Category Archives: Gazatteer

Some little known ancient wells in the south east Greater London area of Kent

This year I published my long researched Holy wells and healing springs of Kent, number six in the series. Here is an analysis of the county’s urban wells which may interest.

 Caesarswell

Ancient water supplies do not survive well in urban areas. What were once the very focal points of such communities quickly become swept away by progress and the need for better sanitation and supply. However, in my research into ancient wells of the county, I have been interested to note that there appear to have been some particularly interesting examples in what is now the most urbanised area of Kent that which has now in the most part been incorporated into the London sprawl. Some of these sites, Lewisham’s Lady Well, Bromley’s St. Blaise’s Well and Keston’s Caesar’s Well, are well known and suitable for articles in their own right, but there are a number of other interesting sites. In some cases unfortunately their existence in most cases is only remembered by their placenames such as street names or wood names and in some cases actually survive.

For example Greenwich drew the majority of its water from a source called the Stockwell, being the main source of the palace’s conduit tunnels. It may well have drawn upon spring water used by the Romans as Roman wells were located nearby. The site has long gone, and all that remains to remind us is a plaque on the site.  Another spring head, not given a name anciently it appears, has in recent years been a focus for local pagans.

Blackheath’s water history is even less clear. Two names are noted Cresswell, a road name and Queen Elizabeth’s Well. The origin of the latter name is lost. Does it suggest that Elizabeth I drank from it when resident in the Royal Palace?

Lewisham had a number of noted water supplies, the Lady Well ( probably the same as the Woe Water ) and the Mineral Spring, however modern street names may record other interesting examples: Abbot’s Well, Cordwell and Foxwell. Swanley street names record a Kettlewell.

Further out, in the Parish of Eltham, there was an interesting well called the Lemon Well. The properties and brief histories of this spring are recorded by a correspondent of Dunkin ( 1856 ):

“..a spring which rises in the hedge by the road side a little beyond the residence of Thomas Lewin Esq, in the road towards Bexley. This spring has long gone by the name of Lemon Well; and has been supposed by the sort of people who entertain such notions, curative of sore eyes.”

This correspondent continues to note that the well was once filled in, but complaints from local people resulted in the culprit cleaning out the well and ‘putting it in a convenient form with new brick work.’ Yet an examination appropriate ordnance survey map and of the area fails to show a well or spring in this position; hence one presumes that the site was indeed finally filled in.

Nearby in the Elmstead Parish, was Garret’s Well. This marked on an 1841 tithe award, and may be derived from Old English garra for the triangular pieces of land left once the furrows were established. Indeed, old tithe awards are often the only evidence of these lost water supplies. For example at Downe, one records a Herwell, although no spring is noted, it would appear to be likely to be a site. The name probably derives from O.E hara for a hare or her for soldier, but possibly hearg for a pagan sacred grove.

A Sundridge tithe awards record a Camberwell and an Orpington tithe awards record a Cornwell, whether this records a spring that was noted for being able to predict corn prices? Another interestingly named site is noted on a Tithe Award in the Parish of St Paul’s Cray. It is called Henrietta Spring, and was the main supply for the village, being located north of the road. One imagines that its name came from local lady benefactor. Often ancient wells are recorded in wills and testaments. Such a mentions can suggest that the well was considered of importance. One such example, may have been found in Erith. Here records of a will of Robert Hethorpe of 1493, describe a Belton Well, ‘3s 5d for the mendying of a well called Beton well.’ This well would appear to be described as Beden Well in 1769 and Beeting Well in 1843. The origin for its name is unclear, it was probably taken from a landowner, but it may have been derived from the pagan festival of Beltaine – unlikely but more interesting if it was. The Cray valley has some interesting examples. The name Cray itself is believed to derive from Celtic for ‘fresh water’, so one would except its source to be considered important. This would appear to called as Craegas aeuuelme in the 8th Century, or fons aewielm, otherwise the ‘Great Spring’. In more modern times it gained the name Newell.

Further out was an interesting site, located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place. Located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place on the road side was Jacob’s or Hussey’s Well so called because it was repaired with stonework with a hollow stone by a Jacob Angus, and later by a Rev. Dr. Thomas Hussey, Rector from 1831-54. Its water was rich in calcium and sulphates and considered to be medicinal. Sadly, although the ponds remain, the well’s only monument is the name of the street encircling these pools. Hussey has also given his name to the Archdeacons’s or Hussey’s Well. This being a public fountain set up by Archdeacon Clarke of Norwich and Rector.

Cray has an interesting named site, called the Hobling Well which is probably the same as that marked as Robin’s Hole, on Tithe map. Both names suggest that the well was believed to be the abode of elementals. The name Hob being an Old English name for goblin, and Robin possibly recording the pagan character of Robin-a-Tiptoe, an elemental that would do arduous farm work without pay. Why the site should be so name is unclear. What I have always assume is the site, a boggy spring fed pool in Hobling Well wood still survives and recently saw off a plan to use the area as a waste dump. Presumably there was also a site called Palewell, as it has given its name to a local street.

There was also a unnamed pin well in the Parish at Beckenham. Langley was famed for its woe water, but also had an unnamed spring, which was used by a local physician, Dr. Scott in his research into the production of anti-bilious pills. This is now dry, but was known to have medicinal properties.

Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known. The first apparently is where Pett’s Wood derived its name, being that of Swellinde Pette, a name first recorded in 862 as Swelgende. The name refers to Whirl Pool, which was in Pett’s Wood. I have been unable to find any details regarding why local people should have believed there was such a site. Its early date suggests that it was Saxon, and may have been there interpretation of a local Dane Hole. But it is interesting that Horblingwell wood and pookridden woods are nearby was someone trying to warn us of these wood’s danger.

Despite there being some confusion over this site, Chislehurst still has one surviving site, a little known holy well called the Bishop’s Well. I searched for this site whilst undertaking research for my forthcoming book on the subject and was pleased to find that it was still extant. The well, like St. Blaise’s Well, was said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed into the grounds of the Crown Inn in Victorian times. This is not the current Crown, but now the private residence of Old Crown Cottage. I was fortunate to discover the owners in  Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known.

I was informed by the then present owner, Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, laying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. So despite the fear of such watering holes spreading cholera, and hence cleared away on sanitary grounds, such an interesting site exists. Fortunately the sprawl of London into the county, the interesting water history of this region of Kent still continues in documents and antiquarian accounts.

Springs by the seaside…beside the sea

With the sun shining, many of us will head to the seaside to soak up the rays, do some rock-pooling and eat some ice-cream, however hundreds of years ago, when the sea was predominantly an industrial location and the therapeutic nature of sea bathing unknown, pilgrims would visit the sea-side to sample its sacred springs as they would elsewhere.

A classic example is recorded by Wallis (1769) in his Natural History of Northumberland, he tells us that:

“Among the sea-rocks, on the north side of the church at Newbiggen, is a sacred fresh-water spring, called St Mary’s well, over which the tide flows.”

Such an arrangement would mean that often springs would have greater powers because the high tide would mean they were available for less time. A similar spring being St. Agnes’s Well Humphrey Head (Cumbria) where at the foot of the limestone cliffs is the spring arising in a rectangular chamber. A similar well has already been discussed at St. Govan’s chapel, but sadly dry. In Wales, a location which cannot be bettered for grandeur can be found at St. Mary’s Well on the Lleyn Peninsula. Regularly covered by the tide with its salty water, the spring remains fresh at low tide.  The natural spring was said to be the location pilgrims to Bardsey Island would stop. To get a cure it is said that a mouthful of water from the well would be needed as you would climb the cliff above to walk around the chapel above three times.

The most famous seaside spring is the most evocative, Holy Well in a sea cave Holywell Bay near Newquay (Cornwall). Many doubtlessly pass this sea cave on the way to the sea without a second thought. Many hundreds of years ago it is said that the bay was littered with crutches as evidence of those who had been cured there. Despite no sign of any obvious Christianisation, a legend is told of its creation. It is said that the cave was one of the places that the cortège carrying the body of St. Cuthbert rested here on their way to Iona. However, that sounds like a convenient story to cover and explain attendance at this most pagan of wells. The water trickles across multicoloured natural basins of limestone, in the dim light of a torch, the pinks and blues, provide a remarkable view of a peaceful refuge.

Not surprisingly, being a fluid environment, such spring can be lost to the erosive power of the sea. Such may have happened to that at Eastbourne (Sussex), first recorded in the 15th century. Described by Horsfield (1835), no exact location is given. It reports:

“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton.”

Then in 2010 they were re-discovered, repaired and rededicated and cures are now reported…goes to show that some seafronts can provide all aspects, so if you are off with bucket and spade consider there may be a sacred spring somewhere to give a quench to the spirit and thirst perhaps.

The veneration of Water in 12 objects…number nine the pin

To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.

Madron Well

Madron Well © Copyright Malcolm Kewn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.

 

The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:

“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”

At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:

“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.” 

In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:

 “those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”

Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a  procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into  it and made a wish.  Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:

“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “ 

There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:

“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”

In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water.  After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:

“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”  

Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects.  For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.

A Yorkshire field trip: St Helen’s Wells of East Riding

Goodmanham

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One of the best signposted Holy wells, being signed from the town of Market Weighton! St Helen’s well is an evocative site. It is found to the south of the village lying in a wooded valley. The spring arises from a small cave and fills a triangular stone lined chamber. This structure has been linked to bathing but there is no evidence of such an activity and it may be more due to the water being used to fill the steam engines which used to pass by many years ago. Nevertheless this is a calm and charming site which has been considerably improved with a stone built well house enclosing and protecting the natural cave without detracting from the site’s ancient nature. Also below since I visited a local tree has become a considerable rag tree.

South Cave

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Smith (1923) notes:

“It is circular, built up with stone below and brick above, and roofed with corrugated iron, the approach being by four steps…the well like most old springs, has excellent water, bright and clear, and gives a never failing supply, the overflow finding its way to the Beck.

Also called the Quaker Well due the presence of a Quaker meeting house at the front of the house, it now apart from the roof much as Smith notes and is a charming and quiet shrine in a well manicured garden.

St_Helens_Well_North_Cave_FOR_MEG1

North Cave

The site enclosed in North Cave Castle grounds, of which Smith (1923) notes:

“is situated not far from the church, and a short distance within the Park Gates of the Castle and quite near to the north side of the fishpond. Some years since it lay by the north of a road running from the Market-Place to the West End, but when the fishpond was made, the road was diverted, being brought more to the south and so away from the well.”

St_Helens_Well_Castle_HotelSt_Helens_Well_castle_hotel2

He continues:

“The well is a clear and copious spring, and from time out of memory it is said to have given the whole place its water, and at a fire in 1875 at the Castle I am told, it supplied the water to the engine.”

He states:

“Now save the laming of cattle it is covered with a slab of stone.”

This has now been removed although a mess covers the spring head to prevent leaves entering. The area around the well has been gravelled and the well itself surrounded by stonework.

Great Hatfield

St Helen's Well Great Hatfieldd (12)

“At Great Hatfield, some half-mile from its beautiful cross, near the churchyard, and so originally not far from the south side of its former church lies the Well of St. Helen…the well flows from a bank and is covered with a roof of grass sods supported by walls. It is approached by four steps and a landing of stone facing east, its opening being at one protected by a door of which the frame only now remains.”

In 2014, on the 21st May a short service was held to re-dedicate this. In the mid 1990’s a committee was formed and the Well was reroofed. The work was completed in August 1995, the Well was dressed and a short service took place. This has happened nearly every year since.

St Helen's Well Great Hatfieldd (10)

The http://www.withernwickvillage.co.uk/Parish-News-May14.pdf noted:

“People would come to the Well and ask St. Helen for healing or to help with problems. The person would face East and put lace or a rag on the nearby hawthorn. This had to be done in secrecy at dawn. St. Helen’s is a rag well, (only a few remain throughout the country).”

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A Leicestershire field trip

Below is brief selection of sites in an understudied County, Leicestershire. Extracted from the forthcoming volume

AB KETTLEBY

Ab Kettleby Holy Well, note the grill over the following water.

In a lane close by the church, is a conical so called Holy Well (SK 724 229) although any history concerning the site is unclear. The spring is still very active although access to the water is not possible as the basin has been removed and placed on top of this truncated pyramidical yellow stone structure and the chamber is now grated. The water is said to be good for rheumatism, but beyond this little is known.

CHURCH LANGTON

St Anne’s Well, chalybeate staining at the springhead.

St Anne’s Well, the pool filled by the springhead

St Anne’s Well (SP 728 938) of which Nichols (1795-1815) notes:

“About a quarter of a mile North of the church, near the public road leading towards Staunton Wyvile, is an excellent well, or spring, called St Anne’s or Saddington’s Well, which in dry seasons has frequently been found highly serviceable… At the time of the inclosure, this spring was carefully preserved.”

Easily found and still marked on the appropriate OS map, the spring is found just by the roadside in a small copse but now directly flowing onto it. The water arises in a small bricked area and flows into a large pool. The water appears to be mildly chalybeate, as there is some sign of iron-red staining.

HOLWELL

The Holwell spring head.

 Nichols (1795–1815) notes that the parish had:

“a famous chalybeate spring, or spa, called Holwell Mouth (SK 738 236), which is considered as serviceable in many distempers; whence it obtained the name of Holy-well.”

 Despite this it is probably derived from O.E hol for ‘hollow’. It is reported that at some time the area was improved and a stone table was set up there. This may be connected with the fact that the land was called Well Dole and was granted to Vicarage 1403 and paid 10s p/a paid in 1790s for its upkeep. Was the table used to provide a dole? Otherwise would it not be a stone seat? The site was much frequented until the landowner discouraged its use and the site is still on private land but visible, more so in winter, from the footpath. However the spring currently is very overgrown but the spring head still gushes out at some speed among the foliage but quickly forms a boggy morass just off a footpath.

RATBY

Ratby Holy Well note some ancient walling?

The Holy Well (SK 502 056) is first noted by Nichols (1795-1815) notes in reference to Bury Camp above the site:

“Not far from the encampment is a place called Holywell; the water antiscorbutic.”

Its association with Bury Camp suggests it may have had some significance, possibly ritual, but certainly function although the inhabitants would have had a long walk down! Richardson (1931) describes it as:

“a good spring, “never been known to freeze”…has been piped into a now well-kept pond in the grounds of Holy Well House.”

The spring is tapped at its source, but still fills a wall lined pool to the left hand side of the house. The wall is appears to be made from local slate and may be of some age, but it is difficult to date. The water then flows into a brook. Sadly, no one was in when I visited. I made a couple of photos and left a note..no reply yet.

TUR LANGTON

 used by kind permission of, Bob Trubshaw, from his Interactive Little-known Leicestershire and Rutland CD-ROM.

King Charles Well, used by kind permission of, Bob Trubshaw, from his Interactive Little-known Leicestershire and Rutland CD-ROM.

In the middle of a field is the interestingly named King Charles’s Well or Carles Trough (SP 722 949). This appears first noted by Nichols (1795-1810). The spring fills a large trough as the name implies and appears to be chalybeate in nature. Local legend tells how Charles I watered horse here after Naseby. John Wilsons (1870-72) in his Imperial Gazetteer noted:

“Charles I., in his flight from the battle of Naseby, watered his horse here, at a place still called King Charles’ Well.”

However, it is more probable that this is a back derivation as it appears to be a back derivation from ceorl. The well is easily found along a footpath from the village.

Ancient wells of Chester’s Grovesnor Park

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Many take in the pleasant vista of Chester’s fine Victorian’s park its flower beds and play areas, but few are probably aware of two noted ancient springs found within. The most famed is found just on the edge of the park, indeed it is located just outside the park. This is Billy Hobby’s Well, a local wishing well. A local anonymous rhyme records:

“I lov’d the tales that idle maids do tell,                                                

Of wonders wrought at Billy Hobby’s Well,                                                    

Where love-sick girls with leg immured would stand,                                       

The right leg ’twas – the other on dry land,                                                      

With face so simple -stocking in the hand-Wishing for husbands half a winter’s day.                                                                                                

With ninety times the zeal they used to pray”

This old rhyme despite some pedigree suggested I have been able to date only to 1823. It appears to record a ritual undertaken at the well, a similar ‘one part of the body in, one out’ was done at Walsingham by lovelorn maidens, but it does look to be Victorian in origin there (or at least post Reformation). The only problem with the practice being undertaken then is that the present structure dates from that period.

However the name is much older. A Billy Obbies Field is marked in 1745, with a spring marked at 1791. This would appear to suggest that the spring gained its name from the field and not vice versa, possibly a local personage. Yet, the name is significant and it may hide a much earlier origin. The name Hobby derives from Hobb a name for a devil or demon and where the name Hobglobin derives from. It may be possible that the area was a marshy waste and to warn people away a legend of a demon was introduced. More interesting is the idea that as the name Hobb is synonymous with Puck, and Puck possibly having a Roman origin, that the site could be a much earlier Pagan site. This might explain the fertility ritual if it has a greater age. It may be significant that when the park was developed, a long line of Roman earthenware water pipes were found, did they draw water from the spring?

Whatever the origin, when the garden was developed in the 1860s by the 2nd Earl of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor, a rather grand and impressive red and buff sandstone ashlar well house was erected. This was designed by John Douglas a local Chester architect, who was not forthcoming in making this well grand with canted corners, pointed arches flanked by agranite columns with wrought iron bars. At each corner is a small carved circle containing carved sheafs and portcullises and the voussoirs contain carved roses. A tiled spired roof sits upon the structure with an apex surmounted by a copper fish weathervane. All in all rather ostentatious for a well, especially as access to the well chamber has not been made very easy by the enclosure perhaps.  Whether the improvements were done to develop some sort of spa well is unclear, but it is known that the when Canniff Haight (1904) visited for his United empire loyalist in Great Britain the spring was still flowing and noted, for he records:

Billy Hobby’s Well,” a spring of excellent water, where we have a drink.”

If Billy Hobby’s Well is relatively easy to explain away, the Park’s other well is less so. This is Jacob’s Well, now dry and of dubious origin this is associated with the ruins of a priory, which I feel are also rather suspicious.  The well is a fountain for people and a bowl for dogs I assume, over which the inscription reads:

 “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall never thirst again John IV 13.”

The well is a little stone arch close by St Mary’s Priory ruins, both features make for a picturesque feature and despite the association with a religious edifice; there appear to be no old origins. No water is present in the well either not does there appear likely to have been a very active spring looking at the geology. It is mentioned by Hole (1937) in her book on Traditions and customs of Cheshire but beyond that I can find no further details.

The veneration of water in 12 objects ….number two Lindow Man and the Bog People

Not sure it is wise describing the remains of people as objects…although some would argue many museums do…indeed, the display of such objects has caused some controversy and that one of these bog relics has understandably now been removed from exhibit.

A mistaken murder

Lindow Museum in the London Museum  Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Lindow Museum in the London Museum
Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

On the 13th May 1983, commercial peat cutters on Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Cheshire made a grim discovery, parts of a human skull with hair! Bizarrely, overhearing this discovery was Peter Reyn-Barn, who had long be suspected of murdering his wife in the 1950s but no evidence was ever found. He thought that the ‘jig was up’ and confessed, stating that he had buried her in his back garden which backed onto the bog! The remains were later to be dated to 250AD. He was charged even though this evidence was revealed before the trial, he had confessed after all. Significant perhaps over a year later 1st August 1984, these peat cutters found an even grimmer discovery: the remains of another body, strangled, throat cut and head beaten in. Again not Beyn-Fern wife, her body was never found, but a man of his mid 20s, the most complete bog person found in the UK.  The evidence of two bodies in this area of peat bog was strong evidence of a ritual significance to the peoples in the area over 2000 years ago.

Why peat bogs?

Compared to springs, peat bogs and marshes provide an interesting contrast. They provide water but it would have been generally inaccessible to prehistoric peoples as a source of drinking water, yet they emphasized the very mystery of watery areas; the giving of water by the mother earth. Thus it is perhaps understandable that ritual activities would focus here where the water was less utile but still as unwordly.

Lindow Moss copyright Roger Gittins

Lindow Moss
copyright Roger Gittins

Why was he sacrificed?

Sadly although the majority of authorities agree these are the remains of sacrifices, little supporting evidence survives beyond them. Was he a significant member of the group This is more due to the fragmentary nature of such cultural survivals. One view is that it may be linked to the Celtic head cult, a cult I shall return to again in this blog. Date wise this would be concurrent with the Celtic period when this was undertaken. Who they were sacrificed to is unclear. Anne Ross quoted in Joy’s 2009 book on Lindow Man suggests that the three forms of execution, may suggest different offerings to different gods. Glob (1969) in The Bog People notes:

“the rope nooses which several of the bog people carry round their necks, and which  caused their deaths, are a further sign of sacrifice to the goddess Nerthus. They are perhaps replicas of the twisted neck-rings which are the mark of honour of the goddess, and a sign of consecration to her. The neck-ring is expressly the sign of the fertility goddesses of the period.”

It was Roman Tacitus who recorded that she was celebrated by remote Suebi tribes in Germania. Nerthus was an Anglo-Norse Goddess of fertility which it would be likely transferred to England in the early pagan period of the colonisation, but evidence is scant I believe. Some have suggested it was an opportunist murder. But of course we really may never know. Joy notes:

“The jury really is still out on these bodies, whether they were aristocrats, priests, criminals, outsiders, whether they went willingly to their deaths or whether they were executed – but Lindow was a very remote place in those days, an unlikely place for an ambush or a murder.”

However, again as Glob (1969) notes murder and ritual sacrifice are not so far apart: often murderers would be sacrificed to atone for their guilt and again Tacitus notes:

“cowards, poor fighters and notorious evillivers are plunged in the mud of marshes with a hurdle on their heads.”

Dieck (1963) in The Problem with Bog People has recorded 690 bog bodies, the majority in North-western Europe, the stronghold of the Celts. Glob (1969) in The Bog People records 41 bodies recovered across England and Wales. 15 Scotland, as well as 19 Ireland in bogs, although few are as well preserved as Lindow Man found after his work of course. Less well known is the fact that over 20 years early in August 1958, a severed head was found. This again was thought be a recent murder but primitive chemical tests and X rays suggested at least 100 years. Post Lindow analysis showed him too to show evidence of a ritual killing with remains of a garrotte, although some believed it to be a necklace, from the late Iron Age-Romano British period and was again around 20-30 years old.  The English remains which exist from a window of 1st to 4th centuries is interesting. Indeed The 150 years between the death of Lindow and Worsley man, is a period spanning the late Iron-Age to Roman occupation. What is interesting is that pre-Roman rituals were still clearly being undertaken in a period of occupation, after of course the Romans had outlawed it. It gives support to the survival of any pre-Christian ritual into Christianized times perhaps. What is fascinating about the Lindow Man and his other ‘bog people’ is that they provide a real tangible link to ancient water worship even if we never find out the true reasons for his murder.

The veneration of water in 12 objects…number one the clootie

Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests. 

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Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if  I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.

Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.

As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).

It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:

“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.

Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.

The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag  Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record.  Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:

“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”

Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:

“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”

An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner  which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that

they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts.

Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:

 “twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.

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”.

The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:

“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.

In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.

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This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.

An ancient tradition?

The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.

 A modern tradition

Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:

“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.

And so it continues.  Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!

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A Staffordshire field trip: some holy and ancient wells of Staffordshire

I am plough ahead with my work on Staffordshire, some fascinating sites there. Here are some well known and not so well known sites…all worthy of investigation.

BRADNOP

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA small village just outside of Leek lies the Egg Well (SK 005 540), a secular healing well which have been developed into a local spa but exact details are difficult to find. Local tradition believes that the site was used by the Roman, but the older fabric was set in place by William Stanley, the owner of Ashenhurst Hall between 1744 and 1752. On the basin is his monogram and an interesting Latin inscription which reads:

“Renibus, et splenui cordi, jecorique medatur, Mille maelsi prodest ista salubris aqua.”

The translation being:

“The liver, kidneys, heart’s disease these waters remedy. And by their healing powers assuage full many a malady.”

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The name of the well is curious; it could refer to the shape of the basin, but could also refer to sulphurous waters although I could not detect a smell. Today, a rather ugly 19th century brick built structure surrounds this stone lined bath shaped structure, this was roofed at a later date.

LEEK

DSC_2137South of the town east of the Cheddleton road is the delightful but little known Lady Well or Lady o’ th’ Dale well (SJ 887 145). It was called the Weaver’s Well. The age of this well is difficult VCH (1996) records that it was named in the Middle Ages, it is recorded as Lady Wall Dale in the late 16th century (1587) and there was a farm belonging to Dieulacres abbey along the Cheddleton road, but the presence of St. Mary’s RC church above the well and 19th century fabric suggests it was developed by the local Catholic community. Indeed, a May Day procession was taken by children from the church every May Day, although when it ceased is unclear.  The site is grade II listed and the cartouche above the well has the 1855 and some unclear initials in Gothic writing. Its structure is rusticated ashlar 2 metre high with a slightly recessed niche below originally a water spout collecting water from the spring through which water still flows.

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The spout is made of a worn circular structure which may be carved head, it appears to be surrounded by stylised hair or possibly is a sun. Its waters were used for healing by local people. The approach to the well has been improved with a wooden walkway and it appears to be well preserved.

SUGNALL

imageIn Sugnall Park, on the edge of Bigwood, is a Holy or St. Catherine’s Well (SJ 798 306). The well is unmarked on the current O/S and only as W on earlier editions, where the dedication originated is unclear but it is known as such in the village and in Stafford County Archives. The well is source of a small brook which flows to fill Cop Mere. It is covered by small square sandstone well house with pyramidal roof. The roof was said to have been surmounted by cross of which only base remains, but there does not appear to be any evidence of breakage. The well looks like an ‘improvement’ made when the estate was developed in the 1700s with a Gothick boathouse and walled garden. The well is thought to date from 1770 when a temple was constructed in the park. It has been given a grade II listing.

UTTOXETER

imageUttoxeter boasts a very interesting holy well called variously Maidens, Marian’s or Mary Well (SK 094 264). It is situated on the hill along High Wood road above the town and now enclosed in the front section of the garden of 21a Highwood Road. The spring arises in a roughly two feet wide circular well basin lined by old brickwork, Although I could see no evidence of running water, the water is nevertheless clear and the well has a sandy bottom. A mesh cover has been placed over the well to prevent leaves fouling it and it is well looked after. Its water is thought to be curative.  A local legend records that it is haunted by a ghost of a young women, who may be significant, perhaps it remembers the dedication. The Rykenald Way runs past the well, suggesting a great history and indeed it is also called Maiden’s Way.

This is only the tip of a very large number of sites which have received very little coverage so please look out for the book in the future.

Some ancient and holy wells of the Holy Land

The arid land of the holy land is watered by a number of ancient springs. Perhaps the most famed is the Ain il-‘adra or Mary’s Well, a well which has served its Arab community well over the millennium. It is located below Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation in modern-day Nazareth. The church is so called because it is believed that the well was the location where the Annunciation occurred, Mary learnt she would be carrying Jesus from the Archangel Gabriel.

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However, neither the Four Gospels nor The Koran mention her drawing water from the well at the time and it only appears earliest written account that lends credence to a well or spring being the site of the Annunciation comes from the 2nd century Protoevangelium of James non-canonical gospel which reads:

“And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, you are blessed among women.”

The spring itself was one which fed the ancient city of Nazareth, and it was called  ‘Spring of the Guardhouse’. Rae Wilson also describes “a well of the Virgin, which supplied the inhabitants of Nazareth with water” in his book, Travels in Egypt and the Holy Land (1824). An account in 1853 notes that:

“the water at this spring was very deficient this summer season, yielding only a petty trickling to the anxious inhabitants. All night long the women were there with their jars, chattering, laughing, or scolding in competition for their turns. It suggested a strange current of ideas to overhear pert damsels using the name of Miriam (Mary), in jest and laughter at the fountain of Nazareth.”

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The present semi domed structure appears to be largely symbolic and no longer functions, although it was still used as a local watering hole until 1966. This was undertaken in 2000. During the late 1990s, evacuations revealed underwater systems suggestion its use as the town’s water supply from the Byzantine period and a separate accidental discovery revealed an underground bath house with Carbon dating it from the 1300s at the latest.

Hammat Gader’s mineral springs, one cold and four hot, fill the remains of a Byzantine bath house complex. Another Roman spa can be found on the southern side of Hammat but not as well preserved. The name Hammat means hot spring in Hebrew.

Another Mary’s Well is found in Jerusalem and is so named after the belief that she stopped there for a drink whilst visit John the Baptist’s parents and as a consequence it was a source of pilgrimage. Little can be found out regarding its history but it is thought that the spring has been used since the Bronze Age. The well is covered by a 19th century mosque.

Copyright Wikipedia

Copyright Wikipedia

More prominently mentioned in the bible is Jacob’s Well or Bir Ya’qub now lying in the Eastern Orthodox monastery named after it in Nablus. The Book of John states that Jesus:

“came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph, Jacob’s Well was there.”

It was at this location that a Samaritan Women spoke to Jesus according to the Gospel of John.  By the early 300 AD it is believed that the well was being used by Christians for baptism and by 380 AD a church was built over it according to Saint Jerome which survived into the 500s. Another church was built in the 700s but this was ruinous when the Crusaders mention the well as no church is mentioned. However, the Crusaders built a church for an account from the 12th century noted:

“it lies in front of the altar in the church built over it, in which nuns devote themselves to the service of God. This well is called the Fountain of Jacob.”

This church fell in 1187 during Saladin’s raids. For over 700 years, no church was built over the well and only ruins are noted as being nearby, then in 1860, a Greek Orthodox Church was constructed but this too was lost to an earthquake in 1927. But the site was rebuilt to resemble a Crusader church where the well is enclosed in the crypt where it now consists of a winch well complete with its bucket surrounded by icons and votive candles. Its deep burrowed into the rock is 41 feet and still contains water.