Category Archives: Lincolnshire
Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!
St. Christopher’s Well (SK 861 320) is an interesting well! St. Christopher is an unusual dedication for holy wells and one supposedly exists in a small backwater of the Lincolnshire and Leicestershire borders. I say supposed because it’s true origin is unclear.
Much of what we know of the well is from various contributes to Lincolnshire notes and queries in the 1920s. Key to these was Welby (1926-7), who was the owner of the estate. He states that a two storey tea-house was erected over the site, the under one having an inner arch over the spring and the upper having two tall sash windows, glazed with large panes with a sloping roof on all four sides meeting a ridge. Welby (1926-7) notes that his father remembered using the structure and states no older building such as a chapel could be seen inside. This tea house did not last long, and a small summer house was constructed in the 1840s but no sign of it can be seen now. Welby (1926-7) describes this as being tall and wooden, open at the front and having small side unglazed windows. This also did not last long as was removed in 1850 when he claims the present grotto was constructed. However, this clear has older fabric. This is without doubt the grandest structure over a well, especially in Lincolnshire and it’s sad to note it no longer remains.
The well today
Although, the summer house has gone, the well is still marked on the map in gothic italics suggesting something substantial remains. Exploring around the edge of the pool, soon the site can be seen. This is no simple spring, boggy hole, as sadly in the case of many other Lincolnshire, this is still something more. Despite being cloaked in undergrowth, an arched grotto or cave can be seen. It is four metres by two metres high which is lined with cement rubble stone. At the back of the structure is a circular 50cm diameter well with an overflow channel set out by large flag stones set below the ground surface by 5cm, its water a sluggish stream, running into the lake. This channel is set out by large flag stones either side of the channel. Above the basin is a stone tablet, which is heavily worn by water action it would appear that it is difficult to read cemented around this are small ammonites and possibly a stone head although it may be a large stone resembling a head. Set into the walls of this structure is a large ammonite. The stone tablet according to Headley and Meulenkamp’s (1999) book on Follies has a poem Huius Nympha Loci:
“Approach you then with cautious steps, To where the streamlet creeps, Or Ah! Too rudely you may wake, some guardian nymph that sleeps”
As started the name is an odd one and the first mention of a spring in the area is from for in the 1700s the site was simply called spring wells according to a book of furlongs in 1784. The first mention of the site as both a medicinal and holy well appears to be Howett (1801) in A selection of views in the county of Lincoln which is accompanied with a sketch so apparently it was already been ‘improved’ by the landowner as a folly structure. Marrat (1816) History of Lincolnshire rather than White (1852) as Welby (1926-7) notes, perhaps suggesting either its discovery then although there is no evidence of exploitation here, a case more common with older springs in this period. None of these sources name it St Christopher’s Well but the name may not be that old, although Antiquarius Rusticus names it Sancaster and unusual name again and perhaps a form of consonantal drift -Saint Christopher = San C…ster..the reader can be the judge! However, inspection of the actual tablet would suggest otherwise. Of what can be read:“Here fairies dance and sport…” is the clearest! It is probable that the name was affixed when the spring was transformed into an estate folly at the beginning of the 1800s, although why St. Christopher was used is unclear it is not a common dedication associated with springs. Today there is certainly no sign of the summer house.
Away with the fairies
Antiquarius Rusticus (1926–7a) informed by the Rev C.C. Buss notes that:
“… The children call it “The Fairy Well”… After a drink of the Fairy Well “your first wish is sure to come true”
He also adds
“St Christopher’s Well, the water of which is said to resemble that of Tunbridge… was once in great request for its curative virtues… An ancient dame who has lived all her married life in Denton went… a few miles away and while there she was taken ill…. She told me how greatly she had longed for a drink of the water from St. Christopher’s Well as she was sure it would have hastened her recovery. The spring issues from a smaller vault or cave.”
Sadly the associated manor was demolished many years ago but the site is still marks and remains being part of land belonging to Sir Bruno Welby. Despite its dubious origins, traditions have associated with it and it is said that the spring is very pure and is similar to that of Malvern waters. In the basin appear to be coins suggesting that ‘well wishing’ is still undertaken here, although by the verdi-gris on the coins some appear very old! Water sluggishly flows from this basin into a stone lined channel into the lake below. The site is one of the best in the county and is surprisingly little known. copyright Pixyledpublications and thanks to Holywell@megalithic portal for the photos
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.
The following post is derived from the preface to Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire, which has been recently published.
To date there has been a number of attempts to provide a complete guide to Lincolnshire sites, despite a small number of sites is recorded by Hope (1893), Lincolnshire has fared better than other counties he describes, with a sizeable gazetteer in Gutch and Peacock (1908) and various editions of Lincolnshire Notes and Queries (Antiquarius Rusticus (1926–9)). Interest in the topic picked up in the 1990s by two excellent articles by Healey (1995) and subsequent notes and queries contributions in Lincolnshire Past and Present which extended work by the previous authors and notes made by the noted folklorist Ethel Rudkin. The 1990s culminated in Thompson’s excellent Lincolnshire Springs and Wells. However this work covered very few holy wells or healing wells compared to those listed in previous authors (although did give an excellent analysis of sites in its appendix) mainly focusing on ‘noted springs’ such as those at Helpringham whose religious heritage is unclear. Although it worked wholly with surviving sites it rather perplexingly omitted some still extant and accessible sites (perhaps suggesting he was working on a second volume). Nonetheless, it is a worthy book. This work intends to combine the relevant finds of all previous researchers as well the usual sources such as field names located in maps and documents, village histories and other topographical works. Thus it hopes to be the most comprehensive of the topic (with the usual inventory of named wells.)
Harte’s excellent magnus opus, although focuses on holy wells only, records 34 genuine sites and 7 probable and 12 dubious (some of these dubious sites are possible and I have not included some such as St. Guthlac’s Well, Crowland which I concur is a misreading!). Healy (1995), in a survey more akin to this volume than Harte, records 88 sites but many of these are records of parishes with no details (see appendix of this volume) and one presumes that they may have had significance but the original recorded Rudkin made no further details. This survey makes a total of 55 holy well sites. Indeed, Lincolnshire can claim a low concentration of wells per square miles. This is compared to Nottinghamshire which has a density of 9.3 wells per square miles, Derbyshire wells per square mile, Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue 1993).
Dedications consist of Holy well (24 although includes some dubious sites) St Helen’s Well (3), Virgin’s well (3) Lady or St. Mary (3), St. Ann(e)’s well (3 including one possible 4 with a possible Anniel), St. Chad (2 but possibly just Cold wells) St John (2), St Peter (2) the others, although some may be named after chapels or churches nearby rather than wells have one dedication each: St. Michael, St Thomas, St George, St. Clements, St. Winifred, St Margaret, St Hugh, St. Trunnian. It is possible that other sites remain to be confirmed in the county, whose firm dedications appear to have been forgotten but their location is strongly indicative of holy wells or possibly pre-Christian sacred springs. Everson, Taylor and Dunn, (1991) suggest All Saints Heapham and St Chad’s Church Harpswell, both sit on springs and All Saints is isolated from the village. These are probable sites, especially Harpwell with its pre-Conquest dedication and unusual well dedication. However, one must be careful to make assumptions because statistically with the large number of churches in the county, some must be associated with spring heads especially as it may be that the original foci of the settlement would be such springs and churches naturally would be situated near these original focuses.
Although one naturally considers such sites to be of Christian origin, one does not nor should not exclude sites which indicate associations with other religions. Such a consideration is particularly important in the British Isles, where one can clearly see that a number of our holy wells have endured a long popularity. However, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained. No claims are made for pre-Roman sites in the county, but Lincolnshire’s Roman remains are often found in close proximity to a number of sites: Brigg’s St. Helen’s Well, Greetham’s St Margaret’s Well, Ancaster’s Lady Well, Winterton’s Holy Well, close to Ermine street and St Pancras Well, Scampton. More significant perhaps Kirton Lindsey’s Diana’s head possibly named after the Roman goddess. The strongest association, however, is Danish with noted Kell Well and By-Well being clearly inheriting their names from Danish settlers. Other sites mentioned in the inventory, such as Keld Ash, could also claim this association but details are scant. One has also includes sites which are associated with religious ritual beyond Catholic usage, a sites connected with Baptist and Judaism are included (although sadly not a Medieval mikah site).
There are only appears to have been three real spas in the county, i.e those with established rooms or baths made for public convenience: Stainfield, Braceborough and Woodhall. However, the use of Spa or spaw as a term for a minor spring with medicinal qualities is used here as in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. In all there are 14 such sites, but to this one can add chalybeate and mineral springs with no other names.
Research shows that Lincoln is an interesting city for well researchers, having a number of interestingly named sites, despite very little tradition. Unlike nearby mediaeval settlements (Nottingham), the city does not have a well known holy well, which survived the Reformation and became known outside of its community. The nearest to this was St. Hugh’s Well, although very little appears to be known of this in comparison to St. Anne’s Well at Nottingham and indeed that site may be questionable and may be a Victorian fabrication.
Folk traditions and legends are considered in this volume as suggesting some past importance to the site. Some sites for example, often ponds are associated with the traditions of hidden treasure or haunting. Many spectral water figures in the county are called Jenny. For example, Stanny Well, Hibbaldstow, has one described as a woman carrying her head under her arm. This spectre is supposed to be Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At least two other well or pond ghosts of the feminine sex are known in Lincolnshire, but so far as is recorded they carry their heads in orthodox fashion. The site is suggested to be Roman is this significant? 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. Similarly, the unusual blow holes in the north-east were said to be haunted by a coach and four and a grey lady. Pilford Bridge between Toft next Newton and Normanby, a ghost of a witch which attacked anyone who crossed the bridge was trapped in an iron pot.
The Trent itself has the Aegir (see also Holy Wells and Healing springs of Nottinghamshire) named after a Norse God. (There are of course a number of sea serpent sitting around the Lincolnshire coast). One wonders whether this god is associated with Jenny Hurn above. The most famed of the county’s ghost folklore which is often associated with water is the black dog or as called in the county Shuck (although this can describe any unworldly creature). Rudkin (1936 and 1937) notes Black Dogs at Bonny well (Sturton by Stow), the fish pond (Blyborough) and Hibaldstow’s Bubbling Tom. A number of Black Dogs are associated with bridges such as Brigg, Willingham (Till bridge) or banks of streams such as at At Kirton, there is a black dog was reported as living in a hole in the stream bank near this Belle Hole farm. Old Nick has an association with water lore in the county at The Devil’s pulpit, Tealby where he appears at midnight and drinks from a nearby stream perhaps suggesting that the stream had some significance. There are of course a number of blow holes in the county, although some such as Tetney have received some folklore, others have not, therefore I have not included as many as Thompson (1999).
Recording of customs associated with springs is good in the county by Gutch, Peacock, Rudkin and Sutton, but as Thompson (2009) notes probably too late and much later than other counties. However, this lack of information is common, after all as a study Holy wells did not receive a classic text until 1895. Indeed, the study of Lincolnshire holy wells did not receive attention until the 1920s, by which time many traditions could have been lost. One could argue it did not real attention until the 1990s with works by Healey and Thompson, where neighbouring East Riding had work done in 1923 (similarly Nottinghamshire had its first work until 1988 and lacks in many recorded traditions, indeed it was perhaps not until 2008 that a complete survey was made by this author. However, one must look on the positive side at least three works recorded folklore in the county as opposed to neighbouring Nottinghamshire where no folklore volumes have been produced similarly! Such some traditions are recorded Well dressing, in a more primitive form compared to Derbyshire, perhaps recording an ancient origin is recorded in Welton, Glentham and Louth. The placing of rags on wells appears to have been fairly widespread occurring in Aisthorpe, Winterton, Healing, Utterby, Kingerby. At Kell Well, Alkborough, Ashwell, Kirton-in-Lindsey, Halliwell, Scotter, By-Well, North Kelsey, and the holy well at Mavis-Enderby, and many other springs beyond the limits of the county, the quality of giving those who drink of it an irresistible desire to live in its neighbourhood. There are records of rag-wells at Kingerby, Nettleton, Burton-upon-Stather, Healing, Holton Le Moor, Utterby and Winterton, in the north of the county. Another tradition, recalled in a Lincolnshire saying is that whenever water is drawn from a well a little should be thrown back into it
In the neighbourhood of Kirton-in-Lindsey another water superstition may be recognised in the opinion sometimes expressed that no washing ought to be done on Ascension Day, since, if clothes are hung out to dry on Holy Thursday, some member of the family concerned will die. And only a few years ago a woman, who was born about 1812 in a parish lying within three or four miles of the southern bank of the Humber, presented one of her carefully-hoarded bottles of ‘June- water’ to a friend, with the assurance that it was a household remedy of the greatest value for bad eyes and other ailments, and that it had been caught as it had fallen direct from the clouds.
I encourage the reader to explore, but implore local parishes to preserve these sites before they disappear as Lincolnshire is perhaps one of the counties were ancient wells have been largely ignored.
Extracted and edited from holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire available now!
March is a time when the Trent Aegir is at its strongest with the High Spring tides with heights ranging from 8 feet to 13 feet. However in 2013, July and August have the highest predicted Aegir and much of its impact has been reduced by dredging. Brown’s (1874) Notes about Notts describes it as:
“Near the mouth of the Trent at spring-tides the influx of sea water causes that of the river to mount up into a tidal wave six or eight feet high which rolls on its onward course between the confined banks in a remarkable manner. Boatman call it the Eagre, and woe betide the craft that upon such occasion has not a man standing by to pay out a sufficient of cable.”
Firth’s (1915) Highways and Byways of Nottinghamshire notes:
“At Littleborough if you have good fortune, you may see the Aegir. This is the bore, or wall of water, which rushes up the Trent during the spring tides, followed by a series of waves known as the ‘Whelps’. It is caused by the tide moving up the Humber to the mouth of the Trent where they are met by the big volume of water coming down. A wall rises and flows rapidly up the river, sweeping round the bends with great speed and with a curious rippling sound. Sometimes the wall of water is six feet high, and it brings disaster to any boats which it catches unprepared. George Elliott speaks of the Aegir and the floods in the Mill on the Floss, for the Floss is the Trent.”
Swinnerton’s (1910) Nottinghamshire History notes:
“The influence of the spring tide is felt as far as Sutton, but for some miles above Stockwith it is shown as remarkable bore.”
Sadly although West and East Stockwith is still a good place to see it, weirs to the north of Newark and dredging beyond means that locations such as Littleborough are no longer good view points.
Origin of the name
Marsden’s Lincolnshire stated that it derived from a Norse god of the sea, Kaye in Lincolnshire and South Humberside, suggests that it took its name from ‘Oegir the Terrible’ a Danish god and significantly refers to St. Oggs in the Gainsborough area. It could itself also mean Og suggests it is the same as the sea-giant Hlér, who lives on the isle of href. Aegir is said to be the brother of Logi (fire), Kari (wind) and his wife a sea goddess”Rán”Their children were nine billow maidens who were Unnr (or Uðr, wave), Bára (or Dröfn, wave), Blóðughadda (bloody sea), Bylgja (large wave), Dúfa (the pitching wave), Hefring (the surging wave), Himinglæva (reflecting) Hrönn (the grasping wave) and Kólga (cold wave) doubtless waves which may have gone up the Trent.
A sacrifice to appease the god
The suggestion of an origin from a pre-Christian god, is indicated by the fact that sacrifices were given to the Aegir. This is recorded by Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar. Animal sacrifice was according to Sutton (1996) to be celebrated in the Gainsborough area within living memory:
“It was said that the river Trent was a greedy river and would take seven lives a year, so in March when many of the lambs were born a farmer would sacrifice to the river a cade or weak lamb. He believed that by his action a human life would be saved.”
Latter perhaps the giving of a coin was good enough:
“It was the custom to throw a coin into the Aegir to appease the anger of the flow. A number of people believed that the more money the less angry it became.”
From Gainsborough in the 1920s:
“When I was a boy it was the custom to throw a piece of silver into the Trent during the Aegir at the high spring tide and the autumn tide (the equinox). The piece of silver was a toll fee to prevent you from drowning in the Trent. I’ve done it a few time myself as a bot; the silver was a silver three-penny bit, or a tanner (6d). I was once out on the river in a cob-boat diring an Aegir and was lifted very high on the tidal wave. It was very scary at the time but being a kid I didn’t realise just how lucky I was to get away with it. The Aegir always dumped plenty of mud along the river bank and when the mud dried out it was like Fuller’s Earth, a kind of fine powder. It was custom for local mothers to gather this mud for babies’ nappy rash: it was very effective for a sore bottom.”
The Aegir and King Cnut
Another legend is that whilst Gainsborough castle, now covered by Gainsborough Old Hall, King Cnut annoyed by the flattery heaped upon by his courtiers asked to be carried down to the sea in his throne. It is thought that the Aegir was what he was trying to repel. He was of course unsuccessful, noting:
“Let all the world know that the power of monarchs is vain…no one deserves the name of King but He whose Will the Heavens, Earth and Sea obey.”
Other Trent traditions
It was at some point believed to be lucky to cross the river by boat and it conferred healing in some cases, this as may explain why the ferryman across the Trent received a very warm welcome at Clifton, where every Christmas he received a free meal and hospitality on the Parish. The family at North Clifton were famously said to be haunted by a great fish which appeared in the river as a harbinger of doom for one of its members. Notes on it suggest it was a considerable sized surgeon.
Similarly 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.
The Trent is still a mysterious and foreboding river, much of its route quiet and remote…that is until the sound of the tidal wave appears.
During my research into Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire book (available now), I made contact with the Brigg Local history society, who in turn put me in contact with the owner of perhaps one of the counties more unusual sacred springs.
St Helen’s well (TA 013 077), it can be suggested is the most significant of the county’s springs with evidence of its usage going back to Bronze age periods. However, the first recorded account of it is in 1697 being noted in the diary of Abraham de la Pryme (published in 1870). He notes:
“having passed through Brigg on our way towards Melton, we went by a great spring, famous in days of old, called St Helen’s Well.”
It is unknown what the spring consisted of when Pryme visited, or why it was famous is unclear. It probably filled a large pool, rather than be associated with any structure, or possibly as the topography suggests a great fountain head, as suggested by it being considered a great spring. The next note of the site is probably that of Helingwell noted 1724 may derive its name from a vulgarisation of Helen or else O.E halig meaning holy. Interestingly, White (1856) refers to the site as St Anyan’s spring, and Peacock (1895) later spoke to:
“an old man brought up in its vicinity …. says that its true name is St Anyon’s Well”.
Although, he suggests that both authors have confused this site with St Trunnian’s Well at Barton-upon-Humber or St Aniel’s Well at Burton upon Stather. However, being a substantial spring, it would be identified in the 1850s as being a suitable source for a public water supply for the growing town of Brigg. Therefore in 1852, a Robert Cary and Cary Charles Elwes built a pumping house. This is what remains of St Helen’s well today: a plain rectangular building without windows built of yellow gault brick with a Welsh slate roof and York stone gable copings. The structure sits upon a large earthen mound.
However this is not all what it seems for with the door opened to the pumping house a deep chamber is revealed. Upon descending by means of a ladder, this deep chamber opens up to something far more impressive a large rectangular chamber with an oval roof burrowed deep within the hillside. The floor is inches deep in water and with the light of a torch only I followed this flow to its source: the springhead.
The spring arises via a pipe, set about four feet in the back wall, through which a considerable flow of clear water emerges. A large circular shallow basin, looking like a quern obviously from the nearby mill but possibly a precursor to the present structure, is found beneath the outflow. It may have been set up to be filled by the spring water but even with the present considerable volume and force it currently does not fill it. It may be setup to be filled by an outflow higher above the source. The present spring water now hits a slate stone tablet beneath it and forms a stream in the middle of the tiled floor, slanted to allow this. The spring filled the whole chamber at one point I was informed when the chamber was not opened up to allow it to now flow to a stream below.
Mr Day, the present owner gave an unlikely story that it was named by Emperor Constantine on his journey up to York. What is clear that the site lies within the area Jones (1986) describes as his core zone (containing 25% of Helen site) although it is missing from his gazetteer. Archaeological remains and finds suggest it was an important site. Mr Day informed me of the presence of a Roman settlement in the field adjoining the spring and showed me a number of coins of Constantine so perhaps this is an early site to be Christianised. Recently was found a more significant Bronze Age find, which is currently treasure trove, and so I cannot comment. However it was an object of some value to its owner and had been bent. He was told by a local expert that it had been damaged to prevent it being reused, but it is more obvious that it was so treated as a offering. If so it is a significant find and emphasises Thompson’s belief that the spring was cultic.
This site has clearly much yet to reveal and perhaps will become one of the most important of such sites in the county.
copyright Pixyledpublications book available email rossparish. @hotmail.com
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.
Many wells have associations with seasonal customs, but perhaps one of the most unusual traditions is that found in the Glentham Parish in Lincolnshire. Here can be found the Newell or Newell’s Well which had associated with it a rather unique custom: the ceremony of ‘Washing Molly Grime’ The tradition appears to have become confused over the centuries. A full account is recorded by a H. Winn in Notes and Queries (1888-9):
“The church of Glentham was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, a circumstance obviously alluded to by a sculpture in stone of the Virgin supporting the dead Christ in her arms, still to be seen over the porch entrance and placed there by some early representative of the Tourneys of Caenby, who had a mortuary chapel on the north side of Glentham church. The washing of the effigy of the dead Christ every Good Friday, and strewing of his bier with spring flowers previous to a mock entombment, was a special observance here. It was allowed to be done by virgins only, as many desired to take part in the ceremony being permitted to do so in mourning garb. The water for washing the image was carried in procession from Neu-well adjacent. A rent was charged of seven shillings a year was left upon some land at Glentham for the support of this custom, and was last paid by W. Thorpe, the owner, to seven old maids for the performance of washing the effigy each Good Friday. The custom being known as Molly Grime’s washing led to an erroneous idea that the rent charge was instituted by a spinster of that name, but ‘Molly Grime’ is clearly a corruption of the ‘Malgraen’ i.e. Holy Image washing, of an ancient local dialect. About 1832 the land was sold without any reservation of the rent charge.”
The origin for the well’s name is also confused. Rudkin (1936) notes:
“They reckon it’s called Newell’s well on account of a man named Newell as left money to seven poor widow women..”
However, it is more likely to be simply new well, perhaps deriving its name from ‘eau’, a common word in the county.
When and why the tradition switched from washing the holy image to that supposedly of the Tourney (Lady Anne Tourney a local 14th century land owner) is unclear, but it is possible that the change occurred at the Reformation and that perhaps the money was given to wash both holy image and that of the benefactor and post Reformation only the benefactor washing survived. There is a similar tradition called the ‘Dusters’ in Duffield. The name of the activity clearly survived as Rudkin that:
“ they’d wash a stone coffin-top as in the Church; this ‘ere coffin-top is in the form of a women. ‘Molly Grime’ they calls it.”
The tradition even appears to have earned some note nationwide, for a nursery rhyme about the custom is known:
|Seven old maids,||Seven old maids,|
|once upon a time,||Got when they came|
|Came of Good Friday,||Seven new shillings|
|To wash Molly Grime,||In Charity’s name,|
|The water for washing,||God bless the water|
|Was fetched from Newell,||God bless the rhyme|
|And who Molly was I never heard tell.||And God bless the old maids that washed Molly Grime|
Sadly the selling of the land appeared to killed off the tradition, except that between 2004 and 2007 a special Father’s Day race for women was established. This involved filling a balloon with water from Newell’s spring and the subsequent attempt for getting it back to the village without bursting it. In essence it remembered the tradition, but sadly it too appears to have fallen into abeyance.
Another tradition in the village was that if one drank its waters one was said never to leave the village. A correspondent of Sutton (1997) states:
“An old boy told me about the ‘healing well of Glentham. It was named after a saint but I can’t remember the name he used. Some folk call it Newell’s well. Many people came to take the healing waters and in the spring of the year, the Church held an annual service for ‘good water for the rest of the year’, the service marked a new year of the waters. The well was dressed in a traditional way using clay and flower petals to make some kind of picture, usually a saint. I’m told it look very impressive”
This is presumably before the site was enveloped in scrub as it is now. The report is interesting for a number of reasons; firstly because the correspondent refers to the waters as healing, secondly that it was dedicated to a saint and thirdly the account of well dressing more reminiscent of Derbyshire, and as far as I am aware it is only such example, as well dressing at Welton and Louth appeared to be more garland related. None of these observations have been made elsewhere which either casts doubt in the correspondent or more likely the patchy nature of well traditions in the county.
Despite the loss of the custom, the well survives, the water clear and flowing arises beneath a stone built chamber of seven courses of stonework with a small square outlet through which the water flows. However, according to recent reports boring in the vicinity has resulted in the water being drained away but I have been unable to ascertain this.
As I am in the process of researching for the fourth volume of In search of English holy wells and healing spring which will cover Lincolnshire, I decided to combine a visit to the local studies centre in Lincoln with some field work. There are six sites around the city, of which I had time to explore three.
The first of these is a bit of an enigma. Called Ann’s Well, one would assume that the well’s true dedication was St. Ann’s well, but although this is likely it is not confirmed. It lies in the grounds of Branston Hall, now a hotel. I arrived at the hotel and found the desk staff unaware of the site at first. Then she asked one of her other collegues and they appeared to know of the site and gave me directions along to the second lake, cross the cascade and near the remains of an ice house. I easily found what I thought was the cascade. It was not easy to find. Once I had roughly ascertained its location, confirming by asking a man tending his horses nearby who knew it, I attempted to access it! Being enveloped in briars, nettles and thistles this was not very easy. Ducking under the overgrown thorn tree I was greeted by a brick and stone-lined six feet square chamber with the rusty remains of a sluice gate attachment. The site resembles a cold bath and similar structures exist, but the lack of steps into the water may suggest otherwise. Close to it is a small stone slab which reads:
“Clear may thy waters ever flow, Nor Gusts of Ruffling Tempest Know, Pure and Unsullied as the fair, who emblematic name you bear”.
The site is rather forlorn and largely forgotten. The spring head and chamber are often bone dry in the summer, although flow is perceivable in the winter months. In a work for Lincolnshire Past and Present, Parkes (2000) suggest that it was a member of the Vere Berte family, of whom one was Lady Anne. It is possible that the spring was improved in her memory by a devoted Lord Vere Berte in the 1750s when a nearby Ice-house was constructed. However, why was it constructed in this fashion and so far away from the house? The presence of an old venerable hawthorn would excite new age antiquarians as evidence of a much more ancient origin for the well.
Perhaps the smellest of all the sites, just upstream (fortunately) from Lincoln’s sewarage plant is Holy Well recorded as Hallow-well in around c.1630. The site appears to have been holy by its association with the Gilbertine canons of St Catherine’s Priory. It is recorded that in 1306 they begun a conduit to Lincoln from a well in Canwick which Mills and Mills (1996) believe to be the holy well.The site is probably recorded in 1771 and 1778 as a Spaw. Mills & Mills (1996) undertook some detective work using the names conduit rundle and the springs to locate the well successfully. The apparent site is a two foot square Victorian brick chamber from which the water issues from a pipe. I had less success, fifteen years on, and did not successfully find the brick lined chamber but did find a pipe through which a considerable flow could be seen and there were bits of old brick around. How I found it I am not sure, the OS was not much help and I used by intuition and headed for an area with an increase in ivy covering and that was it.
The last site, St. Margaret’s Well or Roaring Meg is similarly forlorn, but at least could be traced without being covered by stings and scratches. To the north of Lincoln off the Nettleham road. The site could be considered a very significant spring being associated with the courses of a Roman aquaduct. The spring’s other name related to the loud sound. It still arises largely unheralded in a marsh off the Nettleham road, but in the local supermarket is a large piece of Roman aquaduct and a plaque but fails to mention the spring! Perhaps its in the way!
More can be read in the book:
In search of English holy wells and healing springs Volume V: Lincolnshire holy wells and healing springs