Category Archives: Lancashire
“ Qui non dat quod habet, Dæmon infra vide 1414.”
“He who here does nought bestow, The Devil laughs at him below”.
So reads the inscription on the Monk’s Well, a very surprising survival of an ancient well in the urban sprawl of Liverpool. The well consists of a sandstone structure surmounted by a cross. The well although dry and the pipe very worn, it has been converted into a flower bed, which has probably hidden the steps down under the arch to the water.
The name Monk’s Well derives according to Moss’s Liverpool Guide (1796) because there was:
“an old monastic looking house…inhabited by some religious order, who might thus request alms towards their support”.
The 1768 Wavertree Enclosure Act notes that the owner of Lake House was annoyed that villagers were crossing his land to reach the water and such that a:
“through tunnel, channel or stone gutter, lately laid and made … to carry and convey water from the said well or basin into another … lately also made, erected and built, in the highway or road adjoining”.
This improvement may have lead to the local belief of secret tunnels, significantly leading to Childwall Abbey or Priory. The name is significant of course ‘child’ probably deriving from Old Norse keld for spring and may have been an earlier name for the spring.
Baines’s 1825 Lancashire Directory of 1825 states that:
“Here is a well at which charitable contributions were anciently collected, bearing the following monkish inscription in antique letters.”
Of that legend it was a belief locally that all visitors should on taking its waters, give alms. If they did not the Devil who was chained to the bottom of the well laughed and presumably some misfortune befell the person although that is not stated. The well was also said to be a pin well so perhaps pins were given as an alm once the monks moved away?
Interestingly, when Hope (1893) with his Legendary lore of holy wells visited not only was the cross lost, but only the following inscription was visible ‘Deus dedit, homo bibit’. Which means ‘God gives and man drinks’. This was apparently, was added at that time and can be seen above the original inscription.
A pump was installed in 1835 by the Select Vestry and they also ordered the constable to lock it up during church services on Sundays so that gossiping women would not visit the well instead. When piped water arrived in the 1850s the well fell into disuse. The site was at risk when a local building firm demolished nearby Monkswell House but happily its importance was recognised and it did not disappear under some semis! In 1952, the structure became one of the first of Liverpool’s Listed ‘Buildings’ and is easily found following the road which leads off to the left near the old lock up ( itself worth a visit and another remarkable survival ) off the B1578 road out of Liverpool. Turn the corner from North Drive into Mill Lane and you will see it.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas
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.
This month being important to St Mary or Our Lady I decided to do all the posts on wells related to this saint…..
Despite being close to the busy M6 motorway, the shrine of Our Lady of Fernhalgh remains a quiet and often difficult to find sacred place. The well arises in a square chamber with a wooden lid, which can be lifted to reveal the iron rich chalybeate water. This is enclosed by a roughly oval or rather octagon shaped walling which may have been the remains of a well house. Overlooking the well is a carving of Our Lady and Jesus enclosed in a stone niche and protected by a low grill with the words Ave Marie on it.
Ferny field or ancient shrine?
The age of this noted holy well is under some dispute. Some authorities believe that the name of the settlement name, Fernyhalgh is believed to mean in Anglo-Saxon “ancient shrine”; Etymologist Skeat used Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as evidence extracting ‘to ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londres’ meaning to distant shrines known in many lands. Ferne being distant or possibly ancient and halwe derived from Anglo-Saxon halgian meaning hallow. however it is more likely that it means “watery meadow abounding in ferns, “halgh being interchangeable with haugh”. “Fernig halth,” the Old English for “a field with ferns”
Possible confusion of sites
It is possible that the traditions associated with Fernyhalgh were transferred from a site in Preston itself. Taylor (1908) in his….. wrote: “The site is marked on the ordnance map at a spot about one hundred yards north-east from the Franciscan friary, from which it is now separated by the Lancaster Canal. To the east of it is Ladywell Street. Baines states that at a short distance from the Friary, there was an ancient well called Lady Well, frequented within living memory by the devout. Mr Hewitson, in his History of Preston, says that he examined the site in the year 1883, but could find no trace of the well. It was probably destroyed when the canal was made. Mr Hardwick, writing on ‘Well worship’ [Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, p.218] remarks that water, both in ancient and modern times, has been largely employed as a symbol of purity, and in the Roman Catholic church especially has been consecrated to religious purposes and rendered ‘holy’. He writes, “Hence, it is not surprising that many springs, and especially in the neighbourhood of religious houses should in the Middle Ages have been invested with a sacred character, or that superstition of a more ancient or heathen origin should yet as it were haunt their precincts. Many such wells, as those in connection with the ‘Old Friary’ at Preston which gave the name to Ladywell Street in that borough, like that which performed a similar office for the late, notorious ‘Holywell Street’ near The Strand in London, have passed away, and left nothing behind but the street nomenclature referred to….”
Taylor (1906) does not mention any legends but it is possible that confusion may have arisen and because Our Lady’s Shrine was still functioning traditions were transferred when the present building was constructed in 1685 with a group much more keen to encourage its venerability.
Father Christopher Tootel, writing in 1730 is said to have learnt from his parishioners around the end of the seventeenth century the story of its foundation. He was told that a merchant called Fergus Maguire was caught in a terrible storm on the Irish sea and prayed to the Virgin saying that if he would be saved he would do some deed of great piety. Soon the storm passed and upon arriving unharmed on the Lancashire coast was instructed by a vouch to find a place called Fernyhalgh and build a chapel there where a crab tree bore fruit without cores and near a spring. He searched for a long time and finally reached Preston was served by a girl who apologised for being late because she was tending to a stray cow at Fernyhalgh. He was then guided to the place and did find both tree and spring as well as a statue of the Virgin. He such built a chapel with a cross there and the site soon became a goal of pilgrims.
The finding of a statue suggests that it may have been an earlier site, however the account despite an interesting origin has no provenance further than the 19th century although it is said to be a family tradition of the Maguire family (in Thomas Maguire Fermanagh-The Native Chief and clans). The date varies as well from 1100 to 1484. However, giving support to the tale, Historian Whittle (1821) states that the: ‘
“the ancient cross stone… stands close to the Lady’s Well”.
And that he shown the crab-tree which was only felled in the early nineteenth century; although he is the only authority to refer to it and one has the feeling that this was said to support the legend. The cross by the well had been removed by 1843, although it only dated from the 1600s.
Restoration or creation?
The big question that hangs over the site is how old is it? If the legend above dates from the 1100s what happened to this chapel as the earliest true reference to anything at the site is in the Register of Archbishop Zouch of York which states that on the 8th January 1348-9. This states that:
“a licence was granted to Thomas son of Gilbert de Singleton to have divine service by a fit chaplain within the manors of Broughton, Fernyhalgh and Farmholes for three years..”
The date is significant being around the time of the Black Death and so is the length of time, over which they perhaps hoped the plague would die out. This still does not answer the question what happened to the chapel? It is possible that the any village associated with the site died out but there is no evidence.
The next mention is in 1454 when Nicholas Singleton of Broughton and his wife Margaret had a licence for a chaplain to celebrate divine service in the chapel of Fernyhalgh and in the oratory of their manor house. Such chapels were common in remote areas and remains of them in varying states can be found in Northern England. Obviously the chapel was closed in the 1547 Act in the Reformation. This appears to only suggest a small chapel or even a private one and does not suggest in any way that there was a shrine here. It seems more probable that the site was chosen by recusants because of some presence of a chapel; the well may have been domestic and chosen to create a shrine, with a story being back created to attract pilgrims. This was purchased in 1685 by local Catholics and soon according to Gillett (1957) records show that the site was being well used, two years later:
“Bishop Leyburn confirmed at Ladywell Chapel (St Marie’s) one thousand and sixty-nine persons.”
This raised the ire of the authorities who in 1718 sent twenty solders from Preston to suppress worship at the chapel. The appearance of the soldiers appears to have forced the worship underground, as the Rev Christopher Tootel records that
“June the twenty-ninth, 1718, was the last day of public praying at Our Lady’s Well”,
Tootel later adds that:
“we began to pray at our Lady’s Well, privately Aug. 5th, 1723”
Yet from that day to this the Catholic community have retained this site and preserved it against Protestant mobs and fires (the later in 2011). Now in the Diocesan Shrine of Lancaster, with a sort of strange Catholic theme park feel about it, pilgrims from all denominations visit from May to the end of October.
From the car park one has an evocative if a little muddle journey to the ruins of Hollinshead Hall and its so called Holy Well, although it is well worth it. My knowledge of this curious well being drawn by an excellent article by Cramshaw in the now defunct Source. The house has virtually been raised to the ground all bar a few foot high walls criss-cross the field they lie and by far the most substantial remains is the holy well. As such it is the largest holy well in the county yet for certain is known regarding it.
It can be described as being built in the same sandstone rubble as the hall with a stone slate roof. The building a single cell is built into a slope from which the spring arises and is encapsulated by it. Either side a high walls creating a sort of forecourt with side benches with inward-facing chamfered piers with ball finials at the ends. The well house itself is quite an attractive building and is certainly not thrown up, having a symmetrical facade with chamfered unglazed widows which are fitted with spear-headed iron bars and clearly the building has never been glazed. The gable end has a large oval opening with a matching one at the rear. In the centre is a heavy board door with a chamfered doorway. This doorway unfortunately is locked baring any entrance to the well house.
Peering in through the windows one can see how strong the vaulted roof is, adorned by a pendent ball in its centre. The spring’s water flows from a crudely carved lion’s head, either side of a reredo of Ionic colonnettes, with a sunken stone tank beneath and each side a rectangular recess which enclose rectangular pools. There is a diamond-paved floor with a central gutter draining from this well or trough at centre of rear wall:
Abram’s “Blackburn (1877) is perhaps the first to state that the water was curative. However, anonymous quote in Nightingales History of Tockholes describes the well as:
“Here no less than five different springs of water, after uniting together and passing through a very old carved stone representing a lion’s head, flow into a well. To this Well pilgrimages were formerly made and the water which is of a peculiar quality, is remarkable as an efficacious remedy for ophthalmic complaints.”
Post-Reformation holy well or is it a diary or grotto
Local tradition accounts that there was a site here from Medieval times and indeed, that the name Hollinshead was derived from a version of holy well although O.E hol, for hollow is more likely although there is a Halliwell Fold Farm nearby being derived from O.E halig for healing. The pool with steps down above the well house may be the original well of course. The discovery of a hoard of medieval coins in 1970s would support the date and perhaps they were an offering. Another tradition is that the site was a resting place for pilgrims to Whalley Abbey and that the trough was used as baptistery, however, this would be more likely to be the spring above the well house.. It is probably a springhouse, a structure built over a natural source of water for the storage of dairy products and other foods that needed to be kept fresh.
Reculsancy, that is practising Catholicism in secret, was very prevalent in Lancashire and the well house does the bear the coat of arms of the Radcliffes . It would suggest why the structure is so ornate and suggest a 1600s date although many authorities suggest an 18th century origin. The site would be a secret baptistery and its design as a dairy ,would also help as well as being still function, certainly the presence of benches suggest this functionality. It appears to be too close to the house to be a garden folly such as a grotto! The suggestion of stained glass in the windows suggests something more significant discovered during the present stone roof’s construction. Indeed, the choice of the lion’s head is possibly that of the ‘Lion of Judah’, meaning Jesus providing rich and valuable water, although this is a common motif on many drinking fountains of course! Interesting, Cramshaw tells us that the site was in the 1980s the site of a well dressing, although what type is unclear and no other author has mentioned it as far as I am aware. Perhaps we shall never know the real origin of this delightful building.