Category Archives: Gloucestershire
Originally published in Source New series No3 Spring 1995
I have been fascinated by springs and wells since I was very small, and in recent years I wangled myself an allotment garden with a holy well in an adjoining wood! I live with my wife and children in the centre of Bristol and the allotment is a beautiful escape from the exhaust fumes. Our patch is a few miles out of town near the spot where the River Avon joins the Severn, so the animals my children get to see include not only horses, goats and domestic birds on nearby smallholdings, but estuary birds like heron and curlew. Larger animals like badgers and foxes have their homes in the woods at the bottom of the allotment. The foxes live in the ancient den at the back of the boat cave which contains the Bucklewell or Shirehampton’s Holy well (ST 539766) Britain’s own wild dogs guarding an entrance to the underworld! Last summer the fox cubs were spotted playing ball with the pumpkins growing in our garden. I’ve always dreamed of owning or living near a holy well but never thought it possible I count myself very lucky indeed,
Shirehampton is now a suburb of Bristol but until century it was a small though very busy village. It lies just north of a severe bend in the river Avon called Horseshoe point. This bend, and limited periods of access for large vessels due to the ridiculous tidal range of nearly 40’ eventually led to the decline of Bristol as an international port.
But ironically it was this huge rise and fall of the water in the Severn estuary and her tributaries, especially the spectacular spring tides, that must have partly attracted such a cluster of religious sites associated with the curative powers of the water. From the famous Romano-British temples and cult sites like those of Brean Down and Glastonbury, the area has a rich heritage of healing centres associated with water.
The immediate locality around Bucklewell has been inhabited since the lower Palaeolithic, some 2-300000 years. The people of that warm interglacial period left us their flint tools alongside teeth and bones of the elephants they hunted. These were among the first known people to settle in Europe and the arguments continue as whether they were Homo sapiens or, as seems more likely, Homo eretus, a different species of man and wom -kind.
Two ancient roads lead down to Shirehampton’s old Village Green to either end of a stretch of the River Avon called Hung Road, where the sailing ships were moored and hung by ropes from their masts to the river bank, to avoid topping over at low tide. The two roads that run there are Station (formerly lamplighters) Road and Woodwell Lane. Station road ran to the ferry, until recently the only river crossing for miles, and apparently of considerable antiquity. Woodwell Lane originally led to a small wooded cliff above Horseshoe Point. In this wood is Boat Cave in which lies a spring-fed pool called Bucklewell or Shirehampton Holy well.
The name Bucklewell or ‘Well of the Bowing down’ describes the attitude that every visitor to the spring adopts. Even in these irreligious times we are forced to bow before the holy well. A natural outcrop of conglomerate stone, locally quite rare, forms this roof. In some parts of the country this natural concrete is known as ‘pudding stone’ or ‘breeding stone’ because of the varying coloured pebbles that fall out or are ‘given birth to’ by the ‘mother’ outcrop.
Overlooking the Horseshoe Bend, lying close to an ancient river crossing, and the cave itself being the shape of a horse’s roof or crescent moon, make Bucklewell reminiscent of more famous entrances of the underworld. In Greek mythology the Well of the Muses on Mount Helicon was created by Pegasus stamping his hoof. Also nearer to home, the well of St Milburga at Stoke St Milburga in Shropshire was made when the saint fell out riding and told her horse to stamp the ground. Whereupon a spring of fresh water gushed up, enabling St Milburga to clean the blood from her eyes. Bucklewell shares with St. Milburga’s Well the reputation of waters beneficial for eye complaints.
It has been pointed out many times that folklore of holy wells and springs all over the world contains elements that hint at some recollection of oracular powers used in the service of a female deity; and Bucklewell is no exception. The central theme of its legend is as follows:
“Inside there is a crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.” (Sally Watson Underground Bristol Bristol 1991 p.47)
This is of course, displays a fertility theme: the inauguration and marriage ceremony of a Sun God/King go the female spirit of the land. Thus ceremony was preceded by the sacrifice and later rebirth of the God/King. This is beautifully described in the story of Lleu Skilful Hand in the Mabinogion. The name Bucklewell could incidentally be read as the ‘marriage well’ ‘to talk buckle’ is an old phrase meaning to ‘talk marriage’.
While we are looking at the mythology of damp places it might be worthwhile mentioning that at some time the area around the Bucklewell was planted with hazel trees in such a way that nuts would drop into the pool of the cave. A similar association of hazel nuts and a holy well can be found in the story of Connla’s Well from Ireland., where the hazel tree was poetic inspiration that could be found bearing fruit and flowers simultaneously; the fruit symbolising concentrated knowledge (as in’ in a nutshell’) and the flowers symbolising poetic eloquence. Indeed the most famous pool of poetic inspiration – that of Persephone herself – is described as a ‘hazel shaded’.
The legend of the Bucklewell mentions the ‘crumbling masonry’ that can be seen at the back of the cave. I can find no mention anywhere of the well having ever been dedicated to a Christian saint (although John the Baptist would be my guest, the principle action around Bucklewell occurring at the Midsummer’s Day) so I was doubtful of the interpretations of this ‘masonry’ being the remains of a hermitage. After months spent ruminating on theories of shrines, light boxes, sound boxes or foundations for Romano-british statues. I decided to crawl to the back of the cave and check out the crumbling masonry. Several unfortunate encounters with fox-droppings later, Ii found the remains for a small semi-circular structure, the masonry extends into a large crack in the stone roof. Then feeling a little sacrilegious I rolled my back and shone a torch up this crevice. There it was. No not s silver chalice, or even the remains of a chimney from the goddesses’ eternal flame. No, what the torchlight fell upon was a half brick! Along with this were numerous sandstone blocks held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces. The ‘crumbling masonry’ is of post-16th century date, and (of half brick being reused) is probably of, at most, and 18th century date. It looks to me like some sort of hiding place.
The prospects of a time jump from the poetic myth of prehistory to the activities surrounding a busy 18th century port seemed at first like a bit of a let-down. But it turned out to be an exciting period of the place. The port of Bristol was different from other ports in that not only did it lie miles from the ocean, but right in the city centre. Ships were moored a few feet from a labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and houses where illegal imports could disappear quickly – a nightmare for the Customs and Excise.
By the 1750s the port was seriously overcrowded and various plans for redevelopment were put forward. Merchants must have been sweating under their wigs. There was the ever present fear of valuable cargo, having sailed halfway round the world, only to be wrecked on the mud banks of the River Avon. But there was also the terrifying risk of fire sweeping through the ships, laden with gunpowder, moored cheek by jowl right in the heart of the town. The Bristol Merchant Venturers decided to build a magazine, away from the city, at which all incoming vessels could unload their gunpowder before reaching the port. The Powder House , as it was called, was built just on the seaward side of Horseshoe Point. The course of Woodwell Lane was altered to accommodate the magazine and the wall was bullet enclosing the whole plot of land, The Powder House and stretches of the wall survive to this day. Recently part of it, now incorporated in the garden wall, was rebuilt. Having a good poke about, I found the wall was made from sandstone blocks with occasional reused brick, held together with a grey mortar having a high content of charcoal pieces- identical to the masonry in the cave.
I must have occasionally worried the local neighbourhood watch, picking at garden walls with my biro, but so far I’ve not found mortar with the same make-up anywhere in the old village. It seems that the builders employed by the Bristol Merchant Venturers to construct the Powder House used some materials to make a small structure at the back of the cave. Two further stories appear to solve the mystery of the ‘crumbling masonry ‘Sowing the crop’ was the phrase given to a method of smuggling, and involved letting a rope tied with half a dozen ‘ankers’ over the side of the incoming ship. This was done at a prearranged location on the river. The middlemen or smugglers, came along under the cover of darkness in a small boat and retrieved the ankers with a grappling hook. Then he rowed ashore and usually hid the rum along the river bank where it could be collected later.
In 1798 the local Customs and Excise carried out ‘creeping’ exercise along the Hung road stretch of the river. Customs officers dragged the river from boats while their colleagues searched the riverside for their concealed contraband. On this particular ‘creep’ the officers searching the ‘holes and the gullies found 20 ankers of rum. That is I estimate 150 gallons! There is no record of anyone being persecuted as a result of this haul but it could well have put a small smuggling enterprise out of business.
Several years later – so the story goes – a party of local gentry decided to beat the bounds of Westbury Parish. Bucklewell was one of the boundary markers of the Shirehampton tything of Westbury. These people used to send out a couple of farm workers, or ‘pioneers’ as they were called, ahead of the main party to clear a path and find the boundary markers. On the occasion when the pioneers came to Bucklewell, they found an ‘old boat’ in the cave. This was and still is quite astonishing if one considers that the cave is in a heavily wooded cliff, some 40’ above the river at high tide, and 20’ from the cliff top! Astonishingly enough for Bucklewell to become known as the ‘Boat cave’ throughout the 19th century
Now for fear of the story getting around and upsetting the Bristol Merchant Venturer, I leave the reader to draw his or her conclusions about the crumbling masonry at the back of the Bucklewell or Boat Cave. Maybe the smuggling activities in the area led to another legend about the cave, which says that there was hidden treasure buried in the Bucklewell. Or maybe the treasure is the vision of the future, found in the depths of the pool on Midsummer’s Day. For me, the treasure is the glimpses into the past I have had researching the possible history of the Bucklewell.
Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.
In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.
There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840). There are surely others but why?
The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.
Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
The Cotswold area is justly noted amongst those who visit holy and healing wells as being a notable place, as can be seen from this blog. What is not very well known is that Gloucester itself had a notable well that of St Cynburgh’s Well. It is not mentioned in Ancient wells, springs and holy wells of Gloucestershire by Skyking-Waters (1923) curiously enough as indeed is its legend of how it became holy.
How did the well arise?
St Cynburgh’s Well is recorded in a local legend recorded in a Gloucester Abbey Lectionary, 15th century which is summarised in Historia Monasterii Sancti Petri from 1863–7. It tells how St Cynburgh, vowed to a holy life, fled from her royal family rather than marry. She arrived in Gloucester where she began working for a baker, whose wife was so jealous that she murdered the princess by chopping of her head and threw the body into a nearby well. When the baker, returning home and missing his assistant, he called for her and heard her voice answering from the well.
Miracles at the well
Her body was recovered and buried near it. A chapel was built over the well and it became a site of miracles and a medieval hospital was established at the site. This recorded as being dedicated in 1147, and appears in later records from 1267 onwards, with miracles of healing recorded there; it was near the city wall by the south gate. Archbishop Courtney ordered a new translation in 1390 and when the establishment was finally suppressed in the 1500s a local MP Sir Thomas Bell converted the site to an alms-house called St Kyneburgha’s.
Who was St Cynburga?
The saint behind the legend is a bit of a mystery. She is thought to have been around in the late 600s. It is believed that she was the sister King Osric the founder of St. Peter at Gloucester Monastery. The King appointed his sister, Cyneburga, as the first Abbess of Gloucester. However, there was another St. Cyneburga of Castor in Northamptonshire and it possible they are one and the same. However, how the legend arose based on the association with the monastery is unclear.
A relics of the holy well?
A lead box in Gloucester museum is a curious relic of the saint’s veneration. Said to have come from Woodchester Church it depicts the saint and another local saint said to have been the last Roman Bishop of the town, St Aldate. It is believed to have been used either to hold relics or as a container for holy water. Did it contain water from her well one wonders and as such is the only relic surviving from this site.
A modern remembering of the well
This relic in Gloucester museum was at one time the only remembrance of this holy well then in 2011 an art installation was installed. Part of an £7m project which linked the city centre with the docks is the 16m (53ft) Kyneburgh Tower will was built in Kimbrose Square designed by British sculptor Tom Price to design it stating that according to the BBC New website it:
” told the story of a girl’s journey from life to death and beyond…..I intended it to be both a spectacle and a place for quiet contemplation. Both artworks function like a metaphysical sundial. They point to the invisible histories we rarely seek out, but which permeate the landscape around us.”
They recorded that:
“The artworks will be dedicated by the Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, the Very Reverend Stephen Lake, and the Reverend Canon Nikki Arthy as part of the official opening ceremony.”
Perhaps a Dean who may have stood at a site once frequented by those seeking the holy waters of this lost and lamented holy well.
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.
Deep in the woods around Cinderford is one of England’s most mysterious sacred springs. The most famed of a number of ancient and sacred springs in the Forest of Dean. This is St. Anthony’s Well. Its remote location befits this hermit saint and one could quite image in some dark and distant time a hermit eking out an existence beside this large spring. So powerful is the spring in fact that the easiest way to find it is to follow the stream back to its source. When one does one is greeted by a substantial structure. Richardson (1930) in his work cataloguing the water supply of the county notes that it flowed from:
“ the foot of a steep bank into a stone-slab-covered dip. From the dip it is piped into a basin measuring approximately 11 ft. 6 in. by 8 ft. by 5 ft., in which there is usually about 3 ft of water.”
Fortunately this description stands today.
A healing spring
The spring was famous for curing skin complaints. Rudder (1779) in his New History of Gloucestershire states that:
“Bathing in this water is an infallible cure for the itch, and other cutaneous disorders; and a gentleman of Little Dean assured me, that his dogs were cured of the mange after being thrown into it two or three times. The water is extremely cold.”
MacLean (1881–2) in Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeology Society Transactions states that it cured leprosy and Palmer (1994) rheumatism. There was a ritual associated with the power of this water. Nicholls (1858) in The Forest of Dean: An Historical and Descriptive Account adds that:
“its peculiar efficacy being combined with the rising of the sun, the month of May, and the visits to it being repeated nine times in succession.”
Palmer (1994) in his Folklore of Gloucestershire suggested that:
“twelve visits were needed, with one step taken on the first, two on the second, and so on.”
Many authors agree that its waters are very cold. I remember my visit to the site in the 1990s with my father. He had been suffering with skin problems and upon hearing upon its properties tried the cure….he dipped his feet in the water, complained about its severe cold temperature, but then went around nine times. He was not cured, not because it was summer not May but because his skin complaint was due to diabetes!
Another claim for its waters was that it cured eye complaints as well. Certainly the water is very clear and pure. In the late 1980s the local church on Ascension Day visited the well and dressed it, although it is unclear whether this was of a Derbyshire form. The well was dressed in the 00s by local pagans which had mixed responses.
It is likely that the well was associated with Flaxley Abbey founded in 1148, but there is no evidence for this association. Indeed the first reference appears to be as St. Anthonyes Well in 1669 and is marked on the 1881 OS map. Beyond this no firm history is known other than that recorded in topographical works above. Yet its old mossy stone work and clear water speak volumes of its great age. St Anthony’s feast day was in December I am sure the water than is colder than ever!
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
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.
The site of Mary Magdalene’s Well was famed for its healing and petrifying qualities, for it is reported that when pieces of stick were immersed into the water they became coated with stone. The water had associations with curing sore eyes. A Saxon monastery was established in the 13th Century by the Cistercians in the vicinity of this never failing spring, and then conveyed by means of an aqueduct. This feel into disuse when the order moved towards Kingswood and the monastery became unused.
Two references to the well note that in 1357:
“John de Brerousa, granted forever the inhabitants of Tetbury free liberty to fetch water in Magdalen Meadow. A.D. Edward III 1357”
Again in 1487 a John Lymeriche, of Tetbury, Gentleman, gave leave the inhabitants of Tetbury to fetch water at a well-spring butting upon Magdalen Meadow, which evidently had its origins in the edicts. Within the town a drinking fountain was feed by the well. The spring is one source of the Bristol Avon, and it emerges from the Forest Marble, and then flows into a pond surrounded by a stone wall. In the 1857 the site was dilapidated and the water mixed with other streams. The site has indeed seen some changes from being in an industrial estate in the 1980s-90s to now being where Tesco is and considerably tidied up in the proceeding decades.
The interesting site, of Broadwell arises from beneath the Broadwell Tavern, to forma pool of approximately 15ft square, with near two foot of water. The spring was probably the origin of the settlement’s name Dur – water, Sley – meadow. The Inn itself would appear to have been a religious house bearing the name St. Mary’s House, a name which continued until 1610, and in 1639 reference is made to the nunnery of which the inn was part. The Rev. W. R. Lett believes that the dip well within the courtyard to supply water to the order easier.
The belief that the Tavern was a nunnery is supported by the presence of Gothic windows, which were until recently on the tavern, and the finding within the inn religious images. Thus the well could as Walters (1928) notes be called the Nun’s Well or St Mary’s well. The water itself arises from inferior Oolite limestone, being thrown out by the impervious Upper Lias clay. The water is hard and deposits a limestone called ‘tough or puffe’ stone.
This small well of Lady well, (SP 177 258) lies in the private grounds of Abbotswood, and its water is derived from the Coteswold Sands resting on Upper Lias Clay and flows into a small well house. This is built of stone it has a sloping roof and upright sides. The water flows through four inches by two inches opening and thence to a 1ft dipwell and then overflows to the River Dikler.
The most interesting note concerning the site is the strange and certainly pre-Christian legend that connects it with a nearby megalith called the Twizzle stone. It is said that:
“When the Wizzlestone or Wissel stone heard Stow clock strike, it went down to Our Lady’s Well to drink.”
This stone is said to conceal treasure but woe betide anyone who would try to uncover it whilst the stone is away, for it would swiftly return and squash them.
Gloucestershire boast two sites where crosses mount springs. Whether this is an examples of how sacred pagan springs were quickly Christianized by the erection of a simply cross above their waters or simply a marker for the spring is unclear. What is known that the Well-cross (SP 045 086) is 14th Century. This cross itself is without embellishment being a very crude and primitive lantern form. It seats on a stepped platform, and beneath which the spring flows at great speed through a typical stone wall and fills a iron trough (a replacement for an earlier stone one). It is possible that the cross was erected by the Knight’s Templars, who were active in the area.
Sadly the well cross at Condicote was destroyed in the 19th century and its fine finial had to be replaced by a gable obtained from the church during its restoration. Although a pump now feeds from this spring, originally there was a stone dipwell with two trap doors. Unfortunately this was often contaminated and hence the pump was erected on sanitation grounds. This cross is again believed to be of 14th Century date and bears upon the socket of the cross, virtually illegible. East side ( behind pump ) :
“HO, EVERY ONE THAT THIRSTETH, COME YE TO THE WATER” ISAIAH LVI
West side: RESTORED 1862. W. B. VAN NOTTEN POLE, RECTOR.
North side: “THIS WELL IS RESERVED FOR THE DOMESTIC PURPOSES OF THE INHABITANTS OF THIS PARISH : DOR ALL OTHER USES, RECOURSE TO THE PUMP AND TROUGH IS RESPECTFULLY SUGGESTED “SEE RESOLUTION OF VESTRY MARCH 16TH 1865.”
This later statement refers to another pump and trough however.