Category Archives: Folklore
The Holy Well, Cranfield Co Antrim
The Eye Well
St Brigid’s Well: Loch Dearg
The Abbey Well
Tobernalt in Co. Sligo
“Do not leave rags” notices, St Malachy’s Well
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?”
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.”
“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
“so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs…sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
One of the most ornate holy wells in an urban environment is Glasgow’s Lady Well. Laying check and jowl to a brooding industrial landscape of Tennent’s Brewery (does this mean holy water is in the Special Brew?)
It is noted by in the 1935 Glasgow Evening News ‘Encyclopedia of Glasgow’, Glasgow Evening News that the waters became polluted once the Necropolis was built they were redirected below it where the spring exited from the brae. The earliest mention of the well is mentioned by George Eyre-Todd 1934 History of Glasgow who stated that in 1715 when a John Black was paid a salary of 400 merks yearly to keep the well clean:
“Black was to furnish them with chains, buckets, sheaves, ladles, and other necessary graith, as well as with locks and iron bands. He was ‘to cleanse, muck and keep them clean,’ and to lock and open them in due time, evening and morning. In case of failure he was liable to a penalty of £100 Scots.”
Thus 1715 appears to be the earliest mention. It is likely to be much older, being noted on old maps. It may have provided water for Romans travelling the Carntyne Highway towards Antonine Wall. In medieval times it lay outside the old city wall.
Our Lady or local Lady
Paul Bennett in his 2017 Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow states that although it is assumed to be derived from Or Lady the site may be derived from a local benefactor, Lady Lochow, who lived nearby and built a hospital at the old Gorbels in the 14th century. However, there is no evidence bar the possibility it would be associated with the similarly unsubstantiated belief that it was sunk when commoners were denied access to the nearby Priest’s Well.
The well head was built in 1835-6 by the City Council and Merchants House when the area behind was converted into a burial ground; the necropolis. An account recorded in J. R. Walker’s 1882 Holy Wells in Scotland in the Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland states:
“THE LADY WELL, Ladywell Street, Glasgow. This well has been restored and rebuilt, as it bears. I have not been able to find any drawing showing the original structure. I cannot possibly imagine that the present building bears any resemblance to the former, it being now strictly classic in design and detail. The cross and urn are of cast metal. “Lady Love” or “Lady Well,” so called after a fountain at the bottom of the Craigs (now included in the Necropolis), sacred in Popish times to the Virgin.”
The structure originally was an open round artesian well and was developed into a classical style with the date being carved upon its lintel stone. The site remains a source of water until the 1860s when fresh water was the piped from Loch Katrine rather than another legend which claims it was closed up being a source of plague. There was later restoration in 1875, probably when the well head was capped, and then again in 1983 by the Tennent Caledonian Breweries beside which it incongruously lays. The well itself is more of an ornate folly head with its tureen like basin unlike any holy well I have ever seen nestled in its classical portico. It certainly fits into the grandeur of the necropolis above but as a holy well it is perhaps a little lacking in romance; however it is better off preserved than completely lost! It must mean something to a number of people for the basin and the base are littered with coins which surprisingly considering they are not in water have not been taken!
Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!
In April I examined a well know rag well but as research for my Holy wells and Healing Springs of Lincolnshire regards the county is a hot bed for rag wells. In this first part I will examine those found in the far north of the county
Perhaps the oldest account of such a rag well is that associated with the Holy Well at Winterton not far from the ragged springs at Healing. Winterton’s Holy Well (SE 944 178) was undoubtedly an ancient one, recorded as the fieldnames as 13th Century Haliuel, c.1200, Haliwelle Daile, early 13th century and gives its name to Holy Well Dale on road to Appleby. The earliest account by a Mr Joseph Fowler, of Winterton, who was born in the year 1791, remembered people who had seen rags on the bushes near. Andrew (1836) notes:
“There are excellent springs about Winterton, one of which, lying in a field eastward of the town, called “the Holy-well Dale”, has the property of petrifying vegetable matter”
Edward Peacock, 1877), A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, English Dialect Society 15 which describes it as accounted useful in the cure of many sorts of sickness. Fowler (1908) notes that:
“an old lady of eighty-one years tells me of how people frequented that spring, hung fragments of linen or cloth or ribbon on the hedge or bushes near, and took its healing water away in bottles.”
Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown. These are:
“WINTERTON : HOLY WELL DALE. There is a spring at Holy Well Dale, near Winterton, in North Lincolnshire, formerly celebrated for its healing properties; and the bushes around used to be hung with rags.
Sadly this is a site which despite still being marked on the current OS has apparently been recently removed in the last 15 years by drainage. The fate of the well emphasizes the need for preservation of such sites. In a report by Pastscape, they note that Mr. Herring, a local farmer indicated this spring on the ground at and said it ran following rain. They noted more modern piped spring nearby probably accounts for the mainly dry state of the old spring. It is interesting that in Hilary Healey (1995a), Lincolnshire holy wells in Lincs. P & P 19 pp. 3–6. they record the attachment of a rag to a nearby signpost.
Nearer to Scunthorpe at Bottesford is a site which has been discussed before on this blog by Ian Thompson under his examination of the Templar’s Bath nearby. Near the church is St John’s Well, a grade II listed approximately five foot high stone and brick well house, whose spring arises in the garden above it and flows towards the wall where the well is situated. Its masonry is mainly of Victorian date with possible older stones. A fairly recent gate is set across the entry but one can still peer inside to see the water inside in its sunken trough, although the actual well which is said to be eight feet deep is inaccessible in the garden of St. John’s House as noted. Locally I have heard it called St. John’s Ragwell but no authority can justify it but I would suggest that as its rag well and not clootie well it is probably authentic.
One of the most intriguing rag well is to be found to the north east of the village of Utterby along Holywell Lane. It is simply called the Holy Well (TF 317 937) and here it is said that coins were dropped and it was formerly a rag-well of great repute for its medicinal qualities. Peacock (1895) notes quoting White’s directory that:
“The surrounding bushes used to be tufted over with tatters left by people who visited it to benefit by its waters. Three or four years ago, if not later, remnants of clothing might still be seen on the shrubs. Persons yet living have taken their children to this well, and, after sprinkling them with water, have dropped a penny into it for good luck.”
This would appear to be the same site which Cordeaux, J., (1876), Anatolian folk-lore, Notes & Queries describes as a rag well near Great Cotes, Ulceby.
The springs appear on the first 6” O/S map as Holy Well (chalybeate) and remained until 1951 edition, when it disappeared. Thorogold and Yates in the Shell Guide of Lincolnshire (1965) describe it as a holy well full of sticks in a spinney. A correspondent to Collins (2011) called Steve, notes of the site:
“Finding it amongst the dense thorn bushes is another thing, dowsing helped me locate it back in the early 1990’s. I cleared out a 6 foot deep hollow many leaves and cans etc. and it was very dry. I returned about 6 months later to find it full of bubbling red rich water….”
When researching the site for Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire I could not find any evidence of a site. Indeed the site according to the Utterby Heritage group is now is dry and rather overgrown, hidden and no longer traceable. A return visit in early December always a good time to search for holy wells enabled me to get into the thicket and despite some promising hollows I could not claim to have found the exact site. However, clearly someone in the Utterby group know the exact location as they stated there would be a plan to restore the site at some time in the future.
In the next instalment we shall travel southwards and explore why rag wells are prevalent in Lincolnshire
As the restrictions on travel have been largely lifted we are all free to visit holy wells again further afield so this is my last armchair visit – hopefully!
Waltham Abbey in Essex was said to have been fed by a series of well recorded Holy Springs which were granted to the Abbey by William of Wormley. It gave them the right to fish in the piscina of Wormele, and all the fountains. Wormley, itself was an estate conferred by Edward the Confessor to Waltham’s college of secular cannons, founded by Harold in 1060. This was later re- founded as an Augustinian abbey. In 1220-1222, a conduit was laid to take water in lead pipes from Wormley, about three miles away. The granting of the rights to the springs, and the laying of this facility is well recorded in a Manuscript (Harl. MS 391 folio 6). The springs were called ‘fons Wrmeleiae’, and appear to have been situated on property adjoining the main road on the east, and bound on the north by the Parish boundary, and on the south by Wharf Road. Despite what would have been a distance from the Abbey!
This area has been known as Small Wells: the conduit started here. The manuscript shows an elaborate sketch is given, with several streams and three springs: a main pipe carries the water from a pool over a bank of clay into another large pool. On the south of this were two pipes or outlets intended to carry off waste water, and to convey water for washing. It continued eastward to Waltham Abbey.
In 1907, a large section of wooden conduit was discovered in Slipe Lane. Using the early documents as their source, Waltham Abbey Historical Society sought the site(s) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Excavations were made at Smallwells, but nothing was discovered. Further excavations were made to the site and grounds of Springs House, further south from Smallwells. A survey of Cheshunt dated 1562 shows ‘the conduite crofte’. Although, now in the Parish of Cheshunt, it is believed that it was in Wormley. This revealed a trough three feet wide and one foot deep in the centre, formed in a stone layer about four feet below modern ground level, and largely filled with silt. This could not be dated but appeared to be a leet. Despite this nothing conclusive was discovered. The exact site appears to have been lost. Or has it?
Perhaps the springs did not arise at Small wells. An interesting possible alternative is described by John Edward Cussans in his History of Hertfordshire (1870-3) and again on a visit by the East Herts Archaeological Society, who visited it in 1902. These ‘once celebrated Chalybeate springs’ lay in the meadow adjoining the house of Stanstedbury. Indeed the East Herts Archaeological Society suggest was the source for Waltham Abbey’s water supply, as the house was one of their granges. Interestingly, the report continues to state that one of the springs flows into the cellar part of the house called the Monk’s chapel, where a piscina and ambry are found.
In research for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire I approached the owners, the Trowers, in the early 1990s. They said they were happy to explore the site including the cellar. I arrived and saw that there were springs in the grounds close to the house. One arising in a roughly square grey stone structure, parts of which appear old, possibly mediaeval at the base, but the water arises in a black boggy hole. There was also nearby a circular brick well head, but has been filled in, and appeared Victorian. Close to this is a deep square well which is still full of water, covered by a concrete domed structure (like a pigsty). I was informed by Mr. Trower, the owner that he has to remove iron from their own water supply hence the chalybeate springs were still present.
The water from the well head appears to flow towards the house, which would be concurrent with view of the water entering the cellars. However, despite scrambling about for some time beneath the great hall in the cellar, I could not locate this piscina and ambry. It would appear to have been lost when the room above was deepened by shortening the cellar beneath in the 1930s. This required the walling to be improved and now it is red-bricked. Mrs. Trower remembers that the cellar was very damp. Why there should be such a chapel is unclear, possibly it was designed to continue Catholic mass after the Reformation, but as Mrs. Trower noted the property was never in the hands of a recusant family although it perhaps it was part of an under croft for the grange. Interestingly, I had heard of the springs were developed as a spa but the Trowers had never heard of this, and their family had been there for a long period; nor have I found any evidence other than the springs being celebrated.
Were these springs the Holy Springs of Waltham Abbey? The distance is the problem of course Stansted Abbotts is even further away than Wormley. Perhaps they were both owned by the Abbey but not as direct water supplies as such but as waters for the communities there perhaps as holy wells and the revenue went to the Abbey?
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!