by the Seven Firs, the Golden Stone, by Stormy Point, and Saddle Bole. Just as the farmer was beginning to think he bad gone far enough he fancied that he heard a horse neighing underground. Again he heard it. Stretching forth his arm the old man touched a rock with a wand, and immediately the farmer saw a ponderous pair of iron gates, which, with a sound like thunder, flew open. The horse reared bolt upright, and the terrified farmer fell on his knees praying that his life might be spared. “Fear nothing,” spoke the Wizard, “and behold a sight which no mortal eye has ever looked upon.” They went into the cave. In a long succession of caverns the farmer saw a countless number of men and horses, the latter milk-white, and all fast asleep. In the innermost cavern heaps of treasure were piled up on the ground. From these glittering heaps the old man bade the farmer take the price he desired for his horse, and thus addressed him: “You see these men and horses; the number was not complete. Your horse was wanted to make it complete. Remember my words, there will come a day when these men and these horses, awakening from their enchanted slumber, will descend into the plain, decide the fate of a great battle, and save their country. This shall be when George the son of George shall reign. Go home in safety. Leave your horse with me. No harm will befall you; but henceforward no mortal eye will ever look upon the iron gates. Begone!” The farmer lost no time in obeying. He heard the iron gates close with the same fearful sounds with which they were opened, and made the best of his way to Mobberley.”
Alderley Edge is littered with old mine openings and anyone retelling this story would have a number of such caves to refer to. But what does this have to do with wells or springs you may ask. Well the location of these iron gates was said to be somewhere between Stormy Point and the Holy Well, which I discussed in the previous post. However, also on the edge is an evocative spring called the Wizard’s Well. Indeed, when I first visited the landscape I was unaware of the other springs, this being the principle one. The Wizard’s Well has upon it a carved face and a legend which reads:
“Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the Wizhard’s will”
The Wizard’s face is aid to be the work of a local stone mason, Robert Garner, the great-great grandfather of local renowned author Alan Garner who utilised the legends of Alderley Edge for his The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, it is said he also collected his pocket money from the coins left at the well. Interestingly there is another caved face on the track towards Caste rock. When exactly the Wizard’s face was carved is unknown but it was mentioned in an 1843 guide book. The inscription was believed to have been added by a Mr Simeon Slater of Leigh Lancashire. The Wizard’s Well flow is very slight but beneath the face is a stone trough which is nearly always full.
Despite the relatively modern landscape improvement feel of the Wizard’s well, carved at the same time as the Stone circle on the edge, there is something otherworldly of it.
The final site is the Wishing well of which, despite getting confused with the Holy well and Wizard’s well, has title tradition associated with it. An account on Alderley Edge.org notes:
“I have it on the authority of a local guide that the Wishing Well is indeed the circular well a few yards below the Holy Well but the two often get mixed up. He likes to believe that passers-by will get 7 years bad luck unless they place a rhododendron leaf in the fissure. The Wishing Well is likely to have pagan links but does not relate to the hollow which predates it. Miners probably created the hollow as a trial working when searching for ore minerals such as copper.”
The well is also called de Trafford Well indicating the author of its creation Alan Garner has linked the cave to the landscape improvements in the eighteenth century as the cave was cut to resemble a hermit’s cave.
In Braga can be found a fairly unique sacred spring called the Fonte do Idolo or Fountain of the Idol. Often it is claimed that springs have a pagan origin but little evidence of it can be seen. Here is a rare example of such a site.
The fountain flows from the base of a three metres wide and 1.20 metres high granite structure upon which is a carved human figure possibly a male with a beard dressed in a toga who appears to holding some undecipherable object in ‘his’ left arm possibly a cornucopia. Above appears a Latin inscription, CEL) ICVS FRONTO / ARCOBRIGENSIS / AMBIMOGIDVS / FECIT, which can be translated by “Celico Fronto, of Arcóbriga, Ambimógido fez (this monument) and to the right of the figure is a rectangular building cut into the rock with the worn figure of a human head, crowned with a triangular pediment engraved with a dove and a packet and other Latin inscriptions are engraved into the shape’s side. At the base of this niche sprouts a small spring. .
It is the combination of the carvings and the Latin inscriptions which makes the site of significance indicating they date back to the era of Emperor Augustus in the 1st century.
What does it represent?
In 1895, archaeologist Jose Leite de Vasconcelos visited the garden where the spring was found and completed a study examining the inscriptions, although they had been encrusted in lime and deciphered the inscription to read re- TONGOE and hypothesized that the human figure on the left was the religious practitioner and the image within the structure the divinity. Now it is clear that the inscriptions read: CELICVS FECIT, which follows in the lower part of the niche : FRO (NTO), that is the name of the dedicator. To the left can read the name of a deity: TONGONABIAGOI.. In 1980-1, archaeologist Alain Tranoy examine the image and thought that the images were reversed in what they showed. Finally, António Rodríguez Colmenero firmly established the fact that it was two deities, a plural sanctuary and that it represented Tongo Nabiago and Nabia. Part of the Lusitanian divinity, that is indigenous indo-european people of western Iberia who were typically adopted by the Romans once the area was colonised. .
Of Tongo Nabiago it is clear he was a local cult and interesting his name by derive from Celtic root*tenge(o)- (Old Irish tongu “I swear”) and so he may have been associated with the swearing of oaths. This is particularly interesting as the swearing of oaths is not an unusual practice associated with springs. Nabia by comparison was part of the main pantheon and was associated with sacred springs being identified with Fortuna, Diana, Juno and Victoria being associated with health, wealth and fertility. There has been thought that near the spring was a temple associated to Nabia.
Recognition and restoration.
The site was first marked in modern time on a map of the town from 1594 by Georg Braun and by 1695 the land was owned by the vicar of Sao Joao de Casteloes suggesting it had been adopted by the Catholic church and indeed a view was that it was Bishop of Urianópolis, Alves de Figueire who made it. Its first written description was in the 18th century, when the accountant Jerónimo Contador de Argote, noted in his records that:
“behind the church of São João Marcos is a garden, that is called “Idol”, in which is located a deep spring, which has a rock, which appears to be living rock, with a figure in long robes, that is five palms [in size]: it looks like [the figure] has a long bear, and part of his body is missing; his right hand is broken and on the left the form of a envolotório, and above the head there are letters…”
Much of the writing was obscured by encrusting lime. In 1862 King Pedro V came to examine the site and it was offered as a gift by its then owner, to be placed in a museum in the grounds of Quinta dos Falcoes, but it never happened and after going through several owners in 1936, the municipal government of Braga, acquired the land surrounding the fountain and it was then transferred this title to the State the following year, with repairs in 1952 and then in 2000-2001, a modernist building was constructed over the site with interpretation signage. Its future being secured as perhaps the most important ancient healing spring from the pre-Roman period in Europe.
This year I will finish my book on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire a county which has been surprisingly rich in fascinating sites and last summer I had the pleasure of doing a field trip with fellow wellie and member of the Holy wells and sacred springs of Britain Facebook Group and admin of the Holy, ancient and roadside wells of Warwickshire group Steve Bladon as we explored a number of sites around Rugby. Perhaps one of the most unusual wells is found at Watergall Bridge on the outskirts of the parish is the Monk’s Well (SP 418 548).
The Monk’s Well is not marked on the map as such but its location can be surmised by the presence of a blue W above an old farm house off the A423 road. A footpath went from the road, past an old farm house and directly to the well or rather veered a little to the left but close enough to have a quick look anyway. However when we arrived there, there was no sign of a path beyond the gate. As we pondered map in hand our next move, the farmer appeared. He was curious of what we wishing to do but as soon as he learnt we were interested in the well he became very welcoming and told us about the history of his house which appeared to have been once a manor house with the remains of the walls of a very large garden being visible to the side of the house. The farmer gave us permission to explore the well; he added that he used to go down into it when he was a teenager but hadn’t looked inside for years. He knew of the legend an unusual one, and one I had not read associated with any British holy well.
A hidden well
Climbing the hill where the spring was marked on the map in blue lettering the first significant site we encountered was the large conduit house. This is a substantial brick building, an arch approximately eight metres in diameter over a large rectangular pool of clear water, 14 by 25 metres. Originally the date 1618 was over the arch but this has now been lost. It is a substantial structure.
Climbing further up to the site of a well one is greeted by a modern metal drain cover. Not very promising. But carefully lifting it a shaft can be seen. This shaft itself is remarkably well made being made of dressed stone with stones projecting out allowing someone to climb down into the well, the spring of which appears to arise around two metres into the ground.
The bottom of the well is rather unusual being about 37 metres across and again well made of dressed stone with a stone seat. The spring arises beneath a rectangular slab of stone. It is the seat which is of interest. A pipe conveys the water away to the conduit house which itself supplied the house below. The earliest record of both sites appears to be C. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land:
“About a quarter of a mile west of the house is an eminence with an irregular hollow forty yards across and oft. or 6ft. deep, in the centre of which is a singular rectangular pit lined with dressed stone, having angle stones on two sides to facilitate the descent. It is 7ft. 7inches. deep, 2ft. square at the top, and 4ft. at the bottom, where there is a stone trough through which the water flows from a spring in the hill above.”
A Monk’s penance
As stated the seat if on interest for an oral tradition records that the monks inhabited the nearby manor house and were sent down into the well as a form of penance explaining the seat. An unusual form of penance but in line with other traditions perhaps of immurement. Evidence for the tradition that transgressing monks were somehow incarcerated in walls is scant however a discovery of a skeleton found with a book and candle behind a wall in Thorney Abbey Lincolnshire may well record it. However, was there ever a religious community at the site? The only scant evidence is that records show that early in the 13th century Henry son of William Boscher gave to the monks of Combe Abbey land on Heidune for building a new mill, and a little later John de Lodbroke gave 3 acres ‘below the mill’, this being evidently a windmill It is also recorded that on 14 February, 1227, the prior and monks of Coventry were granted in perpetuity a weekly market on Wednesdays at their manor of Southam (Suham) and a yearly fair at Coventry on the feast of St. Leger and the seven following days. However, this does not suggest there was any property here. A tradition records that they may have had a grange there. The local legend was known by the owner of the land but he believes there was never a religious house here the land being owned by the Spencers in medieval times. But it seems unlikely they had enough monks that would need such a bespoke penance.
Perhaps a better alternative is that the custom remembers the time when a hermit lived by the spring in a chamber, maybe the surviving chamber, protected from the elements. As the start appears never to have been investigated archaeologically. There are the lumps and bumps of a lost village not far from the spring although interesting not really near enough to have had the settlement settled around it, it feels. J. Ribton-Turner is his 1893 Shakespeare Land is more prosaic
“On the north side is a recess with a seat in it, probably to accommodate the person who cleared the trough.”
Whatever the truth it is the most unusual of sites in the county and perhaps the oddest legend in the country. Interesting in an area noted once for a large lake, hence the name Watergall, gall deriving from an Old English word for watery, it is not alone. Before the farm near the road is a mineral spring of which is noted by the owner of the farm that there were plans to develop it into a spa in the 1920s with full details being published locally but I have yet to find them. It arises in dilapidated wooden shed in a rectangular basin. Iron chalybeate water can be seen but the flow is sluggish.
Yes difficult to believe. This site hasn’t become Fakenews! As regular followers of this blog will know I do like to rediscover a lost holy or healing spring. But little did I think that I’d possibly find one literally under my very feet. That’s right and you didn’t miss read that! I am keeping some of the details like the exact location and other distinguishing features under wraps but hopefully you’ll agree in the fact it is a curious story…which like many stories about springs is still not the complete work and there is some supposition.
Well well well
When I moved into my house I discovered a large yellow plastic mat in the hall and lifting this there was a hole. Looking down with a torch I saw brick steps and a room. It was a cellar. A cellar which I didn’t know was there. Tentatively exploring I found a fair size room with brick arches and full of junk. Two things caught my attention one a hole at floor level and the other a bricked up doorway. Looking in the hole first it opened up to a chamber wide at the top and narrow at the bottom and carved into the sandstone rock – there was nothing in it but it was clearly a well – but this is not the well the post is about. It appeared to be a domestic well carved into the rock at some point. There appeared above to have been a framework to provide pump which would have gone to the outside above. It was a domestic well. Interesting and fairly unusual although locally there are a number taking advantage of the way in which water percolates through the sandstone stone
It was the bricked up doorway which interested me more. Fast forward a year and I decided to see what was behind the doorway. So we sledge hammered it!
What’s behind the wall?
So behind the wall there was a rectangular structure set in the ground. It was surrounded by large granite slabs it appears From what I can see, there was water on the bottom a fact proved by dipping a tape measure in with paper on it. It appeared also to be around two feet deep. What else could it be but a chamber containing a spring. A possible spring head. The bottom of this spring chamber is rock as it appears to have an uneven nature but it is difficult to see. This is to be expected the floor of the cellar is stone and so the cellar was probably build around a natural cave with a spring in one corner. Inside the chamber is a water appears a lining possibly in lead which was done to seal it no doubt. The brick chamber looks Georgian in nature but the fabric around the spring head appears to be much older than the wall and indeed it sits unsymmetrically for no reason over part of the basin. The whole chamber has a dark material on the walls which appears to be lead. A neighbour had informed me of two facts he knew of the house one that it was lead lined, here was the evidence, and the other there was a tunnel which went down into town providing a way of servants to reach the big houses. This was very unlikely but looking at it laterally was it lead lined to contain water and so was the chamber a conduit house and the tunnel did not provide servants but a service, a water service, for the houses, a conduit tunnel more likely.
I must stress that there is no documentary evidence of a spring associated with the house. No ancient records. No well or spring marked on any map. No mention at all of any well least at all a holy one. However, I have been told by local historians that the church was situated by a spring in Anglo-Saxon times. A 1913 book of the town records discussing this Anglo-Saxon settlers:
“The new comers would find several beautiful springs rising to the west…and near to the foot of the hill, one being at the top of Church Lane. Round these springs, and by the streams flowing therefrom (where the main street now stands) they would clear the ground, build cabins chiefly of timber, and cultivate small strips of land, which would be gradually extended. Between the sites of the several springs they selected a spot on which they ultimately built a church, and it is pleasant to reflect that on that spot for a thousand years thanks and prayers have been offered to God for pardon and purity, peace and help, and every other blessing.”
Could this be the actual well? I spoke with the chairmen of the local history story who is convinced it is indeed the original spring of the town. What is the name I wonder? An picture taken in the local library states that the house is called St. Helens. This is unusual as the church across the road is called St Mary’s. Was it once called after St Helens? Unlikely. There is no evidence of a name change. But does it refer to the well. St Helen’s Wells are not uncommon. And often they indicate a pre-Christian origin.
There is clearly more to find out so hopefully I way get more information I was post further on this.