Category Archives: Folklore

In search of rag wells: The Clootie or St. Boniface’s Well, Munlochy, Scotland – a photo archive

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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!?

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This one’s been here for a while!

And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!

A Roman water shrine rediscovered? The Weir garden’s mysterious well

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The Weir garden is a delightful riverside garden owned by the National Trust. Many people naturally visit it for the gardens but it is the unusual and possibly unique relic that can be found.

Before entering the main section of the garden is a curious octagonal cistern lying close to the path on the left This was discovered when some work people were digging for a new water pipe in 1891 during a period of drought. Whilst removing earth for a trench they discovered the site. Unfortunately, several of the upper stones were removed before its significance was realized and the placed back. This did mean that the sections were replaced but in the wrong parts and this explains the tanks less than perfect outline. When it was first discovered the excavators believed it to be a medieval structure this was despite the discovery of tesserae plugging a central opening in the lower stone. The remains of a wooden water calcified for centuries which used to direct the flow of the spring above and angled by about 45°from above. Elsewhere were pieces of broken tile, tesserae and green painted wall plaster. More substantial remains of buttresses can still be seen in the river below.

Local legend?

Associated with the site and gardens is a legend recorded by Jonathan Sant in his 1994 Healing wells of Herefordshire. The legend records that two figures haunt the well and area. One was a Roman Soldier and the other ancient Briton women said to have been his lover. It is said that his general sent him to the well with a message for a lady but alas he say his Briton lower saw them meeting at the well and suspecting him for infidelity and thus threw herself into the river. He saw her do this and jumped in after her. They both sadly drowned

Once a year it is said that the ghosts appear and fill the well with their tears and according to Sant its waters were said to have magical powers for lovers.

All this is possibly Victorian romanticisms post the discovery of the well. Jonathan Sant (1994) also states that the well was traditionally said to have been filled in by order of the bishop of Hereford but he does not claim why or give the source. Does this suggest that it was used as a pagan site? Or are we talking about a protestant Bishop stopping Catholic practices at a holy well? None of these legends appear to have attracted the attention of either Ella Mary Leather’s The Folklore of Herefordshire or Roy Palmers The folklore of Hereford and Worcester.

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A local water deity?

It is possible that the ruins represent a high status third or fourth century Roman villa which contained a Romano-British shrine dedicated to water nymphs called a nymphaeum. A clue to a local deity may come from the Roman altar stone found in 1821 beneath the Billiard Hall near the Hereford library may have originally come from the Weir Gardens and of what can be read:

DEO SILVANO

As Silvano was a Roman God of the countryside it would make sense to have them worshipped by the river Wye. It is possible that if the legend is not a Victorian embellishment that records folk memory of the deities.

A curious site and possibly one of the only truly surviving Roman water shrines in situ. It may have been Christianised but all memory of that has been forgotten. Hopefully one day more can be found.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The rag wells of Wales

As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.

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The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?

An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—

“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”

He was further informed that :

 “People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”

An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:

“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”

This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!

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Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:

“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”

Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area

In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring  she states that:

“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”

And records that:

“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”

Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.

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A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.

The Everlasting Well of Papillon Hall, Leicestershire

One of the most fascinating lost Leicestershire holy wells was St. Mary’s Well or Everlasting well – although there is no clear evidence they are one and the same I should add but it is more than likely. Why is it more fascinating than most? It was because it was associated with David Papillon, said to be a local mystic.

Who was David Papillon?

David Papillon (1691-1762) was great-grandson of the builder of Papillon Hall, locally he was called Pamps and stories state he had psychic powers and that he had the power to bewitch people with his ‘evil eye’. One local tale tells how he criticised two farm labourers for ploughing a field poorly and so mesmerized them so they could not move all day and only released them at the end!.. As a result villagers made the sign of the cross in dough when baking bread to protect them.  It is not clear how he used the well but it was probably thought he cast spells over it!

Holy well come evil well?

Pen Lloyd 1977, in their The History of the Mysterious Papillon Hall, Market Harborough, notes:

“A chalybeate spring in the grounds used to be known as St Mary’s Well”

The site of the Hall was thought to have been on  the site of a Leper colony established by Leicester Abbey. Another name of this was the “Everlasting Well”, which was reported to be David Papillon’s magic well, which was supposed to possess great medicinal virtue. In my research for my Holy wells and Healing springs of Leicestershire volume I aimed to discover if the site survived and what remained of it.

History of the well

The first account is John Nichols (1795–1815) in his The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester:

“within a few yards of the Welland… in a stone cistern, formerly in some repute for weak eyes’

But he fails to suggest its name or refer to it in reference to David Papillon. Lloyd (1877) records an account by a Mr Walker, a previous owner of the Hall, who had a fragment of the well cover which still showed a P and one of the butterflies from the coat of arms. He gave it to Pelham Papillon who lived in Sussex in 1908 and the stone was supposed to have been built into a stone wall in the garden at Catsfield Place. Why it was given away is unclear and perhaps suggests at this time the well itself had become derelict and being removed. Whatever,   it is also reported that he experienced some misfortune followed and he was forced to return it. However, where it is now is unclear.

What happened to the well?

In Old Pamp and the Slippers of Papillon Hall by David Allen or Lubenham.org.uk states:

“around 13 years ago (1988). It was at this point I decided to take a closer look…… I was surprised at what was still standing including……… the remains of St Mary’s well”

So it would appear it probably survived when Bob Trubshaw was recording it in his 1990 Holy wells of Leicestershire. No photo or drawing exists of the well that I can find but it must have been large enough to have a slab over it or on its enclosing wall.

PapillionHall

Does the Everlasting Well last today?

Contacting a Mrs Barbara Burbidge, Secretary of the Lubenham Heritage Group I was informed that the well no longer existed. She also informed me of a local man called Bernard remembered when his parents and many others would get water because the mineral content was supposed to have therapeutic healing powers. Bernard’s mother used it to bathe her eyes. Even Jack Gardiner the famous boxer from Market Harborough is reported to have used it after his fights to help him recover.

She continued by informing me:

“Unfortunately I can verify that  the well itself was removed several years ago and when I visited the site about five years ago doing research on Papillon Hall, all that remained was a slight staining in the ground and a few pieces of brick and rubble. I expect ploughing in the field in subsequent years has removed even those traces.”

According to Mrs Burbidge the well was situated about a mile to the west of Lubenham and south of what is now the A4304. The site can be found by following an avenue of trees from the road (opposite the entrance to Papillon Hall Farm and Branfield Residential Park) towards the River Welland. As you approach the river, turn left into an arable field and the well was in that corner of the field. Following those instructions I could not find any evidence and it looks like the Everlasting well lasts no more.

300th Post – the original Pixy Led well, Fitz’s well, Dartmoor

 

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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.”

Image may contain: outdoor and natureComically 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.”

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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.

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An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Uganda Sempaya hot springs

Spurting out sometimes 2 metres into the air, in the Semuliki National Park can be found the remarkable Sempaya Hot Springs. Boiling at up to 103 degrees Celsius; the indigenous Bamaga clan have a legend to explain it.

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The male and female springs

The Bamaga clan, state that a hot spring arose after the tribe’s womenfolk saw a hairy man dressed in bark holding a spear with his dog moving in a zig zag fashion, whist collecting wood. Quickly returning to the men, the men then decided invite him to their village and find him a wife called Nyansimbi. However, the man who became known as Biteete disappeared once hunting and after searching they came to the hot spring where they found him and found no traces of both the man nor dog at the site, only their spear. They cried out Bilente meaning ‘Oh he has gone’ and thus the spring was so named. On returning to the village they told his wife and who also ran into the forest and was never seen again. When they looked for her they found at another hot spring her clothes. As a result they named the springs Male and Female, giving them the name Bilente and Nyansimbi respectively.

Healing springs

They believe the springs to be where their ancestors reside, Consequently, over the generations, the Bamaga tribe would perform rituals over the springs yearly, throwing in coins and making animal sacrifices.  At Nyansimbi pregnant women would visit and pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery whilst other women visit to improve their fertility. Whilst others visit the waters believing the water, which are rich in salts, can cure skin problems. These extremely hot waters still continue to spurt out of the water producing a remarkable spectacle for all he see it.

Simon de Montfort’s Battle Well – the holy well of a would be saint

A rather uninspiring pond in a field outside of Evesham is the site of perhaps one of the most fascinating healing springs in England.

A saintly Simon de Montfort?

Much is written of Simon de Montfort but it short his establishment of two parliaments during his interloping coup against Henry II and short rule he is seen as the father of parliamentary democracy. His death at the Battle of Evesham, which saw the rightful monarchy restored, resulted after miracles were reported at his shrine, to be an politico-religious saint and pilgrimages occurred through the late 1200s. Amongst the cures at his tomb Gunnell of Ketton’s son Harry who took dust from it to cure his paralysis and a hen from Sulgrave, Northants was revived to life!

The miraculous creation of a spring

Not unsurprisingly, what with the evocation of Simon and his miracles at the tomb, attention would turn to the site of his demise or in the eyes of his followers ‘martyrdom’. In the 1840 Halliwell translation of the circa 1280 The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, an account records how a Piers de Saltmarsh in 1274 was travelling in the retinue of William Beauchamp of Elmley, one of the Kings’ supporters over the site of the Battle of Evesham. This is said to have happened before June 1266 it is said. Piers doubted Simon’s saintliness and called on him to prove it by providing them, miraculously, with living waters, Piers then:

“seized a horse’s shoulder blade, and began to dig. God works wonders! Out of that dusty hard ground there shot up a spring of sweet water, high as the hills”.

An interesting precursor to this would appear have to been recorded by William rector of Warrington who is said to have taken away earth from the site of the earl’s death and was able to have a dying man by mixing this with water.

Of course the discovery of the spring need not be that miraculous as William Tindal noted in 1794 the spring was normally dry in summer and was just a depression in the ground. Of course both William and Piers were not local and thus would not be familiar with any intermittent spring in the area.

Miracles and cures at the well

Halliwell (1840) again tells how a‘ contemporary authority’ in the 1270s that:

“some say that there have been many miracles at his tomb, and that on the spot where he was killed there is now an excellent spring which has healed those suffering from all kinds of sickness; but nobody dares tell the world of this, for fear of the King and his party”.

The Miracles of Simon de Montfort tell how between 1274 and 1279 record ten miracles of healing from ‘the Earl Simon’s well’ Alice of Burton Overy Leicestershire merely kept vigil and was cured. However most cures were from drinking or washing themselves in water which was brought to them; water was taken as far as Oxfordshire, Thanet, Dunstable and London. Such were Stephen Aungevin’s young son at Dunstable Bedfordshire, Alexander of Suffolk, a citizen of London although some immobile recipients lived nearer such as Harry Chaunteler of Bretforton and a woman at Elmley Castle. Of her a supplementary miracle is recorded. . She is said to have journeyed with a jug to fill it with the miraculous water for her mistress. However, at the time there was an attempt  to stem the cult and visitors to the well. As such some soldiers sent to prevent people visiting stopped her and when they looked inside the jug saw only beer and let her pass.  However by the time she gave it to her mistress at Elmley, it contained water!

Certainly large numbers appear to have attended the site, when Ralph of Boklande of Thanet bathed his leg in the well it is said that he was cured:

“in the site of many people.”

It is recorded that people were even carried in carts from as far away as Leicestershire and even London. A ritual was established in which they would drink at the well, and either worship there or at Evesham Abbey.  Even animals were cured A winded palfrey ( a docile horse), being rode by the Countess of Gloucester being cured there. The Miracles recording:

“The Countess of Gloucester had a palfrey that had been broken-winded for two years. In returning from Evesham to Tewkesbury, the horse having drunk of the Earl’s Well and having had its head and face washed in the water, recovered of this. The Countess and all her company are witnesses”,

The 1910 Evesham Journal reports that:

“until a very little time ago… there was a belief that this water was very efficacious for weak eyes… People often visited the spring and took water away with them to bathe their eyes’

The establishment of a chapel

Understandably, the well attracted considerable trade and obviously money.  Alms being given at the spring by a follower of Simon, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford around either 1273 or 1279.

Despite a decline in the cult by the 1280s the well’s famed did not die with it and it appease to have survived long after it with a chapel. In 1448 The Brut by Richard Fox, a monk of St Albans it is recorded:

“where the battle and murder was is now a well, and grete elmes stande about the well; there is over the well an hovel of stone (a canopy), and a crucifix and Mary and John”.

This appeared to suggest that something of a wayside cross or Calvary was present there but no other authority records it and there is certainly not trace. By 1457 the site was called Battle Well and in that year Abbot John Wickham’s receiver accounted for the abbots expenditure of one penny there. A flyleaf inscription in a missal of 1489 indicates that:

‘to the chapel of le Battell Welle’.

After the Reformation

The chapel appears to have continued until the Reformation, and the Battle well was still remembers long after. In 1702 a man was fined for ‘nuisance at Battle well’ suggesting either he was disturbing those visiting the site or annoying the landowner in attempting to gain access.

Richard Pococke records in his 1757 Travels records:

‘I walk’d near a measured mile to Battle Wells, in the northern road… They say the battle was in the road…and they told me that they found in the road a vault full of bones, which formerly might be under some chapel’.

William Tindal in their 1794, The History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham records:

‘a little nearer the town, on the same side, is the spot called Battle-well’,

Nathan Izod names and precisely marks it on his 1827 map and it appears on the 1886 OS map as well. It then lay 120 yards west of the road about 200 yards northwest of the mile post and about 145 yards southwest of the Worcester road junction. Richardson (1927) in their Wells and springs of Worcestershire identifies it as

“simply a field-pond situate at the head of a valley that runs down to the River Avon.”

Cox in his translation of the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey provides a map, and says that:

‘examination of the site in 1961… confirmed that Battlewell at present derives its water from land-drainage, and often dries up completely in Summer. In a rainy season, however, it may be filled’.

As D.C. Cox in their Battle of Evesham a new account records:

“The apparent continuity of the name Battle well from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth and the consistency of the early written references, both with each other and with the nineteenth century maps, make it reasonable to suppose that the present Battle well is the fifteenth century one.”

However they cautiously note:

“Earl Simon’s well, according to the thirteenth century collection of Montfortian miracle stories, lay near the Evesham -Kenilworth road at the top of the hill which the battle was fought. That it was the later and present Battle well cannot be proved but cannot easily be doubted.”

Today one can trace this site quite easily although it is unclear of access rights. The site is free to observe during the annual blessing at the well each August however, A simple spring fed pool but one where history, folklore and belief are intrinsically intertwined.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Spring of Giving Life of Istanbul, Turkey

“O Lady graced by God,

you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,

the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.

I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,

to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,

“Hail redemptive waters.”

The ancient city of Istanbul is a melting pot of religions and cultures. As a result it is an excellent place to search for holy wells. The most famous is the Life Giving spring or font or Hagiasma which survives despite a history of destruction revealed to a Byzantine soldier called Leo Marcellus who became the Emperor Leo 1 who reigned between AD 457-474.

The Hagiasma By Alessandro57 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11878406

The legend according to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos a Greek Historian writing in 1320 occurred on April 4th 450. At the time outside the Porta Aurea of the city of Constantinople there was an overgrown grove of trees where a shrine with a polluted spring existed. It is described that as Leo was passing a grove of trees, he passed a blind man who was lost. Leo helped him find the path and seated him in the shade. The blind man was thirsty and so Leo looked for some water. In his search, Leo heard a voice say

“Do not trouble yourself, Leo, to look for water elsewhere, it is right here!”

However,he looked around and could see any. Then he heard the voice again

“Leo, Emperor, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take the mud and put it on the blind man’s eyes. And build a temple here … that all who come here will find answers to their petitions.”  

Rather surprised by the voice he did as told and once mud was placed on the blind man’s eyes and he miraculously regained his site. Finally when Leo became Emperor he built a church on the site of the spring.

After his accession to the throne, the Emperor erected a church to Theotokos or St Mary. The spring continued to provide healing waters and in particular was said to allow people to be brought back from the dead hence its name. Indeed, the name Life giving font’ became an epithet for St Mary It became a major pilgrimage site in the Greek Orthodox church who celebrate the spring on Bright Friday in the Orthodox church. .

The present church is also rectangular and the spring arises in a crypt outside the church adorned with icons and paintings surmounted by a dome painted with an image of Christ in a starry sky. It is accessed a stairway parallel to the longer side of the church. The springs water flows into a marble basin. Inside the basin can be seen fishes who have been present in the water for several centuries. This is remembered in the complex’s Turkish name balikli the “place where there are fishes.

How did the fish end up in the holy well? It is said that a monk was frying fishes in a pan nea the shrine when a fellow monk told him of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans. He did not believe the other monk saying he would only believe it if the fish he were frying came back to life. At that point they did, jumped from the pan and into the water and began swimming!

Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century wrote a hymn to St Mary called Zoodochos Pege:

As a life-giving fount, thou didst conceive the Dew that is transcendent in essence,

O Virgin Maid, and thou hast welled forth for our sakes the nectar of joy eternal,

which doth pour forth from thy fount with the water that springeth up

unto everlasting life in unending and mighty streams;

wherein, taking delight, we all cry out:

Rejoice, O thou Spring of life for all men.

In search of the healing and ancient wells and springs of Folkestone part one – The holy well

The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious.  This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:

“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”

Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:

“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”

Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone

“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”                           

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In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock

“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.

This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.

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In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:

“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”

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When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?

When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.

Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.

 

The sacred landscape of Ilam Staffordshire – the Holy Well of St Bertram, his shrine and cave

Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.

Who was Bertram?

Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam.  The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:

“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow!  A pitiful child bed indeed!  While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.

As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam.  Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.

Two wells?

One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well).  The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.

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Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.

Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.

Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used.  He states that:

“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”

Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.  Interestingly, literature available from the

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Sacred tree

More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a

“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day.  And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”

Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:

“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”

Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time

A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:

“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”

Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?