Category Archives: Ghosts
My attention was first brought to this curiously named well in Janet and Colin Bord’s excellent Sacred Waters, then I traced the quote to Ruth Tongue’s 1965 Somerset Folklore. However neither sources gave any idea of whether it was extant but both state it was near the church (of course Tongue’s work is the original source no doubt). A few years later I found myself in Bishop’s Lydeard and thought I’d look for it. I found the church and in a lane nearby I found a fish and chip shop. I asked there and they said although they had never heard of the well, there was a well down the lane. A few yards down and there it was. An elderly lady was walking past as I peered in and I asked her if she knew the name of the well..”Devil’s whispering well” she replied.
But why the Devil?
One theory underlined by the name is that one could commune with Old Nick. And the structure could lend support to this bizarre usage. The well is a red brick structure with an arched entrance, but oddly with the well’s basin is to the side of the structure rather being face on like most wells, so we could whisper? But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a cursing well. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets There appease to be no evidence of a Roman connection to the settlement that I am aware of, but then again the other well known site St Elian’s Well in Llanelian similarly does not have a Roman connection.
Walling in the Devil Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This is suggested by another possible original is recorded in an article in the Local Notes and Queries of the Somerset Herald of the 31st August 1935:
“Walling in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – many years ago, when I was a child , I remember hearing my grandmother say that the Devil kept appearing near a well at Bishop’s Lydeard, where some men were building. They were very frightened and went to the clergyman and asked him what to do. He promised to go with them when they thought he would appear again and he did so. When Satan appeared in the form of an ordinary man, but with a cloven hoof, the clergy man approached and said ‘In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me?’ and he gradually disappeared and the clergy man told the workman to ’wall him in’. So they built round the place, and he disappeared forever. I have always had the impression it was somewhere along the wall opposite Lydeard House. I wonder if anyone else had heard of it? I know my grandmother used to say they walled in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – H”
What does this legend mean? Was it that the Devil was walled up and that’s why you could whisper to him? A reply came a month later and printed in the 28th September edition, where an Isabel Wyatt suggests
“One or two features of this legend suggest the interesting possibility that it may originally have had quite a different significance from the one which we read into now. In the middle ages a person walled into masonary while still alive was one of the punishments for witchcraft; thus in 1222 an old woman and a young man was accused of witchcraft were sentenced by Stephen Langton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to be plastered alive into a wall.”
She goes on to suggest that the Devil is not the real Devil, but a human devil who was the chief of each witches coven. Witches are associated with other wells in the county, indeed not that far away at Parlestone Common on the Quantocks. This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend as the first correspondent suggests. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping rededication despite the proximity of the church. What do we make of Palmer (1975) who details in his Folklore of Somerset that Snell (1903) give details from Thornton’s Reminiscences of an old West County Countryman tells of a black dog in the village?
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.
A 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.”
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.
South 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.
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.
In 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 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.
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith
This is a substantial spring head arising in a square pool and beside a niche and then flowing into a large brick-lined bathing pool. Over the whole structure is a stone arch. The spring was said to have been formed when the Saxon saint, the daughter of King Edgar, was carrying water from a nearby brook to mix with the mortar so that the church could be built, but became exhausted, prayed for water and the spring arose. The pool was used for healing, although this did not stop the Lady of the Manor, Emily Foley, installing a grill inside the arch preventing locals using it. However this grill is now open, although it would be a bit of a squeeze, as only part of the grill fully opens.
Higgin’s Well, Little Birch
In what could be described as the muddiest lane in England, well it was when I visited, the reason for the mud is easily found being the substantial Higgin’s Well. The brick work of the structure dates from the early 19th century with some improvements such as the creation of a large pool as an animal trough for Victoria’s diamond jubilee, although this structure does mean now it is very difficult to get the water if you are not an animal. Perhaps this was the intention; as the foundation of the well enshrine the landowners attempt to stop people taking the waters. It is said that the spring was originally further up the hill, but Higgins the land owner filled it to stop locals who crossed his land to reach it. As a result the spring forced itself through the floor of his house! As a result Higgins established a well at the bottom of the hill as a compromise.
Holy Well, Garway
This is a small spring, dried when visited, just outside the south-east corner of the churchyard. When it flows the water flows through a spout into a small rectangular pool. Beside is a niche perhaps where offerings or a saint was placed. The site is associated with a Templar church, but whether they utilised it is unclear.
The Holy Well, Kenchester
The National Trust gardens of the Weir hide an interesting anomaly, a small spring head surrounded by a series of circular steps down. Said to be a holy well by some authorities, it was filled in by the Bishop of Hereford, however others believe it to be a Roman water shrine.
A colourful legend tells that a Roman soldier who had an ancient Briton lover, this lover misconstrued a visit from on order to a ‘lady’ and threw herself into the river. He went to save her and was himself drowned. It is said that every year they haunt the well and that the well fills with their tears, and if collected the water would have special properties for lovers.
Is it a holy well? It’s not clear, the fact that the site lies in a landscape garden suggests it is folly although there was a Roman villa. Local accounts state it was rediscovered in the 1891 drought, whilst searching for a water supply.
St. Ann’s Well, Aconbury
This is a delightful well to finish our survey. Found in a copse in a small field. It arises in a small medieval structure which enclosures a small pool, being tanked, the flow can change and when I visited it was rather dry. I have included this site in my January entry this year, as its water said to be good for eyes, where visited on Twelfth night or New years day, when it was thought to be more powerful.
As it’s the first year anniversary, it is time to reflect upon the how holy springs are born. There appear to be four ways in which holy men and women has caused springs to be created. Perhaps the most easily explained in view of modern science is that miracle associated with St. Thomas a Beckett at Otford or St Augustine in Kent and Dorset, where they struck their staffs into the ground or a rock and caused a spring to arise. A story which of course arises in relation to the work of Moses, who supplied water for the Israelites in Exodus. Indeed, it appears to have been done as a claim of holiness as seen by Sir John Shorne in North Marston (Buckinghamshire). Some modern day antiquarians may relate their actions to that of dowsers, but a little bit of local knowledge of hydrology would help!
Sometimes like that of Holy Well bay (Cornwall), St. Ive’s Well (Huntingdonshire) or St. Winchombe (Gloucestershire), a spring arose when the body was disinterred and rested. This again makes some logical sense for one would expect that digging a body in some geological areas could possibly hit ground water, the junction between two rock types being likely. When arising from the resting of a body is slightly more problematic, but one would expect in a journey fraught with thieves, wolves, bears and all sorts of hazards the body may have been temporarily interred to prevent loss, especially as journeys being done on foot.
Often there is a gruesome origin to springs. St Alban’s Well in St Albans came about after the saint was decapitated by the pagan Romans and at his martyrdom, his head rolled down and where it rested a spring formed. This is one version of the legend, a story repeated in the more famous perhaps St. Winifred’s well. This is a more problematic origin and perhaps again links the idea of temporary disinterment.
Certainly, the construction of a hollow may explain how St Morwena’s well arose in Morwenstowe (Cornwall). It is said that the saint journeyed to find a stone for the font and fell asleep here and a well arose. This resulted in the well being used as the location of the church.
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
Whilst in Australia I was able to visit two water related sites with associations with indigenous or Aboriginal folklore and legend. The most famous is the Babinda boulders and in particular the Devil’s Pool in North Queensland is known in Aboriginal legend as a cursed place and has features not dissimilar to that one would find in England. The curse according to local tribesmen is related to the story of a woman who ran away from an arranged marriage with a respected elder with a younger man. When she was captured and threw herself off and created the boulders, waterfall and pool. She waits for her lover and is said to cause people to drown, 17 people in all according to wikipedia.
On Wikipedia, a local, Annie Wonga, gave this account:
There was a tribe that lived here. In this tribe was an elder, and his name was called Waroonoo and Waroonoo was promised to a girl called Oolana. When they got married, they had a big dance. As they went dancing a wandering tribe passed through and they welcomed them. In this tribe was a handsome young warrior and his name was Dyga. Oolana fell in love with him, and he fell in love with Oolana. While they were dancing, they decided to run further up the creek and camp there overnight. And at the morning, the wandering tribe and our tribe saw that they were missing. So they went in search of them and they said to Oolana, “You’ve got to come with us.” And his tribe took him away. And when she saw that, she just came and she threw herself into the creek. She loved him that much. And there was a mighty upheaval, and rocks were strewn everywhere and where she lay is now called the Devil’s Pool. And every now and again she might call a wandering man to her, thinking that it’s Dyga.
She is said to haunt the place and 2009 a woman is said to have captured the image of her in the pool, local Aboriginals state that the 17 people who have died did so because they did not respect the place. It is a remarkably peaceful and frightening place in one stroke.
The Innot hot springs are perhaps less well known outside of the country. However, they have to be the hottest springs I have ever experience, one can bearly stand a few minutes with ones foot immersed. A Dreamtime legend is told of its creation. The origin of the spring has an Aboriginal legend. This tells how a father and son would regularly go out collecting Sugar Bag (wild honey). Often the father would leave some of the honey for the spirits to ensure its continual provision. However, often the son would eat it and would be scolded by the father. On one occassion whilst eating the honey, a Yamanie (a snake) came behind him and swallowed him making a thumping sound which caught the attention of the father. He can running back and tried everything to make the creature look the other way. Finally he threw a gunamore or sweat potato in the river to catch its attention as it turned around the father cut the creature’s head off. The serpent lay in the water bleeding, steam began to rise and it became hotter and hotter because the Yamanie’s temper was so great making the hot spring ever more.
The water supposedly used to fill a large pool of overflowing water which was large enough to allow 50 people to bath in it. In the 1890s two hotels (pubs for non-Australians), a bath house and a weekly coach from Herberton were established. In 1891 the Australian Medical gazzette stated:
the springs have gained a reputation for their curative properties in chronic rheumatism, goat, liver and kidney disease.
Water was placed in barrels and hauled by mules across to the coast and was sold in Townsville by the Innot Spa Waters Ltd and as far away as back into Europe until the first world war. The water produced today fills temporary pools made by local people along the Creek, although a bath is to be found in the camp nearby. The temperature is 71.5 0C and issues at three litres a second.
Whilst researching for a future volume on holy and healing wells in Warwickshire, I came across an interesting site called Margaret’s well. This site one would assume takes its name from a saint, but no, showing how easy it is for holy well researchers to be confused. However, this site has a far more interesting origin, it is cited by some as being the site where a local girl committed suicide. That in itself, although tragic, is not perhaps that interesting, but the suicide may have been the inspiration for the tragic character of Ophelia who drowned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
A tragic suicide?
For those unfamiliar with Hamle: Ophelia loves and was courted by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but is helpless when he starts behaving strangely after his uncle marries his mother, having killed Hamlet’s father. After, Hamlet treats her poorly and abondons her she goes mad and drowns in a pool prompting the Laertes and Hamlet duel which results in both dying.
Who was Margaret?
Margaret Clopton, was the daughter of a leading Catholic family in the town and was a contemporary of Shakesphere. She was abandoned by her lover, drowned herself. News of her death would have reached Shakespeare as the family was so well known even if he was living in London especially as his wife, Anne Hathaway still resided in Statford. The dates certainly match, Hamlet is believed to have been written by the Bard in the 1590s, shortly after Margaret’s supposed death.
Searching on line for evidence, I found the following website: http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/History/article/whats-the-evidence-for-ophelia/
In it a Dr. Bearman, who is the chief archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the evidence was open to interpretation, but a possible link with Ophelia could not be denied. He stated that although there was a Margaret Clopton there are no records of her marriage or death which would lead you to suspect she died in infancy or early youth. However, he does note that there is a tradition of a young woman drowing in the well and the death is first recorded in Jordan’s History of Stratford written in1790. Whether this was Margaret and whether this was the source perhaps can never be proved! Indeed the vagueness of a ghost haunting the well may suggest a religious origin? Is the Margaret St Margaret?
Nearly lost for good?
The well built as a conduit for the hall was constructed in 1686 as the inscribed stone SJC 1686 records. The SJC refering to Sir John Clopton, but is obviously a pool or well before this but nothing is recorded. The site was for many inaccessible for years due to its being immersed in thick briars, bramble and boggy underneath and only the very top of the stonework being visible. It was decided in October 2002 to restore the well and a new path was laid to it, the work being completed in 2003. Archaeological field work once the land was drained revealed the brick vaulting, steps and flagstones. Masonry foundations were were found south-west of Margaret’s Well, and may have been remains of arbours shown on the 1848 Tithe map and estate plans of 1849.Once the private estate of Clopton house, the site now in a public park.
Visiting in 2011, the site is marked out by a fence and has a small plaque, but unfortunately this and the well itself have been vandalized. The well which consists of a barrel shaped structure over a rectangular pool has lost some of the brick work from the top and the concrete rendering. The water arises clearly from within, but I could not see the carved stone described.